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Gladiators & Hollywood: When Will They Get It Right?

With the wrap of HBO’s first season of Rome comes the inevitable debates over historical accuracy vs. Hollywoodized storytelling. In the rhetoric over Julius Caesar’s looks, mannerisms, and political acuity, one key scene near the end of the series has been consistently overlooked: the gladiator games. Once again, costumers and production designers won out over the reality of arena combat and fighters. As with Ridley Scott’s brilliant, yet historically flawed, masterpiece “Gladiator,” the pairings, equipment, and battles within the arena were woefully wrong.

Here are five of the most common misconceptions about gladiators that should, perhaps, be required reading by all feature film directors.

1). Gladiators randomly fought any and all other gladiators.

This is false and is the root of the most common inaccuracies in gladiator films. Gladiators were categorized by specific fighting styles. Each had its own set of weapons, and more importantly, each fought only one or two other styles of gladiators. For example, the retiarius who fought with a trident, net, and small dagger, would only fight one other style of gladiator: the secutor. The smooth design of the secutor’s helmet—almost bullet-like in shape—was developed specifically for these bouts. The helmets worn by other types of gladiators, with elaborate crests and ornamentations, could easily get snagged by the net, putting the wearer at an unhealthy disadvantage. The tenet to gladiator combat was checks and balances. For every strong point each style of fighter had, there was also a weakness to be exploited.

2). All gladiators were criminals or prisoners of war.

While most fell into these categories, there were quite a few fighters who volunteered for gladiator duty. Some did it for the fame and glory, others sought a life of adventure and danger, and others did it for the money. Victorious gladiators were rewarded with a victory palm and gold coins. Although considered the dregs of society, the gladiators’ fame and celebrity was not unlike that enjoyed by today’s top sports heroes.

3). All arena bouts ended with the death of a gladiator.

Actually, relatively few arena bouts ended in death. A recent study of ancient writings revealed that, in the 1st Century AD, there was a 90% survival rate among gladiators in Rome. The number of arena deaths did increase in the later years of the Empire, but even at its most deadly period, 66% of gladiators still left the arena alive. The main reason for this was economics. The lanista—the owner of the gladiator school—had a sizeable investment in these professional fighters. If he were to lose half his fighting force in each arena show, he would be out of business quickly. Consequently, only the worst, cowardly fighters were sentenced to death.

4). Thumbs down meant death in the arena.

This may or may not be true. It has been the subject of debate by scholars and historians for many years. The only direct reference to this practice in ancient writings was by Juvenal, who mentions that fighters were sentenced to death “with a turn of the thumb.” Some historians have interpreted this to mean a thumbs down motion, others feel it could be a sideways motion, and still others feel it was actually a thumbs up motion.

5). Gladiators fought both men and wild animals.

Gladiators were rarely, if ever, pitted against wild beasts. That job was left to a specialized group of arena fighters called venatores. These fighters were well trained in the hunting and killing of the largest and most ferocious wild animals, usually with only a hunting spear in hand. They were considered of lower rank than the gladiators, although the crowds also had their favorite venatores.

So is it poor research or the whim of production designers and directors that continues to result in so many arena inaccuracies? With so much real-life danger and spectacle, it’s a wonder that filmmakers continue to feel the need to try to improve on ancient history.

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Submitted by:

James Duffy

James Duffy is the author of Sand of the Arena: A Gladiators of the Empire Novel, a look at life and death in the arenas and training camps of imperial Rome through the eyes of a volunteer gladiator. Contact Jim at: jim@JamesDuffy.info.





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