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Category Archives: Traditions

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The Oracle of Delphi: More than a legend

by April 17, 2019

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Centuries ago, from every corner of the Mediterranean, people traveled to Greece to get answers about their life and future by the Oracle of Delphi. It was there that the god Apollo, through different women named Pythia chosen by local priests, sent his messages to those who needed them… as well as to those who could afford them. This was how it happened for the 12 centuries the oracle was active.

Dephi

How was life at Delphi?
Delphi, along with Olympia and Nemea, was considered an inter-urban sanctuary but also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary: “they were located away from major cities, although they were under the administrative control of their nearby city-states or amphictyonies, they had an aura of neutrality”.
While at least four temples were built for Apollo at Delphi, there were many more around the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, Delphi was not even the only ancient city with an oracle, however it was one of the most significant.
Delphi

Delphi by Christian Hardi – pixabay.com

While the oracle was active, wealthy people and leaders from different territories occasionally paid to get to the front of the line to see the oracle. Indeed, there are records that state that the Pythia was sometimes forced to take her position on the tripod by the temple priests in order to satisfy rich clients.
At Delphi, there were always a lot of people waiting in line to see it. We know about them because the ones who paid a lot of money are immortalized in stone inscriptions.
Interestingly, these aren’t the only stone inscriptions… Despite wars, the rise and fall of different empires, two messages still survive to this day on the entrance of the temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much”.
Inscriptions at Delphi

Ancient Greek inscription on stone, near the Archaeological Museum. Main archaeological site of Delphi.

The Oracle and its messages
According to some records, the oracle delivered its pronouncements on an annual basis; the day chosen for the event was the seventh day of Bysios, Apollo’s birthday.
Other records state that nine times each year the woman went to the tripod, initiated the trance state, and gave Apollo a voice to deliver his messages. These sessions were held on the seventh day after each new moon in spring, summer, and fall. It did not occur during winter because Apollo was believed to have gone north to the land of the Hyperboreans (giants who lived “beyond the North Wind”).
Sculpture of Apollo

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares. Found in the late 15th century.

The Pythia was always a woman from Delphi, regardless of her age or social class. While she was serving as oracle, she lived in the sanctuary, abstained from sexual activity, and fasted on or before the days scheduled for oracular sessions.
During days of oracle activity, the Pythia would initially be brought by priests of the temple from a private residence and led through a series of purification and religious rituals before her performance. Eventually she was led down into the inner sanctum of the temple (the adyton).
Painting of the Pythia

Priestess of Delphi, John Collier, 1891

Rulers and wealthy citizens of the known world (as well as famous philosophers) made the journey to this mountainous site to make the most important decisions of their lives… and the lives of those around them. Indeed, war and peace were determined by these messages.
The Vapors of Delphi
The Pythia delivered their oracles on a tripod over the cleft in the ground of Apollo’s temple, which was constructed around 800 BCE on Mount Parnassus. Over the years different women would take on the sacred role and pronounce their prophecies, but they were always inspired by the same vapors.
Delphi with vapors

Detail from Archaeological Site of Delphi, Greece

For centuries, different researchers underestimated the theory of the cleft and vapors because they couldn’t find any geological indicators that led them to their location. However, ancient writers such as Plutarch, Homer or Euripides described the vapors and modern studies are finally validating their reports. Evidence from a chemical analyses of water samples and travertine deposits in the adyton have shown that the springs on site have in the past and continue at present to emit small volumes of hydrocarbon gases.
Fall of Delphi and its Oracle
Painting of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia (1835/1845), as imagined by Eugène Delacroix

The Oracle started its decline in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. In 389 CE, Theodosius I started persecutions against Old Religion and prohibited the cult of Apollo and the celebration of the Pythian games in honor of Apollo. In 391 CE, Christianity was the exclusive state religion and older temples were closed.
Even though temples were shut down and the oracle was “silenced”, splendid structures still stand today, preserving the magnificent, if not fantastic, history of the Pythia and the Oracle of Delphi.

