Categories (from Susanna Shadrake's The World of the Gladiator)

The Provocator - image courtesy of Pete WebbProvocator

The provocator in the imperial period remained very similar to his republican counterpart. The essential element of the provocator was his tradition of reflecting a military origin, but once this armatura was added to the gladiatorial categories, its distinct features ceased to move with the times; the connection with the military was forgotten, and the modifications to the equipment reflected the changing fashions in arena combat, and nothing more.

The provocator in the later imperial period sometimes wore a crescent shaped short breastplate, rather than a rectangular one, and the open helmet of legionary type became a visored one, as the cheek-pieces were expanded to meet in the middle, then hinged at the sides, and eye-grilles were added to enclose the face. All other items of equipment remained broadly the same. Depictions of Provocators usually show them fighting each other and no other variety of gladiator.

An Equites gladiatorEques

Like the provocator, the evidence is that eques only ever fought another eques. A mounted gladiator equipped with lance, sword and the traditional small round shield of the republican cavalry, the parma equestris, he was distinctive for his uncrested round brimmed helmet with its feathers at either side, and for the fact that he did not wear a loincloth unlike the other categories of gladiator. In earlier images of this gladiator, they were shown in scale-armour, though this changed to knee-length tunica in the imperial age. Imperial eques: Depictions of later, imperial equites usually portray them wearing capacious tunics, sometimes brightly coloured and decorated, with the very typical clavus, the two integral woven vertical stripes running the length of the garment from neck to hem. The two stripes are generally designated in the singular form, clavus rather than the plural, clavi. The stripes are quite narrow, perhaps an inch wide, and conform to the angustus clavus, which members of the equestrian class were allowed to wear, as opposed to the latus clavus (three inches wide) reserved for patrician senatorial rank.

The Thracian - image courtest of Pete WebbThraex

This older category of gladiator was so popular, it did not disappear or mutate into another named type; however, the thraex did acquire new elements as time went on. Fashions changed in the arena, but it is possible to recognise the distinct armature of the thraex, whatever the date.
The thraex carried a small square or rectangular shield, of wooden construction, planking or ply with a covering of leather, known as the parma or its diminutive, parmula; from examples depicted, it appears to have been emphatically convex rather than flat, and tended not to have a boss. From this shield, the thraeces got their popular nickname, parmularii, just as their opponents with the curved rectilinear shields were called scutarii. Because the shield was small, about twenty four inches by twenty inches, and offered little protection below groin level, the thraex wore greaves, ocreae, on both legs, which reached up as far as mid-thigh, and is often depicted wearing a form of leg protectors above them, from at least knee to groin, which appear to be padded or quilted fabric wrappings around both legs. On the dominant arm a manica was worn.

The most instantly recognizable feature of the thraex was his brimmed, crested helmet with its distinctive griffin’s head. In all but a very few depictions of thraeces, the griffin is shown on the crest of the helmet, aiding identification. The significance of this particular mythological creature in a gladiatorial context may stem from its role as a guardian of the dead, or from a reputed association with Nemesis; four griffins were said to draw her chariot. As a symbol, the griffin frequently occurs in Greek and Roman art, and particularly at tombs, as a protector of souls. It can be seen on many Roman architectural features, usually as part of a pair. Herodotus told of griffins that guarded the gold of the Hyperboreans, who incidentally were geographically located near the Carpathian mountains, west of Thrace. Why exactly the creature should be thought appropriate for a Thracian helmet, apart from the link with Nemesis, cultic goddess of gladiators, is open to question; there is a suggestion it symbolizes arrogant pride, superbia, and that might be thought reason enough for a professional gladiator. The primary weapon of this category was the curved bladed sica, depictions of this vary from dagger to sword length.

The Hoplomachus - image courtesy of Pete WebbThe Hoplomachus

The Hoplomachus is often confused with the thraex, and indeed they have many pieces of equipment in common. The word is from the Greek, meaning simply ‘armed fighter’. They both had the distinctive forward-curving crested visored helmet, though that of the hoplomachus did not appear to have the griffin’s head on its crest. Both had the same high greaves, and padded leg wrappings, fasciae. They even shared the same opponent, the murmillo. But whereas the shield, parmula, of the thraex was small and square or rectangular, that of the hoplomachus was round, though still small in size. The shield was always round, convex, and made of a single sheet of metal, usually copper-alloy (bronze). The thickness of the sheet bronze was an important factor in determining the weight of the shield—too thick, and its defensive qualities would be negated by its unwieldiness.

