Roman Gladiator Types

Everyone knows two things about Rome: the Roman Legion, and the Roman gladiator. But most of what people “know” about gladiators is incorrect and inaccurate.


Gladiator types: Retiarius, Murmillo, Thraex, Samnis, Secutor, and another Samnis with Summa Rudis

The idea of gladiatorial fights began as a funerary ritual. When prominent high-class Romans died, it was considered to be an honor to have a blood sacrifice, and slaves were pitted against each other to fight to the death as a way of honoring the deceased.

Over time, this custom ended, and gladiatorial combat became more like a sport, with exhibitions in the Roman arenas that were paid for by aristocrats, especially by politicians who were running for office (the person who sponsored the show was known as the “editor”). Slaves who were selected as gladiators were trained in a school called a “ludus” (by a coach called a “lanister”). Lower-class Romans sometimes voluntarily joined the ludus to win fame and fortune. The combats became regulated, with a well-established set of rules for each match that were enforced by a referee called a “summa rudis”, who used a wooden staff to separate opponents when necessary.

Contrary to the depictions in Hollywood movies, gladiators did not fight to the death. They were more like today’s heavyweight boxing champions—spending most of their time training, and fighting perhaps two or three bouts a year. When one of the opponents won an advantage in a match, the loser would raise a finger, which ended the fight. Since training gladiators was a long and expensive process, this is usually as far as it went. Most of the time, it was only if the loser had demonstrated cowardice or lack of skill, or if he had in some other way displeased the crowd, that he would be ceremonially killed by a sword thrust to the base of the throat. Although each gladiatorial show would usually have at least one match that resulted in a death (it was, after all, what the crowd wanted to see, and it was considered to be a sign of generosity for the show’s sponsor—who had to pay the ludus the value of the dead gladiator—to sacrifice such an expense in order to please the crowd), the vast majority of gladiatorial bouts, perhaps 85-90 percent, ended with both opponents walking away.

There was always some variation in armor and weapons, but gladiator armor was usually designed to protect some areas while leaving others intentionally exposed, which both insured that the bouts would continue without being ended by some minor injury, and also helped to balance out the strength and weaknesses of the different types of armor. Each type was usually modeled on some actual opponent that the Roman Legions had faced during their conquests. The manica was armor for the arm, and the ocrea (the equivalent of the Greek greave) protected the leg. These were sometimes made of metal and sometimes of hardened leather. Matches were most often made between a slow-moving heavily-armored class of gladiator and a fast-moving un-armored class, or between a long-range weapon and a short-range—this clash of different strategies and tactics was considered to be interesting and entertaining by the Romans. Some types of gladiator only fought against each other, and in this case the evenly-matched armor and weapons meant that it was solely the skill of the combatants which determined the winner.

Some of the gladiator classes that we know of include:

Samnis:  One of the oldest type of gladiator, the Samnis were based on the Italian Samnite tribe that had been conquered by Rome in the 3rd century BCE. They carried the same scutum shield and gladius short sword that was used by the Roman Legionaries. They had one manica and one ocrea, and a wide-rimmed helmet with a grille over the eyeholes, known as a galea. This class lasted a long time, and is usually what we picture when we hear the word “gladiator”. In later times, when the Samnite tribe became Roman allies, the name became politically unsuitable for gladiators, and it evolved into several new variants.

Murmillo: Similar to the Samnis, and carried the gladius, scutum, manica and ocrea. They represented mythical fish-men, with their silver helmet and mail manica representing fish scales—the galea helmet had a tall crest representing the dorsal fin of a fish. They were most often paired against the Retiarius net-man.

Hoplomachus: Another derivative of the Samnis, the Hoplomachus was modeled on an idealized version of the ancient Greek Hoplite. They had manica and crested galea helmet, but carried a throwing spear and pugio dagger in addition to a gladius, and had two ocrea leg greaves to make up for their small round shield, which could also be used as a battering weapon. His long spear would most often be paired against the Thraex or Murmillo with their short sword.

Thraex: This class was based on the Thracian tribes, in modern-day Bulgaria, that were conquered by Rome. Their helmet and armor were similar to the Samnis, but the shield, known as a parmula, was smaller and reinforced with metal. The distinguishing characteristic of the Thraex was the curved sword, known as a sica, which could be used to reach around an opponent’s shield. They were most often matched with a similar heavy opponent like the Murmillo or Hoplomachus.

