A Jewish Gladiator?

Hewn from the ample limestone of Galilee, the Bet She‘arim necropolis houses twenty-one catacombs and nearly 300 inscriptions. In 1973, Benjamin Mazar excavated one such inscription (BETH0100), dated to between 200 and 350 CE:

Greek Text: Γερμανὸς Ἰσακίου Παλμυρηνοῦ

Translation: Germanus, son of Isaac, from Palmyra

Photograph by Hanay. Creative Commons

While the text of the inscription is itself unremarkable, a nearby carving renders it peculiar. The engraving depicts a man—presumably Germanus based on his proximity to the text—wearing the clavi-adorned tunic of an elite and holding a spear.[1] Just as Germanus’ name and burial place suggest that he was a Jew, his weapon and adorned dress indicate that he may have been a gladiator.[2] The Israel Nature and Parks Authority readily adopted this narrative, dubbing Germanus’ burial site the “Cave of the Jewish Gladiator” with a plaque.[3]

The story is a compelling one. Most gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war, or criminals, relegated to the fringes of society and deprived of civil rights. But despite their social exclusion, they were venerated for their bravery and skill, with prominent statesmen like Cicero praising their dedication to their battles.[4] In of his history of Rome, Ab urbe condita (28.21), Livy describes gladiatorial games held in New Carthage in 206 BCE with similar admiration. Freeborn participants, some of whom were famous or ennobled, fought to please their leaders, to display tribal courage, or to resolve long-standing disputes, among other reasons.[5] In select cases, even emperors, like Commodus and Caracalla, fought in the arena—albeit on the condition that they could not be harmed.[6] Emboldened by the same desire for glory, members of the lower classes sometimes participated in the games for free.[7]

The speculation that Germanus was a gladiator is, in some ways, reasonable. Numbering approximately 4,500,000 to 7,000,000 during the Roman period, Jews made up a substantial portion of the Roman Empire’s population.[8] These Jews participated in almost all practices of ancient Rome, making it reasonable to assume that they took part in the games, too.[9] Archaeological evidence, moreover, attests to the existence of Jewish spectators; one inscription found in a theater in Miletus, for instance, designates where Jews sat to watch gladiators fight.[10]

Other evidence points more directly to the participation of Jews, not merely as spectators, but as gladiators themselves. In his agricultural tome, De re rustica (3.8.2), the Roman author Columella writes,“Recently we ourselves might have seen, among the exhibits of the procession at the games at the circus, a man of the Jewish race who was of greater stature, than the tallest German.”[11] The participation of an exceedingly tall Jewish man in the circus procession certainly suggests that there was a Jewish presence in the arena. What is uncertain, however, is whether this Jew served as a gladiator or as one of the many other arena spectacles, including men condemned to death and beast fighters.

The existence of Jewish gladiators is thus up for debate. And, even with the assumption that they did exist, we cannot confidently say that Germanus was one of them. It is worth comparing Germanus’ burial inscription with those of known gladiators across the Roman Empire. Like Germanus’ epitaph, gladiatorial funerary inscriptions were often short.[12] However, these inscriptions usually included an abundance of information about a gladiator’s career, such as his fighting skills, number of victories, and rank.[13] In the images that accompanied their funerary inscriptions, gladiators were typically heavily armed, equipped with swords, daggers, tridents, and the like.[14] All in all, then, Germanus’ inscription is not convincingly one of a gladiator: It contains no details of his career and his single spear does not match the weaponry of other memorialized gladiators.

To provide an alternate explanation, some have suggested that Germanus may have been a soldier, as there is significant evidence that Jews served in both the Roman troops and foreign armies.[15] Both while alive and in their burial inscriptions, Roman soldiers often wore sleeveless tunics decorated with clavi, like the one Germanus wears.[16] Spears, like that of Germanus, were also sometimes depicted in military funerary inscriptions.

