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This webpage reproduces an article in the
of the American Philological Association

Vol. 70 (1939), pp46‑50.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p46  Morituri Te Salutamus
H. J. Leon
The University of Texas

Celebrated among the practices of the ancient Romans is the colorful salute of the gladiators. The procession of burly fighters entered the arena, marching to the music, and when they reached the emperor's box, to quote Carcopino's recent book, La vie quotidienne à Rome, "they turned toward the prince and with right arm extended in his direction as a mark of homage, addressed to him that mournful, prophetic salute, Ave imperator, morituri te salutant."​1 With minor variations of details this rite is described in numerous works dealing with Roman antiquities,​2 so that it has become one of the best known and most often cited of Roman customs. Some writers represent each gladiator as stopping to have his weapons examined by the editor of the games before lifting his right arm and intoning the salute.​3 Usually the salute is quoted with the verb in the first person, salutamus, rather than with the third-person form, salutant.

The locus classicus for the gladiatorial salute, which is cited by those modern authorities who give any references at all, is Suetonius' Life of Claudius 21.6. The Emperor Claudius had, in A.D. 52, constructed an under­ground channel for draining  p47 the waters of Lake Fucinus in the central Appennines in order to protect the surrounding district from floods and to reclaim the area for agriculture. Suetonius says: "Before draining the waters of Lake Fucinus he gave a naval battle there. When the fighters shouted the words Ave imperator, morituri te salutant, Claudius answered: Aut non; after which statement, as though he had pardoned them, they all refused to fight." The historian goes on to state that Claudius went into a tantrum, threatening to destroy them all with fire and sword, jumping from his seat and dashing around the lake, and alternately shrieking threats and imploring them to go on with the fight. Cassius Dio, writing a century after Suetonius, describes the same event, giving the words of the fighters with the Greek verb in the first person plural.4

Besides these two passages, which refer to the same episode, there is no other ancient reference to a salute of the gladiators, and in this case it was uttered not by gladiators at all, but by naumachiarii, i.e. the fighters in a naumachia, or exhibitionary naval battle. A brief examination of the nature of the naumachiae may throw more light on the salute which Claudius received.5

The first exhibition of this kind, so far as is known, was given in 46 B.C. by Julius Caesar during his triumphal games, in a lake especially constructed for this purpose in the Campus Martius near the Tiber.​6 Thereafter naumachiae were given on other special occasions, notably by Augustus in 2 B.C.,​7 by  p48 Claudius in the affair already mentioned, twice by Nero,​8 by Titus,​9 Domitian,​10 and now and then perhaps by later emperors, although there are no certain references to such spectacles after Domitian.​11 Augustus built a huge lake across the Tiber for his naumachiae and this was used later also.​12 Titus and Domitian flooded the Colosseum for this purpose, while Domitian dug a new lake near the Tiber.13

The naumachiae usually represented with horrible and bloody realism certain great naval battles of history. For example, Caesar, using four thousand oarsmen and two thousand fighters, represented an engagement between the Tyrians and Egyptians with the men wearing the dress of those nations.​14 Augustus had three thousand fighters, representing Athenians and Persians, act out the battle of Salamis.​15 Claudius, in the Lake Fucinus affair, used nineteen thousand men, who put on a battle between Sicilians and Rhodians with fifty large warships on each side.​16 Under Titus three thousand men gave a thrilling representation of the celebrated sea  p49 fight between the Athenians and the Syracusans.​17 On another occasion Titus represented Corcyreans and Corinthians battling in the flooded Colosseum.18

The naumachiarii, who did the fighting, differed from gladiators in that they were not professionals especially trained for this sort of exhibition, since the naumachiae, as we have seen, were not regular games, like the gladiatorial contests, but were given infrequently and on special occasions.​19 Ordinarily the naumachiarii were war captives and criminals who had been condemned to die.​20 Instead of being quietly executed in a dungeon, they were used for the purpose of giving the populace the thrilling and bloody type of entertainment in which it delighted. Consequently, a naumachia was a spectacular form of execution, a battle fought until all the participants were killed.21

In the light of this information, let us return to Claudius' naumachia on Lake Fucinus. Dio, in the passage describing the event, states definitely that the fighters were criminals condemned to die. We learn further from Tacitus​22 that in order to prevent the escape of the nineteen thousand desperate men, the central portion of the lake was entirely surrounded by a ring of rafts or floats, manned by the crack soldiers of the praetorian guard, both infantry and cavalry, who were protected by ramparts and equipped with catapults and ballistae, and further reinforced by ships bearing marines ready for action. Tacitus states also that, although the fighters were criminals (sontes), they fought with the courage of brave men and after much bloodshed were excused from the slaughter. His use here of the word occidioni, taken in connection with the status and character of the men, would tend to indicate  p50 that the total extermination of the combatants was to be expected but that they were excused because of the bravery with which they fought. While Tacitus does not mention the salute, Dio states that gathering in a body before the fight began, they saluted the Emperor (he gives the Greek equivalent of the words quoted by Suetonius, except for the person of the verb),​23 and that when they found that this appeal did not save them and they had to fight all the same, they tried to inflict as few wounds as possible, until they were forced to kill one another in earnest.

