The charm of the Gladiators

As usual Mary Beard’s blog is a great source of inspiration: in her latest post as she attended The Chester Conference – Roman Amphitheatres and Spectacula after which a “gladiatorial entertainment” had been promised, she commented:

All the high-minded academic diners on my table seemed to be looking forward to it as much as I was. After all, it was a wonderfully Roman idea. For gladiators didn’t just appear in the amphitheatre, they featured at funerals and – among the rich – as a private, dinner-time spectacle.

I’m glad I stayed. But it did turn out to be a little tamer than I had hoped (or feared). The bouts didn’t actually last very long and most of the fighters were so burdened with all the gear that they couldn’t muster much agility. That may have been true of the real version too. But I don’t imagine that ancient gladiators were quite as portly as most of this lot. Far be it from me to point the finger at others who should lose a bit of weight, but the impression I got was that it was overwhelmingly middle-aged men of the short and dumpy variety who liked dressing up as Romans.

Gladiators in the Roman world belonged to the worst category of beings – I omitted human purposely as they were not considered such. In fact, together with slaves and prostitutes they were all considered at the very bottom of Roman society, if they ever belonged to it. They were referred to and consequently treated as property, objects; plus – as we all know – they were destined to die in the arena sooner or later. Nonetheless these doomed slaves thrilled the perversions of all Romans and were highly popular as they are portrayed in incredibly numerous mosaics, pottery and frescos.


Apparently their incredible charm was only partly due to their muscles and the courage they showed in the arena. As well only some owed their popularity to their outstanding features: the mirmillons from Gallia, the Samnites, some rare blonde Germans and black Ethiopians might probably have attracted women thanks to their exotic origins. Nevertheless their real appeal must have been more likely due to the inextricable and perverse links entangling social transgression, blood, depravation and death which spurred the Roman fantasies and nights. Juvenal magisterially shows an interesting example in his Satire VI:

nupta senatori comitata est Eppia ludum
ad Pharon et Nilum famosaque moenia Lagi
prodigia et mores urbis damnante Canopo.
inmemor illa domus et coniugis atque sororis
nil patriae indulsit, plorantisque improba natos
utque magis stupeas ludos Paridemque reliquit.
sed quamquam in magnis opibus plumaque paterna
et segmentatis dormisset paruula cunis,
contempsit pelagus; famam contempserat olim,
cuius apud molles minima est iactura cathedras.
Tyrrhenos igitur fluctus lateque sonantem
pertulit Ionium constanti pectore, quamuis
mutandum totiens esset mare. iusta pericli
si ratio est et honesta, timent pauidoque gelantur
pectore nec tremulis possunt insistere plantis:
fortem animum praestant rebus quas turpiter audent.
si iubeat coniunx, durum est conscendere nauem,
tunc sentina grauis, tunc summus uertitur aer:
quae moechum sequitur, stomacho ualet. illa maritum
conuomit, haec inter nautas et prandet et errat
per puppem et duros gaudet tractare rudentis.
qua tamen exarsit forma, qua capta iuuenta
Eppia? quid uidit propter quod ludia dici
sustinuit? nam Sergiolus iam radere guttur
coeperat et secto requiem sperare lacerto;
praeterea multa in facie deformia, sicut
attritus galea mediisque in naribus ingens
gibbus et acre malum semper stillantis ocelli.
sed gladiator erat. facit hoc illos Hyacinthos;
hoc pueris patriaeque, hoc praetulit illa sorori
atque uiro. ferrum est quod amant. hic Sergius idem
accepta rude coepisset Veiiento uideri

Thus Eppia, a higher class matrona leaves her homeland, husband and children and her riches, to sail to Egypt on a scanty and dirty ship, on which she would have never set foot if in company of her husband; and this shameful transgression is all for the sake of her gladiator-lover Sergiolus, who does not seem to have inspired the casting of Russell Crowe…: he is middle-aged, almost completely bald, scar-faced, one of his eyes is continuously leaking, one arm is broken and he as a bump on his nose…

Definitely many other matrona loved gladiators, actors, singers and auriga; actually one fashionable behaviours for rich and noble class Romans during the Empire was to linger in bad and dangerous districts to feel the thrill of belonging for a while to the plebe and live the “lowest class” experience… Petronius Arbiter in his Satyricon gives a full account of these obscure sides of Roman decadence portraying – among many other depravations – a matrona who proves no shame at all to show interest for gladiators and actors, for instance when skipping the VIP tribune bystanders at theatre to go straight in pursue of her quarry backstage:

(omissis)… And as for your confession that you are only a common servant, by that you only fan the passion of the lady who burns for you, for some women will only kindle for canaille and cannot work up an appetite unless they see some slave or runner with his clothing girded up: a gladiator arouses one, or a mule-driver all covered with dust, or some actor posturing in some exhibition on the stage. My mistress belongs to this class, she jumps the fourteen rows from the stage to the gallery and looks for a lover among the gallery gods at the back.

Unavoidably some of these perverse relations produced embarrassing births… for instance of one of Emperor Caligula’s alleged sons Ninfidius Sabinus was actually said to be son of Martianus, a gladiator. As well as the successor of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus whose mother Faustina was said to be in love with another protagonist of the arena… Martial in Epigram VI with his unmistakable style mocks a nobleman giving him a lecture of petty genetics by pointing out that each of all his seven children cannot possibly be his as they resemble his cook, a gladiator, a baker, flutist a farmer etc.

Pater ex Marulla, Cinna, factus es septem

non liberorum: namque nec tuus quisquam

nec est amici filiusue uicini,

sed in grabatis tegetibusque concepti

materna produnt capitibus suis furta.

Hic qui retorto crine Maurus incedit

subolem fatetur esse se coci Santrae;

at ille sima nare, turgidis labris

ipsa est imago Pannychi palaestritae.

Pistores esse tertium quis ignorat,

quicumque lippum nouit et uidet Damam?

Quartus cinaeda fronte, candido uoltu

ex concubino natus est tibi Lygdo:

percide, si uis, filium: nefas non est.

Hunc uero acuto capite et auribus longis,

quae sic mouentur ut solent asellorum,

quis morionis filium negat Cyrtae?

Duae sorores, illa nigra et haec rufa,

Croti choraulae uilicique sunt Carpi.

Iam Niobidarum grex tibi foret plenus

si spado Coresus Dindymusque non esset.

Therefore I assume in those days too, beauty was in the eye of the beholder, no matter which class you belonged and how fit you were… things have not changed that much after all.

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2 comments on “The charm of the Gladiators

  1. Lisa says:

    Thank you, I love this new post on Ancient Rome!
    I wait for more to come.

  2. stoa says:

    Thank you again Lisa.
    I am currently working at a few ancient Roman history as well as Latin literature topics; so you will not have to wait too long for more articles on your favourite theme.


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