Roman gladiators are one of the best known institute in ancient world. Through centuries they have been fascinating people’s mind and hundreds books have been written and movies made from them. Reason is not hard to find – I guess there have never been sportsmen like gladiators with same kind of courage. Every time when they entered arena they put their life on line. But they were fighters which have been trained to the top in their art – like nobody else. Every man was trained as a particular fighter type and thus the best who survived longer time, were really skillful with their weapons. Some people believe that gladiatorial combats where massacres. That was not the case, because fighters were trained hard and their owners wanted to make money with them. Not to kill then at once. I guess the important thing was the way they fought. If they tried hard with great courage spectators appreciated their effort. With good fight nobody needed to die – not even the one that lost the game. Of course bad injuries and deaths were impossible to avoid because the weapons were real. Still it is good to separate gladiatorial games from punishing of criminals in arena. Because there were no real police in the streets of Rome, the system needed to punish people who committed to crimes. This was done by eliminating these people in arena in front of public. Intention was really to show people that if you were not living well the consequences were hard. Usually criminal people were punished in beginning before actual gladiatorial combat took place.
In Roman history there where several type of gladiator fighters and all of them had special equipment – protective gears and weapons. Usually fights where one to one combats where idea was that fighters had even chances to win. Combat should always be interesting and amusing for spectators. Therefore both fighters should have same chance to survive and their courage should made the difference. Therefore certain type of fighters were put together to have even fights. Very typical were following pairs:
– Retiarius against Secutor
– Myrmillo against Thracian
– Provocator against Provocator
Retiarius or Retiarii
Maybe the most exceptional of all fighters was Retiarius. His name is literally coming from his net because he was the “net-man”. His protective gears were very poor but he was very light. This made him fast and long lasting. His trident made him easier to reach his opponent and net was a way to catch his opponent – either to bind his arms or made him stumble. Because of poor equipment these fighters needed to have a great courage. Every succesful blow of their opponent was hazardous for them. Some believe that Retiarius had poor and light gears because these fighters were not respected – they were cheap. On the other hand their very exceptional style of fighting made imagination of people run wild. As a weapon Retiarius had a trident and net. For close combat or finish his opponent Retiarius had also a dagger. Only protection he had was a manica in his left hand. These days in the movies one can see tall and handsome men as Retiarius. So in the end they have really catched afterworlds eye. I guess one of the most realistic actors as a Retiarius character was Duncan Regehr in the movie “Last days of Pompei”. He acted in the movie as a Retiarius Lydon, who was the Campion of Campania – a famous and worshipped figure in the eyes of citizens. Still he was desperate in his dreams and hopes being too poor to have afford a respected life with his beloved. In the movie he acted proudly in combats and gave audience amusement for every penny that was invested to games behalf organizer. I think Regehr made credit for fighters in ancient times and really got out how it was. Gladiators were not always desperate figures but had also great moments in the arena where audience really took them as their heroes. But as in the movie it was often in real life. Lydon was first a slave but later on got his freedom.
Secutor or Contraretiarius
Secutor was the main opponent of Retiarius. That is the reason why they also were called as Contraretiarius. Their equipment were designed to match against Retiarius. Shield and helmet has round shapes and thus it was more difficult to get hard blows with trident. It is easy to see, that Secutor had much stronger protection with covering helmet, wide shield, left leg greave and right hand manica. Therefore Secutor was hold as a heavy gladiator with gears of 17 kg. One could estimate that it would be better for Secutor to chase Retiarius and attack him from the start. Because Secutor’s gears are much heavier than those of Retiarius he will get tired sooner. So the longer the combat gets the smaller chances Secutor has. Of course Retiarius as a light and fast gladiator can attack swiftly and then withdraw fast. But in general Secutor knows he must be the man with first initiatives because time is against him. He had to strike seriously the body of Retiarius with his Gladius-sword until he lost his speed. There have been thoughts what is the actual background of Secutor. Some believe the origin of Secutor is in Myrmillo fighter. Both fighter have nearly the same equipments. The best known Secutor in history is probably emperor Commodus. He is said to fight now and then in arena especially as Secutor – chasing Retiarius. I wonder what were the chances of that poor Retiarius who had to face Commodus?
Murmillo or Myrmillo (on the left side)
Besides Retiarius Murmillo was one of the best known gladiator type. The origin of Murmillo has aroused many opinions. Some believe that Gallus gladiators who were war prisoners from Gaul were turned later on to Murmillo. This is partly because they appeared after mid 100BC. This would be natural because after the Gaul was joined to Roman realm, there was no more Gaul prisoners. The name Murmillo is believed to come from sea fish – mormylos. And there are some artefacts supporting this idea. Anyway the visor of Murmillos helmet looks like scales of fish and this may also be reason for their nick name. Murmillo is one of the heaviest gladiator types because he has a very protective helmet, manica in right hand and greave in his left leg. Greave is normally only to the knee and big Scutum shield takes care of his protection against opponents. It seems that there were two different helmet types which Murmillos weared but not with any protective difference. As a heavy gladiator type same rules applied to Murmillo as to Secutor. It was better for Murmillo the sooner combat ended. However the normal opponent Thraex was also heavy fighter so basically they were very alike. probably both just waited the errors of their opponent and hoped to get blow through the defence. And now and then they attacked fiercely. Murmillo was one of the most favourable gladiator type and they fought in every continent.
