Hello Everyone! We are pleased to announce that Johnathan is out with his latest book, 'History's Greatest Warriors' - See below for an excerpt of the book.
For many of us, the mere mention of the word ‘gladiator’ is synonymous with the mental image of actor and movie star Russell Crowe flailing around an arena, fighting for his life in the movie “Gladiator”. When compared to his historical counterparts, there’s actually very little resemblance to reality. Although many gladiators were slaves, some actually entered the arena of professional combat as volunteers, and none of them bore much resemblance to the Hollywood versions of the blood-thirsty fighters that have populated the silver screen over the years.
History and popular culture have made the name of Spartacus notorious as a romantic rebel ex-gladiator, but a truer champion of the gladiatorial Amphitheatre was Flamma.
Professional gladiators were highly specialized and wore armour and weapons that demonstrated what specific style that they would fight in. Flamma was known as a secutor, specifically trained and equipped to fight a retiarius. The fights between these two types of reoccurring gladiators were based on the concept of a fisherman (the retiarius) fighting to catch the fish (secutor). As a result, the secutor’s armour would be designed to represent a fish’s scales and flowing contours, while the retiarius fought with a net and a trident but very little else. The light (or no) armour of the retiarius gave him scant protection but afforded him the advantage of having less weight to heave around the arena, providing a higher degree of mobility. In contrast, the secutor was heavily encumbered by armour, slower but better protected. In a match between these two common opponents, the slower, heavy fighter would have to try for an early victory before he collapsed of exhaustion. It was in this regard that Flamma proved himself a champion over and over again.
In addition to the secutor versus the retiarius, other gladiatorial contests were fought between murmmillo and hoplomachus; the double-handed swordsman, dimachaerus, pitted against the heavily armoured Oplomachus and scantily clad Bestiarius was an animal specialist that battled almost exclusively against exotic animals in a “man versus beast” special event combat. None of the authentic ancient gladiator types wore any kind of chest armour as is so often depicted in the movies.
While he didn’t achieve the same notoriety of the Thracian gladiator Spartacus (his equipment would have included a thrax, or curved sword as well as a feathered helmet), Flamma was an imposing figure in the arena and fought valiantly over a 13-year period, repeatedly refusing to be granted freedom from gladiatorial life when offered the honor of the rudis – a wooden sword that was given as a high honor to the most successful and honored fighters. Although Spartacus may be the most famous gladiator people tend to know, Flamma demonstrated his fighting abilities in no less than 34 battles and new evidence is revealing more about him and his fellow professional combatants.
Contrary to the depictions of gladiatorial life that Hollywood has manufactured, professional gladiators were well trained and well looked after, representing a considerable investment by their owners (in the case of slaves) or managers. In today’s terms, they would be the equivalent of the most celebrated and successful professional sports stars. Gladiators were fed some of the best food available, and benefited from the best and latest medical treatments provided by leading physicians and healers. Unlike the ridiculous odds movie gladiators are seen to face in the arena, the real fighters like Flamma were carefully assessed and matched up with comparable fighters so that the combats were fair and balanced. Similarly, gladiators were not forced to fight over and over again and Flamma fought just 34 battles during his 13 years in the arena, averaging two to three clashes per year. These were shows – sports entertainment at the highest level, not slaughters.
Recent findings by paleo-pathologist, Dr. Karl Grossschmidt indicate that the gladiators were kept in good health with a vegetarian diet that was heavy in carbohydrates. Unlike the chiselled, over-muscled bodies of today’s body-builders, Grossschmidt claims gladiators would have been carrying a bit of extra weight, partially as a form of protection and also because it made them look physically more impressive and intimidating. According to Grossschmidt, “Surface wounds “look more spectacular. If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on. It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.” While an intriguing theory, other scholars speculate that just like today’s professional fighters most would likely have tried to stay as slim as possible, avoiding extra fat that would just slow them down and impend performance.
