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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.