A new scholarly article examines the historical evidence of Jewish participation in the gladiatorial arena.

Being a gladiator – an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations involving pagan rituals and confronting other gladiators, condemned criminals, and wild animals – would not seem to be a suitable profession for a nice Jewish boy.

In fact, most of those who were in the arena were not muscle-bound Arnold Schwartzeneggers but scrawny slaves forced to go into battle. Gladiator games lasted for nearly 1,000 years, reaching their highest point between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE before their disappearance.

In the past, it has been suggested that Jews were both participants and spectators in the gladiatorial games. Yet, all the materials presented to prove the existence of Jewish gladiators seem to be less conclusive than what the authors deem them to be.

A new article published online in Atiqot, a journal published by the Israel Antiquities Authority entitled “Were There Jewish Gladiators? A Re-Evaluation of the Available Archaeological and Textual Evidence,” was written by Dr. Haggai Olshanetsky who has studied Jewish participation in the ancient Roman army. The author, who studied at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan, is currently doing post-doctoral research in the ancient civilizations department at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

“The participation of Jews in the arena, especially as gladiators, has received relatively little attention. The few articles written on this matter suggest that Jews were both spectators and participants,” he wrote. “The present paper relates to all previously suggested indications for the existence of Jewish gladiators and also introduces new ones. Although the possibility that Jewish gladiators were active in the 1st to the 4th centuries CE cannot be ruled out entirely, the evidence remains inconclusive, suggesting that their number was very limited at best.”

Jewish roles in arena combat

It is also suggested that if Jews had participated in the games, they possibly preferred to fight beasts rather than men. The arena and the performances therein were an integral part of daily life in a Roman city in most parts of the Empire. The most famous spectacle occurring in the arena being the gladiatorial games, he continued. However, some Jews wanted to assimilate into Roman society, so they tried to participate in almost all aspects of life there,” said Olshanetsky.

It was true not only for the Roman period, “as Jews comprised a significant percentage of the population throughout the Roman Empire, [but] the question whether Jews took part in the games and even fought as gladiators is an appealing and obvious one and has been touched upon in the past.”