Roman gladiators fought each other in violent, potentially deadly duels, which were immensely popular throughout the empire. Part of the spectacle of these fights was in pitting gladiators with different sets of arms and armor against each other. This was intended to make the fights more equal and, therefore, more exciting. To ensure that the fights lasted as long as possible, the most vital areas of a gladiator’s body, such as the head, were protected with armor. Yet gladiators were expensive to train and maintain, so it was also necessary to protect the investments of the games’ sponsors. To distinguish gladiators from each other, to protect them, and to make sure they got their money’s worth, gladiators were equipped with some of Antiquity’s most spectacular helmets.
1. Samnis/Samnite Gladiator Helmets
The Samnite was the oldest type of gladiator inspired by one of Rome’s early and implacable enemies from the hills of southern Italy. Samnite gladiators are first recorded in the 4th Century BCE but disappeared after the Augustan reforms granted the ethnic Samnites Roman citizenship. They were replaced by the Hoplomachus and Secutor. These gladiators were, by gladiatorial standards, heavily armored. They had large rectangular shields, a leather leg covering for their left, leading leg, topped with a metal greave, and of course, their helmets. Their arms were, by comparison, much less impressive, amounting to a short straight-bladed dagger or sword. Overall, their equipment was very similar to that of the later Murmillo gladiators, which has made it difficult to positively identify depictions of Samnite gladiators or their equipment.
The Samnite helmet was relatively simple, especially compared to later gladiator helmets, which became more elaborate over time. Usually made of bronze or brass, it featured a plume or crest, which served to make the gladiator look taller and more imposing. It also helped make them stand out so that the audience could distinguish them more easily. They also had a small visor that helped to deflect blows away from the face and cheek guards. According to a tradition recorded by the Roman historian Livy, the Samnite gladiators were originally equipped with arms and armor obtained through battles with the ethnic Samnites. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the Samnite gladiatorial helmet was of such a simple construction.
2. Thraex/Thracian Gladiator Helmets
Thracian gladiators were also derived from an earlier enemy of the Romans, whose homeland was in modern-day Bulgaria. These gladiators continued to appear after Emperor Augustus reformed the empire. They carried a small rectangular or circular shield and a short sword with a curved or angled blade. This sword was probably designed to get around shields and armor to cause wounds. The rest of their equipment consisted of a pair of greaves and a protective leather belt that was worn above the loincloth. Thracian gladiators were usually paired with a Murmillo, Hoplomachus, or even another Thracian when they fought.
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The Thracian helmet was one of the most distinctive of all gladiator helmets. Usually made of bronze or brass, it was broad-brimmed and enclosed the entire head. The eyeholes tended to be rather large, providing good ventilation and good forward but not side vision. It was also visored and topped by a tall crest. The visor appears to have consisted of two face plates that were hinged in front of the ears and met in the center front of the face. Early Thracian helmets featured an Attic-style crest, but the fully developed helmet can be easily recognized by the distinctively stylized griffin on the front of its crest. In Greco-Roman mythology, the griffin was associated with Nemesis, the goddess of fate or the avenging figure of justice. These helmets also often featured elaborate feathered plumes.
3. Murmillo/Marine Fish Gladiator Helmets
Murmillo gladiators appear in the early Imperial period to replace the earlier Gallus gladiators who were based on the Gauls. Once the Italian Gauls had been conquered and its people made citizens it was deemed no longer appropriate for them to be depicted as enemies of Rome. The Murmillo was derived from the Greek word “Mormylos,” which meant “marine fish.” They were also, again by gladiator standards, rather heavily armed. The Murmillo fought carrying a sword and shield, an arm guard made from metal scales or leather padding, greaves, and thick, soft padding on their legs. They were usually paired with the Thracian or Hoplomachus, though there is some evidence that they may have also fought the Retiarius (net fighter).
The Murmillo gladiator helmet was very similar to that of the Thracian. It, too, was made of brass or bronze and consisted of a wide brim, visor, and crest. The construction of the helmet was also similar to that of the Thracian, though the visor may have been slightly more open. However, the crest differentiated the two gladiator helmets. The crest of the Murmillo gladiator helmet consisted of a tall, angular dorsal fin, which may have been intended to represent a fish. Also, unlike the Thracian, it appears that the Murmillo helmet was not adorned with any kind of plumes. Some were also decorated with a silver-and-gold two-toned pattern that was most likely intended to mimic the appearance of fish scales.
