Gladiators: ceremony? or show?

Not long ago, a correspondent relates, she attended a degree ceremony at one of our most revered universities.  It was in a theatre, and the audience sat waiting, to the sound of piped music. At the planned time the music died away; there was silence; then the Vice-Chancellor walked on to the stage in the splendour of his academic dress, stood in the centre, raised his arms high and exclaimed, “I’m here!”

It was the beginning of a ceremony that was conducted in the style of a television show, with the Vice-Chancellor as presenter. At several points, he stopped and posed with those graduands who wanted to take selfies.

A similar process, over the years, attended the Roman gladiatorial ceremony—the munus. The word means both gift and duty: and the shedding of the gladiators’ blood was a gift to the gods of the underworld and a duty to the shades of the departed. It was at its outset a religious ceremony—a ritual.

This ritual seems to have been already performed privately at some funerals in Rome by the middle of the third century BC, and some scholars have opined that it had Etruscan origins. But from something private, it developed into a public occasion, at which it was possible to display one’s wealth and gain popularity from the enthusiastic spectators. And so it took off, because it was big money for the people who provided the gladiators—trained and with extravagantly splendid armour and attire—and arranged a show enriched with the most opulent trappings and regalia; and then there were the beasts, some imported at great expense from the fringes of the empire.

The businesses seem to have centred on Campania, and Cicero talks at one point of there being 5,000 gladiators in Capua (Ad Atticum, VII.14).

By the end of the first century BC, to put on a public munus had become obligatory for anyone seeking, or holding, high public office.

For the spectators the opening rituals, and the prayers uttered by the priests, left no doubt of what was intended by the spectacle they were going to watch; but the ensuing beast fights and the gladiatorial duels, interspersed with the public execution of criminals, were to them pure entertainment.

In a recent discussion about the munera, it emerged that none of the students were aware of their religious nature— of which no mention is made in the Cambridge Latin Course’s description. So one student, who had been listening in silence, had a question:

“Are you saying that a gladiatorial show was originally meant to be something like a Requiem Mass?”

“Yes.”