The primary weapon of this category seems to have been the spear, that the other weapon of the hoplomachus, the sword, or perhaps a longer dagger, like the pugio, could be held in the left hand at the same time as the shield, ready for use once the spear was cast or lost.

The Murmillo - image courtesy of Peter WebbThe Murmillo

The murmillo gets his name from the Greek word for a type of fish, as many contemporary sources indicated, it was derived from the image of a fish on their helmets, although the archaeological record has no firm evidence to support that assertion. The fish in question was the mormyros, or in Latin, murmo or murmuros, the striped bream, which was very common in the Mediterranean then as now, and best caught by the age-old method of surf-casting, a fishing technique involving casting the net into the surf to trap the fish coming in from the sandy bottoms where they feed. It is in this technique that perhaps a clue to the origin of the murmillo may be found.
The emperor Vespasian’s rhetorician, Quintilian, records a sing-song chant supposedly addressed to a murmillo by a pursuing retiarius:

Non te peto, piscem peto; cur me fugis, Galle?—
‘It’s not you I’m after, it’s your fish; why are you running away from me, Gaul?’.

If there is any historical authenticity at all in this jeering provocation of the heavy-armoured murmillo, it reveals two things; firstly, a clever and realistic tactic by the retiarius-- to exhaust his opponent by baiting him into excessive movement, and secondly, the net-man’s reference to the fish emblem on the helmet, identifying the other gladiator as murmillo, but calling him ‘Gaul’.
Whatever the origin of the term murmillo, it is generally believed that they evolved from the earlier category known as the Gaul, or gallus, about which little is known.
We do know however that the murmillo wore a manica, an arm guard, on his sword arm.
He carried the large rectangular semi-cylindrical wooden shield very similar in appearance and construction to the legionary scutum.
On his left leg was a short greave worn over padding. Unlike the thraex or hoplomachus, the murmillo, having the almost complete cover of the very large shield, the scutum, did not need the high, thigh length greaves that they wore—so long as there was sufficient overlap between the bottom of the shield and the top of the greave, his defence was maintained.

The murmillo was armed with the gladius. The helmet of the murmillo had a broad brim, with a bulging face-plate that included grillwork eye-pieces; its distinctive appearance was partly due to the prominent visor, but also to the angular, sometimes hollow, box crest which was then able to take the insertion of a wooden plume-holder into which a further horsehair (or feathered) crest could be fixed. Single plume-holders for feathers were fixed on either side of the bowl.

In common with most of the categories of gladiator, the torso of the murmillo was, as we have seen, exposed, and he wore the subligaria, the elaborate folded loincloth together with the balteus, the ostentatiously wide belt, often highly decorated. A good example of the lavishness of the ornamentation of belts is shown in the bone figure of a murmillo gladiator from Lexden, Colchester.

The Secutor - image courtesy of Pete WebbSecutor

The first thing to note about the secutor is the name: meaning ‘chaser, pursuer’, it hints at the reason for this particular gladiator’s existence. Otherwise known as the contraretiarius, the secutor fought the retiarius; it is thought that the category was specially created for that purpose; if that origin is authentic, then there is some justification for thinking that the secutor was an offshoot of the murmillo.

In a nutshell, the arms and armour of the secutor were the same as those of the murmillo, and only the form of the helmet differed; it was brimless and had only a low, smooth, featureless crest following the curve of the bowl. The back of the helmet curled into a small neck-guard. Unlike other helmets with metal grilles forming the upper half of the visor, the secutor helmet enclosed the face completely; the visor had only two small eyeholes, each a scant inch (3 cm) in diameter, and although it was hinged to open from the side, it had a catch on the exterior to ‘lock’ the gladiator in it.








The Retiarius



The Retiarius

Of all the gladiator categories, the most instantly recognisable is that of the retiarius, the net and trident fighter, named after the net he used, rete. Until halfway through the first century AD, there is no record, whether pictorial, literary, or archaeological, of this type of gladiator. After that point, the traditional pairing of retiarius and secutor starts to appear regularly, quickly becoming one of the most popular and enduring of the arena combats. From this, it is fair to assume that the secutor was invented at the same time as the retiarius, in order to create an exciting and novel combat; nothing like it can be detected at any earlier point in the historical record. The reason for the comparatively sudden appearance of this type of fighter cannot even be guessed at, and the usual sources are silent on the subject. All other categories of gladiator have an originating connection, however weak, with military or martial activities; the retiarius, with his obvious fishing and sea-related equipment, does not follow that pattern. The best we can do is to agree that the Roman appetite for watching new and inventive ways of killing was once again being gratified by this innovatory combat.
So many depictions of the retiarius show him holding the trident with both hands, with the left arm (as that is usually the leading arm for right-handers) forward and the right arm back at an angle, ready to thrust, that this is possibly the textbook stance for trident fighting. His body armour consisted solely of a high metal shoulder-guard, the galerus, on his left, or leading, shoulder, overlapping and affixed to the top edge of a manica protecting the left arm. Of course, this presupposes that the retiarius was right-handed, and that he would therefore cast his net with his right hand, while gripping his trident and dagger in the left hand. However, in a fragment of relief, one of the very few representations of this gladiator to actually show him with a net (from Chester, Cheshire, and now in Saffron Walden Museum), he is holding it in his left hand.
He wore no helmet and is often depicted with a knife as a secondary weapon.

