Perhaps due to our early exposure to the Mel Brooks versus Gregory Hines fight scene in History of the World: Part I, we always figured that trident-and-net gladiators—known in Latin as retiarii—were decidedly badass. For years, in fact, we’ve always claimed that, should we ever suddenly be cast back to the year 100 A.D. and enrolled in gladiator school, we’d choose the trident over the sword or club.
Yet it appears that Hollywood’s depiction of retiarii has caused us to be misinformed. Because as it turns out, trident-and-net gladiators were set up to be easy kills and laughingstocks, rather than legitimate contenders for bloodsport glory:
Without a mask to hide his face from the shame, his trident and net more emblematic of the sea than the conventional arms of the soldier, which formed the military context of other gladiatorial categories, the retiarius is a curious figure, inferior in rank and dignity because of his poor weapons and half-naked vulnerability.
There also is an association with homosexuality and effeminacy. Juvenal relates the story of Gracchus, a aristocratic descendant of the Gracchi, who became the male bride of a horn player (II.1.17ff). But more disgraceful than this affair was that he also fought in the arena as a gladiator, not as a murmillo but assuming the trident and tunic of the retiarius (II.143ff). As a retiarius tunicatus, he missed a throw of the net and was obliged to run for his life (VIII.199ff), the ribbon of his conical hat, presumably an indication that he was a Salian priest, streaming behind him. So mortifying is the display that even the secutor who fought Gracchus is ashamed to be matched against such a person. Inveighing against women in Book VI, Juvenal complains that a lanista manages a cleaner house than one which allows such a person to reside there. At least, the trainer separates the vile from the decent, sequestering “from their fellow-retiarii the wearers of the ill-famed tunic.
Another Roman illusion shattered. The next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that orgies were a myth. Oh, wait…