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December?

by December 26, 2018

By April Holloway, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th? The popular answer is that it is Jesus’ birthday. However, it is necessary to reconsider that belief, No records exist in the Bible, or elsewhere, suggesting Jesus was born on that date. If it was not the birth of Christ which set Christmas Day apart from others in the calendar, what was it? To find out, you need to take look at ancient Persian and pagan traditions.
Christmas Was Probably Not the Day Christ was Born
First, let’s take a quick look at why Christmas probably wasn’t Jesus’ day of birth. As the Catholic Encyclopaedia states “there is no month in the year to which respectable authorities have not assigned Christ’s birth” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). That being said, there are several reasons supporting the idea that Jesus wasn’t born in December. Luke 2:8 states that on the night of Jesus’ birth “there were also in that same country shepherds living out of doors and keeping watches in the night over their flocks.” Scholars tend to agree that it is highly unlikely that shepherds were out with their flocks in the cold winter month.
Mosaic of the Good shephard

“The Good Shepherd” mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century AD. ( CC BY SA ) Few scholars believe shepherds were watching their flocks overnight in December – it’s more probable they would have kept them under cover.

Luke 2:1-4 also claims that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census when Jesus was born. These censuses were not known to have occurred in winter – also making it improbable to link Jesus’ birthday with the day now called Christmas.
Pagan Festivals
Okay, so Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th. Yet other important events did fall at that time of year for ancient pagans. The most well-known of these celebrations were Saturnalia and the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra.
Originally, Saturnalia was held on December 17th, though the festival eventually was extended until December 25. This celebration honored Saturn, the God of Sowing and Husbandry, and was linked to the rise of a new year and the return of light. Ancient Romans would celebrate this date with a public banquet, giving gifts, partying, and holding a sacrifice in the Temple of Saturn.

Roman fresco of dice players from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio in Pompeii. ( Public Domain ) Saturnalia was a “time-off” for slaves when they were allowed to wear nice clothes, sit at the head of the table, and gamble.

Mithra’s Birthday?
Roman Pagans who worshipped Mithras believed he was born on December 25th – the most holy day of the year for many ancient believers. This was a well-known cult for the Roman military in the 1st to 4th centuries AD. But Mithras is a god who has his origins in Persia beginning around the 6th century BC. The proto-Indo-Iranian language calls him ‘Mitra’, but that name was later adapted into Greek as ‘Mithras’. Many scholars believe that Roman soldiers discovered this god while completing military campaigns in Persia.
The Mithraic New Year and Mithras’ birthday were celebrated on 25 December. The date was part of the Roman Natalis Invicti festival – a celebration linked to worshipping the sun in general.
Persian Sun God

Mithra divinity statue in Vatican library, old illustration. By unidentified author, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 1840. (BigStockPhoto)

Uniting Pagan and Christian Beliefs
When Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, he may not have imagined how difficult it would be to convert pagans into Christians. To ease the transition, the birth of Jesus became associated with pagan holidays which fell in December. As the Pagan holidays gained Christian significance, it was decided that the birthday of the Sun God should also be the birthday of the Son of God. The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes an early Christian stating, “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…. Christ should be born”.

Ancient Worship in Modern Times?

by November 24, 2018

By Caleb Strom, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman Temple ceremony

A ceremony taking place at the new Roman temple. (Image courtesy of TEMPLVM.org)

Worship of the ancient pagan gods is on the rise in many parts of Europe. Norse Neopaganism is becoming popular in Scandinavia, Germany, and elsewhere. Hellenic Neopaganism or simply “Hellenism,” is gaining popularity in Greece and the area around the Aegean. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Italy, but also in Eastern Europe and the United States, the ancient Roman state religion is making a comeback. As of 2017, these modern Romans even have an active, public temple to Jupiter, the Iuppiter-Perunus temple.
Building the Iuppiter Perunus Temple
The story of the Temple to Iuppiter Perunus begins in 2009 when a group of Romans, or Roman Neopagans, bought land near Poltava, Ukraine. This was in response to the conviction that, if they were to truly revive Classical Rome as a living spiritual, cultural, and national entity, they needed a sacred space to worship and honor the gods that were and are at the heart of all that is authentically Roman in the pre-Christian sense.
Roman Temple

