The origin of the gladiatorial games (in Latin munus, pl. munera, or "offered") is still a matter of debate. Many think that they descend from the Etruscan custom of making human sacrifices to celebrate the death of a nobleman, in order to appease the spirit of the dead. The Roman historian Livy, on the contrary, stated that the games originated in Campania, the region around Naples (where in fact there are many funeral paintings depicting scenes of duels and chariot races). This theory, however, should not conflict with the Etruscan one, in my modest opinion, since the Etruscans had had colonies and influence in Campania. Another theory worth mentioning wants the games to originate in Samnium, a region of Italy, since the first gladiators used the traditional Samnite weapons.
The games were at first connected to religion and magic, though later on these features became less apparent and were almost forgotten. Whatever the origin may be, the first record of a gladiatorial fight dates back to 264 BC, when the sons of Brutus Pera offered such a spectacle to honour the memory of their father. During the II and II century BC the popularity of the games increased; Livy reports that in 216 the Forum hosted a combat of 22 pairs; in 183 60 pairs of gladiators fought at the funerals of Publius Licinius Crassus; in 174 a show lasted for three days. In 105 BC the consuls were finally authorized to organize ludi circenses, which became a public event. Many private munera were nevertheless organized also after that date. The last gladiatorial game in the Colosseum is recorded in AD 438, when the games were abolished by the emperor Valentinian III.The munera (games) expressed the rituals of the aristocratic class of the Italic world; not only were they religious ceremonies, but they became an exhibition of power and family prestige, and very soon they were immensely popular. Their number increased very rapidly, also for political reasons. Rich citizens who wanted to get the favour (and the votes) of the plebeians, whose vote was decisive for public careers, started offering games. In Rome the organisation of the games was entrusted to magistrates, called curatores. The practical organisation (we would say production) of the show was entrusted to an editor, who contacted the lanista (the owner of the schools of gladiators) and advertised the program.
The games were held, like religious ceremonies, in fixed days but there were also extraordinary games and the ones offered by private individuals. At the end of the Empire there were 177 "spectacle" days per year (10 for the gladiators, 66 for the circus and 101 for theatre plays). However, the nature of the games changed with time, until "any pretext was good enough to regale the populace with combats" (Auguet). The games became almost an everyday matter, and during Caesars time a hunt was added to the gladiatorial combats to enrich the spectacle.
With time, the shows grew in quantity and splendour: Julius Caesar himself gave a munus with more than three hundred pairs of gladiators. The taste of the spectacles changed as well: the public wanted to be astounded, so silver armours, exotic animals, choreographies, music and "special effects" were used. During the games gifts were offered to the spectators; it was calledsparsio: small balls or tablets, with the image of the gift stamped on it, were thrown to the public. One could win food, a slave, or even a house or a ship.
Many laws dealt with the matter, since republican times. One of the
constant themes of the regulations seems to have been the desire to limit the organisation
of games by the newly rich. One of the main worries of the ruling class was to limit the expenses of games, that could ruin a house, and limit the
pretentions of the new rich and the liberti, who could afford enormous expenses in order
to become popular. Later on, the dictatorship of the emperors dealt with the problem by
establishing a monopoly.
The Roman Senate took measures to put some order into the organisation of the games and "check the public auction of state posts" (Auguet). In the year 22 BC a law was passed to reduce the number of games offered by private citizens: an authorisation by the Senate was made compulsory, and one could not organise more than two games a year, with no more than 120 gladiators each time. In 61 BC a law was passed which entrusted the organisation of the games to the emperors and fixed the occasions (public events and official dedications) in which they could be produced. The production of munera had become a matter of public interest, as it was too important to be left to any private citizen who could exploit their popularity to gain credits and the favour of the masses.
Julius Caesar established an organisation that would survive during the imperial age: he set up a gladiatorial school in Ravenna and introduced some changes in the management of the gladiators, so that they could even be trained by Roman knights and senators. Later, the emperors increased the monopolistic nature of the organisation of the munera, which became something like a public service: in Rome practically all the games were offered to the people, at least formally, by the emperor, through a procurator. In the provinces instead this honour/duty was left to rich and prominent citizens, who were high priests of the imperial cult, and the games were dedicated to the emperor, no longer to the memory of the dead.
In Rome the emperors set up, from the first century, an organisation for the production of the games. There was the ratio a muneribus, a kind of Ministry of Games with organisational and financial powers over the venationes and the munera. There was the ratio summi choragi, for the production of the machines and the costumes of the shows; a knight of the equestrian order was at the head of the Ludus Magnus, the main gladiatorial school of Rome. The other schools in Italy and over the empire were directed by officers called procuratores familiarum gladiatoriarum.
Given the enormous expense of the munera, and their frequency, the emperor could renounce his privilege of offering the games in favour of local high priests (also called magistrates) of the imperial religion. In fact, provincial magistrates were obliged by city laws to offer munera on behalf of the emperor. This was often for them a big financial and organisational pain, even if they could use a fixed amount of public money. The magistrates that had already offered games could add to their title the one of munerarii (it seems that was Caesar August himself to invent the title). Later on, when the new classes of the rich liberti (ex slaves) started offering games, in the effort to imitate the behaviour of the Roman nobility, the maximum number of gladiators was restricted, thus reducing the value of these spectacles, in comparison to the lavish and splendid games offered personally by the emperor. In this way the ruling class found a solution to the ambitions of the new rich.