A Real Gladiator Never Says I’m Sorry

Spartacus warThe opening narration of 1960’s Spartacus refers to the Christian faith overthrowing the pagan “tyranny” of Rome, implying that all that was wrong with ancient Roman society was due to paganism. Except as the narrator makes clear a moment later, slavery wasn’t abolished for another 2,000 years. That’s right, Christianity did nothing to abolish slavery; when Christianity was made the mandatory faith in the Roman Empire, slavery still persisted.

So what purpose did that opening narration serve? My guess? The studio demanded it to assuage the Catholics of the day, and Dalton Trumbo slyly added the bit about “2,000 years before it [slavery] finally would die” to ensure that movie-goers weren’t left with a completely wrong impression.

Of course, Hollywood got lots of things wrong, but then again, we really can’t be certain of very much about Spartacus and the his slave revolt. The only records we have were written by the Roman victors, and most of those date from decades after the events.

In his book The Spartacus War Barry Strauss tries to set the record straight about how gladiators actually fought:

Spartacus was a heavyweight gladiator called murmillo. A man ‘of enormous strength and spirit’, as the sources say, he was about thirty years old. Murmillones were big men who carried 35- 40 pounds of arms and armour in the arena. They fought barefoot and bare-chested, rendering all the more visible the tattoos with which Thracians like Spartacus proudly embellished their bodies. Murmillones each wore a bronze helmet, a belted loincloth and various arm- and leg-guards. They carried a big, oblong shield (scutum) and wielded a sword with a broad, straight blade, about a foot and a half long. Called the gladius, it was the classic weapon of the gladiator. It was also the standard weapon of a Roman legionary.


Gladiatorial matches usually began with a warm-up with wooden weapons. Then the ‘sharp iron’ arms were brought in and tested to make sure they were razor-sharp. Meanwhile, Spartacus and his opponent prepared to die – but not by hailing the sponsor of the games. The famous cry, ‘Those who are about to die salute you!’ was, as far as we know, a rare – and later – exception. Instead, a match usually began with a signal from the tibia, a wind instrument like an oboe.


Every so often during a fight a glancing blow got through, leaving a man bleeding but not fatally wounded. Pumped up on adrenaline, he would have to keep fighting, however bruised, tired and sweating, all the while continuing to think on his feet, always shifting tactics. Although it appears that most bouts lasted only ten to fifteen minutes, there was no time limit; the fight went on until one man won. Meanwhile, each fighter had to close his mind to the noises of the crowd and the brass instruments accompanying the match and focus solely on combat. He also had to try somehow to keep the rules in mind. Gladiatorial bouts were no free-for-alls. A referee (summa rudis) and his assistant (secunda rudis) enforced the regulations. The most important rule was for a fighter to back off after wounding an opponent.

Let us imagine that Spartacus had driven his enemy off balance, knocked the man’s shield out of his hand, and stabbed him in the arm. Spartacus would then withdraw from the wounded man. Whether to finish off the thraex was not up to a gladiator or referee; it was up to the producer (editor).

The producer, in turn, usually asked the audience. A decision about a fallen fighter was the moment of truth. If the crowd liked the losing gladiator and thought he had fought well, they would call for letting him go. But if they thought the loser deserved to die, they wouldn’t be shy about shouting, ‘Kill him!’ They made a gesture with their thumbs, but it was the opposite of what we think today: thumbs up meant death.

In that case, the loser was expected to kneel – if his wounds allowed – while the winner delivered the death blow. At the moment that the loser ‘took the iron’, as the saying went, the crowd would shout, ‘He has it!’ The corpse would be carried away on a stretcher to the morgue. There, he had his throat cut as a precaution against a rigged defeat. Burial followed.

Spartacus, meanwhile, would climb the winner’s platform to receive his prizes: a sum of money and a palm branch. Although a slave, he was allowed to keep the money. After climbing down from the podium, he would wave the palm branch around the arena as he circled it, running a victory lap, taking in the crowd’s approval.

We don’t know what led the gladiators to revolt and bring the slaves along with them.

What began as a prison breakout by seventy-four men armed only with cleavers and skewers had turned into a revolt by thousands. And it wasn’t over: a year later the force would number roughly 60,000 rebel troops. With an estimated 1-1.5 million slaves in Italy, the rebels amounted to around 4 per cent of the slave population. To put that figure in perspective, the USA in the nineteenth century had about 4 million slaves, and yet Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 involved only 200 of them.

What was their aim? Freedom for the slaves? Or vengeance and profit? We don’t know because the rebels left no written records.

Howard Fast took one tact and concentrated on freedom, but his Spartacus was a gentle man, some commentators have compared him to Jesus, and he seems an unlikely sort to have led tens of thousands of rebel slaves and gladiators in a nearly successful war against the Romans.

The movie took a different approach and made him a violent man who becomes kinder through the efforts of a good woman. Where have we heard that before? And the aim of the movie rebellion was to flee Rome.

The Starz TV series took yet a different approach.

Interestingly they all used Batiatus as the name of the lanista, the owner/trainer of the gladiators, although it seems his actual name may have been Vatia.

Haec est ultima nota de Spartaco.


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