Opinion is divided about whether gladiatorial combat can be considered a form or sport. On one side are those who insist that men fighting for their lives under compulsion are not athletes engaged in sport but wretches engaged in “a form of warfare for spectators” (Poliakoff 1987: 7). On the other side sit those who argue that gladiators were indeed engaged in a sporting activity, albeit a very dangerous one (Kyle 2007: 18-22, 312-23; Potter 2011: 258-72). On both sides the focus is on what the gladiators were doing and whether those actions can be classified as “sport.”
A different approach is to consider how gladiatorial combats were viewed by the spectators. If gladiatorial combats appealed to ancient spectators for many of the same reasons that modern sport does to its fans, then we shall have gained a very different perspective on this issue, one that sidelines the knotty problem of defining what constitutes “sport” and instead focuses on what made it fun to watch.
Students of modern sport have posited a variety of why fans engaged emotionally with the action. Sports are set apart from the everyday, in both space and in time. They take place in their own designated places (in rings, fields, courts, etc.), on set days and times (during tournaments, or in specific timeslots). Contestants are often dressed and equipped in special ways and have to abide by rules and protocols during the contest. The spectators are familiar with these rules and insist they be enforced fairly, so that umpires or observers are usually on hand to make sure this is the case. As the athletes compete within the confines of the shared rules, knowledgeable spectators appreciate their artistry, skill, and endurance in striving for victory. Outcomes are uncertain, and it an upset victory by an “underdog” can rarely be ruled out.
Gladiatorial spectacles (munera) shared all of these features. The amphitheater was developed as a type of building specifically to stage them, but theaters, stadia, circuses, and forums could all be adapted to accommodate such events. The games officially began with a procession (pompa) and ended when the last gladiatorial pair had fought. In this way, the munera were aside from the ordinary in time and place. Gladiators wore often outlandish outfits and wielded modified weapons that often bore little or no resemblance to equipment used by real ancient warriors. There were rules of engagement (the lex pugnandi) and referees on hand to enforce them. Evidence that spectators could detect collusion (Sen. Ep. 22.1) or lacklustre performances (Petron. Sat. 45.12) shows that the audience were familiar not only with the rules but with the moves gladiators used to achieve victory. Gladiatorial graffiti, etched by the fans themselves, shows that they were looking not for bloody mayhem, but exciting contests fought with style by trained experts. The epitaphs of gladiators suggest the experts bought fully into this “culture of the arena.”
Roman gladiatorial combats shared many of the lures of modern sports. As such, it borders on the churlish to deny that they constituted a form of sport, no matter how deep our disapproval.