It must have been an intoxicating sensation, walking out into the arena to the cheers of your fans as you display yourself all geared up and ready for battle. Perhaps you are supremely confident of victory, but perhaps there are some nerves – you think you can triumph, but there can be surprises, and your opponent is no pushover, since they have been carefully selected to be a fair match for you. Today this might describe a major professional sportsman as they prepare for their contest, but in ancient Rome it could describe a gladiator, about to face his latest challenge. There are many similarities between the two, but of course the major difference is the gladiatorial bout might result in injury or even death for one of the contestants, an outcome all have to accept as an occupational hazard, and indeed one that most will experience during their careers.
Roman gladiatorial games are as famous today as they were two thousand years ago, and while comparisons to modern sports are realistic, perhaps the more meaningful comparison is to theatre. The gladiators were there primarily to put on a show, and the various different types were carefully created so as to provide an entertaining bout, with two of the more common ones forming the contents of this set. To the left of our images there are the retiarii, a type named after the net (‘rete’) which was their unique tool, as they were themed after fishermen. All three such figures in this set are armed and equipped in the usual manner, having no helmet (again unique to the retiarii), a loincloth with thick belt, quilted padding for the left arm and a large plate protection (‘galerus’) on the shoulder. Apart from the net they are armed with a trident (‘fascina’), although one has some form of long fork with only two prongs, for which we could find no evidence. There must therefore be some doubt cast on the design of this item, although it would be impossible now to say with certainty that such a device was never used. The three poses are rather flat, but it would be remarkable for a figure made in the traditional way to realistically portray the use of the net, so these are not too bad.
The rest of the top row is filled with the other major gladiator type here, the provocators. This type was less flamboyant than the retiarii, but a rather heavier fighter, having a helmet with full face mask, protected right sword arm (‘manica’), greave on the leading left leg and a piece of armour (‘cardiophylax’) on the upper chest. They carried a sword somewhat like the legionary gladius, and a rectangular shield, again resembling that of the legions, although probably better made. All this gave this type good protection, especially when compared to the retiarius, who had to rely on his greater mobility and vision to keep himself from harm. The three poses on offer here are much more conventional swordsmen examples, and all are pretty good, not least because all are actually endeavouring to keep their shield between them and their opponent. They have somewhat less of the action of the retiarii, which is appropriate as the weight of their kit and their limited visibility made them somewhat slower in the fight. We really liked all the poses, even the first, who, although he holds his sword over his head, does so slightly to the side, a far more realistic pose than the impossible direct-over-the-head pose we often see.
This small set of eight poses is completed with an interesting couple of characters. The first is a gladiator holding an enormous palm branch, which was a symbol of his victory, but as he has removed his helmet his type is not easy to deduce. He raises his sword in celebration, and makes a refreshing change from the usual fighting poses. Beside him is a woman. Women had many roles to play in the staging of games, and while a few were actually gladiators themselves, most were in various support roles, just as many might be in modern theatre, including aspects of costume, catering, perhaps a dancer or other performer, or maybe presenting the prize. She holds a goblet, perhaps to refresh the victor, and also a gladiator’s helmet, so maybe that of our celebrating champion. Certainly her costume is not that of an ordinary citizen, being a low-cut dress that is showing a lot of thigh, so clearly meant for show, as is her unrestrained long, flowing hair.
The sculpting of these figures is pretty good. Detail is fine, and the musculature is convincing too, which is particularly important here. The retiarii poses are quite flat as we have said, and the first man in our second row is in a rather odd pose which we did not care for, holding his weapon across his body while looking straight ahead and swinging his net high over his head (which will surely catch on the prongs momentarily). On the other hand the provocators benefit greatly from having separate shields, which fit quite well onto the large hand that includes the boss, and so makes a firm fit that we found required no glue. What does require glue however is the separate right sword arm of the last provocator, which is a somewhat vague fit and certainly will not stay in place by itself. However, the resulting pose is very good, so if you are prepared to go to the effort of assembly, this is a figure well worth having. On our samples we found very little flash, which is always a bonus.
The prongs on the tridents are fairly short but could if anything be shorter – they only needed to be long enough to penetrate a body and reach the organs, while there was always the risk of snaring on the net, so illustrations show them as quite short. This applies particularly to the dubious fork weapon too, but we were also a little disappointed that only one of these three men clearly carries a dagger (‘pugio’), which was the weapon used to finish off a defeated opponent. We have no complaints about the provocators, and the only troubling feature of the last two figures is the huge palm branch, which seems excessive. The lady could have several uses – perhaps a ‘super-fan’ visiting the gladiator at the school – but overall this is a decent collection of gladiator figures that match well with the other gladiator sets from this manufacturer. Indeed, Retiarii were rarely matched against a provocator, so you really should match them against others in other sets, and you will also need to look to other sets for the officials shown on the box, but for fans of this violent form of Roman entertainment these figures are a nice if somewhat uneven addition to the hobby.