During the Belle Epoque of France gladiators were held up as the very model of physical perfection due to their athletic ability, aesthetic form and stoicism in the face of duress so it is no surprise that they caught the imagination of Georges Dubois, the noted Olympian, fencer, writer, martial artist, fight director and sculptor. In a series of articles in the La Culture Physique magazine in late 1907 and early 1908 he describes his interest, research and the results of his study.

He started by searching the National Library of France for original gladiator treatises without success, he then engaged the foremost classical researchers of the Roman era, primarily Mr Escarre author of “Gladiators and their Legal Status”, to see what information they had and used this to gain a personal understanding of the role gladiators played society and their lifestyle as well as other curious tales, such as that of the Emperor Commodus who kept rooms in the gladiator school and entered the arena on hundreds of occasions (as seen in the film “Gladiator”).

He realised that he would not find any explicit techniques so set up practical experiments which comprised donning appropriate equipment and assaulting with peers to see what techniques and advice would work best, choosing to concentrate on the Murmillo and Retiarius styles of combat, being both iconic and also suited to allowing mixed body types to play against each other; smaller, faster players becoming Retiarii, larger, stronger players taking the role of Murmillo.

Dubois explains his gladiator combat had two purposes. Firstly as an interesting outdoor game that has all the skill and exercise of modern fencing but that also added wrestling and leaping into the mix and, secondly, as an interesting spectacle that makes an amusing interlude during other fencing or exercise displays. For the latter, he says, players should wear Roman costume as it will add to the spectacle. For the former a rope net, wooden swords and daggers, javelins, a large wooden board and a fencing mask are needed to play.

Finally, he makes it explicit that these fighting techniques are not historically recorded but have come from logical deductions after much practice as to what seems practical yet realistic, because of this fights will be short so it is best to run a series of games.

This following is a summary of the advice and techniques he came up with for the two roles.

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Advice for the Murmillo

The Murmillo wears a helmet with large cheek guards, a face plate and a short throat guard. His left arm bears a large, rectangular shield held vertically in front, 1m high x 60cm wide, curved along the short edge. His right arm carries a short gladius, with both edge and point, and is protected by a sleeve covered with mail or iron scales held in place by a leather belt across the chest and back. The left leg is often to the front due to the guard so is protected by a bronze greave. Besides this he clothed with a loincloth, held in place with a decorated leather belt, often also with a leather corselet protecting the stomach. Other body parts rely on the protection of muscle and ligaments, while a coloured turban protects his skull.

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Using brute force the Murmillo will always win due to size and strength. A Murmillo, gifted with speed and presence of mind, can go straight in, shield horizontal, under the spread net and transfix the Retiarius before the net can descend, taking advantage of his shield and other pieces of armour and will run at, and kill, the Retiarius with sword blows.

Parries of quarte and quinte are particularly used against stops made with the trident against the shield, when the butt end is braced to impede the Murmillo’s advance; quarte is at pectoral height with quinte at stomach height, both inside and outside, as the trident will slide off in both cases against the shield. When the Murmillo parries quinte he can trample the head of the trident with his right foot he which the Retiarius must then abandon. The Retiarius cannot replace his trident into an attack so against this one must make a new simple opposition of quarte or quinte. The contre of these parries is not used.

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The parry of sixte is at pectoral height, both inside or outside but this parry is done only when a threat surprises the Murmillo, such as when he holds the gladius pointed to the ground and a trident blow threatens the chest, which results in raising the arm to chase the trident, either inside or outside. If the Retiarius disengages this then re-pass in turn the tip of the gladius under the trident and chase it inside or outside.The parry of quarte is used with difficulty against stops to the head; the plates of the helmet and the faceplate will bind the teeth of the trident so it is better, to annul the Retiarius’ threat to the head, is to bend the torso and the legs, that is to say drop down in height and to hide behind the shield held vertically.

A parry of sixte and seconde are used to oppose a horizontal moulinet made to the body, the right arm and the legs.

Thus upon the receiving a moulinet to the head, retreat and parry sixte; to the body, retreat and parry second; to the calves, withdraw and parry seconde; to the foot, jump and let it pass underneath.

The Murmillo has every interest in disarming the Retiarius of his trident; this is relatively easily if the Murmillo has a lively hand. If you notice that the Retiarius is too close, probably due to being tired, then hide yourself behind the shield by turning your left shoulder toward the Retiarius so you are in profile; place the grip of the gladius in the left hand, which is only holding the shield grip; make the trident blow slide to the right off the curved centre of the shield, and, just as he steps, seize the trident head underneath; pull violently while leaping in toward the adversary and take advantage of the close contact to slide your hand along the neck of the trident. The Retiarius will lash out to throw his net but avoid reacting to this.

The Murmillo can equally, having seized the trident, dive underneath the weapon, bracing the trident upon his left shoulder, while making a brisk turn to the rear and breaking the neck off by then dropping the head briskly to the ground. It is certain in this way that the Retiarius will no longer be able to use this weapon as the Murmillo will have thrown the trident far away from him and seized the Retiarius’ hands.

