Imagine being thrown into an arena , having lost all hope and family.
You’ve been enslaved and used as a play toy for the spectators of a conquering nation.
They call you gladiators.
Why though? What larger purpose do you serve?
A Mirocosm of Roman society
Gladiators were a fearsome spectacle. Surrounded by cheering crowds of violence-hungry Romans. All came together to watch sports entertainment at the local arena.
In the arena there were a variety of characters: murmillones (fish fighters) , hoplomachi (armed fighters), venatores (hunters), provocatores (provokers), and equites (horsemen).
Even exotic animals got into the mix.
The animals used in deadly arena combat along with the variety of people and ethnicity,were symbols of the extent of Rome’s dominance in territory.
Originally these arena battles were used to commemorate death, called munera. Yet, gradually, they began to be utilized for political gain and favor amidst the greater population.
Well, they helped in keeping the peace.
Arena sports helped maintain the civility of Roman citizens in their day-to-day lives, says Christopher Epplett in his book, Gladiators: Deadly Arena Sports of Ancient Rome.
The violence depicted in arena sports, Epplett says, were used as a release for the inner violence of Roman citizens. By allowing a level of violence ABOVE that which was tolerated in every-day society, the Roman arena allowed the quenching of thirst of people’s inner beast.
On that note, think of the modern day popularity of mixed martial arts. To those not “into-it” it seems very violent. Incredibly so.
Yet it might be as a result of the quenching people’s blood thirst in the modern world of sedentary overload.
ALL THE PREVIOUS FIGHTING HAS BEEN MERCIFUL BY COMPARISON.
Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder.
The combatants have no protective covering; their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. No blow falls in vain.
This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests, and even those which are put on by popular request.
And its obvious why.
There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade.
Why have armour?
Why bother with skill?
All that just delays death.
In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves.
No sooner has a man killed, then they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed.
The final victor is kept for some other slaughter.
In the end, every fighter dies.
And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.
— SENECA, Roman senators and philosopher, on death in the arena. Used as back sleeve of Christopher Epplett’s Gladiators: Deadly Arena Sports of Ancient Rome
The Gladiator as an Athlete
The gladiator was an idealized example of courage in the face of death.
He was faced off against the variety of animals and foreign slaves who had been captured, showing the extent of the Roman empirical reign. All brought back right at home for the reliving of every local citizen.
Sounds like a movie doesn’t it?
It was like ecstasy to the onlooker:
The fourth-century Christian saint, Augustine (354 – 450 C.E.) writes of his long-time friend, the Algerian bishop, Alypius’ one-chance viewing of a gladiatorial munera.
The man had no intention of enjoying something so barbaric but, being dragged by his other friends, was entranced by the ‘seductive violence’ on the arena floor:
For soon as he saw the blood, he at the very instant drunk down a kind of savageness; nor did he turn away his head, but fixed his eye upon it, drinking up unawares the very Furies themselves….Nor was he now the man he was when he first came thither, but become one of the throng he came unto; yea, an entire companion of theirs that brought him thither.
He eventually was able to escape the addiction. However, it goes to show how addictive the arena was to the average person.
Even someone not interested in arena sports, and holding a dignified status as a bishop, couldn’t help but fall for the allure of the gladiator fight.
Now remember, as a gladiator: you’ve been enslaved and selected as a piece of cattle to go and train at a gladiator school. Without even a look at WHAT mode of combat you might be good at, you’re given your specialization, arbitrarily.
You have no choice in this matter.
In fact, through the rigorous training and abhorrent food that you’ll be given for the next several years, you’ll be molded to fight.
And how exactly are you going to train?
Like the Greeks.
And you’re going to use the best they could offer. In fact, you’re going to use a methodology that is still used today to train athletes of all calibers: PERIODIZATION.
The Tetrad System of Periodization
If you’ve followed along on this blog, you have an idea for what periodization is. Its going through specific phases in training that have certain specializations.
Each phase has a skill that is cycled through with the intention that each phase will compound in benefit with the other. The gladiators and their strength and conditioning coaches, the doctore, had a system for maximizing their athlete’s training.
It was called, the Tetrad:
“By the tetrad system we mean a cycle of four days, each one of which is devoted to a different activity. The first day prepares the athlete; the second is an all-out trial; the third is relaxation; and the fourth is a medium-hard workout. Regarding exercise of the first day, it is made up of short, intense movements which stir up the athlete and prepare him for the hard workout to follow on the next day. This strenuous day is an all-out test of his potential. The third day employs his energy in a moderate way, while on the day of the medium workout or last day, the athlete himself practices breaking holds and preventing his opponent from breaking away.”—-PHILOSTRATUS (est. 172 – 250 C.E.) a Greek philosopher writing in Concerning Gymnastics
In these cycles of training, gladiators would go through various forms of armed combat. However, instead of using real swords and shields, they used weighted ones made of wood.
