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Jewish Participation In Roman Gladiatorial Games Remains Uncertain, Study Shows

Scholarly paper finds inconclusive evidence of Jewish gladiators in ancient Rome

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.

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

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

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.

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.

ROME, ITALY – MAY 30: Rome Cinema Orchestra prepares for a show at the Arena Floor of the Colosseum as tourists attend the event in Rome, Italy on May 30, 2023. PHOTO BY PABLO ESPARZA/GETTY IMAGES  

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.”

“It seems that the idea that he was a gladiator was raised and circulated mainly in certain academic circles,” he told Zenger News. “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.”

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 Zenger News asked Olshanetsky about the prohibition on torturing animals too.

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.”


Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate

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