Munera: The Blood Sports of Ancient Rome

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

All images via Wikimedia commons

Ancient Roman culture may be one of the most heavily replicated historical fantasies in Hollywood. From Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, to HBO’s short-lived, Rome, and STARZ Spartacus, Roman history, or at least, Hollywood’s version of Roman history, continues to fascinate people, long after the empire’s fall.

Rome, the epicenter of the world from 8th century B.C.E. to 5th century C.E., was a vast state that spanned continents. As Rome amassed more land and peoples, it also took on many of the customs of the cultures it now controlled. Sport was one of the many things that Romans appropriated from the lands it conquered and then made its own. Rome, over the course of its history from republic to empire, to its eventual fall, assimilated the fighting sports of Greece and Eturia, to name a few, to produce a hyper-violent rendition of boxing, wrestling, and the Pankration. And of course, famously, the Romans became obsessed with another type of fighting entertainment. One that made boxing and Pankration, the ‘heavy events’ of the ancient Olympics, look gentle or, at least, safer. The most beloved sport in Rome was the gladiator contest—a violent spectacle that was literally used as a means of the death penalty in their society. And one that would forever mark the Romans as barbarians by historians.

Describing the Romans as barbaric may seem apt, given their predilection for extreme violence and torture as a form of entertainment, but some of the ghastlier stories of Roman sadism appear to have been inflated by anti-Roman historians. Maligning Roman society, and paganism in general, after the fall of the Roman Empire was an effective propaganda tactic in the burgeoning Christian world. Early Christians had been targeted, along with numerous other minority groups, in the Roman Empire, and they suffered atrocities that were not easily forgotten. But between ancient historians (an interesting moniker) exaggerated claims of Roman sadism and the Hollywood’s sensational versions of semi-historical events, inaccuracies regarding Roman culture, and specifically Roman gladiator events, have become deeply entrenched in our cultural imagination.

Ancient Greek history is, in a way, easier to examine than many other early cultures because they were so invested in documenting every aspect of their society. Eturia had a cosmopolitan culture that greatly influenced the Roman Republic and later, the Roman Empire, but the Etruscans did not leave any written accounts of fighting sports or funeral games. Luckily, although the written word may have been destroyed, or may have never existed in the first place, the Etruscan fighting sports have been memorialized and documented in art. Vases and bronze artworks depict wrestling scenes, and tomb paintings include boxers.

Eturia did not compete in the Panhellenic Games, but, according to Jean-Paul Thuillier, Etruscan game expert, they had their own sporting culture that did not just mimic the sports of the larger Greek nation. In fact, Eturia’s fighting sports tremendously impacted Rome’s gaming culture. Boxing was a popular spectacle in Eturia and there is speculation among scholars that in their version of the pentathlon, both wrestling and boxing took place alongside running, jumping, and throwing the discus. Etruscan fighters, unlike their Greek counterparts, fought bare-fisted during their training and sparring. It was only in competition that they would wrap leather strips around their hands, sometimes braided into cords, making a more devastating type of glove.

The Romans may have been influenced by the cultures they conquered, but their attitude towards sports was distinctly different than that of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, sport was a way for citizens to demonstrate their athleticism, determination, and prowess. In its early days, sports were practiced and played by many Romans, especially running, wrestling, and boxing, but as Rome became a powerful Republic and then a superpower Empire, sports took on the form of entertainment, best left practiced by professionals. Professional fighters who entertained the elite and the masses, risked their health and their lives, but were relegated, ultimately, to the lowest rung of the social latter.

Roman Boxing, Wrestling, and Pankration

Roman’s preferred the munera, the blood sports, above all events in their games (ludi). Upper class Romans may have enjoyed practicing boxing as amateurs, but they would never debase themselves by participating in a sport in public. This tendency to leave sports, particularly the fighting events labeled “heavy,” to the professionals was also adopted in by upper class Greeks in the Hellenistic period. Boxing, known as pugilatus, was the most popular blood sport in Rome with the exception of gladiator contests. Boxing, like most sports in Rome, was the realm of the professional athlete, who existed, according to Kohne, both “legally and socially outside the ranks of Roman citizens.”

As I noted in the previous article on Ancient Greek fighting sports, the story of the caestus, the ancient boxing glove (although really more like hand-wraps than gloves) studded with metal spikes has been roundly debunked by most modern scholars as a revisionist attempt to paint the ancients as not just boorish, but at Caligula-level of inhuman (although, to be fair, Caligula is also one of those historical villains whose horrific exploits appear to be exaggerated by historians). Most scholars believe that depictions of metal spikes in art are actually fingers, and that the ‘knuckleduster’ that was previously believed to be added to the top of the knuckles to more effectively tear away flesh was actually gripped by the boxer inside his fist, functioning more like a roll of quarters than brass knuckles. The fact is that fighting in ancient times was bloody and injury was standard. Broken noses, smashed teeth, and cauliflower ears were the reality for fighters, which is probably why the Romans preferred to see professionals fight than to damage their own bodies.