The evidence that Germanus was a soldier is therefore more convincing than the evidence that he was a Jewish gladiator. The lack of watertight proof of Jewish gladiators calls into question why Jews might have refrained from assuming the lauded role taken up by so many others—a question made more puzzling by the fact that they served as soldiers. Some have suggested that Jews were hesitant to kill for spectacle, as Jewish law includes many admonitions against unnecessarily shedding blood (Exod. 20:13; Gen. 9:6).[17] Soldiers, on the other hand, killed for a distinct purpose, making their bloodshed theologically justifiable. However, some historians dispute that gladiatorial combat necessarily or even ordinarily ended in death.[18] In fact, to defeat an opponent without killing him was considered a show of great expertise.[19]

Considering this reality, Jews might have eschewed the games for other reasons—perhaps to avoid the negative associations that came with the gladiatorial profession. Though gladiators were widely praised for their skills, they were ultimately social outcasts, subject to intense criticism for their perceived barbarity. Even Cicero, who admired the dedication of gladiators, used the title as a slur for his political enemies.[20] By contrast, being a soldier held no such stigma, perhaps making it a more desirable profession for Jews—particularly because they were already at risk of social isolation under the Roman Empire.[21]

Despite the superior evidence that Germanus was a soldier, it is worth noting that his inscription is not entirely consistent with military epitaphs, either. Like the tombstones of gladiators, military inscriptions emphasized information like a soldier’s unit, rank, age, and length of service.[22] Germanus’ epitaph includes no such details.

If Germanus was neither a gladiator nor a soldier, then what could he have been? Perhaps unexpectedly, he might have been an ordinary civilian. Gladiators, with all their associations of glory, were a common decorative emblem during the Roman period, gracing not just lamps and plates but also the graves of people who were not gladiators.[23] Perhaps Germanus was one such person, immortalized with a symbol of honor that was not his own.

Works Cited

Carter, M.J. “Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement.” The Classical Journal 102, no. 2

(2006/2007): 97–114.

Gunderson, Erik. “The Ideology of the Arena.” Classical Antiquity 15, no. 1 (1996): 113–


Hope, Valerie. “Fighting for Identity: The Funerary Commemoration of Italian Gladiators.”

Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 44, Supplement no. 73 (2000): 93–113.

Lans, Birgit van der. “The Politics of Exclusion: Expulsions of Jews and Others from Rome.” In

People under Power, edited by Michael Labahn and Outi Lehtipuu, 33–78. Amsterdam:

Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

Olshanetsky, Haggai. “Were There Jewish Gladiators? A Re-Evaluation of the Available

Archaeological and Textual Evidence.” ‘Atiqot 111 (2023): 119–148.

Steinberg, Aliza. Weaving in Stones: Garments and Their Accessories in the Mosaic Art of Eretz

Israel in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020.

[1] Haggai Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators? A Re-Evaluation of the Available Archaeological and Textual Evidence,” ‘Atiqot 111 (2023): 134.

[2] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 135.

[3] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 135.

[4] Valerie Hope, “Fighting for Identity: The Funerary Commemoration of Italian Gladiators,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 44, Supplement no. 73 (2000): 94; Erik Gunderson, “The Ideology of the Arena,” Classical Antiquity 15, no. 1 (1996): 137.

[5] Gunderson, “The Ideology of the Arena,” 139-140.

[6] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 122.

[7] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 121.

[8] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 119.

[9] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 143.

[10] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 134.

[11] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 124.

[12] Hope, “Fighting for Identity,” 100.

[13] M.J. Carter, “Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement,” The Classical Journal 102, no. 2 (2006/2007): 98.

[14] Hope, “Fighting for Identity,” 106

[15] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 135; for a discussion of Jewish service in Roman armies, see González Salinero 2022.

[16] Aliza Steinberg, Weaving in Stones: Garments and Their Accessories in the Mosaic Art of Eretz Israel in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020), 86.

[17] Olshanetsky, “Were There Jewish Gladiators?” 143.

[18] Carter, “Gladiatorial Combat,” 106.

[19] Carter, “Gladiatorial Combat,” 112.

[20] Gunderson, “The Ideology of the Arena,” 136.

[21] Hope, “Fighting for Identity,” 111; Birgit van der Lans, “The Politics of Exclusion: Expulsions of Jews and Others from Rome,” in People under Power, ed. Michael Labahn and Outi Lehtipuu (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), 34.

[22] Hope, “Fighting for Identity,” 112.

[23] Hope, “Fighting for Identity,” 112.

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