The gladiator is an enduring image from the Roman World still widely recognised today, and while not a military subject, he has been a popular theme for plastic figures over the years. In the modern world boxing is perhaps the closest activity, where two men train hard and then fight each other until one is recognised as the winner. Serious injury and death are of course rare in boxing, but all too common amongst the gladiators of Ancient Rome, where the audience would expect to condemn to death a man who fought poorly and yielded to a superior fighter. Even at the time there were those who saw gladiatorial contests as barbaric, yet they were very popular among the masses, and gladiators who survived could amass both wealth and great renown, as well as attracting considerable interest from some women. The risks were high, but the rewards could be great, and while many were forced into the arena, some actually chose the lifestyle with all its hazards.
The box for this set is very helpful in identifying all the elements to be found here, so we will follow this guide and look at each group of figures in turn.
The first three figures in the top row are gladiators of the myrmillo type. The theme for these men was part man part fish, and they wore a large helmet with full face-guard and crest shaped something like a dorsal fin. Like most gladiators they had some protection on the sword arm and on the legs, but wore no other armour. They carried the short gladius sword and a good shield, and everything about these figures matches what we know of these men well. Any figures holding a shield behind them looks weird to us as it can hardly be used as protection like that, so we liked the second of these three poses the best, and the third the least. The first man holds his shield high, and the wrong way round, which is strange, but at least it reminds us that the shield could also be an effective offensive weapon.
The first three poses in the second row are secutors. Literally meaning ‘pursuer’, these men wore an egg-like helmet lacking much decoration as they often fought a rival with a net, so did not want the net to snag on them. They too had a short, straight sword, and carried a large shield not unlike the military model of the day. One man has greaves on both legs, one on just the leading left leg, and the third is unclear, and all have fabric and/or metal protection on the sword arm. Everything here is entirely accurate, and represents this major type of fighter very well. We also liked the poses a lot, as they are well done and very energetic.
The last figure in the first two rows is a scissor. Both these men have a simpler helmet and no shield, and in compensation they wear mail or solid armour on their body. Both hold an extended bladed gauntlet over the left hand, which was a particular feature of these men as far as we know today. Again nice poses and good-looking figures.
The first two figures in row three are paired, and marked on the box respectively as death and victor. Clearly the first has been defeated by the second, and he is on his knees holding up his left hand as a signal of surrender. At this stage the judges (or the crowd) would have to decide if he lives or dies, and the box shows us the Greek letter theta, for thanatos (‘death’), indicating that he was killed. Both men have very ornate helmets with plenty of feather decoration, and the standing man has what is probably a griffin head on the crest of his helmet in the style of the Thracian fighter, and holds a sica curved sword. These spectacular figures make a nice group and add yet more colour to the collection.
The remaining figures are not gladiators, but others involved in the Games. The third man in row three is labelled as an arbiter, more often called a rudis or summa rudis, the man that referees gladiator combats. His stick is to help separate the two men when the fight is to be stopped, or to chastise men who do not obey his instructions. Like the rest of the support figures here, he wears ordinary Roman garb of a long tunica, and makes a very useful addition to the range.
The last row begins with what the box describes as a haroh, but this character is usually called Charun. He is dressed as the Ferryman of the Dead, who transported them to the afterlife, and his earthly role in the Games was to use his large club to finish off anyone who was dying. Gladiators were not despatched this way, but before the main gladiator event Games held displays where convicted criminals (noxii), who had been condemned to die, fought each other or animals in the arena. Such men who failed to die this way would be finished off by Charun, who wore the horned mask and black costume as befitted his character and function. Beside him is one of the arena slaves (harenarii or libertinarii) dragging a corpse out of the arena with hooks. Again this is more likely to be noxii than a gladiator, although here the victim is clearly dressed as a gladiator. The box calls this figure lorarius, but that was someone who whipped humans or animals to get them to fight, which is not what is going on here.
The penultimate figure in this complex set is identified as a lanista. This was the manager, the man in charge of a school or troupe of gladiators. While it is tempting to think of him as a sort of ancient boxing manager, in truth he was seen more as a sort of pimp, and not a respectable member of society. He wears the tunica and, for some reason, a sort of sash across the body, and carries a whip. A manager would not normally look like this, and instead the figure is almost identical to an image in the Osprey book of a doctor. Forget any medical meaning here – a doctor was a trainer, and he carried a big stick with which to encourage the gladiator and reinforce his instructions. So the whip is odd (but easy to convert into a stick), and the labelling is wrong here too. Finally we have an unlabelled figure of a woman holding aloft a crown of laurel leaves (‘corona’) with which to garland a victorious gladiator.
We can see no problems with the accuracy of any of these figures, given the incorrect labelling we have already discussed. All the gladiatorial features are properly done, and both weapons and clothing are authentic. The gladiators are correctly shown barefoot, and they hold their shields in the correct fashion. The sculpting is excellent, with plenty of rich, intricate detail to enjoy. The shields are very nicely engraved with patterns, and the helmet masks and plumes are particularly good. Our figures had not a trace of flash, and for the most part the sculptor has been especially successful in producing dynamic, lively poses carrying blades and shields, yet without the need to assemble anything. One or two of the shields are held a bit awkwardly, but overall the result is very satisfying.
This is a decent set of gladiators in its own right, and makes an excellent addition to the several other gladiator sets already made by others listed below. The generous 16 poses means Ultima Ratio have been able to provide a very useful collection of support staff yet still provide a good range of the fighters they supported. To do this with an impressive quality makes this set easy to love, and anyone thinking of putting on some miniature games will certainly need plenty of these attractive figures to tell the full story.