GLADIATOR, in Roman antiquity, a man who fought with deadly weapons against another gladiator or wild beast; especially in the amphitheater, for the amusement of the people.
The first gladiatorial fight occurred at the funeral of Brutus in 264 B. C. between his sons, Marcus and Decius. Originally, a gladiator was a prisoner, a slave, or criminal; later the performance became a mere spectacle, and knights, senators, and even women and emperors entered the arena. Gladiators were enormously popular, and many had large and enthusiastic fan followings.
The gladiatorial exhibits were announced by private circulars or proclamations. Gladiators marched to the arena on the day of the performance, where they were matched in pairs and their weapons were formally examined. In many cases the combats were fought between a man without arms, but provided with a net with which to ensnare his opponent and a three-pronged fork with which to spear him when caught, and an opponent in full armor, who sought safety in evading his enemy while seeking to pursue and kill him. The audience witnessing the combat became frantic with excitement, and yelled and applauded while rismg in their seats, shouting their approval when ghastly blows were dealt, followed by blood spouting forth. In most places the arena was protected from the rays of the sun by a gorgeous awning, while strains of music floated in the air, drowning the cries of death. It was not uncommon to distribute Syrian perfumes to overcome by their odor the scent of blood, and the spectators were delighted by the most brilliant scenic decorations.
The gladiatorial battle opened at the sound of a bugle and a shout of command. A gladiator dropped his weapons when severely wounded, and as a plea for life held up his forefingers. This was sometimes in the gift of the people, but more often was vested in the vestal virgins. During the empire the power to spare life was lodged in the sovereign. Mercy was signaled by waving handkerchief or by a turned down thumb, while all hope was forbidden by a clenched and upright fist. Only the brave were accorded mercy. In the time of Julius Caesar it was common to give exhibits by couples fighting. He gave a show in which 320 were engaged. Titus provided an exhibition that continued one hundred days. In it the gladiators fought with wild beasts. The great gladiatorial exhibition of Trajan engaged 10,000 men, who fought with each other and wild beasts, continuing 123 days.
The wild beast fights were the most revolting, and by them many Christian martyrs lost their lives. Among the animals engaged were elephants, rhinoceroses, camelopards, hippopotami, tigers, lions, and many others of a ferocious nature. During naval fights the arena was flooded with water. A naval fight given by Augustus engaged 30 vessels, and during the combat 36 crocodiles were pursued and killed. The combatants were classified according to the arms they carried. Thus, one carrying a shield, helmet, sword, and breast armor was called samnite; those carrying a lasso or noose, the laguearii; those armed with Thracian buckles and a short sword were known as secutores. Gladiatorial games were forbidden in the reign of Emperor Honorius, about 404 A. D.