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Ave Caesar morituri te salutant! – how often did the gladiators say these words?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Naumachia, Ulpiano Checa
Naumachia, Ulpiano Checa

Ave Caesar morituri te salutant! (“Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!”) was a greeting of gladiators before the fight to the emperor. We know about the existence of this phrase thanks to the preserved work of Suetonius. The only question is whether those words were uttered always before the fight?

In the mass culture is known scene from film “Gladiator”, when before the fight Maximus’ rival – Tigris from Gaul – utters the famous words Ave Caesar morituri te salutant! to Emperor Commodus.

Those words, however, have been highly popularized in culture. Based on the sources it should be clearly stated that we have only one primary source, where it has been mentioned. Suetonius, in his biography of Claudius, describes the greeting that prisoners and convicts were to deliver to the Emperor Claudius in 52 CE, before fighting on the waters (the so-called naumachia) of Lake Fucinus. The ruler answered: Aut non (“Or not”), what forced to fight men understood as pardoning and did not want to fight any more. The emperor supposedly was already to use his pretorians, catapults and ballists to end disobedience; but finally he managed to get them into the fight.

This event is repeated by Cassius Dion and Tacitus who, however, skips the phrase. We do not have any other sources that would mention this greeting – what proves that it was just a one-off event.

  • Suetonius, Claudius, 21

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