Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Roman Combat Sports |

Roman Combat Sports is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 123, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Thus does one historian describe the gladiatorial shows that over the years claimed the lives of tens of thousands, many of them Christians, to thrill the crowds with the sight of blood

Roman Combat Sports - ‘By far the nastiest sports event ever invented’

Roman Combat Sports - ‘By far the nastiest sports event ever invented’
A gladiatorial helmet of a type worn by a fighter called a murmillo. The name likely came about because the high crest of the murmillo’s helmet resembled a Greek fish of that name.

The first-century entertainment industry knew all about advertising, and the colorfully painted signs on the walls and rock faces of one city promised a great show. Thirty pairs of fierce gladiators would battle in the arena. Crucifixions would amuse those having no other plans during the noon break in the games, and there would be awnings to shield the spectators, if not the agonized victims, from the midday sun. Whether that show was ever held, nobody knows, for the city was Pompeii in Italy and the year was a.d. 79, when Mount Vesuvius blew apart and freeze-framed city life in mid-process. The ads for the big show lay buried under volcanic rubble along with much of the citizenry until they were uncovered seventeen centuries later.

As the time for such a show–known in Latin as a munus–grew near in any large Roman city, programs were circulated. On the evening before the munus, the organizer threw a feast for the gladiators, inviting everyone else to come and witness what would be, for many contestants, the last meal.

“The curious circulated round the tables with unwholesome joy,” writes the French scholar Jerome Carcopino. “Some of the (gladiators), brutalized or fatalistic, abandoned themselves to the pleasures of the moment and ate gluttonously. Others, anxious to increase their chances by taking thought for their health, resisted the temptations of the generous fare and ate with moderation. The most wretched, haunted by a presentiment of approaching death, their throats and bellies already paralyzed by fear, gave way to lamentation.”

The next day’s events began with a festive parade of dignitaries, musicians, armor-bearers, and horses. The events themselves would be accompanied by organ music, much as organ music would accompany some sports events in the twenty-first century. After preliminary contests with blunt weapons, a blast of the war trumpet summoned horsemen for the first real fight.

The slaughter that was about to occur, before an attentive audience of both sexes and all ages and occupations, was “by far the nastiest blood sport ever invented,” writes historian Michael Grant in his Gladiators. “No amount of explanation can mitigate the savagery.”

Gladiators almost always dueled one-on-one. No particular time limit was set, nor were scores kept. Referees beat the reluctant with sticks to get them going. They stabbed each other, ducked, and stabbed again. Finally, one of the two was either dead or so grievously wounded that he could no longer fight. If he remained alive, the audience decided his fate.

One who had fought bravely, or who was a popular champion, might be spared and carried from the arena to be treated by physicians. (Galen of Pergamum, one of the best-known doctors in history, attended to injured gladiators before he was appointed personal physician to Marcus Aurelius.) But when the audience found the loser cowardly, they signaled their disgust with thumbs up (not down, despite the movie epics). At major munera, the six virgins who tended the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta gave the signal. The victor then bloodily dispatched his opponent.

The toll was astounding. “For century after century, tens of thousands, throughout the empire, did not leave the amphitheaters alive,” says historian Grant. Christians were often among the unfortunates condemned to the arena, but most who ended their lives as gladiators were slaves or common criminals. Some were professionals, earning acclaim from men, and close attention from admiring women. Occasionally, an enthusiastic member of the nobility might enter the fray. Otherwise, gladiators held the lowest social standing, forbidden even honorable burial.

Fighters were assigned to categories and fitted out with appropriate weapons and armor. Among them were lance-bearing horsemen, or equites, in tunics with shields and visored helmets; bare-torsoed murmillo, with brimmed helmets and short swords; the all-but-naked retiarius, wielding a net and a long-handled trident, his opponent, the helmeted secutor, holding a short-handled blade.

Best-known of all gladiators was Spartacus, a prisoner of war forced to enter a gladiatorial school in 73 b.c. He led seventy others in a revolt in the town of Capua, twenty miles north of Naples. They assembled a rebellion of forty thousand men, but after two victorious years, Spartacus died in battle, and six thousand of his followers were crucified along the roadside between Capua and Rome.

Even so, the Romans were fascinated and attracted by gladiators. Thomas Wiedemann, in his book Emperors and Gladiators, portrays them as “like highwaymen.” They “symbolized the rejection of a normal, lawful, civilized life-style,” he writes, and their outlaw chic prompted highborn men to emulate them, and highborn women to seek sex with them.

The rise of Christianity is generally credited for the eventual abolition of the Roman gladiatorial games. Prohibited in 325, they finally vanished early in the next century.

This is the end of the Roman Combat Sports category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 123, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Roman Combat Sports from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at