Priscus (fl. late 1st century AD) was a Roman gladiator of Celtic origins. His combat with Verus was the highlighted entertainment of the opening day games sponsored by Titus to inaugurate the Flavian Amphitheatre in AD 80. It was recorded in a laudatory poem by Martial — Liber Spectaculorum is the only known detailed description to survive of a gladiatorial fight. This laudatory poem was written to honor and to highlight all the events of Titus's games. Their fight marked the beginning of the celebration and concluded in a rare result. Both gladiators were declared victors of the match, and were unexpectedly awarded their freedom by the Emperor.
Martial, liber de spectaculis 29:
"As Priscus and Verus each drew out the contest
and the struggle between the pair long stood equal,
shouts loud and often sought discharge for the combatants.
But Titus obeyed his own law
(the law was that the bout go on without shield until a finger be raised).
What he could do, he did, often giving dishes and presents.
But an end to the even strife was found:
equal they fought, equal they yielded.
To both Titus sent wooden swords and to both palms.
Thus valor and skill had their reward.
This has happened under no prince but you, Titus:
two fought and both won."
The Priscus and Verus' fight occurred on the first day of the games that celebrated the opening of the Colosseum. These games consisted mainly of gladiatorial fights, animal spectacles and staged sea battles. These games helped placate the Roman masses, and increased Titus' popularity to the end of his reign in 81 AD. Beginning during the time of Julius Caesar, colosseum entertainment tactically satisfied the Roman mobs' pent-up frustrations with their cheering on of the entertainments.
Gladiatorial fights did not always end with death of a participant. A gladiator could raise a finger or surrender his weapon to the opponent to signal his willingness to concede defeat. And imposition of "missio" would require that the conceding gladiator return to continued fight training. Missio was initiated following the spirit of the attendees with a reprieve from the match ending in a death. The fighters could initiate ending of the match requesting that the match be declared a draw as supported by the crowds. Gladiatorial surrender was not common since it was held in disdain.
Role in fiction
The dramatized documentary by the BBC (2003) about the opening of games at the Colosseum featured the historical Priscus and Verus match. In the program, they were at the time both slaves having developed their skills through the gladiatorial process; Priscus from Gaul was born a slave and Verus was born free. Verus is predominantly known because of his match with Priscus.
- Bailey, D.R. Shackleton. Martial Epigrams I. Harvard University Press, 1993.
- Cancik, Hubert, Helmut Schneider, and Manfred Landfester. Brill's New Pauly Online. 2005. Brill Academic Publishers. 10 May 2007 <http://www.paulyonline.brill.nl.turing.library.northwestern.edu/>.
- Brunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. 1st ed. Facts on File, 1994.
- Coleman, Kathleen. "Missio at Halicarnassus." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100(2000): 487-500
- Bowman, Alan, Peter Garnsey, and Dominic Rathbone. The Cambridge Ancient History Volume XI: The High Empire, A.D. 70-192. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Traver, Andrew G. From Polis to Empire – The Ancient World, c. 800 B.C.-A.D. 500: A Biographical Dictionary. 1st ed. Greenwood Press, 2002.
- Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story, television documentary from 2003