Athletic events held to commemorate a fallen warrior or leader had a long tradition in the ancient world before the Romans. For example, according to Homer in the Iliad, 12 days of contests that included chariot races, foot races and non-lethal combat were held in honor of Achilles’ friend, Patroklos.
The Romans claimed to have inherited this custom from the Etruscans. In the Etruscan tradition, servants of the deceased would fight to the death to both honor the dead man and also to see who would be buried with him to serve him in the afterlife. However, regardless of what the Romans thought about this, there is little archaeological or literary evidence that the Etruscans held any such contests.
The great Roman writer, Livy, described the first recorded gladiatorial contest, in 310 BCE, when he wrote: “While the Romans made use of armor to honor the gods (putting up a trophy tower of captured Samnite armor), the Campanians, out of contempt and hatred towards the Samnites, made the gladiators who performed at their banquets wear it, and they then called them `Samnites.’” (Livy, 9.40.17)
The first recorded Roman gladiator games were held in 246 BCE when Marcus and Decimus Brutus had three matched sets, or ludi, of gladiators fight to the death as a munus, or death offering, at the funeral of their father, Junius Brutus. This small scale affair took place at the Roman cattle market or Forum Boarium. These early fights to the death served two purposes. First they honored the valor of the deceased by having the gladiator display bravery in the face of death, and, second, that the deaths of the gladiators would fend off death from family members of the men that organized the games.
The earlier gladiators were usually captured prisoners of war who were bought specially for the purpose of having them fight. It wasn’t until the 1st Century BCE that the large gladiator schools, or ludii, were developed. For many years the contests retained their ritual and religious elements. For example, outside of funerals, the only time games were held was at winter and spring solstices. Also the Vestal Virgins would attend and give their blessing to the games.
After the first small start, gladiatorial contests grew in popularity and cost. For example, by the 180’s BCE 60 matched pairs fought in the winter games. But by 65 BCE Julius Caesar held games that pitted 640 gladiators against each other. These fights were held in the Forum or in the Circus Maximus. The famous Coliseum, or Flavian amphitheater, wouldn’t be completed until 80 CE.
It wasn’t until the reign of Ceasar Augustus that the religious aspect of the games was finally jettisoned and they became a civic affair run by the Emperor to help control the Roman mob.
Livy, History of Rome.
David Stone Potter and D.J. Mattingly, eds., Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1999.)
Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 1998)