Initial development of the new Iuppiter Perunus temple. Source: TEMPLVM

In 2009, a 3 by 3-meter (9.84 by 9.84 foot) plot of land was purchased. By 2017, it had grown in size and was close enough to being complete that a ceremony was performed at the temple. The Iuppiter Perunus temple complex’s website claims that it is the first time certain Roman religious rites have been practiced in about 1600 years.
Three Roman weddings and many minor rites have also taken place since construction of the temple began. In addition to completing the current temple to Jupiter, these New Romans also intend to construct temples to Minerva, Juno, and to Mars, among other prominent deities in the old Roman state religion.
Development of the Roman Temple

Digital plan for the development of the Iuppiter Perunus temple. (Image courtesy of TEMPLVM.org)

A New Rome?
Reviving any aspect of Roman culture or civilization has been a subject of fascination ever since the fall of the western Roman Empire, the last political and cultural entity that could indisputably be considered a continuation of classical Rome. The Byzantines believed themselves to be the direct successors to Rome. This is because they were the rulers of what had been the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini are other famous polities that believed themselves to be, in some way, successors to Rome.
Emperor Mosaic

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. (Petar Milošević/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

An important difference between these earlier claimants and the modern reconstructionist movement, such as those building the temple, is that these polities merely desired to be political and perhaps cultural successors to Rome. None of them showed interest in reviving the ancient religion and spirituality of pagan Rome. All these empires that claimed to succeed Rome were Christian, Islamic, or secular.
Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proponents of romanticism gained an interest in reviving the religions of ancient pre-Christian Europe. By the 1920s, religious movements in Italy began to investigate and revive the ancient Roman religion. By the 1980s, numerous religious organizations which intended to revive the ancient Roman religion began to appear, mostly in Italy. Two well-known current examples are the U.S. based Nova Roma and the Roman Republic: Res Publica.
Modern Sacrifice

Members of Nova Roma conduct a Roman sacrifice to the goddess Concordia between the ruins of Aquincum, the modern city of Budapest, Hungary, during the Roman festival of Floralia, organized by the Aquincumi Múzeum. ( Public Domain )

These entities are non-profit organizations which consider themselves to be the front of a spiritual and cultural, but not necessarily political nation, united by common Roman values and religious practices and beliefs. They do not necessarily plan to create a political Roman state, but they do want to revive many of the social, religious, and spiritual aspects of the ancient Roman republic.
Roman Old Time Religion
Although there are many social and cultural aspects of the Roman way of life that do not appear religious, the spiritual center of a revived classical Rome is the revival of the ancient Roman religion and its focus on the ancient gods.
Ancient Roman Gods

Capitoline Triad of Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva. (Sailko/ CC BY 3.0 )

The ancient Romans, like the ancient Greeks and most ancient Mediterranean cultures, believed that nature was full of gods. The ancient Romans believed that gods might adopt humans as clients and become their patrons. In the patron-client system in Rome, a wealthier Roman, usually a patrician, would become a benefactor of a poorer Roman as his patron, providing for his physical needs and those of his family.
In response, the client was to honor the relationship with his patron through acts of service. The ancient Romans naturally saw their relationship with their gods in the same way. The gods might decide out of generosity to become patrons of individual mortals, a family, or the entire Roman state, as was the case with gods like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva. In return, humans were to honor their immortal patrons through acts of piety including sacrifices and offerings.
Roman temple offering

An offering to the Gods conducted at the Iuppiter Perunus temple. (Image courtesy of TEMPLVM.org)

The Romans did not believe that their gods required humans to behave morally or that they punished immoral behavior usually, but they did believe that the gods had virtue. Unlike humans, the gods were believed to be free from vice and were not held back by what usually caused the downfall of humans, such as cowardice or excess. Another large aspect of Roman Neopaganism is reviving the ancient system of Roman virtues, which they believe to be the foundation of Western civilization.
Illustration of Roman Temple


Artist’s reconstruction of life in a Roman cardo of Jerusalem during the Aelia Capitolina period . (Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Did Roman Culture Really Ever Go Away in the First Place?
The construction of the Iuppiter-Perunus temple and the emergence of Roman Neopaganism is unusual in that it includes a reconstruction of the ancient Roman religion, but it is not new in being a Western attempt to revive the glories of ancient Rome. The numerous attempts by the West to revive Rome also indicate that, in some sense, ancient Rome lives on in the modern Western way of life and thought.
Some historians even go as far as to suggest that Rome, as a civilization, never actually fell. In their opinion, it simply went through a dramatic transformation during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and that, to some degree, ancient Rome lives to this day in the form of the modern West. Latin is still used in science and in religious settings such as the Catholic Church. Many Roman legal terms are still in use today, though they tend to have different meanings, and many Western virtues are, essentially, copies of old Roman virtues. For most of modern history, until the last century and a half, standard Western education was not far removed from ancient Roman education.
It could be that one does not have to reconstruct classical Rome to be Roman. In a sense, all Westerners are Romans, since the West has inherited so much of Roman culture and values. Rome may not be eternal, but it is long-lived, long-lived enough for the king of the Roman gods to still have an active temple today.