The specifics of the “gladiator diet” have always been a subject of debate. The grain barley has enjoyed a special focus, as it is believed that it assisted with building muscle, but there is conflicting documentation that suggests the leading physician of the time named Galen had certain reservations about it, fearing it was responsible for making the flesh soft”. Similarly, artwork dating back to the gladiator era shows sinewy fighters with little evidence of the extra fat Grossschmidt believes was a hallmark of the profession. Writer David Black Mastro argues that the vegetarian diet the gladiators were fed reflects how unimportant they were. He claims that the lack of meat in their diets - even meat that was regularly consumed by others, indicates that they were given a poor diet to reflect their lowly status as slaves.
This is quite contrary to other opinions which indicate the gladiators enjoyed a celebrity status which is why some were volunteers, rather than slaves. The elite fighters who enjoyed popular support and frequent victories like Flamma, so enjoyed the fame and celebrity status that it became a difficult profession to leave. This seems to be the case with Flamma, as he was offered freedom four times and refused it so that he could stay in the public eye and keep fighting as a gladiator.
While it’s true that as gladiators, these professional fighters were effectively confined and were not allowed to leave the gladiator camp of their own accord, it wasn’t all bad. Gladiators were permitted to receive visitors and - not unlike today’s sports superstars, there were groups of giggling girls all too eager to pay them a visit. These women were usually from highly respected families but would sneak into the camps to bestow their favours on the champions of the arena. Gladiators had groupies.
While Grossschmidt compares the gladiatorial bouts to modern-day boxing, it enjoyed a rather different position in terms of how it was perceived as a pastime. We certainly don’t consider today’s boxing fans to be highly intellectual, but attending gladiatorial battles at the time was regarded as more sophisticated and respectable than another social activity - going to the theatre. The fights were seen as a celebration of important principles such as bravery and honour, while in comparison plays were “idle” entertainment. From this ancient Roman perspective, it is understandable how gladiators could be envied and idolized.
Perhaps enjoying celebrity status was why Flamma repeatedly refused his freedom. Certainly, the vast majority of the gladiators were slaves and even those who had volunteered to fight could be bought and sold, as commodities. To most, having your freedom restored was considered an ultimate reward. This was symbolized by the rudis, a ceremonial token wooden sword that was presented to victorious gladiators who earned their freedom. The criteria for receiving this prize was highly subjective and was often granted at the whim of Emperors and other great and powerful men. Once a rudis was awarded, the gladiator was then allowed to walk through the “the gate of life” which meant he could leave the arena as a free man with no further obligation to fight. While most gladiators would win the rudis only once in their lives, Flamma was offered it four times and each time refused, returning to fight another day to the wild acclaim of adoring crowds.
Flamma’s gladiatorial record is one of the longest and most distinguished we know about from the Roman records, spanning most of his adult lifetime. He made his professional gladiatorial debut at the age of 17 and went on to secure 21 victories in his 34 bouts. His fights ended in a tie only nine times, and after 13 years in the arena, he lost just four contests. The record of his success can be seen inscribed on his gravestone in Sicily where he is buried under the name, “Flamma of Syria”. Although the cause of death was not reported, one can only assume he died fighting.
We know about his record exclusively from his grave marker. Today, headstones are generally arranged by family, but for the professional gladiator markers created to commemorate their remains were commonly prepared by the deceased’s colleagues and friends, as Flamma’s gravestone indicates. Inscribed with the epitaph “ Flamma, secutor, lived 30 years, fought 34 times, won 21 times, fought to a draw 9 times, defeated 4 times a Syrian by nationality” the stone bears an additional engraving which reads, “Delicatus made this for his deserving comrade in arms”.
There is no record of a gladiator by the name of Delicatus, and the word’s only association with the Romans appears to refer to homosexual practices. A puer delicatus was a young male slave who was chosen by his master according to this looks and his potential as a sexual partner. The relationship between master and puer delicatus was very different from the consensual relationship of the Greek paiderasteia. A puer delicatus was subordinate to his master in every way and essentially a sex slave. In some instances, the master was so enamoured with his puer delicatus that he would have him castrated and potentially, even marry him. The notorious Roman Emperor Nero married a young man named Sporus, his puer delicatus, in one of his several same-sex marriages.
