Tales of gladiatorial combat have enthralled for thousands of years. From books and paintings to films and television shows, the image of a gladiator with a sword and shield fighting for their life has intrigued and inspired many. However, as the fighting became more popular, the crowd wanted more. Gladiator battles became diverse, and a sword and shield were not quite enough. Here are ten different types of fighters specializing in a diverse array of weapons and novelties.
Unlike other gladiators, the bestiarii were combatants who fought animals and not humans. Roman emperors and senators used exotic and powerful animals (for example lions, tigers, elephants, and bears) imported from Africa or Asia to show off their wealth, and put on a spectacle for the crowds at the Colosseum and amphitheaters. Some animals such as elephants were captured to shock and entertain the crowds with creatures they would not have seen before. Other animals were there to hunt and be hunted.
There were two main types of bestiarii: the “damnatio ad bestias” (damned to the beast) and the “venatio” (hunter). The damnatio were those sentenced to death, thrown into the ring for a humiliating and vicious exit to the after-life. Not considered gladiators—they were the lowest class of people in ancient Rome—their death was to entertain the crowd and a single beast could kill hundreds at a time.
The venatio trained and hunted animals for the crowd as part of their performance. There are very few known venatio that have been recorded by historians and chroniclers because they were looked down on compared to other gladiators. The most famous example is Carpophorus who is said to have killed over 20 animals with his bare hands at the Circus Maximus. Also, rather befitting of the time, he trained animals to kill, hunt, and even rape victims.
Several emperors showed off their skill at killing animals as a bestiarii, although, rather than impress the crowds, it actually damaged their popularity. Nero fought animals at the Arena, whilst Commodus heroically fought injured and immobile animals from a safe, raised platform, much to the disgust of the senate.
The noxii were the lowest of the low in Roman society. By far the lowest class of civilians, they were those deemed so offensive to Roman society that they were not even classed as people. These types of people included (in no particular order) Christians, Jews, those who deserted the army, murderers, and traitors. They were not selected for gladiator school, and their appearance in the arenas was purely to die in the goriest way possible as punishment for their crimes.
There were several ways that the noxii could die. One was as part of a bestiarii conflict with beasts, where they would be ripped apart by the animals. Another would have the fighters blindfolded and given instructions by the crowd, like a sadistic blind man’s bluff. Others would be thrown to actual gladiators to be hunted down. Often naked or possibly wearing a loin cloth, the noxii had no armor, and any weapon would be a simple gladius (short sword) or stick.
The Romans took delight in killing the noxii. It served as a reminder to the civilians of the rule of law and order, and also of their place in the social hierarchy.