Gladiators- more showbusiness than slaughter
• New theory says Gladiators were pampered stars not abused slaves
• Gladiators earned so much from sport that Emperor capped their salaries
• Study of 158 images of combat shows combatants did not fight to death
"Gladiators were entertainers, sports stars, and they were the privately owned, pampered Beckhams of their day. They did not go into the arena to die, because they cost far too much for that to happen on anything like a regular basis" - Bryn Walters, director of the British Association for Roman Archaeology
Story in full HEROIC fights to the death between enslaved gladiators never happened, according to a controversial new theory.
The research, which disputes images of ancient combat such as those seen in the Russell Crowe epic Gladiator, suggests that the fighters of yore would have far more in common with the overblown histrionics of modern-day premier league footballers or WWE wrestlers: highly trained, overpaid and pampered professionals with throngs of groupies - and an interest in not getting too badly injured.
Research into medieval and renaissance combat manuals has led one classical scholar to suggest that gladiatorial fighting had become more of a martial art at the beginning of the first millennium, a report in New Scientist reveals.
To thrill the crowds around the arena the combatants would "display" broad fighting skills rather than battle for their lives, according to Professor Steve Tuck of the University of Miami.
"Gladiatorial combat is seen as being related to killing and shedding of blood, but I think that what we are seeing is an entertaining martial art that was spectator-oriented," he said.
Prof Tuck focused on fighting methods used by pairs of gladiators in one-to-one combat, as opposed to mass battles or staged events, and examined 158 images that show combat, such as a gladiator pinning down his opponent, his shield and sword on the ground.
Such gladiatorial art adorns practically all Roman artefacts, from lamps, gems and pottery to large-scale wall paintings.
To try to ascertain more fully what these scenes show, Prof Tuck turned to the pages of fighting and martial-arts manuals produced in Germany and northern Italy in medieval and renaissance times. These provided instruction in everything from sword-fighting to wrestling. He argues that, as such, they are a good parallel for gladiatorial combat.
He said: "They are incredibly important because they show sequences of moves and have accompanying descriptions."
From the manuals and art, Prof Tuck concludes there were often three critical moments in such fights.
The first was initial contact, with both opponents fully armed and moving forward while going for body shots. The second was when one gladiator was wounded and sought to distance himself from his opponent. In the third, both gladiators dropped their shields, seemingly undamaged, before grappling with each other.
In the books, this very act of throwing down shields and weapons to grapple was a common way to conclude a fight, without necessarily intending to finish off an opponent.
Prof Tuck concludes from the Roman art he has examined that the same happened during gladiatorial bouts.
In addition, the fighters were often patronised in the form of large sums of money from members of the very highest echelons of Roman society.
Prof Tuck said: "The emperor Marcus Aurelius put salary caps on gladiators, and to get to this state of affairs they must have represented a massive capital outlay for their owners.
"Now, it makes no sense at all for the gladiators, at such cost, to be killed in battle, because it would be like throwing money away. The gladiators were meant to be recognised, similar to the famous sportspeople of today, and they had great status comparable to the highest levels of professional athletes.
"By that fact alone they are not disposable, and their owners would not expect to lose their investment every time somebody stepped out into the arena.
"Famous gladiators seemed to have fought very rarely, perhaps two or three times a year, much like professional boxers do today.
"The aim was not to kill the opponent but, as the Roman poet Martial says, to ‘win without wounding’."
Bryn Walters, the director of the British Association for Roman Archaeology, agreed with Prof Tuck.
He said: "Gladiators were entertainers, sports stars, and they were the privately owned, pampered Beckhams of their day. They did not go into the arena to die, because they cost far too much for that to happen on anything like a regular basis. Senators, wealthy businessmen and emperors were hardly going to have their best sporting stars butchered in the arena to appease the masses.
"The only people that died were those that were sent into the arena to be executed, and they were prisoners, convicts, criminals and those captured from wars and skirmishes."
The fight books, which have been translated only during the past five years, provide new insights, placing increased significance on the shieldless ground wrestling.
In addition, there are literary references to gladiators being trained to subdue without bloodshed, and also evidence that by the second century AD, gladiators were extremely expensive, adding further weight to the notion that deaths were not the point of the entertainment.
Previous research by experimental archaeologists from both Vienna and Munich universities certainly backs up the claims of Prof Tuck. Examination of the remains of gladiators at the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey allowed researchers to conclude that they received the best medical treatment.
Bones 2,000 years old revealed that gladiators ate highly nutritional food to develop a substantial layer of subcutaneous fat over their muscles to protect them from cuts inflicted during bouts of fighting.
Ancient literature also reveals that attending gladiator fights was considered a more intellectual pastime than going to the theatre, with fights promoting principles of bravery and honour while drama was just entertainment.
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