What? The Roman Gladiatorial Games had Sponsors?

To all those who closely follow sponsorship for big sporting events such as the Indian Premier League, Pro Kabaddi League and Hockey India League, you will be interested to know that the Roman gladiatorial games were also sponsored. Read on.


The Origin of Gladiatorial Games

The Romans believed that the first gladiators were slaves who were made to fight to the death at the funeral of a distinguished aristocrat, Junius Brutus Pera, in 264 BC. This event was arranged by the heirs of the deceased to honour his memory.

In the present context, it is difficult to understand what could have motivated the Romans to watch this cruel spectacle of men fighting each other to the death; but as documented history would explain, the Roman society was not inherently sadistic. There was more to gladiatorial fights, and these fights were symbolic in nature (although there is little doubt that the mob crying for blood was little aware of the finer symbolical points).

The Zliten mosaic is a Roman floor mosaic from about the 2nd century AD, found in the town of Zliten in Libya, on the east coast of Leptis Magna

Anyhow, over a period of time, the games lost their funerary context and were instead staged by the wealthy as a means of displaying their power and influence within the local community. There is archaeological evidence of advertisements for gladiatorial displays at Pompeii, which were painted by professional sign-writers on house-fronts, or on the walls of tombs clustered outside the city-gates. The number of gladiators to be displayed was a key attraction: the larger the figure, the more generous the sponsor was perceived to be, and the more glamorous the spectacle.

Much like in modern-day sports events, there was more to the game than just the event itself; such as the characters involved, the personal drama as well as technical skill and determination.


Who were the Sponsors?

During the early days, when the combats were held in funerary context, it was the family of the deceased who sponsored the gladiators.

Soon, public officials took charge of sponsoring them for festivals.

It’s important to note here that in Rome, entry to the games was free. It was a citizen’s right to see the games, not a luxury. So as the games drew great crowds, politicians began sponsoring gladiatorial combats as a way of pleasing the electorate. The games offered the politicians extravagantly expensive but effective opportunities for self-promotion, and gave their clients and potential voters exciting entertainment at little or no cost.

The Colosseum in Rome was used to host gladiatorial shows as well as a variety of other events. Built of concrete and sand, it is the largest amphitheatre ever built.

Eventually, the games grew so large in scale and expensive to stage that only the emperor could afford to sponsor them.

From a commerce perspective, Gladiators became big business for trainers and owners, for politicians on the make and those who had reached the top and wished to stay there; to the extent, there have been instances recorded in history where politically ambitious private citizens have postponed a deceased family member’s funeral ceremony to the election season, just so that a generous show might drum up votes. Not surprisingly, the anti-corruption laws of 65 and 63 BC attempted but failed to curb the political usefulness of the games to their sponsors.


What were the Sponsorship implications?

For Sponsors, Gladiators were an expensive investment; not to be dispatched lightly.
For a gladiator who died in combat, it was possible for the trainer to charge the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who survived.

Hence it was a great deal costlier for sponsors to supply the bloodshed that audiences often demanded, although if they did allow a gladiator to be slain it was seen as a sign of their generosity. Money… Name… both rode on the investment… the gladiator.

As mentioned earlier, political careers and the popularity of the sponsors depended on the success of the games. The more spectacular the games meant the more popular the sponsors were. After all, the Romans loved to be surprised. Different, exotic animals on display during gladiatorial games supplied the novelty that the Romans craved. The animals also reminded the spectators of the distant lands that had been conquered by Rome.

EventLinked Sponsors Gladiators History
Pollice Verso (meaning ‘with a turned thumb’ in Latin) is a painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, featuring the eponymous Roman gesture directed to the winning gladiators

When it came to the final moment, whether to reprieve the defeated gladiator or consign him to the victor to be polished off, it was the prerogative of the Sponsor to decide. This decision would often be influenced by the wishes of the spectators. Mosaics from around the Roman empire depict this critical moment… when the victor is standing over his floored opponent, poised to inflict the fatal blow, his hand stayed (at least temporarily) by the umpire.


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