Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Beyond the Baths: Part II – Blood, Threat and Cheers

In the last blog, we looked at the basics of the Roman gladiator and gladiatorial contests; in this second part we'll explore the position of the gladiator in Roman society and how they were viewed by those around them.

The gladiator held a very contradictory position within ancient Roman society. While he could win fame and fortune and become a sort of celebrity, he was also forever an outcast – these people were known as the 'infames' of society, a label and status assigned to most performers who were paid for their acts.

Such stigma did not necessarily entail shame though: there is plenty of evidence from tombstones that shows gladiators declared their profession proudly. They seem to have been something of an enigma even to the Romans, who were fascinated by them, and believed the blood of a gladiator could be used as a remedy against impotence!

'Healing blood' sounds like something we might associate with the divine, so perhaps their heroic status was more powerful than their 'infamia'. This would go some way to explaining the decoration on fragments of Samian ware which we hold here at The Roman Baths. On one fragment gladiators are thought to appear alongside Hercules, a very well-known hero of the ancient world.