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De Arte Gladiatoria: Recovering Gladiatorial Tactics from Artistic Sources

Steven L. Tuck (Miami University)
Steven Tuck
Saturday, February 11, 2017 - 1:00pm
University of Puget Sound, Tahoma Room (Thomas Hall)

The tactics gladiators used in the arena remain a mystery. Their training was almost certainly oral so no training manuals survive. The extant literary sources are of little help. Written by elite men, many specifically deploring the activities of the arena, they remain silent on the specifics of the contests. Our best sources to recover this lost martial art may in fact be artistic representations of the events in the arena. Because of the enormous public interest in gladiatorial combat, these provide a wealth of images in all conceivable media. They are demonstrably specific concerning the circumstances of arena combat, and transcend generalized images of victory and defeat to show detailed and repeated images of arms, armor, opponents, non-verbal communication, and contexts. The artists certainly had a firsthand knowledge of the events in the arena and created these works for a knowledgeable and interested public. Examining representations of gladiators and their counterparts, venatores, and comparing them with the illustrations from the first western fighting manuals of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, allows us to reconstruct the tactics of gladiators and venatores. Identifiable in the art are certain details such as stance, weapon placement, angle of attack, and tactics. Notable in images of gladiatorial combat is evidence of close work: grappling, throws, and wrestling that were, and remain, integral to military personal combat. This study confirms the notion that gladiators were highly skilled, specifically trained, and determined not just to kill their opponents but to entertain and display virtus.