Demeter’s Daughters: Women of the Thesmophoria

by November 6, 2018

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
In the indigo light of the early morning, wearing white robes and carrying torches, the pious women ascended the hill to the Thesmophorion (sanctuary to Demeter) in observance of their three day long annual festival honoring Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone.
Were they chanting? Were they singing? We can only guess. They must have numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands—a procession—exalting to behold.
Considered the oldest and most widespread of all religious festivals in ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was a feminine-only fertility cult whose celebrations spanned from Sicily in the west to Asia Minor (present day Turkey) in the east and everywhere in between. Most scholars maintain that its ubiquity in the Greek world was testament to its primeval origins.
Painting of the Ancient Greek festival

The Thesmophoria (Ancient Greek: Θεσμοφόρια) was an ancient Greek religious festival, held in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Established, organized and engaged in by women, membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen wives in good standing; no maidens or female slaves were allowed.
Though strictly prohibited from attending the event—sometimes to the point of death—men, that is to say male citizens, were still responsible for the expenses related to its celebration.
Because of its deep cultural significance, on the second day of the Thesmophoria, all law courts and council meetings in the polis were suspended. Additionally all prisoners were released from jail. Women then celebrated the Thesmophoria away from their homes and families for a minimum of three days and nights. Ironically, although women’s place was on the margins of hyper-patriarchal ancient Greece, the Thesmophoria was given prominence in greater society.
Thesmophoria Vase

Thesmophoria Vase

In order to understand the importance the Thesmophoria may have had in women’s lives, it is vital to discuss the role Demeter and her daughter Persephone play in the myth as their narrative has relevance in the feminine festival.
The story begins with an arrangement between Zeus—lord of the gods and his brother Hades—lord of the underworld, to kidnap Persephone and make her queen of Hades’ dark domain. Ignorant of their unholy alliance and in an effort to win her daughter back from the land of the dead, Demeter stops the seasons turning the earth into a barren wasteland.
Although Zeus pleads with her to make the earth abundant once again, Demeter refuses to relent until Persephone is restored to the light of her earthly domain. Ultimately, Zeus acquiesces to Demeter’s demands and orders Hades to release Persephone. But before Hades adheres, he lures Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed.
Painting of Persephone

Persephone and the pomegranate

The mere act of eating in the underworld, keeps Persephone as his wife in his domain for a few months each year.
At its most fundamental level, the Thesmophoria celebrated Persephone’s journey from her descent into the underworld to her resurrection and life on earth. At a symbolic level relating to agriculture, Persephone is a metaphor for the seed, which in the Mediterranean region goes underground or lies dormant in the summer months only to be released again for planting in autumn.
While we may never know how the citizen wives practiced their secret ritual, literary and archaeological evidence suggests that in one of their integral rites, citizen wives handled death in order to bring forth life.
How did the women embark on this critical undertaking? Previous to the festival, the members had elected two prominent women called bailers or anteltriai who were tasked with descending the deep hollow of the cavern or megara to remove its “sacred objects.” Because it was understood to represent the womb of Demeter, the cavern was a common chamber within the Thesmophorion.
Statue of Demeter

