Questions for Kathleen Coleman

Learn more about my research In August, 2007, Kathleen Coleman answered visitors questions about gladiators.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Joe's picture
Joe says:

Were there both men and women gladiators?

posted on Wed, 08/01/2007 - 8:15am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

Yes, Joe, there were both men and women gladiators, but the women were very rare, and seem to have been billed as something really special. In Antiquity, when women were supposed to devote themselves to domestic life, it must have been both thrilling and unsettling for the spectators to see women fighting in the arena. Various emperors are said to have coerced lower-class women into appearing in the arena as publicity stunts. We actually know the names of one pair of female gladiators. They fought to a draw, which was quite unusual, and so they were commemorated in a sculpture in Turkey that is now in the British Museum. They were called "Amazon" and "Achillia". The Amazons were the terrifying female warriors of Greek mythology, and "Achillia" is the feminine form of "Achilles", who was the most famous of the Greek warriors who fought in the Trojan War. So these are very appropriate stage-names for female fighters.

posted on Wed, 08/01/2007 - 5:12pm
kenneth brown's picture
kenneth brown says:

My daughters wish to know why the gladiators fought and what they wore when they fought.

posted on Wed, 08/01/2007 - 1:25pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

Most gladiators were slaves, and so they had no option other than to fight. But freeborn people could become gladiators by taking an oath that virtually turned them into slaves. It seems extraordinary that anyone would do this, but it may have been a way of avoiding debt. As for what they wore, there were many different styles of gladiator. They each wore different armor and carried different weapons that determined the way they could fight. The easiest one to recognize is the "net-fighter" (called "retiarius" in Latin), who wore only a loin-cloth, a neck-guard on his left shoulder, and some protective wrapping round his left arm. He carried a net and trident, and he also had a dagger that he could use to stab his opponent, when once he had managed to skewer him with the trident and throw the net over him. The net-fighter was very vulnerable (imagine fighting without a helmet!), but his advantage was that he was not weighed down by a lot of armor. His opponent, who "followed" him (he was called "secutor" in Latin), was well-protected with a helmet and shield, but he couldn't move so fast. There were other styles of gladiator too, but these were two of the most popular, and they are easy to spot in Roman mosaics, paintings, and sculptures.

posted on Wed, 08/01/2007 - 5:33pm
Curious's picture
Curious says:

Did the emperor really give the thumbs up or thumbs down signal at the end of the fight to see if the loser lived or died?

posted on Fri, 08/03/2007 - 1:49pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

The thumb gesture is very interesting--and very difficult to interpret! When a gladiator was defeated, the spectators gestured with their thumbs to indicate whether they thought that he deserved a reprieve or not. Then the sponsor of the spectacle gestured too. (Gladiatorial games went on all over the Empire, by the way, so it was only occasionally that the sponsor would actually be the emperor; usually it would be some VIP in the local community.) Presumably, before he made his gesture, the sponsor determined what the majority opinion among the spectators was, and represented it by signaling the same way with his own thumb. The gesture indicating that the defeated gladiator deserved to die is described by the Latin phrase meaning "with a turned thumb", so the question is: which way was it turned? There are unfortunately no visual representations on mosaics, etc., to help us. But it seems that this fatal gesture was probably the same as our "thumbs up" sign, although its connotations will have meant the exact opposite of ours.

posted on Fri, 08/03/2007 - 3:06pm
educator's picture
educator says:

Why do the Romans appear more bloodthirsty and thrill-seeking than the Greeks?

posted on Sat, 08/04/2007 - 8:20pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

I think the key word here is "appear". In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, i.e. Greece and the other Greek-speaking lands to the east, hundreds of inscriptions recording gladiatorial games have been found, and dozens of relief sculptures showing scenes of combat. When this material is taken in conjunction with scattered remarks in Greek authors it becomes clear that the Greeks took to gladiatorial spectacles with tremendous enthusiasm. In fact, some of their magnificent theatres were even adapted to make them suitable for displaying gladiators and wild beasts without putting the spectators at risk. But it remains true that it was Rome who introduced gladiators to Greece, and perhaps this has something to do with ruling an empire. The Romans collected exotic animals and people, and displayed them in their arenas, both as objects of curiosity and also to demonstrate that they could control them. They were also technologically inventive, and therefore could deploy machinery to put on some amazing stunts. Some people think that gladiatorial displays in urban centres may have been necessary to keep up Rome's militant spirit. On the frontiers, Roman military camps had arenas as well, partly to entertain the troops, but maybe also to promote their fighting spirit -- and to demonstrate to the locals what they were capable of.