Boxers in this period wore leather straps wrapped around their fingers, like their Greek counterparts. The wraps extended up their arms, allowing them to use their forearms as part of their defensive posture. The leather wraps assisted the fighters in landing particularly hard punches, but their ‘gloves’ did not provide the same type of defensive capabilities of a modern boxing glove. Instead, Roman boxers held their forearms vertically to cover their faces and the top of their head, or at a diagonal angle against straight punches to the face.

There were a number of guard methodologies that fighters could adopt as part of their boxing game. Some fighters stood with their lead hand extended, open palm, to shove in the face of their opponent, forcing the man to have to move to get off his strikes. Additionally, because their hands were essentially open and free, they could use the surface of their hands to parry or check a straight punch. This guard, with the lead hand open and outstretched, positioned the rear hand to quickly extend and land a blow. And straight punches were the typical modus operadi of fighters. Strikes were aimed at the head, with body shots not really considered that great of a blow. Another guard was based on the Sagittarius, the archer, where the fighter kept his rear hand back, as if drawing a bow, to more swiftly land a cross.

Roman boxers preferred straight punches to the chin or heavy downward strikes, like overhands, in order to strike the ear. Like the Greeks, Roman fights had no rounds, no weight classes, and no breaks, unless both fighters agreed to take one briefly and go back to fighting in a very short amount of time. Thus, Roman boxing strategy called for either knockout punches to the parts of the head that act as ‘off-buttons,’ or repeated strikes to the nose or eyes, the areas that caused the most pain and blood. Because fights could be ended in just one perfectly landed punch, Roman boxers chose their shots carefully and fought from a distance. Their fight stance was wide, more like a modern day MMA fighter than a traditional boxer, allowing them to use their footwork to move in and out of the pocket quickly. 

Ancient Greek philosophers may have loved wrestling, but to the Romans, the relative safety of wrestling, lucatio, was the most boring of the ancient ‘heavy events.’ However, the Romans adopted wrestling far before they took on the Pankration, which is surprising, given the Pankration’s bloodiness seems much more in-line with the Roman’s love of spectacle (Spectacula). Pankration fighters had to be the most versatile of the fighting sports athletes and typically, they were also the largest and the toughest. Like the Greeks, Pankration had no rules, beyond no eye-gouging and biting. The Spartans actually did allow both of these tactics, but since the Spartans never competed in international events because they would not risk losing to any non-Spartan, their eye-gouging and biting strategies remained legal only in their own country. Of course, rules did not preclude these maneuvers from including, and one Pankrationist of the period noted that getting bitten was standard once fighters hit the ground. Roman Pankration’s could strike on the ground and one of the favored attacks was to kick from a down position. Galen, a Greek philosopher in the Roman empire, jokingly awarded a donkey with a Pankration prize because the donkey excelled in kicking.

In their book, Gladiators and Caesars, Roman scholars Eckart Kohne and Cornelia Ewiglebe note that the Romans used primarily Greek terminology to describe their fighting sports, but that the reverse is true of gladiator events. This lexical distinction is interesting, because it reveals how Rome sought to mark the practices of other nation. Also, while historians, especially those operating in periods that are now in our own history and who sought to elevate Ancient Greek culture, cast the Romans as the only nation to enjoy extreme violence, the Greeks were not averse to watching and even relishing gladiatorial spectacles. It is common practice to think of the Greeks as noble thinkers, and the Romans as barbarians, but that is far too reductive. The fact is that people love violence, and the Romans merely perfected the showmanship of spectacle in the ancient world. And nowhere was spectacle more spectacular than in the gladiator contests in the Roman Coliseum.


It is unclear exactly what society originated gladiator contests—historians formerly believed it was Eturia, since the Etruscans greatly influenced Roman culture. But the earliest representation of gladiatorial combat comes from fourth-century B.C.E. frescoes of the Osco-Samnites tribe, who lived just south of what is now Naples, showing armed combatants facing off at funeral games. It was not until 264 B.C.E. that the first documented gladiator contest took place in Rome at the funeral games held in honor of aristocrat Brutus Pera. In 73 B.C.E., a prisoner of war forced to join a gladiator school named Spartacus led a rebellion with seventy other gladiators against the slave-owning oligarchy of Rome. Spartacus’s story continues to be retold in popular culture, and today’s STARZ network show provides a modern version of violent spectacle as entertainment.

