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If you have ever played a game about gladiators, you have almost certainly encountered a mechanism or victory condition that involved crowd favor, fame, or glory. How did we get here, and how does it manifest in our board games?
The truth is, whether or not the combatants were willing participants, gladiator fights were exciting. Enormous crowds across centuries of Roman history watched gladiatorial combat with anticipation and delight, and presented the fights this way in their writing and material culture. This is the understanding of gladiatorial combat that most modern gamers choose to adopt, and in the majority of recent gladiator games, the ideas of fame, honor, and glory play a tremendous role both mechanically and in terms of the gladiators’—the players’—overall motivations.
Gladiator fights involved risk of life or of serious injury, but based on the flavor text of hobby board games, these risks are both thrilling and honorable. One of the more recent deck builders about gladiators, Carthage, presents combat as a chance to go down in history:
The salty sea air mixed with the pungent aroma of sweat and blood burns your nostrils. Having
saluted the fickle crowd, you turn to face your opponents. Grim looks of determination meet your
gaze. Only one of you will leave this arena. Victory or defeat, history will remember your name in
In this description, the impending battle is bloody, but also romanticized. The point is not to survive in a life of servitude, but to be remembered. The box copy for Ludi Gladiatorii (2015) crows that “Each victory for your ‘ludus’ is a line written in History” (2). The introduction to the rules of Red Sand, Blue Sky: Heroes of the Arena (2011) plays up the death and desperation of gladiatorial combat from the first line: “Gladiator: Just saying the word conjures up visions of vicious combat between desperate men who fought to the death for the amusement of the crowd” (3). However, within the same paragraph, the game trumpets that “Now with Red Sand Blue Sky - Heroes of the Arena you can recreate the glory and splendor of these games on three levels” (4). Even the choice to include the subtitle “Heroes of the Arena” indicates which aspect of a gladiator’s life the designers want to emphasize. Similarly, the 2012 game Gladiators breathlessly declares, “You are a gladiator fighting for Glory in the Roman arena. Savage beasts and vicious warriors are all that stand between you and eternal fame. Defeating your foes is not enough; you must win the crowd’s favor” (5). Games about gladiatorial combat, then, are games in which you fight not to survive, but to feel successful by impressing your audience and even earning a place in history.
This general emphasis on fame and glory in the arena does have roots in the original source material, but there are complications—gladiators were in a paradoxical position in society because they were objects of extreme adulation, even obsession, but they were also despised and clearly consigned to the bottom of the Roman social hierarchy. According to Alison Futrell, “By law, gladiators were not entitled to the full range of rights guaranteed to other Romans. They were considered infames, a category of shame that also included actors, prostitutes, pimps, and lanistae, all occupations that involved the submission of the body to the pleasure of others” (6). Glory of a kind was certainly available to gladiators, but it was cut with social shame.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca dislikes gladiators, but recognizes the paradoxical way they are viewed. In one of his letters, he notes that there is a certain honor to their complete bodily dedication: “The words of this most honorable contract are the same as the words of that most shameful one: "To be burned, to be chained, to be killed by the sword’” (7). Gladiators were the subjects of art, heroes of Roman pop culture, and sex symbols—it was even rumored that Faustina, wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, had an unhealthy infatuation with a gladiator—but there were limits to all that adulation. The Christian author Tertullian, though often curmudgeonly, very accurately sums up the social problem of gladiators:
Take the treatment the very providers and managers of the spectacles accord to those idolized
charioteers, actors, athletes, and gladiators, to whom men surrender their souls and women even
their bodies, on whose account they commit the sins they censure: for the very same skill for which
they glorify them, they debase and degrade them; worse, they publicly condemn them to dishonor
and deprivation of civil rights…What perversity! They love whom they penalize; they bring into
disrepute whom they applaud; they extol the art and brand the artist with disgrace. What sort of
judgment is this, that a man should be vilified for the things that win him a reputation? (8)
The desire for glory and honor in the arena is one that actual ancient Romans felt, to the point where some aristocrats really did damage their elite social status in pursuit of the adulation of the crowd. But the fact remains over the centuries that gladiators were also social pariahs, without full rights, and in the case of the majority who were slaves, without any rights at all. This is an aspect of gladiatorial life and of Roman culture that has not fully made it into our board games (but stay tuned for the next post). In a way, we as players mirror the Romans who avidly watched gladiatorial games—it is easy to get caught up in the drama, in the excitement of battle, in the narratives of courage and heroism in the face of death. But we do not often show sympathy for the fighters, many or most of whom were not there of their own free will, no matter how much admiration they received.
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(1) Carthage Rulebook, p. 1, File on BGG (Accessed 5/25/21).
(2) Ludi Gladiatori (2015), BGG (Accessed 5/25/21).
(3) Red Sand, Blue Sky Rulebook p.1, also https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/95022/red-sand-blue-sky-heroes-arena (Accessed 5/25/2021).
(5) Gladiators (2012), BGG Entry, https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/122348/gladiators (Accessed 5/25/2021).
(6) Alison Futrell, The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 130.
(7) Seneca, Letters 37, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, volume 1-3, ed. Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917-1925),
(8) Tertullian, On the Spectacles, 22.3-4, trans. in Futrell.
