Mad About Science: Gladiators

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

You may know me as the fantasy-loving nerd always crying about climate change and telling you to go hug trees or pet a dolphin or whatever, but what you might not know is I like all things awesome. (You know.)

Gladiators gladiating.

Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to be a multifaceted — sometimes even contradictory. These days, it’s easy to both enjoy the safety and security of a peaceful, nature-loving life while frothing at the mouth watching two bulky dudes bash each other to death with sharpened sticks on TV.

We’re human, it’s complicated.

Gladiators were awesome, and at the same time, they weren’t.

Humans brawling for entertainment is probably as old as our species, but the gladiators we’re talking about today are the ones you know and love from Ancient Rome.

Awesome: Gladiators were the professional athletes of their day. They went to a special gladiator school called a ludus (Loo-duss, or the plural: ludi. Interestingly enough, this seems to just be what Roman schools were called, as well as a word used for fun, play, entertainment, etc…), they ate a special gladiator diet of grain, millet and meat for lots of energy and lots of protein. Generally, they had better medical care than most people in Rome because they were seen as an investment. If you spend a stack of cash on a Porsche, you can bet you’re going to spend a lot more to make sure it continues running at its peak performance.

Gladiators often got massages, too. Not a lot of jobs I’ve taken cover and encourage massage during working hours!

Not awesome: Romans had one of the worst social caste systems in human history. Their social structures were rigid and generally locked for life. In our society, professional athletes are at the top with (some) politicians, businesspeople and celebrities as objects of admiration and worship. In ancient Rome, gladiators were considered to be less than human, hardly worthy of even having a caste. In becoming a gladiator, you shamed your family, you forfeited your property and even your citizenship. You became property.

It is recognized that some gladiators were able to earn back some semblance of humanity through enough victories in the arena, but it’s to my understanding that this system was rigged, designed to keep the status quo and keep the disenfranchised where the elite believed they belonged.

Gladiators would often be branded by hot iron, so even if they won back their humanity, there wasn’t much stopping another slaver from lashing them to a post and sending them to another ludus to fight and potentially die in the arena all over again.

Oh, and the whole getting killed for sport was pretty miserable, too.

You may not realize it, but gladiators had different classes and specializations, just like pro athletes do today. You don’t make your quarterback play defensive line; you wouldn’t send your greatest swordsman to go fight a tiger.

The two most famous types of gladiator are the Murmillo and the Retiarius.

You might recognize the Murmillo right away, a big, brutish guy with a cool helmet, a big metal armguard and a shield. He’d often use a gladius, a Roman short-sword, to deliver strong attacks.

The Retiarius was the other guy with the net and the trident and virtually no armor to speak of.

When pitted against one another, these combatants represented a matching of speed VS strength.

The men who fought animals weren’t considered gladiators, they were in a classification all their own. They were called Bestiarii (or bestiarius if it was a lone dude). Sometimes, they were people condemned to die at the claws of the beasts (yowch), and sometimes they were fighting for pay and glory.

It’s weird to think that at one point during our fairly recent history, it was just a totally normal thing to say:”Yeah, I saw some guy fighting a tiger earlier, it was alright…”

The presentation of gladiatorial games was thought to have been very similar to professional sports of today, minus the drones filming everything. Rich and influential aristocrats would pay for extravagant stagecraft and showmanship leading up to big bouts. Competing ludi would come together to brawl in opposing teams. There would be music and bands playing while the organizers would be setting up props or other things for matches, much like a half-time show. I wouldn’t doubt there were probably people hawking street meat in the stands, as individual bouts could last in upwards of 20 minutes while the games could last for a day or more.

Basically, a stint at the coliseum wasn’t far adrift from the Superbowl, if the Superbowl were extremely violent and players and performers could be killed and/or executed on the field.

I think I’ll stick with my tacky $20 million commercials.

Despite the participation of the sport being seen as a lowly, yet entertaining affair, this didn’t bar several Roman Emperors from partaking in the sport, albeit likely under very staged and protected circumstances.

Commodus was a fanatic for the arena, going as far as describing himself as Hercules reborn and supposedly battling lions (likely with a full contingency of Praetorian guardsmen.). He was also a big jerk, often killing other people that had submitted to him or helpless animals that weren’t equipped to fight back.

Over time, the aristocracy began to see the games as less of a source of entertainment and more of a tax on the rich. As history has proven ten thousand times over, rather than simply spending less on these extravagant games, they attempted to pass legislation to force everyone to stop spending so much on the games (it was seen as a sign of wealth and excess if you outspent a political rival, and the loser would always be sore about it).

Over about 200 years, repeated attempts at drawing back the expense of the game also killed public interest as the quality of games began to decay. As turnout shrank and profits dwindled, the expenses began to outweigh the profits for most ludi and gladiators began to fade out of the public view.

The legacy of the gladiator would prove to transcend the civilization that fostered it, however.

The Coliseum in Rome still stands, now as a site of culture and learning.

Prizefighting has become far less lethal and far more rewarding, with sports like boxing and mixed-martial arts competitions generating hundreds of millions of dollars and helping promote gyms nationwide that teach people important self-defense skills they otherwise may never have known about.

In the past 70 years, cinema has portrayed the warriors of the arena in a sympathetic light, completely turning the concept of a gladiator on its helmet, giving people a view of the arena that, at one time, only the condemned could ever see.

Maybe you learned something today.

Maybe you didn’t.

At the very least…

Are you not entertained?!

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