In 55 B.C.E., Pompey the Great hosted an extravagant event that included gladiator contests and animal hunts in order to win over the plebeians and gain political popularity points. The crowd was not impressed and in fact, expressed pity for the animals in the show. Ten years later, his rival, Julius Caesar, presented an even more lavish version of Pompey’s efforts, staging a mock-battle scene with 1,000 infantrymen, 60 cavalrymen, and 40 elephants that charmed the Romans and brought Caesar great political success. 

It is helpful to think of gladiator contests as two types: as punishment and as sport. The idea of gladiator fighting as sport may seem like a stretch, but some gladiators, especially the well-trained ones with a fan-base, were not sent to the arena so that they would be killed, but rather, so that they could fight, just as boxers and Pankrationists did. But the other type, gladiator contests as punishment, were a different story. Those gladiators were typically murderers or men who committed arson or desecrated a temple. There were two sentences handed down: death by the sword (ad gladium) or by wild beasts (ad bestias). If a man were to survive either one of those sentences, he might be pardoned. If a condemned man did survive, which rarely happened in the ad bestias scenario, he may be able to continue his life as a gladiator, remaining at the school to do his duty to fight, and ideally kill, another criminal in the future.

Some gladiators may have been those who survived the ad gladium sentence, but the majority of gladiators in Rome were prisoners of war, recruited by their masters or gladiator trainers to fight. Gladiator contests were so popular in Rome that winning fighters could achieve great stardom and subsequent financial support. They may have been considered the dregs of society, but that did not stop some Roman citizens to volunteer to become gladiators and hopefully, attain fame and fortune. By second century B.C.E., Roman gladiators were highly trained weapons fighters who competed in public against another gladiator. Injuries were frequent and death was a possibility that all of the fighters were willing to endure.

Star gladiators were treated like gods by the Roman people. Many gladiators adopted pseudonyms, perhaps anticipating the 20th century professional wrestling conceit. One particular star gladiator, Hermes, was memorialized in a poem by epigrammatist Martial that revealed he was “both a gladiator and a trainer” skilled at not just one, but three different fighting styles. He dominated other fighters with the long spear, the trident, and with his own helmet. So great was Hermes that he “made a fortune for ticket scalpers.’ According to Nigel Crowther’s Sport in Ancient Times, the Roman Coliseum could seat 50,000 spectators, and while there were blocks of seats that were free, when a big name gladiator like Hermes was scheduled to appear, fans would pay scalpers in order to see their favorite.

Gladiators may have been gods to some portion of the Roman populace, but they were considered to be, legally and morally, part of the lowest social rung, classified alongside actors and male prostitutes as infamia (ill-repute). However, Cicero, an attorney and Stoic in 1st century B.C.E., believed that gladiator contests were “a noble and educational art,” where the combatants showed self-control and grace in the face of death. The Stoics may have admired the behavior of the gladiators themselves, but they reviewed the crowds with distain, for excitement and other strong emotions had no place in a disciplined mind. Later Roman philosophers condemned gladiator contests as crude and harmful to Roman morale.

Thus, it was a tremendous shock when, in the late 2nd century C.E., Roman Emperor Commodus greatly embarrassed aristocratic Romans by appearing as a gladiator in public events. Commodus not only did not care at all for the opinions of the gentry, he was also, by the latter part of his life, completely mad, dressing as Hercules and demanding that he be paid for his appearances in the Coliseum. Eventually Commodus was killed, not in the arena, but in his own home by his training partner, a wrestler named Narcissus.

A version of Commodus’s exploits was memorialized in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator, which is not known for its historical accuracy or authenticity, but certainly solidified the image of the gory gladiator contests in the Coliseum. The bloody spectacle that the film depicts may capture a version of the horror of the life of a gladiator, but it also glorifies it. The violence and the atrocities perpetrated in Rome, and enjoyed by the vast majority of the ancient world, is captured by the film, and we, as the audience, participate in that violence. Perhaps that was Scott’s intent—to simultaneously titillate and horrify the viewer so that we, like the Romans who sat in the Coliseum thousands of years ago, can get a charge out of the brutality we see before us. The reality of fighting sports, including gladiator contests, in Ancient Rome were violent enough—no historical embellishment is necessary. 


Check out these related stories:

The Bloody, Deadly, Heavy Fights of Ancient Greece

You Should Fly to Los Angeles to See This Ancient Statue of a Boxer. Seriously.