To Be Or Not To Be?

The searing heat of the mid-day sun on July 1st and 2nd 2006 at Caerleon's Roman amphitheatre added to the drama and realism of the display given by Gladiator re-enactment group Ars Dimicandi. Their name literally means 'the art of combat' and the Italian athletes gave a fine performance for the large crowds seated around the ancient arena.

Ars Dimicandi was formed in Italy in 1993, its main goal being the reconstruction of fights of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Their demonstrations are based on scientific research and experimental archaeology. Their re-enactment team, athletes who fight 'for real'. Many of them have taken part in hundreds of fights as gladiators and can claim to be among the most famous athletes in this field.

Spectators were left in no doubt how vicious and remorseless the events staged in Caerleon nearly two thousand years ago were. Men (possibly women too) fought to the death here. The crowd were engaged in the action - they were not just spectators. For the decision whether the loser of a combat should be (live) or not be (die) was theirs. A simple sign made with their outstretched hands decided it.

How do we know gladiators fought here in Roman times? Well, firstly the layout of the amphitheatre - the eastern entrance contained a chamber with seating and a shrine to the goddess Nemesis. This was most likely where the gladiators awaited their turn in the arena. A lead tablet inscribed with a curse to the goddess was discovered here when the amphitheatre was excavated - this was thought to have been left by a gladiator. Pottery (pictured left) found during excavations in the 19th century depict scenes with gladiatorial combat. Does it seem likely that this large body of fighting men would be satisfied with any less a show here than they would see in Rome or any of the other sites where gladiators are known to have fought to the death?

Gladiatorial spectacles were usually held in the afternoons after fights against animals and public executions of criminals. It's unlikely that animals from distant countries, such as lions, would have been seen in Caerleon. But there was no shortage of native wild animals which could provide entertainment - bears, wolves and wild boars. Possibly bulls were fought here too.

Gladiators were picked from slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. They usually belonged to a 'famelia' with a manager known as a 'lanista'. He rented the fighters to those staging games. The charge would depend on the star rating of the individual gladiators and whether the fight would be to the death. They were highly trained and given good medical care for the times.

Weapons, armour and other protection took many forms. Often the fighters were equally equipped but interest was added when the combatants used very different equipment. An example of this is when the Retiari who were equipped with a trident, dagger and net, and only protected by a shoulder guard on the left arm, fought the Secutores armed with a sword and protected by a rectangular shield and helmet. The more the protection the more the gladiator was restricted and slowed in his/her movements… Also, the heavy metal helmets must have become extremely hot in direct sun and visibility much affected.

'Our' entertainment started with boxing. This was probably a more brutal sport in Roman times than we observed. Then, fighters had no protection and metal studded leather thongs bound around their wrists and hands instead of gloves. The boxing was followed by several single combat fights and the entertainment ended with a dual combat fight pitting Retiari with tridents and nets against Secutores with swords shields and helmets.

You can view larger images of the gladiators (and browse forward and back through them) by clicking on the pictures above. On these pages you will also find more information about the fighting disciplines.