Which is better, speed or power? Death by a thousand cuts or one thrust? In the Roman times, the answer was definitely the more power and armor, the better. This is why the retiarius was initially looked down upon as a lower type of gladiator; they had very little armor and had to fight using agility, speed, and cunning. To make up for it though, they had a net to ensnare, a trident that was used to jab and move, and as a last resort, a small dagger that, on some occasions, was four-pronged.
The retiarius would train in a different barrack to the “sword and shield” gladiators and often had worse conditions. They were seen as feminine to others and were mocked. The satirist and poet Juvenal told the story of the minor aristocrat Gracchus, who not only caused disgrace by becoming a gladiator, but he brought further shame to society by fighting as a retiarius.
Despite this, they did gain some favor over the centuries, and became a mainstay in the arena, complementing the different styles of the armed secutores, murmillos, and scissores (a gladiator with a sword that has two blades).
Remember the classic arcade game Donkey Kong? If not, in every level of Donkey Kong the character Mario would have to scale buildings to confront the villainous Kong. Now replace Donkey Kong with a retiarius. Mario would be a secutor whose job it was to chase and defeat the retiarius. A secutor was dressed in heavy armor: he had a large shield, sword, and a round helmet that covered his whole face except for two tiny eye holes. They were developed as a counterpart to the increasingly popular retiarius (net throwers) in a clash of styles.
A typical contest between a secutor and retiarius would begin with the retiarius a safe distance away—in some cases on a raised platform above water—with a stockpile of rocks ready to throw. A secutor (meaning chaser in Latin) would pursue the retiarius and try to avoid being captured in the net or hit by the rocks. They would also have to avoid the retiarius’s trident which was used to keep the secutor far away. The secutor had the advantage of being heavily armed but would also tire easily under the weight of his armor. It led to a gripping contest.
The Emperor Commodus fought as a secutor during the games, and heavily weighted the odds in his favor to ensure that he would win his contests. Another famous secutor was Flamma, a Syrian fighter who fought wearing an outfit from the territory of Gaul. He fought 34 times with a win/draw/loss record of 21-9-4. Amazingly, he was offered his freedom four times and refused each opportunity.