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The spectacle of gladiatorial combat was initiated by wealthy Romans over 250 years before the birth of Christ as a part of the ceremonies held to honor their deceased relatives. Later, these games became separate events sponsored by Rome's leading citizens in order to enhance their prestige.

With the decline of the republic and the rise of the empire, gladiator games were appropriated by the emperor. The primary purpose of these life-or-death duels was to entertain the multitude of spectators that jammed the arena.

Although some freemen elected to live the life of a gladiator, the majority were slaves, captured during the numerous wars Rome fought to expand its territory. The prospective gladiator received extensive training and became proficient in a particular mode of combat and the use of specific weapons such as the sword, net or the three-pronged spear known as the trident.

The games began early, lasted all day and were usually divided into three presentations. The morning was devoted to the display and slaughter of animals, many of them exotic beasts gathered from the far reaches of the empire. Lions, elephants, giraffes and other rare animals all played a role in a display of butchery designed to advertise the diversity of the far-flung empire and Rome's mastery of Mother Nature.

The morning session was followed by a lunch break in which patrons could leave the arena to satisfy their hunger. Those who lingered were entertained with the execution of common criminals. An attempt was made to match the method of the condemned person's death with the crime committed. Those who had murdered were thrown unprotected to wild beasts. Those who had committed arson were burned alive. Others were crucified. Criminals also provided the fodder for entertainment in the reenactment of historic naval battles in which the arena was flooded and the condemned forced to play the role of the doomed crews of enemy ships.

The afternoon was devoted to the main event - the combat of the gladiators. Typically, gladiators with different specialties were pitted against one another. Much like a modern boxing match, the duels were governed by strict rules and overseen by a referee to assure these rules were followed.

Music provided an accompaniment with the band varying the tempo of its play according to the action in the arena. The crowd would ultimately decide whether the loser would live or die.

Read more: eyewitnesstohistory.com
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