posted on Tue, 08/07/2007 - 9:59am
hannah harberts's picture
hannah harberts says:

What is special about left-handed gladiators?

posted on Sun, 08/05/2007 - 8:51am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

Because most people are right-handed, there would have been a majority of right-handed gladiators in a gladiatorial training-school. This means that left-handed gladiators generally practised against right-handed opponents, whereas right-handed opponents rarely got the chance to practise against left-handers. When a right-handed and left-handed gladiator faced up to one another in the arena, the right-hander would be holding his shield in his left hand, as usual, but his left-handed opponent would be stabbing at him from the other direction, because he would hold his weapon in his left hand instead of his right. So, effectively the right-hander would be holding his shield in the "wrong" hand. His left-handed opponent would have his shield in the "wrong" hand too, in relation to the strikes coming from his right-handed opponent, but as a left-hander he was used to practising against right-handers, and would therefore be better at coping with this disadvantage than the right-handed gladiator. Obviously, if two left-handed gladiators fought one another, the odds would even out again, but as long as a left-hander fought a right-hander, the left-hander had the advantage.

posted on Tue, 08/07/2007 - 10:18am
Ernestine's picture
Ernestine says:

What kinds of animals would gladiators fight? What kinds of weapons would they use when they fought?

posted on Sun, 08/05/2007 - 1:39pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

The people who fought animals were specially trained to do so. In one-on-one combat they often fought bears or big cats, and they are usually shown using spears or swords. Sometimes the human (either a trained beast-figher or perhaps a condemned prisoner) would be equipped with a screen on a swivel, which he would hide behind and try to manipulate so that the creature could not get at him. Other species that were displayed in the arena include ostriches, gazelles, elephants, crocodiles, rhinoceroses, bulls, bison, and boars. Some of them were pitted against other animals, usually of a different species, rather than against human-beings. They might even be tied together to ensure that they would confront one another.

posted on Tue, 08/07/2007 - 10:31am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Were there other gladiators besides Romans?

posted on Mon, 08/06/2007 - 11:56am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

No culture apart from the Romans is known to have had an institution exactly like gladiatorial combat, although there is debate about where the Romans themselves got it from. Gladiators are first heard of fighting at the funerals of prominent people in the city of Rome, and it seems likely that the Romans had taken over this practice from another culture in Italy, probably either the Etruscans or the Samnites. But the Romans made gladiatorial combat into something far more than simply a funerary ritual, and by the time the Roman Empire was at its height the sponsoring of gladiatorial shows was a very prominent, and very expensive, status-symbol.

posted on Thu, 08/09/2007 - 3:26pm
spaz's picture
spaz says:

Who is the most famous Gladiator?

posted on Mon, 08/06/2007 - 1:13pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

The most famous gladiator is Spartacus, who came from Thrace (roughly equivalent to modern Bulgaria). He broke out of a gladiatorial barracks in southern Italy in 73 BC, and led a slave revolt that lasted for more than two years. At the height of the revolt his followers are said to have numbered at least 70,000, including many freeborn peasants, and they spread as far as the foothills of the Alps. Spartacus had previously served as an auxiliary in the Roman army, so he knew how to combat the Roman forces, and a series of Roman commanders who were sent to deal with him suffered crushing defeats. After the revolt was eventually put down, any survivors who were taken prisoner were crucified; but Spartacus' body was never found, and his memory quickly took on the status of a legend.

posted on Thu, 08/09/2007 - 3:41pm
Peter's picture
Peter says:

Were gladiators wealthy individuals?

posted on Tue, 08/07/2007 - 2:09pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

This is a tricky question, Peter! It is noteworthy that, although we have a number of inscriptions commemorating very wealthy charioteers, we have nothing like that for gladiators. Most gladiators were slaves, and slaves could not own any property, so as long as they were serving as gladiators they could not have possessed any wealth. But there are a few references to victorious gladiators receiving prize-money or precious objects, in addition to the symbolic laurel-wreath and palm of victory, so possibly they could have claimed these rewards once they had retired and were freed.

posted on Thu, 08/09/2007 - 3:55pm
bob cousy's picture
bob cousy says:

How old were you supposed to be to start doing gladiator things? If I was going to choose, I'd say 16.

posted on Sun, 08/12/2007 - 11:09am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

It is hard to know how old gladiators were when they started training, since our main source for gladiators' resumes is their epitaphs, and these give age at death, rather than specifiying how old an individual was at the various stages of his career. But I don't think we have any evidence for gladiators younger than eighteen. Whether they started training as young as sixteen, we don't know at this stage (or, at least, I don't know!).

posted on Mon, 08/13/2007 - 8:51am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What got you interested in Gladiators?

