In the Spartacus series there are some African actors playing gladiators, especially Peter Mensah as Oenomaus (Batiatus' doctore). He has done a great job but my question is, were African people that common in Rome in that era?
Gladiator fights have a long cultural and political history. Originally they were held on a smaller scale (than the Colosseum) and often for the purpose of honoring a deceased. Their popularity grew as the rich began to see how they could further their standing with the people.
The gladiators themselves were often killed or severely injured, making it less suited as a long-term career for normal, free people (although there were free men doing it to rapidly rise on the social ladder). Most gladiators were slaves, forced to fight to win their right to life. As Rome had a lot of military success, a lot of slaves were either captured soldiers or just foreign prisoners. Rome waged war in most of Europe and around the Mediterranean sea, giving it a steady supply of prisoners.
At the time, the notion of 'race' wasn't as prominent as it later became (during American slavery for example). Slaves were branded by their originating countries and less on their ancestry. Being African wasn't a problem in ancient Rome as they were accustomed to and respected foreign African traders.
For slaves, this meant that their skin tone was less important than their originating countries and their numbers in the capital was more related to the most recent war. The only reasons for a higher number of African slaves are genetics and perhaps the exotic taste of the Romans. As the slaves were allowed to have children, which were then born into slavery, their genetic features could have slightly skewed the demographics.
All in all, the slaves ethnicity was more used to denote their origin and enhance their stereotypical capacities. The barbaric tribes (north of Rome) were typically associated with their physical strength while Greeks were preferred for their cultural refinement (acquired in their life before enslavement). Africans were typically more used for household tasks rather than for their physical strength but again this is only a stereotype and an individual assessment was made.
The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity gives a lot of background information on slavery,
The Roman slave supply gives some numbers on the slave population and the means of acquiring them.
This link talks a bit more on ethnicity and related sources
There were more Africans in Rome that most people probably imagine. In fact many Africans became emperors, writers, philosophers, entertainers, generals, popes and of course gladiators.
In antiquity black or dark-skinned individuals from Africa were known as "Aethiops" a Greek term meaning "black". It is the term from which Ethiopia, a modern African state is named after.
The term "Aethiops" is mentioned in many Roman records as the origin of many Roman citizens. Most Africans/Aethiops were acknowledged for their cultural contributions to Roman society, or rather the Roman Empire. There was no law which prohibited Africans from assuming roles of responsibility and authority.
For instance Lusius Quietus was one of Rome's greatest African generals (in the movie it is Maximus, he was of minor significance). Quietus served under Emperor Trajan. The Emperor named him his successor to the Imperial Purple. Quietus and other African soldiers defended the Dacians. Moreover, when the Jews revolted, Trajan sent Quietus to suppress the revolt, which he did with extreme severity. The Jews called the rebellion "The War of Quietus."
Interestingly, at least ten Africans became Emperors of Rome. They are listed on the historical record as the following: Macrinu, Firmus, Emilianus, Septimius Serverus, Pescennius Niger, Aquilus Niger, Brutidius Niger, Q. Caecilus Niger, Novius Niger, and Trebius Niger who was a proconsul in Spain.
With regard to the subject of religion, three Africans became popes in Rome. They were Victor 189-199 A. D., Melchiades 311-312; and St. Gelasius 496 A. D. It was Victor who sent a letter to the Eastern Churches requesting them to observe Easter on the same day as the Western Churches. The Eastern Churches refused and Victor excluded them from his communion. Afterwards, Victor was killed in the sixth persecution under Emperor Serverus. It is befitting to say that all three of these African popes contributed immensely to the development of Christianity in Rome.
Romans and Blacks, By Lloyd A. Thompson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990) Septimius Serverus: The African Emperor, By Anthony R. Birley (Yale University Press, 1988) Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, By Frank M. Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1970) Before Color Prejudice, By Frank M. Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1984) African Glory The Story of Vanished Negro Civilizations, By J. C. deGraft Johnson (Black Classic Press, 1986) History of The African People Vol. II Africans in Europe, By G. K. Osei (The African Publication Society, 1971)
Ethiopian gladiators did exist but constituted a small minority. They generally fought as retiarius (trident and net). There really was a gladiator named Oenomaus who was one of the leaders in Spartacus' slave army but he was not black. He was a Gaul.
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Yes, as Merchants, slaves, common folk, or as Gladiators mostly from Namibia... Hollywood was Subtle in the Gladiator movie with Russell Crowe, where his African Gladiator buddy talked to him about his name... Th we're is a Cave in Egypt where 500 pairs of fighters are illustrated on its wall still to this day. Some say it's the Birthplace of martial arts that was carried far away.
I've read most of the Roman historians and the Greek historians who wrote about Rome, I don't remember reading any specific references to black gladiators. If you want to claim that there were some, then please cite the work where that is mentioned. Otherwise the notion of blacks in the sports arenas of ancient Rome is just a modern affectation. We have lots of blacks in our sports arenas so we project that image back two thousand years in our fiction.
There was indeed in the TV series 'Spartacus' a prominent black gladiator. There was also one in the feature film 'Gladiator'. More recently in the film 'Pompeii' there were several black gladiators. Among the actors who portrayed gladiators a substantial proportion were black. Surely that must be wrong.
I don't think there are any references to black gladiators in Tacitus, Suetonius, Livy or Caesar. You would expect there to have been black gladiators to have been mentioned in Vegetius or Aurelius - but there are no such references.
Blacks in the sense of sub-Saharan peoples were rare in Rome. The Sahara was in the way. Ethiopians could come up the Nile and did, but West Africans like those who much later became African-Americans were very unusual. There were few West Africans in Europe until the fifteenth century when the Portuguese sailed south.
Gladiators were slaves and black slaves would have been rare and probably very valuable. Being a gladiator was however a popular profession. The emperor had to restrict young men from good families becoming gladiators. There were too many volunteers. So black slaves may not have been allowed in the arena. They might have been too valuable to risk. I'm speculating of course, but so is everyone else. There simply are no records.
Until I read a reference from an ancient historian, I'll continue to regard black gladiators in Rome as a movie myth.