A team of fifty-four specialists in Turkey have been excavating in and around an ancient Roman amphitheater. They recently discovered an ornate burial area devoted to gladiators tombs.
The setting of this discovery is the ancient city of Anavarza. Strategically situated within the borders of present-day Dilekkaya village in southern Turkey, the settlement was founded during the Hellenistic period (323-32 BC). It became a key trading center connecting central Anatolia with Syria.
This was one of the most important cities of Cilicia, an early Roman province annexed to the Roman Republic in 64 BC that remained under Roman rule for several centuries. Anavarza was then one of the important metropolises in all Anatolia. In the 2nd century AD, Anavarza began expanding under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus. The city eventually became the “Capital of Cilicia” in 408 AD.
An aerial view of the area in ancient Anavarza city where the Roman gladiator tombs were found, note the fallen Roman Hellenistic columns. ( Anadolu Agency )
Gladiator Tombs Question The City’s ‘Indestructible’ Moniker
Similarly to the folk that named the Titanic unsinkable, the founders of ancient Anavarza called their settlement “The Indestructible City.” In this instance of speaking too soon, or tempting fate, two major earthquakes in 525 and 561 AD sparked intense plague epidemics that brought the city to its knees. Thereafter, it lost its former importance as a result of constant wars across Anatolia.
According to a report on NTV Anavarza in Cilicia province was most famous for its magnificent defensive gate and ramparts. Furthermore, it was home to the “first double-lane road of the ancient world.” This 2,700-metre-long (8,860-feet-long) and 34-metre (37-yard) wide road, was decorated with 1.5-meter (1.6-yard) high columns.
Now, Turkish archaeologists excavating in the ancient city of Anavarza have unearthed “rare gladiator tombs.”
A 54-Strong Team Of Gladiator Hunters Looking For More
Over the last several years teams of archaeologists have been digging in the Roman amphitheater and the theatre of the ancient city. Anadolu Agency ( AA) reported that the “54-strong excavation, includes 30 scientists, 24 general staff and two archaeologists.” The recent digs have been led by Dr. Fatih Gülşen from Çukurova University. Dr Gülşen told AA that his team “found the tombs near the southern part of the excavation site, close to the amphitheater,” where it is believed the gladiators fought.
A previously found unfinished Roman sarcophagus, discovered in the necropolis area of Anavarza, Turkey. (Dosseman / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The lead archaeologist explained that Anavarza covers an area of “1143 decares,” – a decare is equal to 1,000 square meters or approximately 0.25 acres. In this massive ancient space researchers have identified a “castle, mosaics, bathhouses, churches, triumphal arch, aqueducts, and rock tombs, stadium, and ancient theatre.”
However, standing above all of these structures, Gülşen said the amphitheater at Anavarza is special in that it is only “one of the four such examples in Anatolia.”
The Next Discovery Will Hopefully Be Gladiator Skeletons
While the team of archaeologists have now successfully identified where the gladiators’ graves are located, they are yet to put their hands on an actual gladiator bone or skeleton. Gülşen says the team expect to discover the bones of gladiators “and a necropolis” in their planned future excavations.
And when bones are discovered the handheld excavation tools will all be replaced by forensic microscopes and DNA analyzers, as a new team of lab scientists builds maps of where the warriors were raised, trained, and how they met their individual fates.
Where all this will get gory, but fascinating, is when the scientists have to distinguish between gladiatorial wounds. Meaning, the bodies will feature a range of horrific wounds and the scientists have to figure out which are caused by man and steel weapons, and which were inflicted by the jaws and claws of the animals that also fought with gladiators in Roman amphitheaters.
The Term Gladiator, however, Is not actually Correct is it?
Written Roman accounts, frescoes and mosaics tell archeologists and historians that fighters in the arena fought lions, tigers, aurochs, elephants, rhinos, bears, leopards, hippos and bison. Then, we, the public, are told in headlines that “Roman gladiators” fought these animals.
However, it is worth noting that the term “gladiator” is a generalization, and it actually means “swordsman.”
The specific type of Roman men (or women) who fought animals in the arena of death were called “bestiari” or “venators” (beast hunters). While these highly-trained outdoorsmen knew the ways predators moved and fought their prey, they were only lightly armed and not well protected. Hence, this will all get gory, and very interesting, when the gladiator skeletons are unearthed.
The Real Lives of Roman Gladiators
Roman gladiators are some of the most iconic characters in history and have defined how we think of entertainment in ancient Rome. Their portrayal in films and stories has turned them into archetypal legends – facing death on a daily basis is certainly not something to be taken lightly! The Roman gladiators’ tales are incomparable to anything we see or do today, making them fascinating and yet incomprehensible.
Origins of the Gladiator Games
We tend to associate gladiators with blood, gore and brutality , but is that the real history behind these characters? We wanted to explore more to learn what ‘being a gladiator’ was really like.
