Bronze Samnite gladiator, Rome, 30 BC-68 AD

Bronze Samnite gladiator, Rome, 30 BC-68 AD
Dating:30 BC–68 AD
Origin:Roman World,
Physical:13.3cm. (5.2 in.) - 350 g. (12.4 oz.)

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  This exquisitely detailed bronze sculpture represents a Samnite gladiator. Samnites were some of the most heavily armed of all gladiators. They typically wore a bronze helmet (galea) adorned with a high crest and plume, fitted with a visor that opened down the middle and was pierced with round holes. Their left leg—and only their left leg—was protected by a boiled-leather or metal greave (ocrea). Their right arm, knee, and ankles were protected by thick leather bands (fasciae), and they wore a massive leather belt. They wielded a sword (gladius, hence the name ‘gladiator’), and a large square shield (scutum, missing from this sculpture). After the reign of Emperor Augustus, Samnites were increasingly called hoplomachi and switched to a smaller, circular shield.

The Roman games were in great part an instrument of government propaganda. Roman citizens were invited to watch beasts and men, dressed in costumes representative of peoples defeated by Rome, slaughter each other. That spectacle comforted the public in their conviction of the superiority of the Roman people over the barbari. In this case, the barbari were the Oscan-speaking people of Samnium, who fought three long wars (343-290 BC) against the people of Rome, humiliating the Roman army in 321 BC, and who were finally conquered by the Romans in 290. Their land, today’s Campania, was absorbed into the Roman empire, and by 80 BC all remaining Samnites had been either massacred or Romanized.

Gladiators are a rare subject matter for a bronze figurine, and this one probably dates back to the beginning of the Roman Empire (30 BC-68 AD). The shape of the helmet is uncommon. The sword and the ornament on top of the helmet are modern reconstructions.

This piece, once in the Collection Peytel, may have also been published in Morter’s work on Bronze of the Classical World under number 265 (unverified).

Bibliography (for this item)

Clayton, Peter
1986 Treasures of Ancient Rome. Gallery Books, New York, NY. (

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