Statue of Demeter

The “sacred objects” were comprised of rotted piglets along with other objects believed to increase fertility such as dough cakes in the shape of male and female genitalia as well as fir cones.
Because of its fecundity, the pig was associated with Demeter. Likewise fir cones were used because pine trees were known to be prolific.
This newly born humus the bailers scoop up is symbolic of the power the citizen wives possess. Through Demeter, they are able to generate life in an exclusively feminine cycle. The “sacred objects” were then placed on the altars of the two goddesses and mixed with seed constituting what may be one of the first examples of composting. Plentiful humus was a favorable portent, indicating the goddess’ delight at the festival and insuring the strength of the seeds in the forthcoming sowing season.
While we envision ancient Greece as being the seat of Western civilization, for all its sophistication, it was still chiefly an agrarian society where most of its residents worked the land. But because the land tended to be non-arable, the Greeks found it necessary to have several fertility festivals throughout the year as a means of appeasing the gods and garnering control in order to encourage fertility.
And due to their ever-expanding empire, they needed an ample supply of men to maintain their military commitments, as well as women to produce the much-coveted male citizens.
As such, Demeter was the chief fertility deity who was honored for her role in both crop and human fertility, aiding the Ancient Greeks in increasing the wealth in their world.
Ultimately, the work of the citizen wives was done. Filing out processionally, the pious women descended from the Thesmophorion. Spectators lined the streets in order to watch them make their descent from the sanctuary. After all, they played a critical role as the health and prosperity of the polis rested on their shoulders.

Alcoholism in the Greco-Roman World

by October 17, 2018

By Dale Vernor, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient drinking
Binge drinking is nothing new. Gilgamesh, the semi-mythic Mesopotamian king who lived around 2,800 BC, is reported to have promised his workers “(a river of) ale, beer, and wine”,… which doesn’t exactly suggest moderation.
Indeed, most practices, beliefs, and attitudes linked to alcohol use date back to the earlier cultures… but that doesn’t mean its consumption didn’t change over time and between cultures.
Painting of Ancient Roman drinking

A Roman Feast; Roberto Bompiani (Italian (Roman), 1821 – 1908)

In both the ancient Greek and Roman world, alcohol was an important element often taken for pleasure, for social reasons, and for medicinal purposes. However, as the Roman Empire grew, drinking began to change. The Romans’ traditional values that were modeled on those of the Greeks—such as frugality, temperance, and simplicity—were slowly replaced by heavy drinking and other vices, including degeneracy, blind ambition, and corruption.
Drinking for Pleasure and at Social Settings
The manner in which alcohol, mainly wine, was consumed played a part in preventing or minimizing alcoholism in these cultures.
The consumption of wine was famously a part of the Greek Symposium, an important Hellenic social institution during which young men were introduced into aristocratic society. Men of respected families engaged in discussions and debates while wine was served.
Vase illustration of Greek drinking

Ancient Greek Symposium

The overseer of the Symposium, the Symposiarch, would decide how the strong the wine should be depending on the kind of discussions to take place. If the event was a sensual indulgence, it would be stronger; for serious discussions, it would be light. Both Romans and Greeks mixed wine with water because drinking pure wine was seen as a habit associated with uncivilized people.
At a Greek Symposium, women weren’t allowed and wine was taken after dinner. At the similar Roman Convivium, wine was served before, during, and after a meal, and women were allowed at the gathering.
When Drinking Got Out of Hand
While foreign visitors occasionally reported of “mass drunkenness”, overall the ancient Greeks were generally considered very temperate among ancient people. Perhaps this was because of their rules and literature that stressed moderate drinking, recommended diluting wine with water, and praised temperance. For instance, Xenophon and Plato spoke highly of moderate wine consumption because it was good for health and promoting happiness, but they were also critical of the habit of drunkenness.
painting of Greek drinking wine

Greek Wine, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

Nonetheless, there were exceptions, folks who believed in drinking to excess.
Take the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Followers of Dionysus believed that becoming intoxicated brought them closer to their deity.
The Macedonians also, among Greeks, perceived intemperance as a sign of masculinity, so men could drink to intoxicate themselves. Alexander the Great is a famous example, and may have died as a result of his habit.
A famous Macedonian drinker

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Given these and other cases of excessive consumption, it is not surprising that the ancient Greeks had hangover remedies, such as taking boiled cabbage.
In contrast to the Greek ideal, the Romans had drinking habits that encouraged excessive consumption of wine, such as:
  • They began drinking before meals on empty stomachs.
  • They consumed excessive quantities of wine and food, and then vomited so that they had room for more.
  • They played drinking games, including one where somebody would drink as many cups of wine as a throw of a dice indicated.
Clearly, in the first and second centuries BC, it was not uncommon to encounter intoxication among Greeks and Romans. However, initially it was not a universal vice and famous people like Cato the Elder and Julius Caesar only took wine in moderation. As moral values associated with drinking continued to decay, the habit of excessive drinking became more widespread.
Alcoholism isn’t just a modern phenomenon; it was present during ancient times, too. Perhaps today’s alcohol use and abuse is a reflection and an extension of what happened in times before. It was and will be with us always…all that changes is how we deal with it.
Watered Wine anyone?

