Gladiatorial competitions and other events held during the munera played a major role in Roman culture (Wiedemann 1,2). Although gladiatorial shows and wild-beast hunts were first performed as part in a funeral by senatorial houses in the Republic, Roman emperors would later use these events to celebrate military successes, the completion and opening of a new building in Rome, important dynastic moments, and even to mark the end of construction. Finally, gladiators became a common feature of ludis that Roman magistrates staged (Edmondson, 9). The events were meant to show how powerful Rome was. They also served as a symbol that Rome controlled the Mediterranean. Slavery and low social status people were used to create this symbolism. Gladiators were mostly slaves that were sent as punishment to a lanista, who then defeated enemy prisoners and criminals and sentenced them (Wiedemann 102). Free-born men were very rarely willing to become gladiators, since they had to surrender their rights and status in exchange for various punishments and training. Senators, who were often considered lower-class, would also practice being gladiators. In the Imperial era, many members of Rome’s elite chose to become gladiators to demonstrate their virtuosity. This was done mostly privately, but at times in public. Even though the state made laws to prevent free men and elites in the arena from competing, there still were several examples of these gladiators.
The elite Romans could have had many reasons for choosing to be gladiators and wild beast hunters. All reasons are based around the idea of courage or virtue. Livy writes that Scipio, when he returned to Carthage for funeral games, did so “to show the courage and naturalness of their people”…Others accepted challenges and were encouraged to do so by the spirit of emulation. Scipio organized funeral games where men participated to demonstrate their courage, and to achieve victory. This is another reason that elite Romans became gladiators. Gladiators entered the arena with a risk of death (Wiedemann 35). A gladiator would not be punished if he lost the fight, but demonstrated courage and skills during it (Wiedemann 34). Military personnel were often considered to possess virtus (Wiedemann, 36). Rome’s military culture made it important to demonstrate virtus, especially among the Roman elite. Roman soldiers were expected to have courage and skills in hand-tohand combat (Wiedemann, 36). Gladiator’s also had to possess these traits in order to demonstrate their virtus. Roman elites would often demonstrate their skills at public events to show how courageous they were in battle (Edmondson 26). Gladiatorial performances were a popular choice for elites. The elite would have the opportunity to display their military prowess. It is important to remember that not all gladiators were “professionals” (Wiedemann 111). It was not uncommon for Roman elites to train under lanistas to become better fighters before taking command of the Roman Army (Wiedemann 101).
The desire to obtain a new identity was one of the reasons some Roman elites chose to pursue life in the arena. Some Romans elite chose life in the Arena to acquire a new image (Wiedemann 111). Commodus was the best example. Dio says of Commodus that he was “the Golden One”, “Hercules,” the “god “…” As for wild animals, however, Commodus killed them in both private and public. He used to be a gladiator. “As for the club and lionskin, they were carried in front of him on the street” (Dio, 73). 16-17). Commodus was a fan of gladiatorial shows and the hunts for wild animals. He wanted to be just like Hercules. He used the lionskin and the club to represent Hercules and renamed September as “Hercules”. (Lampridius, 12.1). Wiedemann states that “Commodus, like Hercules wanted to do divinity on earth so as to obtain a place in the gods”. Commodus participated in gladiatorial fighting and wild animal hunting to achieve a new godly identity. The desire to become a better person and the idea of virtus were reasons for elite Romans to participate in spectacles. Not all Roman elites performed in the arena.
As mentioned earlier, gladiators were the lowest in the hierarchy of social statuses during ancient Rome. The Romans’ status distinction was undermined by those who wanted to be gladiators (Wiedemann 102). Roman elites were the greatest threat when they appeared in the Arena as a rival, and this is why some competed at home (Wiedemann 131). Gladiatorial training and combat were popular pastimes for many Roman elite (Wiedemann 100). They were “properly” expected to be able to use the skills they learned from training and competing in their homes (Wiedemann 111). Roman elites avoided infamia by practicing and participating privately. There are instances where Roman elites performed in public. Nero was one of the Roman rulers who forced elite Romans to compete (Suetonius 12). “He did not kill anyone, not even criminals, at one of his gladiatorial matches.” As fighters, he had 400 senators and 6 hundred Romans knights on display, including some well-known, wealthy men. “Even the equestrian and senatorial orders provided the assistants who fought in the arena and the wild beasts” (Suetonius p. 12). Nero’s senators were not the only Roman elites that competed in arenas. Commodus competed publicly and privately, according to Dio 72.10. Dio says, “Commodus spent most of his time on horses and ease. He also fought wild beasts as well as men.” Even though he killed a lot of people and beasts publicly, he also did it in private (Dio 72.11). Commodus was so eager to be a gladiator, he performed in front of the public. Nero as well as Commodus violated Roman morality by lowering themselves or others’ status in order to participate in the Roman Arena. However there were laws that prevented the Roman elites, including Nero himself, from participating in the Roman Arena.
Edmondson says that many Roman emperors tried to maintain the class and social distinctions in the Roman state. Romans who were of high social status, but competed on the arena stage as gladiators, or hunted wild beasts, disgraced both themselves and their elite status (Tacitus, 15.32). To prevent the appearance of high-ranking Roman officials in the arena, laws were passed (Edmondson 24,). The famous decree issued by the senate during the Imperial Period in AD 19 is one of the most well-known examples. It says that “no senator’s son, daughters, grandchildren, granddaughters, greatgrandsons, greatgranddaughters, or any man…should be brought onto the stage by anyone, or be asked to pay a fee in order to compete in the arena.” (SC AD 19, p. 1). The Emperor was required to keep “good order” by passing rules governing the gladiatorial games (Wiedemann 130). The social order as well as high-ranking officials can be protected by prohibiting Roman Elite and their relatives from competing in Gladiatorial spectacles (Edmondson 24,). The Roman elite were not required to pay to fight on the arena. The Roman elite was not prohibited from participating in gladiatorial fights or hunting wild animals to display their virtus. This idea of not being allowed to compete for money can also be seen in an earlier senate decision from AD 11. The consuls ManiusLepidus, and Titus Statilius Taurus made the motion to prohibit “any free-born woman under the age of twenty or any free-born man below the age twenty-five” from entering the arena or hiring out their services (SC AD 19). There were many laws in place that were intended to discourage free-born citizens from participating in arena competitions. However, they were unable to stop it. The imperial officials were most likely to violate the law against competition (Wiedemann 102). Nero as well Commodus both show this. Tacitus described Nero’s “ever-increasing desire to appear on a regular basis in public” (Tacitus 15,32). Commodus on the other had a regular public appearance and fought gladiator-style in front of spectators (Lampridius 14,8). The fact that emperors were allowed to compete on the arena and that multiple laws had to be introduced in order for elites not to do so suggests that these laws were working (Edmondson 24). The senate had no success in preventing the Roman elites to compete in the Arena and so failed to maintain Rome’s social hierarchy.
During Imperial times, certain members of the Roman Elite wanted to be gladiators, or hunt wild beasts to display their virtus. This was done both in public and privately, by breaking the laws that were put into place to stop the competition between the Roman Elite. Roman elites wanted to prove their skill and courage in combat, both on- and off-the-battlefield. Commodus became Hercules. Some performed in public, while others did so in order not to disrupt the Roman social hierarchy. It is important to note that despite the many sources that exist that describe elite Roman competition, this was a rare occurrence. This is because it’s rare (Wiedemann 102). The fact that Roman elites were gladiators in the arena does not change the fact that in ancient Roman culture, status was very important and few people would suffer infamia.