It’s hard to be certain, but given this reference, it is possible that Flamma had a young boy of his own who worshipped him and subsequently requested the honour of creating the gravestone.
A gladiator’s marker could be a testament to his life or an accusation after death, as it appears to be in the case of another gladiator that may have been a contemporary of Flamma. The grave of a fighter named Diodorus was discovered some 100 years ago in Turkey and is now on display at the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium. Born in Turkey, Diodorus fought there until his death but his headstone makes no reference to how many battles he won or lost. Instead, it reads: “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.”
Gravestones have revealed much about Flamma and his contemporaries, but the remains buried beneath them have told us much more. Researchers Grossschmidt and Dr. Fabian Kanz conducted a study of 67 skeletons discovered at Ephesus in Turkey. While learning much about these fighters’ diets, a variety of discoveries were made around the injuries that gladiators may have sustained, resulting in the conclusion that the combats they fought in may not have been quite as bloody and gory as was previously assumed. According to the pathologists, the lack of multiple injuries suggests that rather than engaging in a bloody free for all, the combatants fought under careful rules with referees ensuring the conflicts didn’t get out of control. It makes sense that in his 13-year career, Flamma would have sustained an injury or two and, without medical attention or the intervention of a match official probably would not have survived in the arena for so long.
In keeping with the concept that the battles between retiarius and secutor reenacted the battle between Neptune, the god of water, and Vulcan, the god of fire, several of the skeletons uncovered in Ephesus show clear signs of having been stabbed with a three-thronged weapon, similar to Neptune’s famous trident. According to Grossschmidt, "The bone injuries - those on the skulls for example - are not everyday ones; they are very, very unusual and particularly the injuries inflicted by a trident, are a particular indication that a typical gladiator's weapon was used.”
Additional evidence suggests that each bout was a one-on-one affair, with two gladiators facing each other with just one weapon each. It appears gladiators fought fairly and squarely for their triumphs and in the uncommon matches that were actually “to the death” - when they were literally fighting for their lives, they would be put out of their misery with a quick blow to the back of the head, delivered by an executioner who was hanging around in the wings for that very purpose. It was rare that one gladiator actually executed another.
Other insights into gladiators and how they fought and died can be gleaned from ancient graffiti found among the ruins of the ancient city of Aphrodisias, situated near the modern-day village of Geyre in Turkey. Looking at these scribbled images of gladiators in battle, the most striking thing is how many appear to depict a secatuer in combat with a retiarius. The three-pronged Trident is a recurring image through the drawings, indicating this particular type of gladiatorial battle was among the most popular.
According to Professor Angelos Chaniotis from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, “Graffiti are the products of instantaneous situations, often creatures of the night, scratched by people amused, excited, agitated, perhaps drunk. This is why they are so hard to interpret," he said. "But this is why they are so valuable. They are records of voices and feelings on stone." In addition to insights into the arena and its contestants, the graffiti also show scenes of day-to-day life, including chariot racing and of course, sex.
As historians and researchers piece together these fragile fragments of an ancient civilization, they begin to reveal increasingly precise information about who the gladiators really were and what their lives were like both inside and outside the arena. One thing that is certain, is that these ancient warriors were very different than how they have been portrayed by the T.V. and film industry.
Gladiators heroes like Flamma were courageous, violent men who were dedicated to their training and spent their short lives perfecting their techniques for the gratification of the audience, and for furthering fame and fortune. Their survival was perfecting their fighting prowess, and Flamma would have been as careful about his diet and lifestyle as any of today’s top athletes and soldiers. Risking probable injury, disfigurement, and death repeatedly and by his own choice, Flamma was the real gladiator, a warrior for the ages.
Mark Rodger and Steven Lazaroff live in Canada.