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We're getting to the games now. There are actually several approaches to cover, but I want to confront what feels like the simplest one first: erasure. If you want to have all the fun of a gladiator game and none of the guilt, it is a lot easier to pretend that whole slavery thing was no big deal, or even that it never happened at all.
Modern board games do not typically dwell on the fact that gladiators were either slaves or people who had volunteered to accept a low social status. In fact, it is so easy to forget that we as gamers routinely erase that reality entirely from our play, even when enjoying gladiator games that are explicitly set in ancient Rome. A game from 2012 entitled Gladiatori includes flavor text that deemphasizes the reality of slaves as the foundation of gladiatorial combat and plays up the excitement of potential fame and glory:
During the Roman Empire, gladiator combat was the most popular form of entertainment. Fighters from all parts of the Empire were included in the shows, including female gladiators, wealthy Roman
citizens and in some cases, even aristocrats. Now the time has come for you to gain the immortal
glory of the Arena. Fight for your honor, for fame, and for your life! (1)
From this description, a player might never realize that most gladiators were slaves. Honor, fame, and excitement win the day. In fact, based on the description from Gladiatori, you might see gladiator fights as focused entirely on shocking exploits by the wealthy, and sometimes women (there in fact were female gladiators, and they caused quite a scandal).
The recent game Gladiatores: Blood for Roses (2020) places you in the role of a lanista, or someone who controls a gladiator school and would have bought and sold gladiators in the regular course of business. The game, however, makes that business more palatable by adjusting its language: “To [win], each player bids for the most famous gladiators in history. Hiring these professional fighters for upcoming events will increase your school’s glory and fame and attract bigger crowds to the arena" (2). Players are warned not to spend too much money on “hiring” famous gladiators—explicitly described as “professional fighters”—who don’t earn enough glory for the school in return. By describing what would have been either the purchase of slaves or of contracts in which volunteers gave up their rights as “hiring,” Blood for Roses completely erases the social underpinnings of the gladiatorial combat it celebrates. Aside from this change, however, the trappings of the game are Roman, from the artistic renderings of the gladiators to the Latin words and names sprinkled throughout. This is a game that is very clearly set in Rome, not in a fantasy world— which means the practice of “hiring” gladiators is an erasure of history, not an adaptation of gladiatorial combat to a fictional setting.
What makes both of these cases interesting is that they mix in Roman imagery and even actual facts, but they don't include all of the facts. We want the aspects of ancient Rome that we like. But can we really just ignore the ones we don't?
Perhaps the most interesting occurrence of elision of the reality of gladiatorial life takes place in the newly-released game Gladius (2021), in which players are not gladiators or lanistae, but rather spectators who are betting on fights between teams of gladiators—and shamelessly manipulating the outcomes. The game has received praise for its diverse depictions of characters, and there is strong representation of women and people of color among both playable characters and gladiators. The Kickstarter page features a quote from Dr. Seth McCormick, an art history professor, that underscores this point by attempting to ground it in ancient history rather than our modern sensibilities:
Thank you for providing further evidence of how diversifying representation in games can broaden
players’ perspectives on history. I find that the majority of board games set in ancient Rome adopt a
very limited perspective by focusing on war or politics (or both), reinforcing the traditional view that
history is the story of Great Men (i.e., rulers and generals). It occurs to me that [Gladius], by
emphasizing the importance of spectacle in ancient Roman society (the players are not the
gladiators in the arena, but the spectators placing bets), shifts attention to the agency of the
masses as the people whose consent actually mattered the most in securing the stability and
longevity of the Roman Empire (3).
In many ways, McCormick is correct—the Roman world was diverse, and yet is too often depicted as white and male. There are also plenty of interesting aspects of ancient Roman society to study aside from war and politics. But his comments about spectator agency and consent, while well-intentioned, become disturbing when one considers that if Gladius is to be taken seriously as a game about ancient Rome, then the spectators are exercising their agency and consent by placing bets on the bodies of people whose agency and consent were at best limited and at worst completely nonexistent. I haven't spoken with them, but I am 99.99% sure that the designers of the game did not intend for their work to be interpreted this way. But it is the historical reality lurking behind any game with an ancient Roman theme.
Many gladiator games on the current market seek to allow us, as modern players, to enjoy the blood, conflict, and spectacle of gladiator games without the guilt. By presenting gladiatorial contests as risks taken by professional fighters, or by implying that they are shows put on by willing combatants of higher social status, or even by focusing on inclusivity among game characters in a way that reflects our modern ideals, we grant intention and agency to our fictional fighters that most real-life ones did not have. By conveniently downplaying the reality that most gladiators were slaves, we make it more palatable to deploy them in the arena, to bet on them, and to take vicious pleasure in their victories and defeats.
Is ignoring the historical status of gladiators necessarily a bad thing on board game night? I think that's a matter of what a particular game is trying to say. If you are playing a gladiator game set in a fantasy world, I don't think this historical reality matters all that much—that's why I won't be covering Hoplomachus in this series of posts. I do think that if a game is making factual claims about Rome and about gladiators—and especially if that game prints a blurb from a professor making historical commentary—then questions of accuracy demand serious consideration.
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(1) Gladiatori, BoardGameGeek, https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/118567/gladiatori (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(2) Gladiatores: Blood for Roses Rulebook, p. 1,
https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/192072/gladiatores-rulebook-1st-edition-final-pf (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(3) Gladius Kickstarter page (Accessed May 24, 2021).