A retiarius (plural retiarii; literally, "net-man" or "net-fighter") was a Roman gladiator who fought with equipment styled on that of a fisherman: a weighted net (rete, hence the name), a three-pointed trident (fuscina or tridens), and a dagger (pugio). The retiarius fought lightly armoured, wearing an arm guard (manica) and a shoulder guard (galerus or spongia). Typically, his clothing consisted only of a loincloth (subligaculum) held in place by a wide belt (balteus), or of a short tunic with light padding. He wore no head protection or footwear.
The retiarius was routinely pitted against a heavily armed and armoured secutor. The net-fighter made up for his lack of protective gear by using his speed and agility to avoid his opponent's attacks and wait for the opportunity to strike. He first tried to throw his net over his rival. If this succeeded, he attacked with his trident while his adversary was entangled. Another tactic was to ensnare his enemy's weapon in the net and pull it out of his grasp, leaving the opponent defenceless. Should the net miss or the secutor grab hold of it, the retiarius likely discarded the weapon, although he might try to collect it back for a second cast. Usually, the retiarius had to rely on his trident and dagger to finish the fight. The trident, as tall as a human being, permitted the gladiator to jab quickly and keep his distance. It was a strong weapon, capable of inflicting piercing wounds on an unprotected skull or limb. The dagger was the retiariuss final backup should the trident be lost. It was reserved for when close combat or a straight wrestling match had to settle the bout. In some battles, a single retiarius faced two secutores simultaneously. For these situations, the lightly armoured gladiator was placed on a raised platform and given a supply of stones with which to repel his pursuers.
Retiarii first appeared in the arena during the 1st century AD and had become standard attractions by the 2nd or 3rd century. The gladiator's lack of armour and his reliance on evasive tactics made the retiarius the lowliest (and most effeminate) of an already stigmatised class. Passages from the works of Juvenal, Seneca, and Suetonius suggest that those retiarii who fought in tunics may have constituted an even more demeaned subtype (retiarii tunicati) who were viewed not as legitimate fighters but as arena clowns. Nevertheless, Roman artwork, graffiti, and grave markers include examples of specific net-men who apparently had reputations as skilled combatants and lovers.
History and roleRoman gladiators fell into stock categories (armaturae) modelled on real-world precedents. Almost all of these classes were based on military antecedents; the retiarius ("net-fighter" or "net-man"), which was themed after the sea, was one exception. Rare gladiator fights were staged over water; these may have given rise to the concept of a gladiator based on a fisherman. Fights between differently armed gladiators became popular in the Imperial period; the retiarius versus the scaly secutor developed as the conflict of a fisherman with a stylised fish. The earlier murmillones had borne a fish on their helmets; the secutores with their scaly armour evolved from them. However, because of the stark differences in arms and armour between the two types, the pairing pushed such practices to new extremes. Roman art and literature make no mention of retiarii until the early Imperial period; for example, the type is absent from the copious gladiator-themed reliefs dating to the 1st century AD found at Chieti and Pompeii. Fights between retiarii and secutores likely became popular as early as the middle of the 1st century AD, and the net-fighter became one of the standard gladiator categories by the 2nd or 3rd century AD and remained a staple attraction until the end of the gladiatorial games. In addition to the man-versus-nature symbolism inherent in such bouts, the retiarius was water to the secutors fire, one constantly moving and escaping, the other determinedly inescapable. The lightly armoured retiarius was effeminate man to the secutors heavily armoured man.
The more skin left unarmoured and exposed, the lower a gladiator's status and the greater his perceived effeminacy. Likewise, the engulfing net may have been seen as a feminine symbol. The light arms and armour of the retiarius thus established him as the lowliest, most disgraced, and most effeminate of the gladiator types. The emperor Claudius had all net-fighters who lost in combat put to death so that spectators could enjoy their expressions of agony. The retiariuss fighting style was another strike against him, as reliance on speed and evasion were viewed as undignified in comparison to the straightforward trading of blows. The retiarii lived in the worst barracks. Some members of the class trained to fight as Samnites, another gladiator type, in order to improve their status.
There is evidence that those net-men wearing tunics, known as retiarii tunicati, formed a special sub-class, one even more demeaned than their loincloth-wearing colleagues. The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that: So even the lanista's establishment is better ordered than yours, for he separates the vile from the decent, and sequesters even from their fellow-retiarii the wearers of the ill-famed tunic; in the training-school, and even in gaol, such creatures herd apart….
The passage suggests that tunic-wearing retiarii were trained for a different role, "in servitude, under strict discipline and even possibly under some restraints". Certain effeminate men mentioned by Seneca the Younger in his Quaestiones naturales were trained as gladiators and may correspond to Juvenal's tunic-wearing retiarii. Suetonius reports this anecdote: "Once a band of five retiarii in tunics, matched against the same number of secutores, yielded without a struggle; but when their death was ordered, one of them caught up his trident and slew all the victors." The reaction of Emperor Caligula showed the disgust with which he viewed the gladiators' actions: "Caligula bewailed this in a public proclamation as a most cruel murder, and expressed his horror of those who had had the heart to witness it." Rather, such tunic-wearing net-men may have served as comic relief in the gladiatorial programming. Gracchus later appears in the arena:Greater still the portent when Gracchus, clad in a tunic, played the gladiator, and fled, trident in hand, across the arena—Gracchus, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini, or the Marcelli, or the descendants of Catulus or Paulus, or the Fabii: nobler than all the spectators in the podium; not excepting him who gave the show at which that net was flung.Gracchus appears once again in Juvenal's eighth satire as the worst example of the noble Romans who have disgraced themselves by appearing in public spectacles and popular entertainments:
To crown all this [scandal], what is left but the amphitheatre? And this disgrace of the city you have as well—Gracchus not fighting as equipped as a Mirmillo, with buckler or falchion (for he condemns—yes, condemns and hates such equipment). Nor does he conceal his face beneath a helmet. See! he wields a trident. When he has cast without effect the nets suspended from his poised right hand, he boldly lifts his uncovered face to the spectators, and, easily to be recognized, flees across the whole arena. We can not mistake the tunic, since the ribbon of gold reaches from his neck, and flutters in the breeze from his high-peaked cap. Therefore, the disgrace, which the Secutor had to submit to, in being forced to fight with Gracchus, was worse than any wound.
