Roman Gladiators and Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale

For death, when it stands near us, gives even to inexperienced men the courage not to seek to avoid the inevitable. So the gladiator, no matter how faint-hearted he has been throughout the fight, offers his throat to his opponent and directs the wavering blade to the vital spot. (Seneca. Epistles, 30.8)

My fights have spells. And more blood.

A dramatic depiction of the end of a deathmatch.

As regular readers have probably guessed by now, I am a big fan of the classical age. I love all things ancient Roman and Hellenic with a passion.  As a child, before I had any understanding suffering, slavery, and death, I was really into Gladiators. The pictures of these athletic, imposing fighters with their iconic weapons and gear caught my interest long before I developed the critical faculties to question the morality of Bloodsports. Years later this interest would resurface when I was looking to create a faster, snappier alternative to GW’s Bloodbowl (a tabletop football game with fantasy elements) for my local games club, which led to a Bloodlust role-playing game (unpublished) and then finally to Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale, my first novel.

Roman Gladiators are the most famous of the Bloodsport traditions. The Colosseum  the archetypal arena, still stands in modern Rome evoking memories of bloodthirsty crowds and desperate battles. Livy dates the first use of Gladiators as 264 BC, a fight to the death in a forum, held as part of the funerary rites of an important personage. Livy emphasizes the theatrical tone, even then, but it is doubtful that it bore much resemblance to the decadent public spectacles of the late Republic and the Roman Empire. Likely it was closer to pit fighting at this stage. It is known that these commemorative rites with their ritual and sacrificial elements did continue and later gave rise to the greater Gladiatorial games. Famous examples of these early games include a Munus put on by Scipio Africanus during the Punic Wars to honour his family members, killed in the war against Carthage. Over twenty pairs of Gladiators fought by some accounts. It is possible that the cunning Scipio used this spectacle to raise morale. These early games were far more lethal, thought to always end in the death of one the fighters.

By the first century BCE, Rome was getting a taste of State sponsored fights, put on by the consuls for the express purpose of entertaining the public. These are the true beginning of the Gladiatorial games we see in movies and television. They were part sport and part circus, but all vicious. The political aspect of these games, which had consuls and later, Emperors, cynically using the bloody entertainments of the arena to manipulate public opinion are one of the things that I find most fascinating about the games.

Here are a few brief notes about the Roman games and how they compare to my use of Gladiators in Bloodlust.

1) Gladiators were divided into distinct types: Roman Gladiators, at least those who were trained in Ludi, each fought with distinct gear and a particular style. Some of these types began in imitation of the fighting styles of the early enemies of Rome, such as the Samnites, but in the end it seems to me that they were more about style and variety. Creation of distinct categories of fighters allows even modern fighting sports to mix it up and create a multitude of different events from wrestling to boxing to MMA. I expand upon this a little bit in Bloodlust with weight class, training types, and magic types but instead of following this rigid structure the Gladiators in Bloodlust choose new specializations becoming more an more individualized throughout their careers. At some point I will have to do up a separate post of all the Gladiator types from the Roman arenas with all of their interesting armour.

Fall AWAY from the sword, dude.

A Mosaic depicting two Gladiators fighting

2) Gladiator were a mix of free men, slaves, and prisoners of war: We all know that the Romans, like many ancient peoples, were cruel to those that they fought against. Rome just took it a step further institutionalizing their imperialistic humiliations as a sporting event. Conquered peoples who survived often ended up in the arena as fodder or if they had potential, as trained fighters. Interestingly, not all Roman Gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war. At the height of the games, there were professional, volunteer Gladiators who earned fame and fortune facing death in the arena. Some even estimate that these volunteers made up around half of the trained Gladiators. In Bloodlust the Gladiators are all magically adept people (called Gifted) who choose to fight in the games so that they can keep their magic and have a chance at becoming one of the Chosen. Magic is considered too dangerous to just let the Gifted use it freely and so they are kept under control until they earn the right to use it or give it up. That’s the surface theory, at least. The truth behind this is that it is a power play and an institution that has vastly outgrown its original purpose. This is similar to the Roman games which very quickly outgrew their origins and became very hard to control; even the reformist Christian Emperors had trouble stamping them out until Chariot Racing overtook them in popularity.

3) Women fought in the arena and Gladiatrix is not a word that I invented: No one is sure of how widespread female fighters were in the arena, but their is direct and circumstantial evidence that they did exist. There are references to women volunteering to train at the Gladiatorial schools. There are murals of bare-chested armoured Gladiatrices locked in combat and account of fights involving women. Grave markers of honoured female fighters have been found as well. In Bloodlust the women are right out there with the men, with Sadira being considered the best fighter of her “generation” of Gladiators.

4) Gladiators would not only fight each other but also animals of all sorts: It sounds like animal cruelty, but its really just cruelty in general. Roman Gladiators killed and  were killed by animals in the arena. Beast fights were considered more sporting than fights against Noxii, untrained fighters, but generally far less interesting than a bout between two trained and well-promoted fighters. In Bloodlust I switch it up a little. While fights between Gladiators are still considered the most exciting form of the sport, the Gladiators are commonly pitted against monstrous foes from outside the Domains. These monster fights are a form of ritualized jingoism that allow the people of the Domains to see the horrors that exist outside their borders being dominated and destroyed by their favorite fighters. I leave it to the reader to decided if this is ugly, offensive  imperialism or just good old action porn. After all, Beastmen and Wirn are evil, right?

Funny looking lions IMO.

A depiction of Gladiators fighting beasts.

5) Gladiators were taught in Schools (Ludi): As the Roman games worked up into full swing Schools were founded to train the most promising of candidates. Gladiators would train hard at these schools, honing their skills between each match. I don’t really change this much in Bloodlust, although my Gladiators can train harder since they heal faster and do not owe allegiance to their schools.

6) In the later Gladiatorial games, lethality became less important than celebrity. It seemed that a brave, well-known fighter stood a good chance of seeing mercy if defeated. Some Gladiators fought in as many as a hundred and fifty matches, which makes me think that the fights were often wildly unequal. This is similar to Bloodlust, where Deathmatches are fairly rare. However in the imperial period, the lethality of Gladiatrial contests often varied by Emperor, with guys like Caligula wanting the bloodiest matches possible. Again, I follow this idea Bloodlust, where politics can interfere with the Great Games and a few fans always want to return to the good ol’ days where every fight ended with death.

7) There were some crazy match types: Roman Gladiators would sometimes re-enact famous battles in crazy set pieces. There are even accounts of the Colosseum being flooded to enact a naval battle. I expand on this Bloodlust with many usual match types and a bewildering variety of special rules.

I could go on. Roman Gladiators still fascinate me, despite the ugly aspects of the arena. There is so much to cover here, if you can stomach it. The ancillary aspects of the Roman games like the Factions and the sportsmanship also appear in my work. The stylized, sexualized armour. The crazy gear. Interesting topic, if a little grim. Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale  is at least in part my attempt to face my own guilty fascination with this heady mix of celebrity, politics and brutal bloodsport.

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