The paegniarii
The paegniarii seem to have been comedy fighters, whose combats did not involve sharp weapons and were played strictly for laughs. They have an ancient pedigree, more related to the Atellian farces from which they seem to have strayed. They would presumably have been deployed in the intervals between more bloodthirsty parts of the programme, at lunchtime perhaps, to hold the crowd’s interest and to provide light relief.
A variant on the usual paegniarius was offered by Caligula, who, as Suetonius relates, ‘would stage comic duels between respectable householders who happened to be physically disabled in some way or other’.
In depictions of paegniarii, they do not wear armour, and carry non-lethal weapons, like whips and sticks. So the knockabout contests they performed would not have presented much danger to life and limb, as is indicated by the grave inscription of the paegniarius Secundus; it proudly states he was attached to the familia at the Ludus Magnus, the great imperial gladiator training school next to the Colosseum, that it was the familia who had set up the memorial, and that he lived to the ripe old age of annis XCVIII, mensibu(s) VIII, diebus XVIII. (Ninety seven!!!!)

The CrupellariusThe crupellarius

This was an extremely heavily armed gladiator whose origin was Gaul. They are first mentioned by the first century AD historian, Tacitus. In an account of the revolt of Julius Florus and Julius Sacrovir in AD21, the crupellarii, heavily armoured Gallic gladiators fought against the Roman legionaries. Tacitus gives a colourful account of the outcome:

There was also a party of slaves training to be gladiators. Completely encased in iron in the national fashion, these crupellarii, as they were called, were too clumsy for offensive purposes but impregnable in defence…
…the infantry made a frontal attack. The Gallic flanks were driven in. The iron-clad contingent caused some delay as their casing resisted javelins and swords. However the Romans used axes and mattocks and struck at their plating and its wearers like men demolishing a wall. Others knocked down the immobile gladiators with poles or pitchforks, and, lacking the power to rise, they were left for dead.
Tacitus Annales III. 43

Gladiators with that amount of heavy armour were unknown elsewhere in the Roman empire, but a small figurine found at Versigny, France, fitting the description of a crupellarius, shows a ‘robotic’ looking gladiator clad almost entirely in plate armour from head to foot. The helmet has a perforated bucket appearance, and it is not difficult to imagine the Roman legionaries being impressed by their adversaries’ defences.

A gladiatrixThe Gladiatrix

The subject of female gladiators has always aroused strong emotions; then as now, they have been seen as aberrations or novelties. There are a few references to women fighters in the literary sources, and some evidence from inscriptions on monuments. From these pieces of evidence, the existence of the gladiatrix as an authentic gladiatorial category rather than a fevered fantasy can be established; however, proof of existence is not the same as a guarantee of frequency of occurrence. Juvenal gives a scathing picture of the wannabe gladiatrix:

Everyone knows about the purple wraps and the women’s wrestling floors. And everyone’s seen the battered training post, hacked away by her repeated sword thrusts and bashed by her shield. The lady goes through all the drill, absolutely qualified for the trumpet at the festival of Flora. Unless, of course, in her heart she’s planning something more and is practising for the real arena. What sense of modesty can you find in a woman wearing a helmet, who runs away from her own gender? It’s violence she likes. All the same, she wouldn’t want to be a man—after all, the pleasure we experience is so little in comparison! What a fine sight it would be if there were an auction of your wife’s things—her sword belt and her arm protectors and her crests and the half-size shin guard for her left leg! Or, if it’s a different kind of battle that she fights, you’ll be in bliss as your girl sells off her greaves! Yet these are women who break out into a sweat in the thinnest wrap and whose delicate skin is chafed by the finest wisp of silk. Hark at her roaring while she drives home the thrusts she’s been taught. Hark at the weight of the helmet that has her wilting, at the size and the thickness of the bandages that surround her knees—and then have a laugh when she takes off her armour to pick up the chamber pot.

(Juvenal, Satirae VI 246-264)

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