The term gladiator is derived from the Latin gladiatores, in reference to their weapon the gladius – the short sword. Many historians believe the tradition of gladiator fighting dates back to the Etruscans, who hosted the contests as part of their religious rites of death. However, it’s been argued that the contests were also used to commemorate the deaths of distinguished aristocrats and wealthy nobles, forcing condemned prisoners to fight. The gladiators’ combat and bravery were said to represent the virtues of those who had died.
Roman gladiators fighting. ( Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock)
Roman Gladiators were both Slaves and Free Men
The tradition of gladiator fighting lasted for over 650 years – a proof of its popularity! Present throughout the Roman Empire, it was a fixture in the Roman entertainment calendar from 105 BC to 404 AD and the games remained largely unaltered bar a few small rule changes. Early on, most gladiators were condemned prisoners and slaves, who were sacrificed by their Emperors.
Later, when the Coliseum opened in 80 AD, being a gladiator proved a lucrative career move and thanks to this change, gladiator schools were set up to train volunteer fighters. The schools enticed free men with the hope of winning a stake of the prize money , and ultimately, glory. These new fighters included retired soldiers, warriors, and men desperate to make a living. Some were even knights and nobles who wanted to prove their pedigree and show off their fighting skills.
The Colosseum in Rome. Source: BigStockPhotos
Gladiators had their Own Training Schools
Rome had three notable training schools , including Capua, which was known for the caliber of gladiators it produced. Agents would scout for potential gladiators to try and persuade them to come and fight for their honor. These gladiator schools offered both safety and incarceration.
Comparable to a prison regime, they offered the comfort and security of three hearty meals a day and the best possible medical attention. However, the recruits, who were free men, had to live in shackles and were not allowed to speak at mealtimes.
They were allowed to keep any rewards and money if they won a fight. Their diet consisted of protein and carbohydrates, like barley porridge and cereals – with no option of wine, only water. Although the gladiators were fighting fit, most of them were a little on the round side. Extra ‘padding’ around the midsection was desirable, as it offered some protection against superficial sword wounds.
This mosaic depicts some of the entertainments that would have been offered at the games. Tripoli, Libya, first century. ( Public Domain )
The Lifespan of a Roman Gladiator
Gladiators were an expensive investment for those who ran the gladiator schools, so it was preferable that the fighters did not die on the field – meaning they had to be strong enough to last more than one fight. Contrary to popular belief, not many gladiators actually fought to the death. Some historians say one in five died in battle, others one in ten, yet most only lived to their mid-twenties anyway – shocking when compared to today’s average!
However, it was also commonplace at fights held at the Coliseum for the Emperor to have the final say as to whether the combatants lived or died – often invoking the opinions of the audience to help decide the matter. So whether you fought well or not, your fate could lie ultimately in the hands of your ruler.
Female Gladiators also Existed
When we think of ancient Roman gladiators we tend to stereotype and think of men – warriors or slaves. But interestingly female slaves were also forced into the pit to fight alongside their male counterparts, or as Emperor Domitian preferred, to pit them against dwarves for his particular entertainment. Women fought in gladiator fights for 200 years, until Emperor Septimius Severus banned their participation from these bloodthirsty games.
Relief of two female gladiators (gladiatrices) found at Halicarnassus. ( Public Domain )
Gladiator Weapons were Not ‘One Size Fits All’
The brave, strong Roman gladiators not only had their strength to bring into the pit but also their swords. The type of armor and weapons they fought with depended on their social ranking as a gladiator. There were four main classes of gladiator: the Samnite, Thracian, Myrmillo, and Retiarius.
The Samnites were equipped with a short sword (gladius), rectangular shield (scutum), greaves (ocrea), and a helmet . The Thracians fought with a curved short sword (sica) and a very small square or round shield (parma). The Myrmillo gladiators were nicknamed ‘fishmen’ as they wore a fish-shaped crest on their helmets and also carried a short sword and shield, like the Samnites, but their armor consisted only of padding on arm and leg. Finally, the Retiarius were the most exposed of all, with no helmet or armor other than a padded shoulder piece, and whose defense included a weighted net used to entangle the opponent, and a trident.
A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident in this mosaic from the villa at Nennig, Germany, c. 2nd–3rd century AD. ( Public Domain )
The End of the Gladiator Games
Although Roman gladiators may have seemed well-equipped, the strength and courage it must have taken to step into battle and face death on a regular occurrence is unfathomable. We can be grateful that this brutal form of entertainment came to an end in 404 AD, thanks to the Emperor Honorius who closed down the gladiator schools. Who knows when this diversion might have ended had he not stepped in?
Learning that the majority of gladiators weren’t actually slaves, but free men who had volunteered for a slice of glory and winnings, makes gladiator fighting seem all the more bizarre and barbaric. Why choose a blood battle over traditional forms of trade and commerce?
However, it didn’t stop those who survived being venerated as heroes and legends of their time. But in the context of the 21st century, it’s safe to say that this is one sporting event we’re glad hasn’t come around again!