The Colosseum in Rome. Photo by Menachem Wecker.
The Colosseum in Rome. Photo by Menachem Wecker.
featureWorld News

Evidence that ancient Jews watched, but didn’t participate in, gladiatorial games

If a Jews did occasionally fight, they would’ve probably opted to take on animals rather than people, according to a new scholarly article.

A new scholarly paper finds “inconclusive” evidence that Jews participated in the ancient Roman gladiatorial games. But it is clear that they defied rabbinic admonitions and attended the games as spectators, wrote Haggai Olshanetsky, a University of Basel postdoctoral fellow in ancient civilizations.

The article, titled “Were There Jewish Gladiators? A Re-Evaluation of the Available Archaeological and Textual Evidence,” by Olshanetsky, who has also studied Jewish participation in the ancient Roman army, appeared online on June 29 in issue 11 of the journal ‘Atiqot, which the Israel Antiquities Authority publishes.

Olshanetsky notes in the article that there has been relatively little scholarly attention paid to Jewish participation in the gladiatorial games.

“Although the possibility that Jewish gladiators were active in the first-fourth centuries C.E. cannot be ruled out entirely, the evidence remains inconclusive, suggesting that their number was very limited at best,” he wrote.

Three types of people bore weapons in ancient arenas, Olshanetsky told JNS, but although all three are often labeled “gladiators,” two are incorrectly identified as such.

“Gladiators, at least from the first century C.E., were professional warriors who exclusively fought against other people. These were usually other gladiators but were sometimes condemned men, and the gladiators acted as their executioners,” said Olshanetsky. 

In the article, he compares these exalted fighters to football players today. “They were considered attractive by the wealthy women of Rome, and some were paid considerable sums of money to entertain these ladies, including in the bedroom,” he wrote.

Unlike their portrayal in movies, when gladiators fought one another, they used weapons and referees policed the matches, so “they rarely resulted in death,” Olshanetsky told JNS. And gladiators were valuable, so their owners would have done everything to keep them alive, and fighting.

From the first century C.E. and on, a second kind of fighter replaced gladiators, in matches against beasts. These were called “venatores,” according to Olshanetsky. “Unlike gladiators, they usually wore no protective gear, and only fought animals,” he said. “Although they were professionals, they were second tier after gladiators.”

The third type were “condemned men sent to die in the arena, who usually received no training and equipment but fought to the death,” he added.

Not a sense of pride

Asked if there was a sense of pride for Jews in the possibility that Jews fought as gladiators, as there often is with Jewish pirates, Olshanetsky stressed the importance of keeping his distance as a scholar.

“I would not have used the term ‘pride,’ as I believe that a researcher should not confuse his personal views and what he is researching,” he told JNS. “Unfortunately, most researchers fail to do so, although they may be trying to do so.”

Olshanetsky doesn’t see Jewish gladiators as ominous, “but rather a window to see how the Jews were not isolated, they were not different from others and they took part in every aspect of the world that they inhabited.”

Jews sought to assimilate, “and they always managed to find a way to take part in almost all aspects of Roman life,” said Olshanetsky. “Every job, every game, every type of entertainment. It was true not only for the Roman period, and Jewish pirates of the 17th and 18th century are a similar indicator for a different period.”

One figure who might have bridged the piracy and gladiatorial worlds was Reish Lakish, whom the Talmud cites often. In tractate Gittin, on page 47a, the Talmud states that Reish Lakish sold himself luda-ay, which is often translated as meaning “to become a gladiator.” (Elsewhere, he is also referred to as being a former robber.)

Olshanetsky addresses the Talmudic text at length in his paper and concludes that there is a good chance that Reish Lakish was not a gladiator.

“It seems that the idea that he was a gladiator was raised and circulated mainly in certain academic circles,” he told JNS. “It is most probable that he was a criminal, and the misunderstanding was with one of the terms used to describe his ‘associates,’ with some claiming the term meant gladiators.”

The Colosseum in Rome. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Limited rabbinic power

Readers might find many unexpected things in Olshanetsky’s paper, including reference to Roman emperors occasionally fighting as gladiators—with rules adapted to protect them, of course. 

An ancient text also refers to a giant, who may have been a gladiator: “A man of the Jewish race who was of greater stature than the tallest German.” 

Olshanetsky’s main surprise, when he began conducting this research as a doctoral candidate in classical studies at Bar-Ilan University, was the difference between ancient Jews and modern-day ones, “compared to what is taught at school and kindergarten in Israel, as well as in certain academic circles in Israel and abroad.”

“There are too many anachronistic views and assumptions that are based on how Jews are today,” he told JNS. “When looking at Jews in the arena, it is clear as to how limited the rabbis’ power and influence was throughout the Roman period, even in Judea.”

The rabbis opposed Jews watching gladiatorial games, but there is historical evidence that Jews attended anyway. An inscription dated between the second and third centuries C.E. identifies a particular seating area in the theater of Miletus, in western Anatolia (present-day Turkey), as a “place of Jews who (are also known as) the ones who fear God.” Another translation renders it “both of the Jews and of the Godfearers,” but either way, Jews are singled out.

“They often had to succumb to the will of the ordinary people, who continued to do things that the rabbis did not approve,” Olshanetsky told JNS.

Even if Jews ignored rabbinic bans on attending the games, Olshanetsky thinks that if there were Jewish gladiators, they would have preferred fighting animals to fellow humans. Gladiatorial games are not among the few exceptions the Torah provides to the rule that it is sinful to spill human blood, but JNS asked Olshanetsky about the prohibition on torturing animals too.

“I presume that the Jews really wanted to take part in the games and that they compromised,” Olshanetsky told JNS. “For them, fighting animals was the lesser evil. I presume that when you really want to do something, you can always find a justification, so that the animals’ welfare was not an obstacle for those that decided to participate in that capacity.”

There might have been Jewish gladiators

Olshanetsky’s article addresses many pieces of evidence that have been cited as proof of Jewish gladiators, and he finds them all wanting to some degree. He told JNS, however, that there still could have been Jewish gladiators.

“Most of what existed is gone, and what we have is fragments. It is like a puzzle where you don’t have a reference to what you are making, and most of the pieces are missing,” he said. “You try all the time to understand how you can combine the pieces that remain to see the bigger picture while trying to find more pieces.”

Although there is no clear evidence for Jewish gladiators, he said, “and only slightly better evidence for Jewish venatores, there is always the chance that this is just pure luck, statistics, and that there were, in fact, many Jewish gladiators. But the only reconstruction I can offer is according to what we actually have, which is meager.”

The evidence doesn’t point to plentiful Jewish gladiators or venatores.

“On the other hand, I can say that there were plenty of Jews in the audience, who enjoyed cheering those fighting in the arena,” Olshanetsky said. “For this, we have plenty of evidence.”

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates