Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.59

Luciana Jacobelli, Gladiators at Pompeii. Originally published in Italian, L'Érma di Bretschneider 2003. Translated by Mary Becker.   Los Angeles:  The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.  Pp. 128; ills. 120.  ISBN 0-89236-731-8.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Joseph Patrich, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (
Word count: 1743 words

The topic of gladiators is one of continuing interest, as the success of Ridley Scott's film Gladiator (2000) and the reactions it stimulated clearly demonstrates. Articles about the film have been compiled in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Gladiator: Film and History (Malden, MA 2004) and several books dealing with various aspects of these shows have been published in recent years: A. Futrell, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (Austin 1997); D.G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London 1998); B. Bergmann and C. Kondoleon, The Art of Ancient Spectacle. Studies in the History of Art 56 (Washington D.C. 1999); D.L. Bomgardner, The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre (London and New York 2000). And there is also an illustrated video lecture, Gladiators: Sports and Entertainment in the Roman World by D.S. Potter (Cincinnati 1998), and a catalogue of a recent exhibition: E. Köhne, C. Ewigleben, and R. Jackson, Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome (Berkeley 2000), published to accompany an exhibition held in the British Museum (originating in an exhibition held in Hamburg and Speyer).1

The short and well-illustrated book under review comprises two parts. The first (pp. 5-38) gives a survey of the institution of gladiatorial combat in general: its origins, types of gladiators (including female), the organization of the spectacles (sponsorship and staffing), description of the spectacle from start to finish, and a general survey of the amphitheaters. The second part (pp. 39-106) is devoted to the spectacles at Pompeii, and this is its main contribution. Deriving her information from Italian archaeological reports, inscriptions and graffiti, J. presents a vivid picture of the programs, organization, and staffing of the games, and of the gladiators themselves -- their life and their place in the local society. A separate chapter is devoted to the various venues: the amphitheater, the gladiators' barracks and ludus, and the schola armaturarum. Then representations of gladiators in various media from Pompeii are discussed: paintings, reliefs, lamps, vases, and statues. Each part has an excursus: the revolt of Spartacus in the years 73-71 BCE in Part One (pp. 28-29), and the riot of 59 CE between the Pompeians and Nucerians in Part Two (p. 106). The book concludes with a short chapter (pp. 107-115), "From the Gladiators to Tiger Man. Knowledge, Confrontation, and Death in the Spectacle of the Duel," by Riccardo Lattuada, tracing the impact of gladiatorial combats in later generations and their occurrence in art up to the film Gladiator. References to ancient authors and inscriptions are incorporated in the text, and the thematic bibliography compensates for the absence of notes or references to research literature. The fact that the book was originally written in Italian is reflected in the bibliography, the information being derived from records of the archaeological exploration of Pompeii since the early 19th c.

In accord with Ville and others, J. favors an Etruscan origin for the gladiatorial combat, since the earliest evidence comes from tomb and vase paintings from Capua and Paestum dated to the 4th c. BCE, depicting duels held during funerals (pp. 5-6). The evidence from Pompeii, beginning in the 1st c. BCE, is very instructive regarding the organization and running of the shows. Here are preserved not only the amphitheater and the ludus but also houses and tombs of games' organizers, notices of the spectacles, graffiti drawn by the gladiators, and painting and objects decorated with gladiatorial scenes, making Pompeii a unique observatory for viewing the life of the gladiators, and the organization of the games. It may be useful to outline some of this information.

More than 7000 wall inscriptions from Pompeii and the surrounding area have been published. These written documents shed light on the names of the organizers, agents, gladiators, and their fans. Programs (edicta munerum) were advertised on building walls, and pamphlets (libelli munerari) were sold. The edicta were painted by professional scribes, some of whom even left their names; they were commissioned by a local magistrate (editor muneris), who was obligated by law to offer gladiatorial spectacles during his year in office, partly financed by the city and partly by the magistrate himself, who enjoyed, in return, many honorific privileges. At the very top appeared the name of the editor muneris, followed by the number of gladiatorial pairs to be exhibited (gladiatorum paria) -- usually twenty. At least nine editores are named in the inscriptions, all belonging to the local magistracy (p. 42). Sometimes the occasion for which the show was offered (causa muneris) was mentioned as well. The most frequent occasion was the munera pro salute imperatoris, given in honor of the emperor. Then the time and place were announced. The majority were held either on a single day, or over a course of four days. A velarium to be spread over the building was also mentioned in the edicta. A lanista was employed by the editor in order to organize the show. He was the professional entrepreneur, who bought, sold and rented his gladiators to whoever wished to sponsor a munus. He kept his troupe of gladiators in special schools (ludi; schola gladiatorum), with daily training, a special diet to increase muscle and weight, and medical checkups. Three such agents are mentioned by name in the edicta, though the term lanista is never used in the inscriptions, so it is not always easy to identify them. Capua had renowned schools (where the revolt of Spartacus in 73 BCE erupted); Caesar owned a school there with 5000 gladiators, which was, perhaps, the nucleus of the imperial Ludus Iulianum, which became Ludus Neronianum under Nero (p. 19). Only rarely do the edicta give the names of the gladiators themselves, but numerous graffiti provide a wealth of information on their lives, careers, and popularity. These are also accompanied by drawings (pp. 49-51, figs. 41-43). Thus we know that gladiators were hugely popular among women (p. 49). Many of the gladiators lived in their own houses, and had families. Most gladiators were prisoners of war and slaves, but they could also be freemen. All categories could be part of the same familia gladiatoria. At the end of his career, a gladiator would receive a wooden sword (rudis), to symbolize his service. He became thus a retired gladiator (rudiarius).

