Roman Gladiator Games: the Origins of MMA, Part Two

Jad SemaanSenior Analyst IJune 16, 2008

Continuing the series that I started last week on the history of MMA (part one can be found here:, this article will examine the gladiator games of the ancient Romans and their multi-faceted relationship to current MMA combat.


Part three will detail the resurgence of modern Pankration and cross-training styles through such figures as Bruce Lee, Aris Makris, and Jim Arvanitis. The fourth and final article traces the development of jiu-jitsu through its Japanese origins and its adoption by the Gracie family, which eventually lead to Vale Tudo matches in Brazil and then MMA as we now recognize it.



Historical Origins

In Latin, gladius means “sword,” while gladiatores means “swordsman,” which can also be translated as “one who uses a sword.”  Historically, it is theorized that the Romans may have adopted gladiatorial fights from the Etruscans, or that the tribes of southern Italy and/or the Greeks might have held gladiatorial games at funerals to commemorate the deaths of famous, wealthy citizens.


Within Rome, the first gladiatorial combats are recorded as happening in 264 B.C. Prior to this time, it was common for aristocrats to sacrifice prisoners on the graves of heroic warriors. The practice of having pairs of slaves fight to the death at funerals replaced the more primitive method of direct human sacrifice as homage to fallen soldiers.


Aristocrats would spend a lot of money in setting up private gladiatorial contests to entreat guests and pay tribute to their family members. Eventually, these games evolved from funeral rites into fully-fledged public performances for the sake of entertainment on behalf of the Roman emperor (though private games were still occasionally held by wealthy patrons).


After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., the emergence of gladiatorial combat as a public spectacle initiated by the state and the Emperor to appease his subjects really took off (the Roman way of maintaining approval ratings). The games provided the backdrop through which the government could keep the public in check (by giving them what they wanted) and diminish the possibility of revolt and dissent.


Gladiators and the Arena

Combatants would fight in amphitheatres that were filled with sand (to soak up blood) and could seat thousands of spectators, with the most famous one being the Colosseum in the city of Rome itself. This arena had a capacity of 50,000. Ticket scalpers were common, and often enjoyed a considerable return on their investment.


Gladiators usually were slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals, though there were some volunteers who fought in the games. They would train in specific gladiator schools and receive monetary awards for their tribulations. The average gladiator would fight three times a year, and could eventually earn his freedom if he displayed great courage and achieved several victories. They received excellent medical attention and tended to live longer than the average Roman subject.


Gladiators would eat a healthy vegetarian diet, and historical evidence has shown that many were overweight and purposely cultivated layers of fat in order to protect their vital organs from lethal strikes and bleeding. Sometimes, gladiators would end up training Roman legionary soldiers if resources and personnel were scarce. The fights of left-handed gladiators were always main events, and southpaws enjoyed a combat advantage over their more orthodox opponents (similar to lefties in modern sports).


Historians believe that only ten percent of gladiators died in combat. Female gladiators also existed, and several Roman emperors competed in the games themselves. Gladiators were very proud of their ethnic heritage, and the most successful of them would get a headstone after they died, with their place of origin inscribed upon it (there were gladiatorial schools and competitions across much of the Roman Empire, and many combatants traveled a long distance to compete).


Gladiators were divided into two types: heavier armored fighters with better weaponry (including a more-restricted field of vision) and quicker, lighter armed variants. Each type of gladiator faced a specific kind of opponent, and contests were evenly-matched for the most part. Gladiators were owned by a person called a lanista (an ancient version of a promoter) who made a profit by having his warriors fight, and received compensation when one of them died.


Combat Rules and Regulations

There were several kinds of combats inside the arenas: paired gladiator fights, animal vs. animal or hunter, and even naval battles (where the amphitheatre was flooded and ships were brought in for mock skirmishes). Gladiator combats were the main event, and were held in the late afternoon or evening.


A referee with a staff would be present to restrain the victor if their opponent gave up. An average bout would last ten to fifteen minutes, and some fights were advertised as being to the death. These fights would go on until either warrior perished. A gladiator could signal defeat at any time by raising his finger.