posted on Wed, 08/15/2007 - 1:33pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

I am scholar of Latin literature by training, and I am also very interested in Roman social history. For my PhD I worked on a book by the poet Statius in which he commemorates events in the lives of various patrons, including the emperor Domitian. After that I moved on to Statius' contemporary, Martial, who wrote 15 books of witty epigrams about contemporary life in Rome. The book I chose to work on was about spectacles in the Colosseum, and in writing a commentary on it I became more and more interested in the institution of the Roman amphitheatre, and in trying to identify the cultural and social impulses that led the Romans to promote violence as entertainment. I also found it intriguing to pursue research on a topic for which our evidence comes from such diverse sources, since one minute you are reading a passage in an ancient author, and the next minute you are studying a mosaic or trying to decipher the legend on a coin, or (dreaming of) booking your flight to examine the remains of some amphitheatre buried in a remote corner of the Roman Empire.

posted on Wed, 08/15/2007 - 3:53pm
Bob the cheez's picture
Bob the cheez says:

When did the first gladiators come around and who's idea was it?

posted on Thu, 08/16/2007 - 3:06pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

According to the Romans themselves, the first gladiators were exhibited at the funeral celebrations of a Roman aristocrat called Lucius Junius Brutus Pera, who died in 264 BC. The sources are a bit muddled, and it is not clear whether these games were sponsored by his sons or his grandsons. In any case, however, whether or not this occasion was precisely the first, the practice may have been taken over from another culture in Italy. If so, it was probably either (a) the Etruscans, whose dynasty, the Tarquins, used to rule Rome, or (b) the Samnites, who lived in the south, and who have left tomb-paintings that show men engaged in various competitive activities, including single combat, presumably at the graveside of the deceased.

posted on Fri, 08/17/2007 - 8:45pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Hello Why is Latin the "dead language". I think that it is so cool and people should all learn it because it would be awesome if we could find someway to use it!!!!

posted on Fri, 08/17/2007 - 9:38am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

I'm delighted you think Latin is cool; I do too! It is only "dead" in the sense that it has no native speakers any more, though some people do speak it as a second or third language for fun, and it is used at the Vatican for official purposes and at many universities for speeches on ceremonial occasions, etc. Many degree certificates are in Latin, and Latin names are formulated for newly discovered plants and animals. People who speak Italian and Portuguese and the other "Romance" languages are speaking a recognizable descendant of Latin, and of course languages like English have a great many words of Latin derivation (like the word "derivation" itself, ultimately from Latin de-, "away from", and rivus, "stream"). I agree that there are all sorts of ways in which Latin is very useful today. Many people are grateful to have learnt Latin because its very clear and logical structure helps them to understand English grammar. Obviously it is also a help in learning the Romance languages that are descended from it. Knowing Latin also means that you are able to read the inscriptions in churches and other public places that were put up by educated people for hundreds of years from the early middle ages until very close to our own time. Best of all, in my opinion, you are able to read the texts and documents that have survived from the Romans' own time. When you think about it, language is the most nuanced form of human expression, and it is awe-inspiring to think that we can read and understand the thoughts of people who lived so long ago. Translations are available for much of this material, but the only way to get close to people of another culture is to "speak their language", whether they are alive today or lived millennia ago. Long live Latin!

posted on Thu, 08/23/2007 - 8:51pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Are there any poems about gladiators?

posted on Tue, 08/28/2007 - 5:51pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

Yes, there are indeed poems that are directly or indirectly about gladiators. In the nineteenth century the statue in the Capitoline Museum in Rome that is now popularly known as "The Dying Gaul" was thought to represent a gladiator, and inspired a number of poems, including "The Statue of the Dying Gladiator" by Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans (1812) and " 'The Dying Gladiator', by Ctesilaus. A Cast in the Vestibule of the Museum, Bristol" by H. D. Rawnsley (1877). More generally, the Colosseum, and the Christian martyrdoms that were assumed to have taken place there (although none is securely documented for this particular site), inspired poems such as "The Last Combat in the Coliseum" by Emily Henrietta Hickey (1891) and "Lines to a Wall-Flower from the Coliseum" by Eliza Townsend (1856); poems entitled simply "The Coliseum" were written by Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley (1837) and no less a figure than Edgar Allen Poe (1833). Poe was typical in using the romanticized figure of the gladiator to meditate upon the passage of time and the passing of a civilization, e.g. "Here, where a hero fell, a column falls: / Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold, / A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat". It is interesting to compare the popularity of these gladiatorial subjects with paintings on similar themes from the same period, such as "Pollice verso" by Jean-Leon Gerome (1872) or "Habet!" by Simeon Solomon, a brilliant study of female spectators (1865). But no poems about gladiators survive from Antiquity itself, as far as I know, unless one includes the verses on gladiators' tombstones that were a particularly popular form of epitaph in the Greeks-speaking half of the Roman Empire.

