Gladiators in Nyon

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The testimonies of a lamp and a bead

Amphitheatres were monuments built for entertainment. Their architectural and ornamental decoration (statues, marble plating, frescos, etc.) was the reflection of the sponsor’s wealth. With its oval shape, anyone could perfectly see what happened in the arena. The Nyon amphitheatre, from which only the arena and a part of the stands are preserved, was certainly quite similar to the other buildings of its kind, even though we don’t have any direct evidence of the shows that were held.

Every segment of the population could attend the shows in the amphitheater, separated only by their seats in the stands. To organize such shows, free of charge for everyone, was a great way for the high dignitaries to gain the people’s favor.

The public was eager to witness the thrilling duels that the gladiators were sure to deliver. They didn’t come to the amphitheater because they were blood thirsty, but because they were promised spectacular fights. Contrary to received opinion, gladiator fights were subjected to strict rules. Each fight was strictly supervised by referees. They even gave out penalties in case of violation of the regulations. Besides, the fights didn’t systematically end by the death of the fallen gladiator. In most cases, it’s the surrender of one of the fighters that ended the show. It was then to the Emperor, or the organizer of the show, to decide whether to administer the missio (pardon), or to order the killing of the defeated gladiator. The audience could affect the decision by either cheering or booing the protagonists.

Gladiators were the embodiment of strength, courage, bravery and honor, typical roman virtues. They were so admired and popular, that some young Romans dreamed of becoming arena fighters. It’s because these munera represented typical roman virtues that they were so popular, to the ruling classes as well, since they paid good money to organize them, in particular in the provinces. Even if the gladiators were usually war prisoners, slaves or convicted felons, some were volunteers. By giving up their rights as free men, and provided that they had a good physical condition, they could join a ludus (gladiator barrack). Gladiators were sportsmen, who had access to medical care and were submitted to a strict diet. Every victory provided them money and they could hope to be freed after five years of service, as long as they lived that long.

Despite everything the gladiators stood for in the arena, outside they were considered as infamous, just like actors, prostitutes and lanistae (masters of gladiators). They were rejected from society and were devoid of legal, political and social privileges. It’s the whole paradox of the gladiator, on the one side he is a strong fighter, courageous and worshiped in the amphitheater, and on the other side, he is excluded from society, a pariah deprived of rights.

The first object we chose to present is an oil lamp discovered in the Rue du Collège in 1901. Used to illuminate the inside of houses, often ornate, these lamps illustrated the Romans’ taste, preoccupations and trends. This particular one represents a gladiator fight, between a thraex and a murmillo. There are six types of gladiators: retiarius, secutor, murmillo, thraex, hoplomachus and provocator (see the table underneath. We can easily recognize the left fighter, because of the curved blade, typical weapon of the thraex. For the right fighter, it’s a little more difficult, because the murmillo’s and secutor’s gears are quite similar. Then how can we identify him? In fact, gladiator « couples » were strictly regulated, so we know that the thraex only fought the murmillo.

The second object is a small amber bead discovered in 2001 in the Rue de la Porcelaine. It represents a gladiator’s head, a secutor according to the shape of the helmet. This beautiful jewel must have belonged to a resident of Noviodunum. Ancient sources teach us that women liked gladiators as well. Juvenal even talks about a respected senator’s wife who fell in love with a gladiator and left husband and children to flee to Egypt with her lover (Juvela, Satire VI, 82-87).

These two objects, found in Nyon, are proof that the amphitheater shows and its fighters were very appreciated by the inhabitants of the Colonia Iulia Equestris, just like in the rest of the Empire.  With this lamp and small bead, private everyday life objects, we connect with the ancient inhabitants of our city, beyond the official and political testimonies, getting us closer to their reality: a typical roman colony, an image of Rome in the Provinces.

Izmini Farassopoulos
Assistant Curator of the Roman Museum of Nyon
Type of gladiator Opponent


Without helmet and shield, net, trident, metal plate of the left shoulder

Secutor (the Roman’s favorite couple of gladiators)


Curved helmet to avoid the net to catch on, large shield, short sword (gladius), leg protection, and arm protected



Helmet, large shield, short sword (gladius), an arm protected as well as his supporting leg.

Thraex or hoplomachus


Helmet, light shield, curved blade, one protection for the arm, padded tights and long leg protection



Helmet, small and round shield, spear, dagger, long leg protection, one protection for the arm



Helmet without edges and crests, large rectangular large shield, short sword (gladius), one leg protection, arme dar, protected


Something to read:

Collectif, Gladiator: die wahre Geschichte, 22 september 2019 bis 22 März 2020, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Basel, 2019.

L. Chrzanovski, Lumières antiques : Les lampes à huile du musée romain de Nyon, Editions ET, Milan, 2000.

Collectif, Musée romain de Nyon Colonia Iulia Equestris, un site, un musée, Infolio, Gollion, 2019.

Juvénal, Satires, texte établi par P. de Labriolle et F. Villeneuve, traduit par O. Sers, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2002.

Data sheets:

lamp              amber bead


For children

Download a text on gladiators specially made for children

This week's game (in French): "The gladiator's hidden word" (2 levels)

U+21E9.gif Download the text and game down here U+21E9.gif

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