Thraex (on the right side)
The typical features of Thraex are the helmet, shield and especially curve sword – Sica. Sica was actually used by tribes in Thracia and thus it has in origin of ancient enemies of Rome. That is why also fighters were called as a Thraex. Together with Myrmillo Thraex was considered as a heavy fighter – their equipment was about 17 kg. Especially legs of Thraex were better protected so he did not have to fear as much cutting on his legs. Also helmet was as protective as Myrmillos. Difference was in shield and sword. Shield of Thraex was much smaller though still protective. Myrmillo could rely totally on his Scutum but Thraex had to be more careful with the sword blows of his enemy. On the other hand curve Sica could offer a way to reach Myrmillo behind his Scutum. This is why Sica was actually made as a curve sword. It gave an opportunity fro Thraex to cut arm or body behind Scutum. Both fighters – Myrmillo and Thraex – had same protection in their upper body. So it was obvious that these two fighters with well together and gave an even chance for both fighters to survive. It is easy to imagine that these spectacles lasted long and gave entertainment for public – which was the main purpose. Because Thraex had smaller shield and well protected legs one could estimate him to be more active. Myrmillo had a big Scutum and bare right leg, which may have cause him to be little more passive and keep his left leg always in front together with Scutum to keep safe. Both fighters had a very stylish helmet with feathers. Probably everybody has a some kind of picture in their mind about how these helmets look. They are really designed for gladiatorial combats for smallest part…
Provocators appeared into arenas in the late Rebublican period and remained for imperial era. There are hints that their origin is comign from criminals or prisoners of war. This was their chance to appeal for Roman people to get back their freedom. Provocators are considered as a medium weight fighters. They had a large scutum type of shield and straight Gladius sword. Their helmet was the one from Roman legionaries but had also protection over face (visor) and neck (broad brims). Maybe the most typical feature was their breast blade. Usually it was from metal but also some are known to be made by scales (as in picture). Being as medium weight fighters they usually made false retreat and attacked rapidly – they tried to deceive their opponents. In their sword hand they had a manica to protect against cut of opponents sword. Their left leg was covered with mid-height greaves. Nearly always these gladiators fought against other Provocators.
Different helmet types
Roman art from Gladiatorial combats
Summary of different Gladiator types
Gladiators were divided in three groups according their armament weight – heavy, medium and light. In table below are listed gears of various gladiator types and there are also different weapons. When one looks table one type differences sharply from others – namely Retiarius. He really was a light fighter which gave him speed and strengths to fight long. Table also tells why certain gladiator types were good match for each others. For example Myrmillo and Thraex were in same weight category.
Lighter fighters were also Bestiarius, Eques, Essedarius and Dimachareus. Eques were a classical cavalry fighter with shield and spear. Usually they started the games and fought against each others. So they did not mix with other type of gladiators. Essedarius were chariots fighters and this pair was probably copied from their enemies. Romans did not have any chariots warriors but for example Celts in Britan and Egyptians in east had a history with this kind of warfare. Dimachareus was rather rare seen and evidently only in imperial times in Eastern Empire. One rare gladiatorial figure was also Arbelas, who was an extremely heavy fighter. He had a heavy scale jacket over waist and sometimes scissor type of sword or kind of axe with long blade.
Hoplomachus was a rather typical gladiator type and it’s origin was in Creek. These gladiators had a round shield which was like the one Creek hoplites used to have. This shield – Parmula – did not give too much protection and also his breast was bare. But his legs were covered with quilted graves to the waist. Hoplomachus fought mainly against Myrmillo and sometimes against Thraex. Actually Hoplomachus had very much same gears than Thraex. Differences were mainly in shield and sword.
Your choice – which gladiator would you prefer?
When one thinks about gladiators one can not have thought about their rank. Which would be the toughest? All gladiator types have their strong points and weak points. Some of them are fast and can fight long time. Some are heavy and very well protected but their weak point may be their endurance to fight long time. I have picked five different features and ranked gladiator types according to those. I would estimate that five most important features for fighter is his capability to
– attack weapons
– protective defence gears
– range of motion
With typical fighters maybe the defence has Myrmillo, Provocator and Secutor. Best attack may have Hoplomachus, Myrmillo and Retiarius. In speed above others is Retiarius. Also in range of motion are Retiarius together with Hoplomachus. Lightest fighter Retiarius has also durability to go on fighting a long time.
When one calculates points of five most important factors the three best are:
1. Retirius 39 points
3. Myrmillo 38 points
3. Provocator 38 points.
Here we can leave aside fighters with horse. Results may be surprising but Retiarius fighters are still very famous among us and it tells that they had a big impact in ancient times. They live in history. Myrmillo is not big surprise because he had the best protection. He just needed to stay in protection of his big Scutum and fight when moment was right. Same applies also for Provocators. So one very light and two heavy armed gladiator types have best chances. Of course one has to admit that Retiarius needed to be very brave to go fighting with so light protection. Not all could do that…
Pictures from Gladiatorial show