Visum est spectaculum

The gladiator games in interplay with military and public security (part 1)

Christoph Ebner


The relationship of the Roman legions with „entertainment industry”, especially the gladiator games, certainly did not jade in the leisure of soldiers and the spatial connection of camps and arena ovals. On the contrary, the throughout variable relationship manifested itself, among other things, in the oath of the gladiator, which oriented itself towards both the oath of the legionnaire and the very variable benefit the generals and emperors drew from the games economy in times of crises. On the other hand, public security was endangered by the games, because of the vast number of men fit for military service in the gladiator schools, who in the course of the Spartacus rebellion demonstrated their threat potential and their destructive power to the public for the first time. Thus, the following considerations are supposed to illustrate the development of gladiatorship and its eventful relationship with the military, as well as its influence on Roman security policy, at least its main features. The first written documented fencing games, organised 264 BC in Rome, resembled death sacrifices, offered in the course of funerals of social elites. According to Tertullian, a Christian apologist living in the transition period from the 2nd to the 3rd century AD, the protagonists fighting at the funeral piles or after the interments were prisoners of war and mali status servi, i.e. slaves with ugly physical appearance. Especially the latter were of no more immediate use in a society finding its living, even wealthiness, in tilling the land. For this reason, they could be “sacrificed” in a fight of life and death by their masters without any economic or humanitarian misgivings. This kind of selecting the fencers lets us suppose that the audience was certainly not spoiled with satisfying martial arts. On the contrary, the bloody sacrifice was contents and aim of the “games”. Until the Imperial Era, however, the special body guards, where again and again gladiators turned up, did not lose their importance completely. Tacitus, for instance, mentioned that provincial governors kept gladiator squads, which they certainly needed for being able to organise games on-site. Although these reports concentrate on the provinces, the tradition that nobles and even emperors in Rome kept body guards consisting of gladiators can be traced until the 4th century AD. An act from 397 AD demonstrates that even in the late ancient world former arena fighters joined the service of senators, which was finally forbidden by Emperor Honorius, both because of reasons concerning public security, and for strengthening the authority of the municipality. Apart from the employment of gladiators, other parallels and interactions of both spheres deserve more precise contemplation as well.