Gladiators fought for thrills, not kills

January 19, 2005

GLADIATORS' combat had become a martial art by the beginning of the first millennium, according to a controversial theory based on reconstructing the fighters' tactics from Roman artefacts and medieval fight books. To amuse the crowds around the arena the gladiators would display broad fighting skills rather than fight for their lives, argues archaeologist Steve Tuck of the University of Miami. "Gladiatorial combat is seen as being related to killing and shedding blood," he says.

"But I think that what we are seeing is an entertaining martial art that was spectator-oriented." Gladiatorial art adorns everything from cheap Roman lamps to gems to large-scale wall paintings. Tuck focused on the tactics used by pairs of gladiators in one-to-one combat, rather than mass battles or staged events, and examined 158 images that show active combat, such as a gladiator pinning down an opponent, his shield and sword on the ground. To try to better understand what these scenes show, he turned to the pages of fighting and martial arts manuals produced in Germany and northern Italy in medieval and Renaissance times. These manuals provided instruction in everything from sword-fighting to wrestling. They are a good parallel for gladiatorial combat, Tuck argues, in part because opponents were professionals who used similar arms and armour. "And they're incredibly important because they show sequences of moves, and have accompanying descriptions," he says.

From the manuals and art, Tuck infers that there were often three critical moments in the course of a gladiatorial bout. The first was initial contact, with both gladiators, fully armed, moving forwards and going for a body shot. The second was when one gladiator is wounded and seeks to distance himself from his opponent. In the third both gladiators drop their shields, seemingly undamaged, before grappling with each other, he says. In the fight books, this act of throwing down weapons and shields to grapple was a common way to conclude a fight, without necessarily intending to finish off an opponent. Judging from the Roman art, the same happened during gladiatorial bouts, says Tuck. Other scholars have interpreted the art differently.

"What Tuck identifies as grappling has been convincingly explained in other ways, for example, as part of the ritual immediately prior to the dispatch of a defeated gladiator," says one expert, who prefers to remain anonymous. But the fight books, which were largely translated only in the past five years, provide new insights, Tuck counters. "The major issue is how pairs got on the ground, and why they are consistently shown without their shields," he says. And there are literary references to gladiators being trained to subdue without bloodshed, and also evidence that by the 2nd century AD, gladiators were very expensive, suggesting that deaths and bleeding were no longer the point of the entertainment.
Emma Young reporting from the Annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Boston, 6 to 9 January.

This article appears in New Scientist issue: 22 JANUARY 2005


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