True story: Much like pro wrestling today, gladiators of ancient Rome had characters. But instead of hillbillies, crossdressers and intergalactic space men (seriously, look up Max Moon), the Colosseum’s pugilists were largely defined by their weaponry and armor, which was often informed by European tribal gear, specifically tribes conquered by the Romans. See, the Romans liked nothing more than honoring their vanquished foes by making them fight each other to the death. (It’s an ancient pagan thing, you wouldn’t understand.) Here are 12 of the most fascinating gladiator gimmicks from those bygone days.
Andabata: What makes a gladiator fight better? Having one or both of the gladiators blindfolded. Presumably, the crowd would shout instructions sort of “Marco Polo” style until the two guys really got to mix it up. It’s somehow related to gladiators on chariots, but we can’t even begin to imagine how that worked.
Bustuarius: These guys fought at the tombs of dead men and were generally considered the lowest of the low. Captives in ancient Rome were once sealed in tombs with great men of the day. The Romans later decided that this wasn’t terribly Christian and instead had the captives fight to the death near the tombs. Cicero often used this as a term of abuse against his enemies in the Senate.
Cestus: The cestus was armed with nothing more than Roman-style boxing gloves, which were more like brass knuckles. Cestus (also the name of the gloves) were worn in battle and in pankration (ancient MMA) and were made of hard leather, sometimes with iron plates and blades. Cestus fighters wore no armor. The good news for them is that Romans tended to prefer a fight between two cesti. The bad news is, they sometimes wanted to see the boxer fight a guy with a spear.
Dimachaerus: This is a Latin term borrowed from Greek meaning “bearing two knives.” Armor varied from butt naked to totally kitted out with scalemail. These guys were very popular in the waning days of gladiatorial combat and tended to fight in very close quarters. Romans loved seeing a lightly armored dimachaerus go up against some heavily armored hoplomachus (more on them later).
Essedarius: You’ve seen Ben-Hur, right? Well, the essedarius are basically the chariot racing scene. Julius Caesar brought this concept to Rome, and the fight could either be between a single gladiator or a team consisting of a driver and a fighter. Believe it or not, the Romans would pit essedarius against other kinds of gladiators. If the chariot was broken and they didn’t know how to ride a horse, they were usually toast.
Hoplomachus: If there’s one thing the Romans loved more than watching two men try to kill each other, it was Greece. The hoplomachus were based on the Greek hoplite soldiers with heavy armor, helmets, shields, spears and swords. They were frequently pitted against murmillos (see below) in an attempt to reenact battles between Romans and Greeks.
Murmillos: The Romans loved taking their valiant but vanquished foes and turning them into gladiators. The Gauls got such a treatment several times, but once they became more integrated into Italian society, it was no longer fashionable to portray them as barbarian outsiders. Thus, the murmillo was born: a thoroughly Romanized Gaul who was often paired with a retiarius or a samnite (click through for more on both). Spartacus was a murmillo, by the way.
Retiarius: Few gladiator classes are quite as iconic as the retiarius. This is the guy with the net and the trident. They rarely wore armor, but they were sometimes provided with a shield. The secutor class of gladiator, who were basically just murmillos with better helmets, were specifically developed to fight the retiarius, sometimes in two-on-one action.
Rudiarius: Gladiators who fought valiantly were rewarded with freedom, provided that they lived long enough. They were then presented with a wooden rod or sword, we’re not really sure which. These gladiators were known as rudiarius. Some decided to return to the fighting pits and, not unlike The Rock, were some of the biggest celebrities of the ancient Roman world.
Samnites: If you were going to be a gladiator, you wanted to be a samnite. Samnites were based on a conquered Italic tribe. As they were considered valiant fighters and were “cousins” of the Romans, they were some of the more privileged gladiators, with access to the best equipment in the arena. Hot samnite-on-samnite action was among the most popular attractions of ancient Rome.
Velites: The velites had spears attached to leather straps for easy retrieval. They were based on an infantry class during the middle period of the Roman Republic, and are perhaps an example of the Romans doing to themselves what they did to the Gauls and other conquered people. The velite soldiers of old were among the poorest of Roman soldiers, and so typically had very shoddy equipment and little training. No word whether “velite” translates in some way to “jobber.”
Venatio: Technically not gladiators, a term reserved for those who fought other men, venatio fought wild animals to the death in ancient Rome. The most common animal combabtants were lions and elephants, and the animals rarely survived, even if they were victorious over the venatio. Venatio are distinct from bestiarii, men condemned to death by being eaten alive by animals. You can read more about that here.