posted on Mon, 09/10/2007 - 4:37pm
Beth's picture
Beth says:

We enjoy the mini-series "Rome" - do you ever watch it? How historically accurate are the characters and events depicted?

posted on Sun, 09/02/2007 - 2:32pm
Kathleen Coleman's picture

I haven't watched much of the series, Beth, so I can't comment in detail, but essentially the famous players of the time are all there, and the historical events provide a framework in which the personal drama is played out in a chillingly ruthess atmosphere that is probably fairly plausible. All modern representations of Rome are interesting as reflections of the appetities of contemporary society, and it is probably useful to approach them from that perspective. Even episodes of Roman history that make it into encyclopedias turn out to be a patchwork of gaps and contradictions when you go back to the ancient sources, and so even a scholarly analysis that you read in a history book is at best an interpretation of what apparently happened, and is composed by someone whose own attitudes are shaped by his or her social context. Because a series like Rome introduces all sorts of characters who are not attested in the ancient sources it inevitably "distorts" what little we think we can accurately know about what happened; but it is possible to go back to the sources and identify those "distortions". A different kind of "distortion" is introduced by the visual impression that we take away from any theatrical show (e.g., the brilliant colours of the clothing on the set of "Rome"), and the way in which social relationships are portrayed (e.g., the interaction between men and women at social events), and these impressions are harder to erase, since even if you are familiar with the ruins of Pompeii or Ephesus, you still cannot really know what a full sensory impression of a Roman city would have been like. So: enjoy the mini-series, and then read Suetonius and Plutarch and try to piece together what may have really happened!

posted on Fri, 09/14/2007 - 8:34am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

When did gladiator fights end, and why did they end?

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 7:35am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

Gladiatorial fights gradually died out in the course of the fourth century. They seem to have disappeared in the East first; in the city of Rome they still linger on into the early fifth century. Beast fights go on for another century or so after that, and chariot-racing is extremely popular in the early Byzantine Empire (sixth century onwards). There seem to be various reasons why gladiatorial combat died out. One is infrastructural: as early as the second century, we see them becoming very expensive, and people are reluctant to hold offices that require them to put on these shows. By the fourth century in the Eastern Empire it was getting difficult to find people to stand for high office because of the financial strain. Another reason may be ideological. It is hard to say whether Christianity turned people against gladiatorial combat. The Church Fathers preached against all forms of pagan entertainment (theatre, circus, and amphitheatre) on the basis that they were forms of idolatry, and urged people to go to church instead. This proves that people needed to be told not to go the amphitheatre, but not that they stopped going as a result. Even after Constantine had declared the Empire to be Christian, and uttered his famous edict in Beirut in AD 325, stating that "the shedding of blood in peace time does not please us," gladiatorial combat continued. We may perhaps be dealing with a very gradual shift in attitudes, together with financial pressures, although the fact that beast-fights and chariot-races continue, both of them quite violent and costly spectacles, suggests that there was something particular about gladiators that made them die out first, albeit slowly. So, I don't think we have got to the bottom of this yet.

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 2:14pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Did gladiator fights have referees?

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 7:38am
Kathleen Coleman's picture

Yes, gladiatorial combat was controlled by referees. They are often depicted on mosaics and pottery, standing behind the combatants. They have no protective gear on, and therefore need to keep out of harm's way. They wear a tunic and sandals, and in one hand they hold a wand that looks a bit like a conductor's baton. This instrument is called a "rudis". Occasionally it looks more like a club. The main referee, called the "summa rudis" after the wand he held, had an assistant, the "secunda rudis." In some images they are both depicted. We do not know for sure that a regular engagement always had two referees, but, if so, the absence of the second one on some images may be the result of "visual economy". When both are shown, there seems to be little to distinguish one from the other, except that usually only one carries a rod. Still, the names ("chief rod" and "second rod") suggest that there was a hierarchy between them. Sometimes the referee is shown staying the hand of the victorious gladiator, evidently to keep him from striking the final blow until the fate of his defeated opponent has been determined. The referee occasionally seems to be looking away from the pair of combatants, as though he is expecting a signal from a different direction. He is often gesturing with his free hand. Clearly, the notion that gladiatorial combat was an unregulated free-for-all is completely erroneous, even if we cannot determine exactly what the rules were.

posted on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 2:53pm