The value of good public relations can never be understated, even when it descends to us from two millennia. If the average person were asked to name a gladiator from the classical period of Rome, they would never come up with Tetraites, but many could easily name Spartacus.
Spartacus can trace his infamy to a pair of sources: one ancient and one much more modern.
Readers love the tales of slaves rising up over their masters, of successful rebellions and even of failed revolts that are, in turn, often called civil wars.
Spartacus was a first-century gladiator made famous for leading a slave rebellion against Rome in 73 B.C. Perhaps even greater notoriety came from the 1960 Hollywood production that bore his name, with Spartacus himself played by cleft-chinned, leading actor Kirk Douglas.
Much is known of Spartacus as a gladiator. He was a big man, a murmillo in Latin terms, a man who would fight as a heavyweight boxer or wrestler today.
While he was successful in the arena, his abilities as a natural leader and tactician were equally impressive. Spartacus timed his slave rebellion to occur when Rome’s legions were in Gaul, modern-day Spain, fighting an Iberian uprising.
With little to hold him back, he and his fellow gladiators overpowered their guards, poured out of Rome and freed other slaves along the way, eventually building an army of 70,000 men.
After some initial success that embarrassed Rome, the Roman senate hired Marcus Licinius Crassus to raise an army to defeat Spartacus. Roman legions ranged in size from 4,000 to 6,000 men, and Crassus was able to raise eight legions to march against the rebel army.
Whether slave or free, rich or poor, the image of a gladiator still permeates our modern world.
In 71 B.C. Spartacus and Crassus met near modern-day Naples, and Spartacus was defeated in one of the largest battles fought on the Apennine Peninsula before the U.S. Army invaded Italy in 1943.
Emperor as a Gladiator?
Another gladiator, Commodus, was flush with victory, albeit with most of those staged against paid-off opponents or in combat with invalids and starving animals.
Commodus had a modicum of Hollywood fame as well with Joaquin Phoenix playing him in the 2000 production of Gladiator.
Unlike most gladiators who were captured enemy soldiers, slaves or poor men trying to earn money with their fighting ability, Commodus was the emperor of Rome.
A narcissist of epic proportions, Commodus was enamored with his persona, claiming he had powers usually reserved for the gods. Surviving statues of him reveal the image of a man dressed as Hercules, the son of Jupiter.
When Commodus entered the arena against viable opponents, they always yielded to him in pre-arranged agreements. When he did fight, it was against crippled, infirm or chronically ill opponents, both human and animal.
Commodus’s belief that he was a living god came to an abrupt end in 192 A.D., when he was murdered by Roman legionnaires.
A wealthy, well-known benefactor can build fame and add to the reputation of any professional athlete. Gladiators in ancient Rome were very similar to the professional boxers, football players and basketball players that now achieve so much fame for their skills in the ring and on the field and the court.
Nero is perhaps the most infamous of all Roman emperors. He had a favorite gladiator in Spiculus. Spiculus fought all challengers, with no “fixed” fights, and emerged victorious against each one.
The Roman crowds loved him and so did Nero. Nero took such an interest in Spiculus that he lavished him with palaces, women and riches well beyond the pale for a gladiator.
Whether slave or free, rich or poor, the image of a gladiator still permeates our modern world. The idea of one warrior facing long odds and emerging victorious is an integral image of every culture, no matter if it is myth or reality.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101
A look back at the best gladiators in the history of the arena.
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