The Gladiator Games

By Sandra Alvarez

A Gladiator celebrating his strike against his opponent. London, Guildhall. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

Every summer, the Gladiator Games are held at the Guildhall, at the former site of London’s Roman amphitheatre. Londinium's amphitheatre, which once held 7,000-10,000 spectators, can still be seen today if you take a trip below the Guildhall Gallery where parts of it have been carefully preserved.

Britannia Gladiators, pre-battle, hamming it up for the crowds while answering questions about armour and arena combat. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

The Gladiator Games is a collaboration between the Museum of London and Britannia, one of the largest and oldest Roman re-enactment groups in the UK. Britannia focus on the late Roman period and have been featured in films such as Gladiator, and Centurion, as well as the on the BBC’s Horrible Histories. They have also worked extensively with various museums and heritage associations such as the British Museum, the Roman Army Museum, English Heritage, and National Trust. Prior to the start of the show, visitors had the chance to engage with some of Britannia's Gladiators, and their living history re-enactors at a mini Roman Festival. There were crafts, Roman musicians, and demonstrations that answered questions about late Roman life.

As for the events themselves, Gladiator spectacles started around the time of the Punic Wars (246BC - 146 C) when the Romans forced captured soldier to fight each other for sport as part of their funeral rites. The fighting became so popular that is was standardized as the Romans realized (and exploited) the entertainment value of these events.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

The show kicked off with some pomp as the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) was carried in on a litter. The Emcee then got the crowd going by encouraging us to cheer for either the red team, Londinium, or the gold team, Durobrivae. He also taught the crowd the correct way to indicate whether a defeated Gladiator would live or die at the end of each match. The popular 'thumbs down' gesture we all associate with Roman Gladiators is a Hollywood invention. It's based loosely on a late nineteenth century painting by French artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), entitled, Pollice Verso, which roughly translates to 'thumbs down'. This painting captured the attention of Ridley Scott when he was filming Gladiator, and it was added in for dramatic effect; but this wasn't how crowds, or the emperor, actually signalled (or denied) their support in the arena. The two hand signals used by the Romans were: "Mitte!" (Mercy), which was demonstrated by extending the hand flat, and waving it in a what we now recognize as a "so-so" gesture, or "Iugula!"(Kill him!), which was a thumb on top of a clenched first pointed out towards the Gladiator, telling the loser he was about to be dispatched.

The emperor Hadrian being carried in on a litter by the Gladiators at the beginning of the show. (Photo: Medievalists.net)
Yes, women could be Gladiators! This golden Gladiatrix did a fantastic job and won her match! (Photo: Medievalists.net)

The two teams were introduced to the cheering crowd and then gladiators were paired off to battle in the pit. Britannia tried to get as many Gladiator types represented in the arena as possible to showcase the different fighting techniques and combat attire. There were Retiarius (the most common type of Gladiator), Provocators, Thraex, and Hoplomachus, to name just a few. Another point they were clear to make: there were female Gladiators, known as Gladiatrix, thus dispelling the myth that there were no women fighting in the arenas. Both Gladiatrix won their rounds and earned their freedom from the emperor at the end of the event in a sword giving ceremony.

The Vespa (wasp) smaller, but faster than his slow moving opponent. Both lived to fight another day. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

Mitte or Iugula?

Although we were promised "blood, guts, and gore", the show was "violence-lite", as it was billed as a family friendly event. There was some fake blood sprayed around and a few rather over the top deaths in the arena, but it was extremely tame. The combatants played to the kids in the crowd turning what would have been a gruesome event, into comedy, sort of like watching WWE wrestling. While it wasn't as fast paced or intense as one might expect, it was still entertaining, educational, and good, family fun. A definite Mitte to see them battle another day!

A Provocator, the only Gladiator to wear breastplate during their fights. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

For more information about Britannia, please visit: www.durolitum.co.uk

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