Contrary to popular opinion, gladiator combats were not as brutal or savage as they are depicted in movies and television. Gladiators were instructed to inflict non-lethal wounds, though accidents would still happen. Combat was often choreographed, as the gladiators strived to put on a show for all the fans in attendance.


Certain rituals were observed, such as when a gladiator was wounded or knocked down. When this happened, the referee inspected him, and the crowd would chime in with their opinion of the warrior. The sponsor of the games would then decide whether or not the fight would continue. If the gladiator was seriously hurt but still alive, then he would be taken outside the arena and given a merciful death via a hammer to the forehead.


If the signal from the sponsor was that the gladiator was to be killed in the arena, then the victor would grab the head of his opponent and drive his sword through the neck. Brave gladiators did not ask for mercy or cry out when killed. Often times, the fight would end in a draw, and occasionally both warriors would be declared the victor at the same time.


All manner of weapons found employment, depending on the specific type of gladiator and his opponent. Chariots were also used for some matches. Those who fought against animals were not traditional gladiators, but venatores (hunters). These combatants would square off against all kinds of rare and exotic beasts, including tigers, lions, hippos, elephants, bears, lynxes, ostriches, giraffes, and others.


Social Perception and Historical Decline

Since most gladiators were slaves or criminals, they were already one of the baser classes of society. A Gladiator was perceived at worst as a social disgrace; at best a heroic celebrity; and usually somewhere in-between. They had tattoos branded on their head, hands, and feet to distinguish their lowered status. Many aristocrats did not attend the games for fear of tarnishing their reputation.


Gladiators often had a loyal following of female admirers, though they were legally unable to pursue any relations with citizen women. A heavy advertising campaign was planned by the organizer of the games, and gladiators would endorse certain products. Brochures were handed out that profiled the warriors and their achievements. The gladiators were publicly paraded in the streets preceding an event, and banquets were held in their favor.


These facts suggest that the games were very popular amongst common citizens. Emperors and aristocrats held varied opinions on gladiatorial combat, but they all recognized the potential of the games in satiating the appetites of the masses and keeping them content (while taking their focus away from the very corrupt Roman government).


Maintaining gladiatorial games was expensive, and the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire dampened their popularity (Christians objected to the immorality of murder and the games’ negative effects on the audience, not to the actual bloodshed). Economic hardship and barbarian invasions also reduced the frequency of games being held. Gladiator contests were banned in 399 A.D., nearly two-thirds of a millennium after they first appeared in Rome.


Gladiator Games and Modern MMA

Ancient gladiator combats were advertised as type vs. type (e.g. the Secutor with a sword and shield vs. the Retiarius armed with a trident and a net). The early UFC events were promoted in a similar vein, with hand-to-hand styles competing for supremacy as the best martial art for unarmed combat. Both were displayed as a spectacle, as an extravaganza for entertainment purposes.


Now, after the addition of rules and sanctioning, the sport of MMA is finally beginning to be viewed as a legitimate athletic competition in its own right. Combatants are highly-trained, versatile athletes who, amongst other reasons, compete for recognition as the best in their weight class. Many of fighters have publicly described themselves as modern gladiators.


MMA’s link to the Roman gladiator games may never be erased. In the introductory sequence to UFC pay-per-views, a gladiator putting on armor and preparing for battle is shown, with epic music and a choir in the background. The roots of MMA as a spectacle for the fans (and a business for the promoters, similar to the ancient games) can be seen in the production values of many current events, especially the Japanese promotions.


MMA is a fully-fledged sport right now, but since it is promotion-based, it will always contain a strain of theatricality and showmanship that was integral to the gladiatorial games of antiquity. All the drama and intensity of the ancient games remain intact, albeit in a more-refined and elegant manner  The Colosseum is now disused, but it has been replaced by the Octagon.


Stay tuned for part three in this series which will outline the rebirth of modern Pankration, with an emphasis on key individuals including the legendary Bruce Lee.