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Defend prime with the shield, held above your head, against a spread net. Capturing the net is generally done after the first disarm as the Murmillo has a greater fear of the net than the trident and will give it all his attention due to its various actions.

Sometimes the Murmillo abandons his shield, such as when the Retiarius no longer has a trident, and, with his left hand free, will seek to grab the net, though abandoning your shield allows you to be snared by a vertical moulinet.

The vertical moulinet is opposed by dropping down to make the net slide over your back so it will carry on behind without harm. The defence against the diagonal moulinet is the same. The horizontal moulinet is defended by turning and ceding from where he throws in order to make the net unfurl.

A simple technique is, as called in modern fencing, “thrusting short” so as to deceive the Retiarius into fighting at the wrong measure because, if the holes of the net snag on your armour, you will fall over from the Retiarius’ tugs.

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In principle, the Murmillo must not allow himself be taken with these two attacks. If enveloped the Murmillo must launch himself upon his adversary, stick close to him by pushing into him with the shield and attack him in whatever way possible. Do not try to escape or cut yourself free as this is time the Retiarius will take to attack you. The Murmillo must strike all about himself obliging the Retiarius to avoid these attacks and distract him from trying to attack the Murmillo.

In general, the Murmillo must never resist the grip made by any of the three moulinet attacks; he must cede to their pull and work with them.

The Murmillo must never present his exposed areas of his body, that is to say, his back. The defences against the three moulinets have the advantage not only of making the net slide over him but also that it is only the front of the gladiator that is threatened.

When the net is released the Murmillo must leap upon the Retiarius, before he can try to get back into a protective guard, seeking close combat by flattening his shield against the adversary and striking the body with the gladius tip while also following up with a thrust then a cut to the calf which will slice the tendon and muscles which flex the thigh and cause the Retiarius to fall.

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Advice for the Retiarius

The Retiarius chambers his net on his left arm, just like a modern fisherman. A 60-75cm cord attaches it to his fist and he aims to throw this net over the Murmillo to envelop him then use skilful jerks to unbalance him and kill him with trident blows.

The Retiarius needs to use skill, speed and science to win, though sometimes close-combat occurs so the Retiarius must drop his trident and grab his dagger.

Some dare to immediately abandon the trident and, wrapping the net into a bundle, enter close combat and stab the Murmillo between the shoulders with their dagger or trident.

The Retiarius must take advantage at the very second that the Murmillo is exposed by taking his balance in order to strike at him in an exposed area.

The trident has certain usefulness against the head if the threat is made from more than 10cm from the helmet. Badly done it will just jam in the angle made by the grill and plates of the helmet.

A Retiarius can easily, as is done by fencers, deceive a parry of sixte by passing his trident under the gladiator’s right hand to return the threat to the chest.

Use the trident to oppose the Murmillo’s approach by pushing against his shield with the trident.

The weight of the net forms a bundle, a sort of lasso, which, projected with a moulinet, allows the adversary to be seized by his lower legs, the body and even the head. These moulinets can be horizontal, vertical and even diagonally.

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To make a horizontal moulinet seize the net with the left hand then pass the trident underneath, pointing to the left; throw the net from left to right while passing your fist overhead and describe, without letting go of the net, a full horizontal circle above you; as the net goes rigid slowly release the net in such a way that the diameter increases, without losing rigidity, finally releasing toward the target that one desires to envelop, while hopping forward; then thrust brutally at whatever you have enveloped (usually his legs). The Retiarius can seize the leg with a riposte of a horizontal moulinet

The vertical is the fastest moulinet. It is performed directly upon the Murmillo’s approach and must, however possible, be aimed at the Murmillo’s right shoulder, covering all of his head. If the spread net is cast without result, that’s to say when the Murmillo is not enveloped, either as he retreated just in time, or the net was badly cast, let go off the cord and retreat so as to gain the full length of the bundle and oppose using the net as a “mobile wall”. Then seize the peak of the net with the right hand in such a way to maintain the rigidity of the bundle even as the left hand abandons it to take up lower down, about 1.2m from the weighted edge. The left hand must be placed underneath, palm turned to the ground, to seize the weight of the net securely. Then cast briskly to the rear and perform the moulinet from back to front while opening the fingers so that the lead weights, having described a circle to the rear, pass to the vertical and strike down upon the Murmillo. If the distance is well judged the lead weights will strike the Murmillo in the hollow of his back. Carry oneself to the right while casting the net and turning in such a way as to disrupt the Murmillo, who often falls or cannot protect himself, even as he thrusts by twisting his torso from left to right. This movement exposes his back as he falls, so strike between the shoulder blades either with the trident, or with the dagger, if the trident is abandoned. If he doesn’t fall, strike from a little distance with the trident for preference.

