History of gladiatorial games Origins Early literary sources seldom agree on the origins of gladiators and the gladiator games. In the late 1st century BC, Nicolaus of Damascus believed they were Etruscan. A generation later, Livy wrote that they were first held in 310 BC by the Campanians in celebration of their victory over the Samnites. Long after the games had ceased, the 7th century AD writer Isidore of Seville derived Latin lanista (manager of gladiators) from the Etruscan word for “executioner,” and the title of Charon (an official who accompanied the dead from the Roman gladiatorial arena) from Charun, psychopomp of the Etruscan underworld. Roman historians emphasized the gladiator games as a foreign import, most likely Etruscan. This preference informed most standard histories of the Roman games in the early modern era.
Reappraisal of the evidence supports a Campanian origin, or at least a borrowing, for the games and gladiators. The earliest known Roman gladiator schools (ludi) were in Campania. Tomb frescoes from Paestum (4th century BC) show paired fighters, with helmets, spears and shields, in a propitiatory funeral blood-rite that anticipates early Roman gladiator games. Compared to these images, supporting evidence from Etruscan tomb-paintings is tentative and late. The Paestum frescoes may represent the continuation of a much older tradition, acquired or inherited from Greek colonists of the 8th century BC.
Livy dates the earliest Roman gladiator games to 264 BC, in the early stages of Rome’s First Punic War against Carthage. Decimus Iunius Brutus Scaeva had three gladiator pairs fight to the death in Rome’s “cattle market” Forum (Forum Boarium) to honor his dead father, Brutus Pera. This is described as a munus (plural: munera), a commemorative duty owed the manes of a dead ancestor by his descendants. The gladiator type used (according to a single, later source), was Thracian. but the development of the munus and its gladiator types was most strongly influenced by Samnium’s support for Hannibal and subsequent punitive expeditions by Rome and her Campanian allies; the earliest and most frequently mentioned type was the Samnite.
The war in Samnium, immediately afterwards, was attended with equal danger and an equally glorious conclusion. The enemy, besides their other warlike preparation, had made their battle-line to glitter with new and splendid arms. There were two corps: the shields of the one were inlaid with gold, of the other with silver…The Romans had already heard of these splendid accoutrements, but their generals had taught them that a soldier should be rough to look on, not adorned with gold and silver but putting his trust in iron and in courage…The Dictator, as decreed by the senate, celebrated a triumph, in which by far the finest show was afforded by the captured armour. So the Romans made use of the splendid armour of their enemies to do honour to their gods; while the Campanians, in consequence of their pride and in hatred of the Samnites, equipped after this fashion the gladiators who furnished them entertainment at their feasts, and bestowed on them the name Samnites. (Livy 9.40)
Livy’s account skirts the funereal, sacrificial function of early Roman gladiator combats and underlines the later theatrical ethos of the gladiator show: splendidly, exotically armed and armoured barbarians, treacherous and degenerate, are dominated by Roman iron and native courage. His plain Romans virtuously dedicate the magnificent spoils of war to the Gods. Their Campanian allies stage a dinner entertainment using gladiators who may not be Samnites, but play the Samnite role. Other groups and tribes would join the cast list as Roman territories expanded. Most gladiators were armed and armoured in the manner of the enemies of Rome. The munus became a morally instructive form of historic enactment in which the only honourable option for the gladiator was to fight well, or else die well.