The tainted glory of the gladiator

by June 27, 2018

By Ben Potter
The sun rises high over Rome’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, the mightiest arena in the world. Only the colossal statue of Nero, which one-day will lend the stadium its eternal pseudonym, dwarfs it.
The 50,000 strong crowd of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are tightly coiled; one giant organism ready to strike, to unleash their wrath or their joy.
Though they are not the only ones with the glint of attack in their eyes.
A flash of light leads to a clash of steel, a spray of sweat, a cloud of dust, and finally, brutally, a cascade of blood which unleashes a frenzied pandemonium in the stands…
Gladiator
Those cognisant of TV shows like Spartacus, films like Gladiator, or indeed, any example from the swords and sandals genre, will be familiar with images of perfectly formed behemoths attempting to heroically empty their comrades of their entrails.
Though, as we shall investigate, Hollywood has not quite given us the full picture. I know, I know… shocking isn’t it!?
To begin with, gladiators were not perfectly formed. Indeed, they would be considered overweight next to modern sportsmen. Additionally, bloodlust was a secondary consideration to poise and finesse, and in fact, most gladiatorial bouts saw the loser escape with his life. Finally, and, crucially, large parts of Roman society considered gladiators to be anything but heroic.
As for the famous quote in the title (“Those who are about to die salute you”), it did genuinely occur in the pages of Suetonius.
However, it was supposedly uttered by a group of condemned men in an attempt to curry favour with the emperor, and not, as Tinseltown would have us believe, by every gladiator who entered the arena.

Indeed, it is highly unlikely that any professional fighter ever said it.

But before we conduct our gladiatorial post-mortem in earnest, perhaps a look at the origins of the sport is in order. (Unpleasant as it seems, it’s hard to deny that it was a sport – complete with match day programmes and scalpers selling tickets!)
Fighting
As for the beginnings of gladiatorial combat, there is some dispute, though most agree it came out of the Italian peninsula… either from the Etruscans or Campanians.
What seems clear is that the games (ludi) were not intended to be the great public spectacle they later became. Instead, they were munera, a type of honorific spectacular dedicated to the spirit of a deceased ancestor.
What is really astonishing is how fast the event caught on. The first recorded munus was held in 264 BC, and within 200 years, their popularity and importance had become such that the Senate had to limit the size of the proposed munus of none other than Gaius Julius Caesar.
[N.B. Though if we compare how cinema has changed in only 150 years it is perhaps not so astounding.]
Even though the transition from munera to ludi was a gradual one, we can say with some confidence that by the time of Caesar, gladiatorial combat had mostly lost its connotations of filial duty. Instead, it had become a means of self-promotion and popular entertainment… and not just in Rome, but also throughout the rapidly swelling empire.
Gladiators
So what about the fundamentals of the games and, more importantly, the gladiators themselves?
A gladiator (from gladius, short sword) was the king of the sand, a mighty warrior, fiercely trained for one purpose only. He was a man of pride, dignity and above all else, discipline. He knew his life was forfeit and his only desire was to live and die with the stoicism and honour befitting his station.
Despite the fact that gladiators were the celebrities and sex symbols of their day, they were also so deeply despised that the very word ‘gladiator’ was used as an everyday insult. They had no citizenship rights, were buried only with their own kind, and could have their lives expunged at the whim of their lanista (owner/overseer).

Essentially, they were a de facto category of slaves.

The antipathy felt towards these subhuman supermen is partly because of the social make up of the gladiatorial class.
They were slaves of various origins: prisoners of war, citizens who had lost their rights or who couldn’t pay their debts, and various criminals from around the empire. Only if they were lucky, would they find their way into a ludus (gladiator school).
slaves
N.B. if they were unlucky they would merely be damnati (condemned to fight in the arena) or noxii (condemned to die a humiliating death in the arena). The difference being that the noxii would probably not be given weapons and their remains would be treated in a manner that would dishonour them for eternity.
All arenarii (people of the arena) were infames i.e. without rights or social status – a standing shared by prostitutes, pimps, actors and dancers. Gladiators, however, were both simultaneously far more lauded and reviled than any of these other controversial professions!
This was all very well for the impoverished, the enslaved and the criminal – indeed, many were happy to enter a ludus. It would mean good food (gladiators followed a high-calorie vegetarian diet), a roof over their head, and a potential to win money, freedom and that most intangible and strangely elusive of all things, fame!
Also, it got them out in the fresh air… which is nice.

