Since the opening of Ancient Worlds last autumn I have been doing some work to support colleagues in education who are using the new displays for teaching. I suggested some Greco-Roman objects for a session called ‘Dig Stories’. Debbie Doran in our education team chose some oil lamps for use in the session. One of the lamps is a Roman lamp showing two gladiators fighting. Last week I spent some time trying to identify which gladiators in particular they are. There is, it turns out, a bewildering variety of gladiators: secutor, thraex, samnite, murmillo, retiarius, even a gladiator woman or gladiatorix, to name but a few!
The list is bewildering but no doubt the Roman audience in the arena had a connoisseur’s appreciation of the different kinds of gladiator and his or her weaponry and equipment. I can imagine Roman schoolboys collecting sets of gladiator-themed cards or stickers in the same way that we used to collect cards or stickers showing footballers or dinosaurs in the 1970s and 1980s. There were always rare issues and buying the stickers from the local newsagents was ruinously expensive as I recall. Playtimes were mostly taken up by impromptu ‘swapsie’ sessions to try and collect the full set. I don’t know if they ever released a ‘Gladiators of the Ancient World’ set but I can just picture Roman schoolboys shouting “I’ll swap you my murmillo for a secutor but my gladiatrix is worth both!”
The heavy rounded helmet, shields, arm protectors and greaves used by the gladiators on our lamp seem to identify them as secutors. It’s interesting that the gladiators are mirror images of one another, which suggests the gladiator on the right is left-handed. The British Museum has a relief showing two women gladiators ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achilia’ (presumably their professional fighting names) who are also shown as mirror images of one another. This may be no more than artistic licence, however. There are certainly lots of representations of right-handed gladiators squaring off, with the shield and the sword held appropriately. It does raise the question of what evidence there is for left-handedness in the Ancient World. Was it simply beaten out of men who had to hold their shield and weapon in a certain way in order to maintain an effective military formation? A hoplite holding his shield on the right hand side just wouldn’t work would it?
You can find out more about the different kinds of gladiators from Susanna Shadrake’s The World of the Gladiator (2005) which features reconstruction drawings and photos of re-enactors equipped as the different kinds of fighters. It’s good to know that ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achilia’ were freed after thrilling the crowds.