The Mosaic of the Gladiator: fighting to the death

Mosaico del Gladiatore, Galleria Borghese di Roma - Mosaic of the Gladiator, Borghese Gallery in Rome

The Mosaic of the Gladiator, an early 4th-century work of art currently on display in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, lists the names of a series of fighters meant to go down in history: Astacius, Astivus, Rodan, Belleronfons, Cupido, Aurius, Alumnus, Serpeniius, Meliio, Mazicinus and many more…

Next to the sprawled and bloodied bodies of those who were killed, there is a small sign that looks like a zero but actually is the “Theta nigrum”, likely the initial of the Greek word “thanatos”, meaning “death”.

Alumnus is portrayed in victory: he was one of the “retiarii”, the fast and agile gladiators who fought without covering their face, equipped with nets, tridents and daggers, winning over an adoring public and entering the secret dreams of countless women.

At his feet, Mazicinus lies in his own blood: he was a “secutor”, that is a “chaser” gladiator who fought with a helmet, shield and a short, curved sword known as “sica”.

Cicero once wrote, What gladiator of moderate reputation ever groaned, or lost countenance, or showed himself a coward, as he stood in combat, or even as he lay down to die? Or what one of them, when he had lain down and was ordered to receive the fatal stroke, ever drew his neck back? (from “Tuscolanae disputationes”).

Then there’s Serpenius, a “bestiarius” gladiator, using his spear to strike a panther – one of the many wild animals that filled the amphitheater, the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus for the people’s entertainment.

As Juvenal noted, “Here is a patrician specialized in hunting wild beasts. For these noblemen, reaching old age has become a miracle since Nero began forcing them to prove their bravery to the people by performing in the circus” (from “Saturae”).

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December 5, 2016

The Mosaic of the Gladiator: fighting to the death

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