These were several times heavier than the weapons used in the actual arena and with good reason.
Much like how Roman legionnaires would train with heavier weapons to induce what’s called, post-activation potentiation, our gladiators would train rigorously with heavier tools in order to be quicker and be able to exert greater force with their actual weapons.
And the fighting would not just be man-to-man.
The doctore would instruct their gladiators to also practice against large wooden posts.
These were another staple in both army and gladiator training was the post exercise. Now, the average fitness person may think of post exercise as the same as post-exercise cool-down or post-exercise meal.
The gladiators employed both of these methods BUT the actual post exercise something different.
Again, using heavier swords and shields than normal, gladiators would spend time practicing on a large wooden post, perfecting their strikes on a stationary object and then transition to sparring.
All of this was with final preparation for competition against a real person or animal, using real weapons.
You can see a clear step-wise progression here:
1. keep target stationary while using weighted equipment to build speed and force.
2. maintain weighted equipment use while making target mobile and multi-variable in movement
3. competition: decrease weight of equipment while increasing danger of weapon, as well as increasing environmental stress by competing in a crowd of rowdy, bloodthirsty spectators and possibly several combatants, along with animals who could very well tear you limb from limb with a bite or strike.
At the same time, gladiators would also go through a variety of weaponless combat, including wrestling. They also practiced a wide variety of general fitness to increase size, speed, agility, endurance, and strength, from running, swimming, lifting halteraes (almost like dumbbells), sandbags, calisthenics, hanging off of ledges for grip training, rope climbing, and running obstacle courses.
Galen’s experience as a Sports Dietitian before becoming a legendary physician
A lot of gladiator culture and gladiators not only impacted society through preserving social peace but also gave a very special physician of ancient times the know-how of medicine.
Galen (130 – 210 C.E.) was a young physician in the first century C.E. from Pergamon (located in modern day Turkey) and had just returned from travels in Smyrna and Alexandria, looking back home and assigned as a gladiators physician.
Galen described the diet of gladiators as mostly consisting of barley and beans of varying varieties.
You had soups, porridge, and even pancakes. All of these were made of ‘delicious’ barley.
However, Galen observed that much of the food utilized was not conducive to making better fighting men out of the gladiators.
In fact, he criticized how the barley and beans made the flesh of gladiators ‘flabby’.
Recording these observations, he would create a dietetics literary work called Properties of Food, which would be used in future dietetics research.
Now it wasn’t so that ALL gladiator schools or ludi, fed pure barley. This was the common theme, although some schools provided meat as well.
Those schools that did provide meat as part of the diets of gladiators used the very animals that were hunted in the arenas.
These animals would have been luxurious creatures such as ostriches or elephants as buying additional meat would have been very expensive.
Ultimately, much of Galen’s early essays on dissection, anatomy, diet, and prescriptive exercise came from his early experiences in the gladiator school in Pergamon.
The Legacy of the Gladiator?
These gladiatorial games had a wide-reaching impact whether they were direct or indirect.
They gave a young physician named Galen the experience to see real human anatomy and how it healed itself from the violent wounds of all sorts of arena competitors. The diets of the gladiators gave Galen the opportunity to see how food impacted flesh.
Moreover, it is from these initial experiences that compounded through Galen’s interests, helped him formulate the means of ancient medicine.
Moreover, by going on this exercise of going back in time and looking forward, we can learn the impact of violent arena sports in helping to keep the peace.
We can see how this was done in the same way that capital punishment was used to deter people from violent acts.
Through showing a level of violence not tolerated by society, citizens were able to release their inner turmoil through a vicarious experience of watching slave-men battle against each other and ferocious animals from across the Roman Empire.
In fact, we can see that even those that didn’t feel a sense of restlessness through violence find the fights of the arena deliriously captivating. Even the Bishop, Alypius couldn’t help himself.
It makes you wonder and draw connections with what causes could exist for the continued popularity of intense fighting matches, like those in mixed martial arts to this day.
What do you think this says about our modern society?
From Olympia to Atlanta: A Cultural-Historical Perspective on Diet and Athletic Training Grivetti and Applegate (1997) The Journal of Nutrition
Galen and the Gladiators by John Scarborough
The Renaissance Man Journal The Real Gladiator Workout: Train Like A Gladiator