The passage is obscure, but Cerutti and Richardson argue that Gracchus begins the fight as a loincloth-wearing retiarius. When the tide turns against him, he dons a tunic and a womanish wig (spira), apparently part of the same costume, and thus enjoys a reprieve. The change of clothing seems to turn a serious fight into a comical one and shames his opponent. It is unusual to see a gladiator depicted this way in a satire, as such fighters usually take the role of men who are "brawny, brutal, sexually successful with women of both high and low degree, but especially the latter, ill-educated if not uneducated, and none too bright intellectually". The retiarius tunicatus in the satire is the opposite: "a mock gladiatorial figure, of equivocal sex, regularly dressed in costume of some sort, possibly usually as a woman, and matched against a secutor or murmillo in a mock gladiatorial exhibition". The fact that spectators could see a net-fighters' faces humanised them and likely added to their popularity. At Pompeii, graffiti tells of Crescens or Cresces the retiarius, "lord of the girls" and "doctor to nighttime girls, morning girls, and all the rest". Evidence suggests that some homosexual men fancied gladiators, and the retiarius would have been particularly appealing. Roman art depicts net-men just as often as other types. In modern times, popular culture has made the retiarius probably the most famous type of gladiator.
Arms and armourThe retiarius is the most readily identifiable gladiator type, due to his signature equipment: arm guard (manica), shoulder guard (galerus), net (rete), trident (fuscina or tridens), and dagger (pugio). Archaeologists have excavated three engraved shoulder guards from the gladiator barracks at Pompeii: one is engraved with illustrations of an anchor, a crab, and a dolphin; another with cupids and the head of Hercules; and a third with weapons and the inscription RET/SECUND ("retiarius, second rank").
Although the net (rete) was this gladiator's signature weapon, few depictions of the device survive. Because it was thrown, the net was sometimes called an iaculum. that stood about as high as a human being. A skull found in a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey, shows puncture holes consistent with a trident strike. The wounds are 5 centimetres (2 in) apart and match a bronze trident excavated from Ephesus harbour in 1989. The trident's prongs are 21.6 centimetres (8.5 in) long.
A long, straight-bladed dagger (pugio) was the gladiator's final weapon. A tombstone in Romania shows a retiarius with a four-pronged weapon in addition to his trident. A femur bone from Ephesus has wounds consistent with a blow from such a weapon. Attached to the top of this was a long bronze or leather guard over the upper left arm and shoulder, known as a galerus or spongia. Three examples of this protective gear found at Pompeii vary between 30 and 35 centimetres (11.8 and 13.7 in) in length and about the same in width. They weigh about 1.1 to 1.2 kilograms (2.4 to 2.6 lb).
In the Eastern Roman Empire in later years, some retiarii wore a chainmail manica instead of the galerus. This mail covered the shoulder and upper chest. All told, the retiariuss equipment weighed 7 to 8 kilograms (15.4 to 17.6 lb), making him the lightest of the standard gladiator types. Despite the disparity between the nearly nude net-fighter and his heavily armoured adversary, modern re-enactments and experiments show that the retiarius was by no means outmatched. He also fought with three offensive weapons to his opponent's one. The net-fighter had to avoid close combat at all costs, keep his distance, and wait for an opening to stab with his trident or throw his net.—this gladiator was in greater danger of exhausting himself in a long fight. One of the retiariuss tactics was to jab at the secutors shield (the heaviest bit of his equipment), forcing him to block and wear himself out. If the toss missed, the retiarius used the drawrope tied to his wrist to bring the net back in hand.
The net could ensnare the secutors weapon to disarm him and snag away his shield to put him at a significant disadvantage. The helmet of the secutor was smooth and round to avoid snagging the net.
In most bouts, the retiarius probably had to resort to fighting with just his trident and dagger, He held the weapon two-handed, left nearer the prongs, so that he could parry his enemy's strikes with its shaft and strike with both ends. Wielded two-handed, the weapon could land powerful blows. The secutors helmet was rounded and free of protrusions to avoid snaring the net or being caught in the trident's prongs, but attacks on it forced the secutor to duck or hide behind his shield. This reduced his field of vision and gave the retiarius an advantage with his speed.
The retiarius held the dagger in his left hand. He might fight with the trident in one hand and the dagger in the other, but this negated the advantage of distance afforded by the longer weapon when wielded by itself. The dagger also served as a backup should the retiarius lose both net and trident. Nevertheless, the gladiators themselves were prone to boast: A graffito at Pompeii shows the retiarius Antigonus, who claims a ridiculous 2,112 victories, facing a challenger called Superbus, who has won but a single fight.
In some contests, a retiarius faced two secutores at the same time. He stood on a bridge or raised platform with stairs and had a pile of fist-sized stones to lob at his adversaries and keep them at bay. The secutores tried to scale the structure and get at him. The platform (called a pons, "bridge") may have been constructed over water. Such scenarios were one of the rare situations where gladiators were not paired one on one.
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