Make the diagonal moulinet in the same way, using it to turn the adversary from left to right and strike out in such a way that the lead weights strike on their left scapula and then thrust brutally. If the blow is well made the Murmillo will pivot and fall on his left knee, sometimes without his shield, and easily be struck.

It is easy to understand that the Retiarius must not try any attack to the adversary’s face as it is entirely protected.

The Retiarius can gain a moment of rest by adopting the following form of defence called “Fanning”. If it appears that the Murmillo pursues with less vigour, perhaps from being tired, the Retiarius forms his net in a bundle and, with the trident, seizes the right edge of the net. He extends this edge to the right and then extends the left edge. He then has a large fan in front of him. This is also very decorative and pleasing to onlookers.

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When the net is placed in a fan, the triangle formed is made up of two layers, the “Double Fan”. The net is 12m in circumference, thus the Retiarius has a surface of 6m available. As two layers doubles the effect the Retiarius can usefully try to envelop his adversary with a doubled net. Launching it is somewhat very easy and very formidable. Seize the net in the right hand at the peak, near the connection to the cord; slide the left hand 75-80cm from this point and hold the weight of the net suspended; let go the peak of the net with the right hand and use it to take up the  inside edge of the triangle (which will be to the right as a consequence), as close as possible to the weighted edge; make several leaps backwards and place the right hand at shoulder height, as in the initial guard and prepare oneself, while balancing, both in front and behind, the pleats which are held; release them from left to right onto the Murmillo, exactly as if making the spread attack, that’s to say while opening the fingers of the left hand, assuming that the attack works pull brutally and try to upset and unbalance the adversary.

If the Murmillo can grab the net he will thrust over the top allowing you to gradually determine the distance from which he is able thrust with his gladius, which a Retiarius will not be able to match with his much shorter dagger.

Even though a Retiarius is disarmed of his trident there is no reason his right hand must stay inactive, it can contribute to horizontal moulinets, adding force and speed and helping to alternate with vertical moulinets. In a word the net must be manoeuvred alternating between both hands.

Generally when the adversaries are at wrestling range they are out of breath which is when the Retiarius tends to try to chamber his net to retake the initial guard and distance.

When a Retiarius is armed with a trident it will be in his right hand thus a horizontal moulinet will not reach his adversary on their left side even if he throws from right to left.

A reverse to the right upon a net seizure is used when, having snapped the trident, the Murmillo tries to grab the net, seizing the pleats by the weighted edge. The Retiarius must immediately and vigorously throw out his left arm and seize the hanging portion of the net with his right hand which must then be balanced and a reverse made from right to left which, well done, will strike down onto the helmet.

If his head is seized by the net, and the Murmillo has no other choice than to let go and lower his head, then make a reverse blow.

On the occasion that you have thrown the net uselessly the Retiarius can try to throw an unfurled net with a reverse by drawing back the net, which has fallen spread, then form the net into a bundle and use it to impede the Murmillo’s approach.

After you are sure that he is not gaining on you draw back fully, and turn fully against the adversary from left to right, that’s to say the side opposite the sword arm. With the right hand seize the peak of the net, then, draw it all in while always turning, seize most of the pleats with the left hand one metre from the edge and separate both arms to acquire a mass which forms a triangle with the bottoms edge being the weighted edge. Raise briskly the left arm while spreading them both apart. A sort of sail will form between the two adversaries along the bundle formed by the rest of the net. Approach the Murmillo while balancing the sail behind you and throw a dry blow with the left arm, the left part of the net intended to envelop the right side of the Murmillo, that’s to say the armed side. If this manoeuvre is used the right arm and head will be caught. Pull briskly, then make certain your grip, and repeat this enveloping movement with the upper part of the net, using the cord to secure the head. Throw the man to the ground, cast aside your trident, seize the dagger crossing over your right thigh, and thrust it between the Murmillo’s shoulders. This manoeuvre is very daring and difficult to do with precision. It is very dangerous for the Retiarius as it exposes you to a formidable riposte from the Murmillo who will desperately pass his gladius across your body. I advise however to make a particular study of this casting, as one of the most decisive

And Finally…

There is an intriguing note in the June 1928 edition of La Culture Physique where Mr Desbonnet, the magazine’s editor, upon hearing of cadets from the French military academy at Joinville attempting “for the first time” to recreate gladiatorial combat, points out that Dubois and Lacaze, Dubois’ long term research partner and fellow fencing master, had done this first and printed it in his own magazine so had trumped them by two decades, even putting on a display of their research themselves.

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Bibliography

“La Culture Physique” magazine (available online through Gallica) dated;
1st November 1907, 15th November 1907, 1st December 1907, 1st January 1908, 15th January 1908, 15th February 1908, 1st March 1908 and June 1928.

Thanks

With thanks to Tony Wolf for pointing me in the right direction.

Phil Crawley

Instructor with Black Boar School of Swordsmanship, Edinburgh, primarily obsessed with French martial arts and culture of the C18th to C20th which he promotes through research, teaching and organising the annual Smallsword Symposium.