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Basic Information

A gladiator (literally "swordsman" in the Latin from gladius "sword") is a professional entertainer who stages real or simulated combat for an audience. The primary source of the gladiatorial tradition seems to be ancient Rome, who claimed that they themselves had imported it from the Etruscans or one of the other Italian peoples. A few other ancient societies had similar traditions - notably the Aztecs - but the Romans seem to have been the masters of the form.

Originally the games may have had some religious significance - perhaps being, in effect, the only form of human sacrifice that the Romans tolerated - but by the late Republican period they were unquestionably spectacle. Gladiators generally fought in a defined role, using a specific set of often quite exotic equipment (such as the retiarius who fought with net, trident and dagger or the murmillo who was armoured on his right arm and leg and further equipped with a large shield, sword and closed helmet) and there were many conventions as to which roles traditionally fought each other and which were traditionally combined in teams. By the end of the Imperial era, some of these roles could be quite elaborate, including the chariot mounted essedarii. Although of low social and legal status (many gladiators were slaves and all attracted significant social penalties for their profession), a professional gladiator was often a celebrity with his own fan base and generally belonged to a gladiator school or lanista which generally extended them the same sort of support as a modern sports team does to its athletes. Recruitment was generally from amongst slaves sold at the block (especially prisoners taken in warfare) but free Romans prepared to accept the social stigma and offical sacrifice of their freeman status could also join a lanista. Assuming that a gladiator survived the period of his indenture, he was typically presented with a wooden sword known as a rudus and permitted to retire. Retired gladiators were frequently employed as bodyguards or skill at arms coaches or hired on by their lanista as instructors.

Whilst most gladiators fought other gladiators in staged matches, there were other sorts of bout fought including the venatio (specialist gladiators known as bestiarii versus animals), comedy bouts involving midget or female gladiators (although there is some evidence that some lanistae numbered women amongst their "mainstream" fighters) and events in which condemned criminals (known as noxii or damnati) were slaughtered by professionals. For reference damnatio ad bestias pitted the condemned against the animals, but strictly that didn't involve any gladiators. Damnatii who performed well might have an outside chance of being reprieved and conscripted into a lanista but this was generally not to be expected.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • A good background for a fighter in the right setting.
  • Also a good source of weapons training or other physical training tips.
  • Likely to have a flamboyant fighting style, possibly not as pragmatic as some other sources.
    • Likewise, they probably are rather more familiar with theatrical, gimmicky weapons than is entirely useful.
    • Any weapon the GM considers too damned silly to have a part in his campaign may still be permitted a cameo role in the arena if he finds that amusing.
    • Although in some systems, this might be turned to an advantage. A fighter who "looks badass" might be more intimidating or inspirational than someone with a functional but bland style, and in the right kind of fantasy might be able to turn crowd-pleasing into a combat bonus. Might even be a non-magical example of The Buffer, The Debuffer, or The Mezzer.
  • Being condemned to death by gladiator has all sorts of potential - as demonstrated in Rome when the former legionary T.Pullo joins the damnatii for a while.
  • As Spartacus demonstrated, lanistae are a potential danger in case of slave revolts, but also have the potential to be a source of trained fighters for whoever can pay them. Note however that gladiators probably make pretty poor infantry - although better than completely untrained people, they are nonetheless trained to fight in a theatrical manner, one on one instead of the co-operative manner in which regular troops are expected to fight. Against trained infantry they are likely to be destroyed (again, as demonstrated by Spartacus, whose victories were generally against green troops, badly lead and often in disorder).
  • Putting the two together gives a good route out for PCs captured by The Empire.
  • For GMs and players familiar with the conventions of American Theatrical Wrestling (e.g. the WWF) or Lucha Libre, these can be transplanted fairly easily into gladiatorial combat with all of the heels, faces, grudge building and what have you… plenty of kayfabe to be expected, and quite possibly a surprisingly lack of actual fatalities (amongst the expensively trained and promoted pros at least).
    • In fantasy games, a prolonged "grudge" arc could lead to even a dead gladiator making one more appearance as a (possibly simulated) revenant - undead or otherwise.
  • Actual gladiatorial combat in the modern era is generally a feature of dystopiae.
  • Ex-gladiators were a common source of bodyguards, private security and general heavies in ancient Rome.
    • Again, this allows modern organised crime plots (generally requiring ex-boxers, wrestlers etc. as heavies) to be transplanted.
    • And in the same vein, but on a slight tangent, the matters of gambling and fight rigging. Pulp Fiction, translated to the Subura anyone? ("That's not a horse baby, it's a Nisean" "Well whose Nisean is it?" …)
  • Gladiatorial combat might be a good way of keeping the traditional dungeon - complete with its verisimilitude wrenching traps and puzzles - credible. Especially in a relatively high magic dungeonpunk setting where you could easily see magical "television" beaming the PCs exploits out to entertain the masses.
  • Some authorities suggest a highly sexualised air to the Roman gladiatorial scene with successful gladiators in high demand with all sorts of people. Use this or not as appropriate to your campaign.
  • Comedy matches are probably not deadly (there is probably not a ready supply of midget gladiators and what have you) - but potentially more sadistic regimes might inject a form of humour into a damnatii match, having the condemned humiliated as well as killed. Variants probably would include dosing the condemned with laxatives, giving them faulty weapons and/or armour, blind(fold)ing them and forcing them into ridiculous costumes. Alternatively a skilled fighter may simply incapacitate them, after which they are killed in a humiliating way (such as being drowned in a bucket, smothered with the arena sand or sat on by a fat clown until they suffocate).
    • Somewhere out there there is a (fictional) narrative of a match in which a condemned nobleman is sent out into the arena in full plate armour to disguise the fact that he is very old and partially senile and then killed by a team of midgets.
    • Speaking of which, the professional bestiarii might well include the equivalent of a rodeo clown, who can be sent to rescue a downed pro from an enraged beast.
  • As in real life, the venatio might well have a hunger for exotic beasts - an editor might well pay a premium to have something new and exotic to kill in his games, even more so if the creature is actually aggressive or can be made so.
    • How about combining a nautimachia (simulated naval battle) with a venatio and having the gladiators hunt sharks or crocodiles in a flooded arena?
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