The peculiarity, therefore, is not that many of the most desperate ended up in the arena, it’s that some of the more privileged actually volunteered for this ignoble and bloody fate.

Gladiators
Some scholars estimate that as many as half of all gladiators were volunteers (auctorati) by the time the games were at their height (1st century BC – 1st century AD).
But what really boggles the mind is that the lure of the games was so great that they even managed to entice aristocrats!
Indeed, it seems there was a significant minority of the noblesse who disgraced their family name, gave up promising political careers and disinherited themselves from great wealth. In fact, it was beholden upon Augustus, the moral champion of the 1st century AD, to make it illegal for the senatorial and equestrian classes to fight.
Despite the emperor’s absolute power, the prohibition seems to have had only limited success.
In addition, several emperors themselves are known to have stepped onto the sand. This created a bizarre paradox of a man at the top of the social ladder publically engaging in the most degraded and base activity possible within his own society.

Caligula

Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have crossed that stark line of dignity during their respective reigns. This was particularly amazing for Didius Julianus, as he was only emperor for nine weeks!
It is almost certain that none of the above competed with any seriousness and were merely making a populist parade of themselves or indulging a boyhood fantasy. (Though it’s hard to blame them; if I had unlimited power I would certainly insist on playing ten minutes of professional football).
However, the most enthusiastic, and therefore most shameful, participant in ludi was Commodus, the emperor who you may remember from that film with Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe… the name of which escapes me.
Commodus
Commodus was capricious, cruel and conceited (even by the standards of emperors). He was said to have killed 100 lions in a day and must, therefore, have had some physical and technical proficiency to avoid looking wholly ridiculous in front of the crowd; especially as he styled himself as the reincarnation of Hercules!
Indeed, the masses would have let him know if he had been entirely ludicrous. The games were one of the few conduits for egalitarian outpouring.
It was commonplace for the public to heckle, not just the participants of the ludi, but the on-watching ruling classes. In fact, it seems the games presented the ideal (perhaps unique) opportunity to present a petition to a politician in front of witnesses.
Though the games were unquestionably popular, (relatively) cheap to stage and helped school both combatants and spectators alike in the arts of war, they eventually fell foul in the later empire as a result of Christianity.
As early as the third century AD, the Christian scholar Tertullian denounced the games as murder, as pagan and as human sacrifice.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the first emperor to prohibit the spectacle was Constantine in the 320’s AD.

Though this was with little success; it was necessary to again curtail or prohibit the games in 384, 393, 399, 404, and 438 AD. By this latter date the Western Empire was dissolving into various warring factions and tastes in the Eastern Empire seemed more focused on theatre and chariot racing.
One of the hardest things for a classical historian to understand is the mentality of both the spectators and participants of a gladiatorial combat.
Though it obviously plays up to our baser instincts and, like so much sport, creates a tribal mentality, it goes so far beyond the most violent spectacles available to us today.
Thumbs down
Regardless, there could have been nothing quite so dramatic, nothing that sent the heart aflutter and the limbs aquiver as the moment when a stricken gladiator raised a finger in submission, presented his neck to an opponent and all eyes turned to the editor (producer/sponsor) in whose hands the brilliant wretch’s life lay.
More than anything else, contemplating the bravery, daring and discipline of these ancient athletes only serves to highlight the egos, eccentricities and anti-social behaviour of their modern counterparts.
Despite doping, deflated pigskins, greasy palms and feigned injury, the worship, adulation and monetary rewards we bestow upon our physical elite shows no signs of abating.
Perhaps the Roman way is better, perhaps it’s a healthier approach: to marvel, to cheer, to applaud and goggle, but still, when the dust has settled and the blood has dried to remember that they are only mortal.
And much, much worse than that, that they are…yuck…entertainers!