Gladiators in Ancient Rome

April 13, 2015 | Miriam

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This spring, in a nod to the Pan Am games, History Matters takes an entertaining and slightly idiosyncratic look at sports history. This is the kick-off event in our long-running History Matters series, presented in collaboration with

On Thursday, April 16, 7 pm at the Runnymede Branch we delve into the gladiator spectacles of ancient Rome with special guest speaker Jonathan Edmondson (York). The subtitle of this talk is “Sport in the Service of Imperial Power.” Ancient Rome is a long ways from the modern world, but sport serves political purposes in this day and age, just as it did then. Dr. Edmondson will talk about the role of this bloody cultural phenomenon in the social and political context of the Roman Empire.

The Roman gladiator spectacle started out as a form of funeral for the families of senators and other aristocratic Roman families. Who were the gladiators? Well, mostly slaves. Seating arrangements in the coliseums reflected sharp social stratification. Typically, the senators would have a special box, as would the equestrians and other worthies. Wealthy families were often granted special seats, to be handed down to their descendants. Way at the back were the plebs and… the women of all classes.

Dr. Edmondson has written fascinating articles on this subject (see, for example, Public Spectacles and Roman Social Relations). A great deal has been learned from the mosaics which wealthy sponsors of games commissioned to adorn their villas. 

Kreuznach Gladiator Mosaic
A Thraex (left) fighting a Murmillo (right), Römerhalle, Bad Kreuznach, Germany. Credit: Carole Raddato. From the floor of a spa, found in 1893: "Its hypocaust heating system is completely preserved. A walk through the understructure of the mosaic provides a view of the underside of the floor and reveals the principle and functionality of the Roman hypocaust system." From Wikipedia (image is Public Domain): "Mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid showing a retiarius (net-fighter) named Kalendio fighting a secutor named Astyanax....  The inscription above it [top] shows the sign for 'null' and the name of Kalendio, implying that he was killed."

The library also has a vast collection of materials on this topic. Check by subject heading, Gladiators—Rome, or by keyword, Gladiators Rome.

Many of the works by ancient Roman writers consulted by Professor Edmondson in his research can still be read and enjoyed today. These include The Satyricon by Petronius, and the works of Tacitus and Suetonius

Satyricon Tacitus Suetonius

This event is the real deal on Gladiators!  You can watch movies like Gladiator, of course, but hearing someone talk about this rich history is a special opportunity so don’t miss out: Runnymede, April 16, 7 pm.