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Before getting into some deeper game analysis, I'm using this post to lay out what we actually know about the social status of gladiators. So buckle up—it's time for some history!
Historically, gladiatorial combat originates with funerary rites, in which slaves were forced to fight to the death in honor of the recently deceased. Although some Roman authors attribute the origins of such fights to the Etruscans, the first recorded Roman gladiator fight is dated to 264 BCE and is recorded in Livy: “Decimus Junius Brutus was first gave a gladiatorial munus, in honor of his dead father” (1). Over time, the games lost their funereal purpose and became larger-scale entertainment, and productions became more expensive and more organized. The ludi, or gladiatorial schools, emerged in response to increasing demand.
Gladiators came from three general groups of people: slaves, including prisoners of war; criminals who were condemned to fight in the arena, and volunteers who essentially signed themselves into slavery for a set period of time (2). We also know that gladiators’ demographic proportions changed over time. Gladiators were initially almost all slaves, but by the end of the Republican period, about half of extant tombstones belong to freeborn gladiators (3). This does not necessarily mean that half of all gladiators were volunteers, but rather that of the gladiators who were successful enough to have tombstones erected in their honor (it was not cheap), half were free men.
When we talk about "volunteers," it is very important to contextualize exactly what that means. Success as a gladiator was not considered a respectable career goal by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, men who chose this path willingly “were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service" (4). There were serious legal consequences for choosing to sign oneself over as a gladiator. For the duration of their terms of service, gladiators, even if voluntary ones, gave up their rights to do as they pleased. As one sourcebook phrases it, “they bound themselves to the status of slaves, surrendering authority over their own bodies to the lanista. They were required to take a formal oath to allow themselves to be disciplined and subjected to physical abuse of the kind associated with training in the ludus” (5). Free gladiators willingly entered a state in which they were not free, in which they sacrificed both legal and physical autonomy. Additionally, gladiators became infames, who "cannot vote, hold public office, or even procure a decent burial plot. No decent person will have social relations with an infamis for fear of being considered one himself, so becoming a gladiator is an irrevocable step" (6). Choosing the life of a gladiator, even if doing so voluntarily, was a sign that someone had nothing left to lose.
Ancient sources make much of the occasional aristocrats who participated in gladiatorial combat, but they do that because it is so scandalous. Such participation was generally considered shameful. Emperors were often enthusiastic about the games, especially Commodus, who dressed up as Hercules and competed as a gladiator himself, but this behavior was not considered a positive contribution to his legacy. An obsession with public performances did not reflect well on emperors in any context. Nero’s obsession with performance and public acclaim is considered an embarrassment, and the Roman historian Tacitus writes, “Thinking that he toned down his disgrace as long as he defiled many others, he brought descendants of noble families—who could be bought because of poverty—onto the stage” (7). Of Commodus, the historian Cassius Dio says, “nor did he save anything, but spent it all badly on wild beasts and gladiators” (8). Certainly, some aristocrats became so enamored of gladiators and their tremendous fame that they chose to live out their fantasies of glorious combat in the arena, but this was not normal and it did not garner the respect of their elite peers.
What this boils down to is that in a given group of gladiators, at least half—and likely much more than half—of the group was made up of slaves or condemned criminals, while the remainder voluntarily surrendered bodily autonomy in a way that damaged their social status. This remains true when we role play as gladiators in our board games.
This is also a fitting time to discuss the role of a lanista. In most sources, you'll see a lanista described as a "gladiator trainer," but this doesn't quite capture the scope of a lanista's work. Within the ludus, or gladiator school, the lanista was boss—even in an imperially-owned gladiator school, the higher-ups seem to have left day-to-day work to him. This is because the lanista's work was considered shameful. Don't forget, hanging around infames like gladiators makes you an infamis yourself. The lanista set the gladiator training regimen, was responsible for rewards and punishments, and set up profitable fights. He also decided when to take on new gladiators, for how much, and from what source. In other words, lanistae actively engaged in human trafficking, and there is just no way around it (9).
So, now you know the basics about gladiators and their social status. In the next post, we'll start to look at how gladiators and lanistae appear in modern board games.
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(1) Livy periocha libri XVI 16, in Titi Livi ab urbe condita libri editionem priman curavit Guilelmus Weissenborn editio altera auam curavit Mauritius Mueller Pars I. Libri I-X ed. Weissenborn (Leipzig: Teubner 1898), Perseus Digital Library, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0169%3Abook%3D16s (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(2) Alison Futrell, The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 120; Fik Meijer, The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport, (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004), 42-48.
(3) Meijer, 44.
(4) James Grout, Encyclopedia Romana, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/gladiators.html (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(5) Futrell, 132.
(6) Philip Matyszak, Gladiator: The Roman Fighter's Unofficial Manual (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 13.
(7) Livy, Annales 14.14, in Annales ab excessu divi Augusti, Cornelius Tacitus, Charles Dennis Fisher, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906).