Secutor: The name means “pursuer”, but the Secutor was not light on his feet. He wore a manica and carried the heavy scutum (and therefore lacked leg armor), and was armed with the gladius. To set him at an even level with the light and agile Retiarius, against whom he was almost always matched, the Secutor had a heavy helmet with just two small eyeholes that severely restricted his vision, but in compensation the helmet was specifically designed with smooth curves that would help avoid entanglement in the Retiarius’s net.

Retiarius: Today, the Retiarius is one of the most immediately-recognized of the gladiator classes. Since the Retiarius lacked a helmet, his exposed face was also recognizable to the Roman crowd, and successful “net-men” often had large fan followings like today’s sports superstars. The Retiarius was only sparsely-armored, with a manica and a small curved shield called a galerus that was strapped to his shoulder. In one hand, he carried a weighted fishing net, and in the other a trident, known as the fuscina. The “net-man” was nearly always paired against a Murmillo “fish-man” or the Secutor “pursuer”, but they were also sometimes matched against each other.

Provocator: Yet another later derivative of the Samnis type. Originally, they were equipped much like a typical Samnis, with gladius, manica, ocrea, galea, and scutum. Later, they were fitted with a small metal breastplate called a cardiophylax, which protected the chest but left the abdomen vulnerable. However, other than the Crupellarius, the Provocators were the most heavily-armored of the gladiators. Provocators seem to have most often been matched against each other.

Crupellarius: A rare type, not often seen, the Crupellarius was the super-heavyweight of the gladiators. Based on the Gaulic rebels of the Aeduian Revolt, he wore a full set of segmentata armor, the same as the Legionaries, ocrea on each leg, a heavy scutum, and a cylindrical helmet like a bucket that covered the entire head. Only the hands and the feet were unarmored. To get through this massive armor, however, they had only a gladius. The Crupellarius was most often matched against each other, in a close-quarters slugfest.

Laquearius: Another rare class, somewhat like a Retiarius but probably based on a  tribe that the Romans encountered among the Gauls. The Laquearius had no helmet and no armor, and were armed with a gladius or trident and a length of rope like a lasso. Fast and light, they were usually matched with heavy and slow opponents like Hoplomachus, Thraex, or Secutor, who they tried to entangle with their rope.

Essedarius: These gladiators were specialists who fought with spears from a chariot, which was driven by a slave. They were apparently first introduced by Julius Caesar, using charioteers captured in Gaul. Lacking armor except for a helmet, they also sometimes fought with bows, and they carried a gladius for use if they were dismounted. They were almost always matched against each other, but would also sometimes fight against a small group of lightly-armored spearmen known as a Velitus. Since training a charioteer was expensive, the Essedarius would have been a very rare spectacle.

Dimachareus: This was a very specialized type of gladiator who had two manica, two ocrea, and a helmet, but had no shield. Instead they fought with two swords, often with two curved Thracian sica and sometimes with a gladius in one hand and a sica in the other. They were most often matched against each other, though they were also sometimes paired against a shield-bearing Samnis or Hoplomachus. Because of the high level of training necessary to fight well with two swords, they seem to have been very rare.

Gladiatrix: Female gladiators were unusual, but they existed. They were mostly just a rare novelty, however, and were typically presented as mythical Amazon warriors.  When the British queen Boudicca led a rebellion against Rome and defeated several Roman armies, however, the Romans were both repelled and fascinated, and for a time female gladiators became quite the fad in the arena. As with modern audiences, ancient Romans found the combination of sex and violence to be immensely entertaining: the Roman writer Juvenal describes one gladiatrix as having “spear in hand and breasts exposed”, while a bronze statue may depict a nearly-nude female gladiator with what appears be a curved Thracian sica sword.


4 thoughts on “Roman Gladiator Types”

  1. Decades ago (pre-internet) I happened across a reference somewhere to the use of fake blood and gore, in some matches, at some stage of Roman history. Supposedly a pig bladder containing blood and offal was strategically worn under torso armor or garment so as to split or burst on cut or impact — but reading here the details of different armors, I have trouble imagining how that might convincingly work in practice.

    Doing just a cursory check now, years later, doesn’t turn up any corroboration. Ever hear of this?

  2. One can only wonder what Romans would have made of modern gladiatorial sports like boxing and so on. Would probably shake their heads before switching to motor racing. Or going to check whether “Gladiator” is showing on Netflix… 🙂

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