Gladiator, multiple Oscar-winner in 2001, brought the brutality of the Roman arena to audiences worldwide. The word ‘gladiator’ is often used in modern times to describe someone engaged in an adversarial contest. For example, in Some Aspects of the Victorian Age (1918), Herbert Henry Asquith described the pro-Darwin T H Huxley as ‘the young gladiator of evolution.’
The term appeared first in English in Thomas Paynell’s 1541 The Conspiracie of Lucius Catiline, a translation from the Latin of Costanzo Felici’s 1518 De Coniuratione L Catilinae. In the Paynell version, Cicero tells the Senate that ‘If I had demed it best… to put Catiline to deth, I wolde not haue giuen this gladiatour one houre space to liue.’
Gladius was a general Latin word for ‘sword’. A gladiator was someone who fought with a gladius – a swordsman. As usually employed today, gladius refers to a double-edged short sword.
Several distinct patterns fall within the gladius category. The most prominent is the gladius Hispaniensis (‘Spanish sword’), which was adopted by the Romans after encountering them in the hands of Spanish warriors in the 3rd century BC. Along with its derivatives, it was the standard sidearm of the legionary for several centuries.
The origins of the Roman gladiatorial contest are murky, but it is said to have evolved from Etruscan funeral combat. The earliest attested Roman gladiator fights date to 264 BC, when three were conducted for the funeral of Brutus Pera.
Famously, in 73 BC, gladiators in Capua revolted under the leadership of Spartacus, himself a Thracian gladiator. Spartacus defeated the Roman armies sent against him until he was subdued in 71 BC.
Despite their skill at arms, gladiators were generally thought to make poor soldiers, however. Perhaps this was because they lacked genuine military discipline.