4. Hoplomachus/Greek Style Fighter Gladiator Helmets
The Hoplomachus or “Greek-style armed fighter” may have been developed from the earlier Samnite gladiator. They were armed in a manner that was intended to resemble the Greek hoplite and were often paired with the Murmillo. Since the Murmillo’s equipment resembled that of a legionary they were often pitted against the Hoplomachus to recreate Rome’s wars against the Hellenistic kingdoms. Their equipment consisted of heavily padded upper leg defenses, greaves, an arm guard, a small circular shield, a straight sword, and a spear. In this way, they more closely resembled the phalangites of the Hellenistic period than they did the hoplites of Classical Greece.
The Hoplomachus gladiator helmet was one of the plainer gladiatorial helmets. Possibly, this was because it was closer in appearance to the helmets worn by Hellenistic soldiers during their wars with Rome. Or it was intended to show Roman superiority over the Greeks, whom the Romans had conquered but whose culture may have been considered to be superior in many respects. The helmets consisted of a wide, upturned brim, feathered crest, and a pair of single feathered side plumes. It was also visored, though it is unclear exactly how good the field of view was from the surviving depictions. One depiction also includes an inverted V-shaped decoration embossed on the forehead of the helmet that terminates on the sides with curling volutes. This may have functioned as a reinforcing brow on the front of the helmet.
5. Secutor Gladiator Helmets
Secutors are best understood as a variant of the Murmillo gladiators and were similarly armed. They were equipped with a short sword and legionary-style rectangular shield, as well as greaves, quilted padding on the upper legs, and a single arm protector. The Secutor was usually paired with the net-wielding Retiarius and was sometimes even referred to as a “Contraretiarius” or one who fought against the Retiarius. The idea may have been that the Secutor was the “fish” to the Retiarius’ “fisherman.” Others, including Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636 CE), have argued that the Retiarius represented Neptune or water and the Secutor, Vulcan or fire. Interestingly when the Roman Emperor Commodus (r.176-192 CE) fought in the Colosseum he often appeared as a Secutor.
The Secutor gladiator helmet appears to have been designed to take away some of the advantages that the heavily equipped gladiator had over the lightly equipped Retiarius. These bronze or brass helmets were very close fitting, and the face was entirely enclosed. Deep cheek pieces covered the ears of the gladiator, restricting their hearing. There were also only very small eyeholes so that vision and ventilation were greatly restricted. The cheek pieces flared out at the bottom into a wide flange that was designed to deflect blows away from the throat and neck, matching the neck guard at the rear of the helmet. On top of the helmet was a narrow-bladed fin-like crest. This crest, designed to evoke the appearance of a fish was round and smooth so that the net of a Retiarius would slide off of it.
6. Provocator/Challenger Gladiator Helmets
The Provocator or “challenger” was a type of gladiator that first appeared in the Late Republic or Early Imperial periods. Their equipment suggests that it was inspired by that of the legionary soldiers. They were middleweight fighters equipped with legionary-style swords and shields, a single half-length greave, and armguard, and a small rectangular breastplate similar to the type worn by Roman soldiers in the Middle Republican period. As such, they were the only gladiators who did not fight bare-chested in the arena. It is also notable that the Provocator was only ever paired with another Provocator, they did not fight against any other types of gladiator.
The Provocator gladiator helmet was based on the Imperial Gallic helmet that was worn by the legionaries. These bronze or brass helmets were open-faced, with a wide horizontal neck guard, broad cheek guards, “eyebrow” decorations on the forehead, and feathered side plumes. Later versions of the Provocator helmet appear to have kept pace with changing military designs as they replaced the stylized “eyebrows” with a visor. They also replaced the cheek guards with a visor that was flanged at the bottom to deflect blows. The eyeholes were fairly large, which would have allowed for a decent field of view and ventilation. The bowl of the helmet was then extended further down and incorporated a broader, downward-slanting neck guard.