J. notes that in almost all the Pompeian contests it appears the defeated was granted mercy and was discharged from the arena alive (missus est). Apparently this served the common interest of all parties, since the training required time and money. Thus, in some recorded cases the contests in which an individual gladiator took part exceeded seventy.

The drawings and graffiti of Pompeii (as elsewhere), and depictions on small objects, allow us to define several types of gladiators. J. provides useful details for classification according to their gear and combat style (pp. 7-17): provocator, samnites, secutor, hoplomachus, murmillo, retiarius, eques, essedarius, dimachaerus, and veles. The venatores and bestiarii formed a separate category. The most common type represented in the inscriptions at Pompeii was the Thracian, with his elegant armor, comprising of a small, strongly convex, squarish shield (parmula), an armband (manica) on the right arm, and two high leggings, often decorated up to the knee. His sword (sica) was short, either curved, or angled, and his helmet was topped with a tall crest, decorated with feathers and a relief of a griffin's head. One of the Thracians, Celadus, became a sex symbol; he was known as the "heartthrob of the girls" (p. 49).

Contrary to the common opinion, held also by the author, that the amphitheater was first invented in Campania (p. 31), Welch has suggested that temporary wooden amphitheaters, dismantled after each event, were first built in the Forum Romanum, whence they reached Campania, where the first stone structure was built.2 The cavea was divided into zones, and reflected the social hierarchy of Roman society. The lex Iulia theatralis reserved the first row of seats in the entertainment venues for senators and separated the soldiers from the people. Women were permitted to view gladiatorial events only from the upper section of the cavea, even though it had been once customary for men and women to sit together at the shows.3

The podium wall of the amphitheater of Pompeii was decorated with lively frescoes. Some of the drawings, made in the early 19th c. when the excavations of the structure were underway, are reproduced in the book (pp. 58-61). J. notes that in spite of the fact that lions were depicted in the frescoes, the inscriptions never mention them and the amphitheater was not furnished with the technical devices necessary to exhibit large cats. Numerous prohibitions, inscribed and drawn, are directed against ill-mannered persons relieving themselves in zones other than the restrooms (p. 64, fig. 53). A survey of paintings of gladiators in 16 homes, taverns, tombs and in the Suburban Baths is given, with color reproductions of some of them.

In the primitive gladiators' barracks (ludus), comprising a large courtyard surrounded by a peristyle, between 15 and 20 gladiators of all types, both free and freed, lived. More than 100 different graffiti made by gladiators were found on the columns of the peristyle. The quadriporticus in the rear of the theater was converted after the earthquake of 62 CE to a large ludus gladiatorum. The conversion was perhaps due to damage to the earlier ludus from the earthquake; also, the ever-growing number of gladiators involved in the games during Nero's reign made a larger building necessary. The living quarters all around the courtyard were small separate rooms of 10-15 sq m, laid out on two levels with a wooden gallery, each accommodating 2-3 gladiators, who seem to have slept on straw mattresses, not on beds. There were also a kitchen, a dining room, and storerooms. The gladiators were free to come and go from the barracks and to receive guests there. A bejeweled female skeleton found in one of the cells seems to have been one of the guests who found her death when Vesuvius erupted. Some seem to have lived there with their families. One of the buildings was the schola armaturarum, the depository of gladiatorial armor. It was built after the earthquake of 62, on the site of a previous dwelling. Inside, the walls have many holes that were used to anchor wooden cabinets (pp. 65-68).

This concise and well-illustrated book is well written. It is a fine and useful book that can serve amateurs, students, and scholars alike.4


1.   For review articles on these publications by D.S. Potter and by K. Welch, see Journal of Roman Archaeology 14 (2001), pp. 478-498.
2.   K. Welch, "The Roman arena in late-Republican Italy: a new interpretation," Journal of Roman Archaeology 7 (1994), pp. 59-80.
3.   To the short bibliography on the topic provided by the author one can add: E. Rawson, "Discrimina Ordinum: The Lex Julia Theatralis," Papers of the British School at Rome 55 (1987), pp. 83-114.
4.   J. is the author of Le pitture erotiche delle terme suburbane di Pompei (Rome' 1995). Having specialized in archaeology at the University of Rome "La Sapienza", she works at the Soprintendenza of Pompeii. She is also the coauthor of A Day in Pompeii: Daily Life, Culture and Society, Napoli 2003.

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