Combining the three accounts, we can reasonably assume that, condemned as they were to die, these convicts invoked Claudius with their morituri te salutant, which was not a regular and formal salute, but an appeal used only on that occasion in the hope of winning the Emperor's sympathy. When he replied Aut non, they took his words as meaning aut non morituri and indicating pardon — Suetonius says quasi venia data — and refused to fight, but finally yielded either to the entreaties of the Emperor or to force, and fought bravely until the survivors were excused from further slaughter.

My conclusion is, accordingly, that there is no evidence whatever for the much-quoted salute of the gladiators. The only two ancient references, those in Suetonius and in Dio, refer not to gladiators but to naumachiarii, men condemned to die, and even these references are to one specific episode, the circumstances of which indicate that the supposed salute was not even a regular salute of the naumachiarii.

The Author's Notes:

1 Jérôme Carcopino, La vie quotidienne à Rome à l'apogée de l'empire (Paris, Hachette, 1939), 277. There is a similar description in Grant Showerman, Rome and the Romans (New York, Macmillan, 1932), 338. Compare H. W. Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans, revised by Mary Johnston (Chicago, Scott, Foresman, 1932), 287.

2 K. Schneider in the Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie des klassischen Altertums, Supplementband III (1918), col. 781, mentions the salute and so does G. Lafaye in Daremberg-Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, Vol. II, 1595, with the qualifying statement that this is the case only if it may be assumed from Suetonius, Claudius, 21. L. Friedländer, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms10, edited by G. Wissowa (Leipzig, Hirzel, 1922), II.72, cautiously says vielleicht.

3 So W. S. Davis, A Day in Old Rome (Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1925), 401.

4 Dio 60.33.3‑4. The words of the salute are χαῖρε, αὐτόκρατορ· οἰ ἀπολούμενοί σε ἀσπαζόμεθα.

5 For accounts of the naumachia see in particular L. Friedländer, op. cit. (see note 2), II.92‑94: P. Fabia in Daremberg-Saglio, IV.10‑12; Bernert in Pauly-Wissowa, XVI, cols. 1970‑74. It should be noted that the term naumachia is employed not only for the naval battle but also for the artificial basin in which it was generally held.

Thayer's Note: For an overview of the spectacle, see the article Naumachia in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities; for the various basins in the city of Rome, the (seven) Naumachiae entries in Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary.

6 Suetonius Caesar 39.4; Dio 43.23.4; Appian Bellum Civile 2.102. According to Suetonius it was held in minore Codeta, the precise location of which is not known.

7 Monumentum Ancyranum 4.43‑48; Suetonius Augustus 43.1; Dio 55.10.7.

8 In A.D. 57 or 58 (Dio 61.9.5) and in A.D. 64 (Dio 62.15.1); cf. Suetonius Nero 12.1. Some think, however, that both descriptions in Dio actually refer to the same episode. See Pauly-Wissowa XVI.1972.

9 Suetonius Titus 7.3; Dio 66.25.2‑4; cf. Martial Liber Spectaculorum 24 and 28.

10 Suetonius Domitian 4.1.2; Dio 67.8.2‑3.

11 According to Lampridius Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Elagabalus 23, the Emperor Elagabalus in the third century had a great basin flooded with wine and staged navales circenses therein, but these may have been boat races rather than a naumachia (cf. Daremberg-Saglio IV.12). In A.D. 247 Philip the Arab, celebrating the millennium of the city, gave water games of all sorts in an artificial lake across the Tiber and these may possibly have included a naumachia (Aurelius Victor Caesares 28.1).

12 Monumentum Ancyranum 4.44‑45. It was used later, for example, by Titus (cf. Suetonius Titus 7.3; Dio 66.25.3).

13 Dio 66.25.2‑3; Suetonius Domitian 4.1. For Domitian's new basin see Suetonius Domitian 4.2 and Dio 67.8.2.

14 Suetonius Caesar 39.4; Appian Bellum Civile 2.102.

15 Monumentum Ancyranum 4.48; Dio 55.10.7. Later Nero seems to have imitated Augustus' spectacle (Dio 61.9.5).

16 So Dio 60.33.3. In the text of Suetonius Claudius 21.6, however, the number of ships appears as twelve on a side. The larger figure is more suitable for the 19,000 fighters who were engaged (Tacitus Annals 12.56.2).

17 Dio 66.25.4.

18 Dio 66.25.3.

19 So also Bernert in Pauly-Wissowa, XVI.1973.

20 Dio 43.23.4; 60.33.3.

21 In a naumachia given by Domitian virtually all the participants were slain, according to Dio 67.8.2.

22 Annals 12.56.

23 See Note 4.

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