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Helmets of Roman gladiators

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Various helmets of Roman gladiators
Various helmets of Roman gladiators

Most publications on the Polish market are full of errors in this matter. Konstantin Nosow is the most perfect in the described subject (Osprey’s publication “Gladiators. Bloody spectacle in the history of Rome”, Polish version by Bellona). The illustration shows the most typical gladiators’ helmets from the 1st-4th century CE. The text describes much more matter.

The helmets were mainly made of bronze (only one iron gladiator helmet is known). The earliest of the above is the Chieti G type (the letter G is added to the names of the types of gladiator helmets to distinguish them from legionary helmets). The Chieti G type appeared at the beginning of the Roman Empire and was characterized by a face shield (helmets without face shields were worn before Christ) with round eye holes on which round plates with smaller holes were placed. Moreover, the Chieti type had a round brim-like hat. This type was worn by gladiators of the type: myrmillo (with a fish-fin-shaped crest), thraex (with a gryphon-shaped crest), and hoplomachus (with a more pointed crest than a murmillo).

Later, a type called Pompeii G appeared, which was characterized by some changes for increased visibility and protection – instead of round holes in the mask, it was made of plates with holes (at the top) and closed (at the bottom). In addition, the brim was bent at the sides and at the back, creating something similar to the Beotian helmets (known from the late classical and early Hellenistic epochs 4th-3rd century BCE). The remaining elements, as well as the individual distinction of gladiators thanks to combs, remained unchanged. Both the Chieti and Pompeii types overlapped each other and both examples of helmets were found in Roman Pompeii (destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius in 79 CE). The last type is Berlin G used in the 3rd-4th century CE. The curvature of the brim evolved in such a way that a distinct peak with a connecting cap was created. This is somewhat reminiscent of the famous Roman Niederbieber legion helmet used in the crisis of the 3rd century. The helmets of these 3 types of gladiators were decorated with feathers and horsehair. Due to its design, the murmillo helmet had a horse’s kitty, and the Thraex helmet was decorated with feathers. Hoplomachus, in turn, wore these two elements, or one of them.

It’s time to present the other helmets. The secutor (as well as the rare scissor/arbelas – could be interchangeable names or arbelas was first called scissor) wore a helmet of quite a different design. It had very small openings on the face veil without any additional covers (as in the case of the aforementioned Chieti G helmet). In addition, the comb was very small and rounded. It is all for one reason. Secutor always fought with a retiarius – a netman. This type of net-trident gladiator did not have any helmet and protected the head with a large plate on the left epaulette. This construction of the secutora helmet probably survived until the 4th century. There was also an improved version, where the comb passed through the entire head. We know it only thanks to the preserved reliefs. Some researchers believe that this comb design was intended to cut the retiarius web. However, this is a fairly loose theory. In the meantime, in the 3rd century, a new type of helmet appeared (used in parallel), which we only know from mosaics and frescoes. You can see that the design was quite similar to the difference in the mask, which was completely covered with small holes like a sieve. No copy of what it looked like in practice has survived.

Another helmet type that I would like to discuss in this article is the provocator helmet. In the first century BCE Gladiators of this type fought in ordinary helmets of Roman legionaries. It was most likely an early Gallic Imperial-type helmet. In time, when in the first century CE Type Chieti G appeared, a helmet was created in the style of Imperial-Gallic/Italic with a face shield with holes identical to those in Chieti helmets. This condition could be maintained until the 3rd-4th century because the helmet’s construction would make it difficult to use the shield known from Pompeii/Berlin G helmets. Horse gladiators – eques used Chieti helmets from the 1st-4th centuries. With time, this helmet (when the newer types replaced the Chieti type in the above-mentioned foot gladiators) was only associated only with horse fighting. They had no comb. Another issue worth mentioning is the helmets of less-known types of gladiators – that is, those from source texts, mosaics, sculptures, etc. Andabata was a type of gladiator fighting in a helmet without holes for the eyes. He could rely on hearing. He fought the same opponent. It is not known what this helmet looked like. They could also be the types of gladiators described above, who were intentionally blindfolded in helmets.

A very interesting helmet could be the one belonging to the crupellarius. Crupellarii are fully armoured gladiators that the legionaries encountered during the uprising in Gaul. They defeated them using dolabras (tools that had a pickaxe and an axe on the handle) instead of gladius. This type of gladiator is perhaps depicted in the Vertigny figurine, where you can see a helmet similar in shape to a medieval pot helmet, with holes all over the face and a strange nose-like element. In the beginning, Venatores, i.e. those fighting with animals, most likely used various legionary helmets, e.g. the Montefortino type or the late Hellenistic version of the Thracian helmet. From II, they are shown without helmets (a very large material in the form of mosaics has survived). I will end with gladiators of the paegniarii type. They fought to the delight of the audience in the breaks between serious fights. Paegniarius was probably fighting with a stick and a whip. So they weren’t sharp weapons. Emperor Caligula instead of a professional gladiator, assigned disabled and respected personalities to this role, which was to make the audience laugh. A common problem that appears when viewing gladiators’ helmets in museums or in photos is the assumption in advance – by most people, that they must have been parade/ceremonial helmets. It wouldn’t make much sense. The arguments are usually – their weight, rich decorations, no damage from blows or the question – why did the legionaries not wear them? In fact, the weight did not interfere so much, as the gladiators fought quite briefly, unlike the legionaries. The former fought duels for a dozen or so minutes, while the latter often fought many hours of battles (in addition, there were marches in helmets in the event of an expected ambush). In addition, the visibility during combat – when the line of sight covers one opponent in the arena – during the battle does not require much comment.

When it comes to ornaments, the gladiators’ helmets were much smaller than those of the legions. A lanista (an entrepreneur maintaining and training gladiators) could have several sets for each type, so the expense for a dozen or so helmets was not large. Weapons were not assigned to the gladiator but were exchanged immediately before entering the arena. Finally, there is the question of damage. The helmets were very good protection, made of thick sheet metal. It would be illogical in a 1v1 fight to strike after them. Gladiators were looking for unprotected places, the fight was focused on a lot of concentration. They were well-trained people, not fighting in the hustle and bustle of battle. It should be noted that the provocator outdoor helmet has a face shield supplemented with plates.

Author: Artur Louis Klimko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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