(8) Cassius Dio 73.16, in Dio's Roman History, Cassius Dio Cocceianus, ed. Earnest Cary, Herbert Baldwin Foster, William Heinemann (New York: Harvard University Press, 1914).
(9) Matyszak, 58.
I feel like I need to start this post by saying: I'm not telling you not to play gladiator board games. I play them. I enjoy them. I have no intention of stopping. But I think it's important to reflect on the differences between what we know about history and what we are presenting in our board games.
That said, did you know that most ancient gladiators were slaves?
Over the last several years, board gamers, both in and out of academy, have taken notice of colonial themes in board games. Strategy games such as Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago have entered not only the Top 100 games on BoardGameGeek, but have received treatment from scholars of postcolonial studies because of their focus on colonial economies and the in-game presence of slaves (1).
On the consumer end of the spectrum, games have either drawn criticism or been withdrawn from publication due to insensitive colonial theming. Notably, a recent GMT project entitled Scramble for Africa, described in a press release as a “game of the period of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of Africa from around 1850 to 1900,” (2) was going to be published, but was ultimately withdrawn from the production line due to outcry over the game’s Euro-centric enthusiasm for carving up the continent of Africa, with no regard for the painful consequences that still linger from when it actually happened (3). Meanwhile, historical gaming in particular is seeing a push towards telling a wider variety of stories from differing (i.e. not colonial or Western-centric) viewpoints (4). Overall, there is a movement within board games to show more sensitivity with regard to the subject matter of games and to the treatment of oppressed or previously silenced people who are portrayed in them. The subject of slavery has received especially close scrutiny, and with good reason.
For every game that confronts the issue as a painful and upsetting historical episode (5), there are several more that contain references to slavery that trivialize—even incentivize—the mistreatment of enslaved people. Five Tribes, a game set in a fictionalized Middle East, had, and ultimately removed, a slavery-themed market card (6). More recently, Maracaibo, a strategy game based on 17th-century trade in the Caribbean, has drawn criticism for a card that allows players to profit from slavery within the context of the game (7).
I see all of this discussion as a sign of progress. It's important to reflect on what games ask us to do, and the context of those actions both in actual history and in our current culture. But so far, discussion centers almost entirely on the more recent past. We have yet to seriously apply these new lenses to other historical contexts, to cultures that do not—at least as far as we can perceive—have as strong an impact on our own. While now a game in which slavery is practiced rightly incites discussion among gamers, these scruples do not currently apply to games set in the Roman world, and in particular to games about gladiators.
So what are we doing with our gladiator games? What does that say about us? What does it say about our attitudes toward Roman culture? I'll be exploring these questions and more over the next several posts!
Click here for the next part.
(1) Borit, C, et al, 2018 Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games: Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago. Open Library of Humanities, 4(1): 17, pp. 1–40, DOI: https:// doi.org/10.16995/olh.211
(2) The original release has since been deleted, but remains in part on Twitter. GMT Games (@gmtgames), Twitter Post. Feb. 19, 2020, 6:00 PM, https://twitter.com/gmtgames/status/1098356792143138816?lang=en
(3) Kevin Draper, “Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Rapists, Slavers, and Nazis?” The New York Times, accessed Aug. 01, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/style/board-games-cancel-culture.html
(4) “Zenobia Award,” accessed May 24, 2021, https://zenobiaaward.org/
(5) Dan Thurot, "The Compromises of This Guilty Land," Space-Biff! December 20, 2018, accessed May 24, 2021, https://spacebiff.com/2018/12/18/this-guilty-land/
(6) Michael Heron, “Five Tribes (2014) -- Accessibility Teardown,” Meeple Like Us September 30, 2017, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.meeplelikeus.co.uk/five-tribes-2014-accessibility-teardown/
(7) Mandi Hutchinson (@bgpinup), Twitter Post, March 07, 2020, 2:37 AM,
I haven't updated this website in a while. It's not that I don't like board games anymore, or that I don't enjoy covering them, because I very much do. It's more that I have been feeling creatively "stuck." I prefer to make review videos rather than write game reviews. I like to make tutorials, but trying to do them on a very strict schedule burns me out. And when I push myself too hard to do things anyway, I burn all the way out. I did not want to do that.
The thing I love to make the most, it turns out, is my podcast. Season 3 kicked off today, close to the one-year anniversary of my first episode. And I am still absolutely loving it. Which made me think--what is it, exactly, that I love about my podcast? Getting to know really cool, smart people is definitely part of it. But it's also that I'm finally having the kinds of conversations about board games that I find the most satisfying. I love discussing the history behind games, the intentions that designers have when creating them, the impact they can have on players.
While I don't intend to stop making review and tutorial videos, I do want to lean in to what is truly making me happy. I think it's normal to evolve when you create things, and I'm going to go along with this process.
So watch this space for different kinds of writing projects that I have wanted to do for a while. Expect a lot of thoughts about how games represent ancient history, what our games say about us, and other topics that get my gears turning. Hopefully, you'll think and explore along with me!