The Gladiatorial Tale Of Aesius Proculus


Aesius Proculus, according to the Roman biographer Suetonius (c. 70-130+), was a handsome man of giant stature who lived during the reign of Caligula (r. 37-41). He came from a prominent military family that was on the verge of entering the equestrian order, which was one step below the senatorial class. Aesius Proculus apparently was a very popular man in Rome, and the masses often called him by the flattering nickname of Colosseros. The title, a combination of colossus (giant) and Eros (god of love), reportedly was a perfect reflection of the man’s physical appearance.

Unfortunately for Aesius Proculus, all of the praise that was heaped on him evidently inspired great feelings of hate and jealousy in Emperor Caligula, who was described by Suetonius as being a spindly, balding and sickly man. As the story goes, Caligula’s unstable emotions toward Aesius reached a breaking point during a gladiatorial game—in the middle of the show, and without any stated cause or warning, Aesius Proculus was suddenly arrested and dragged down to the arena.

With Aesius in custody, Caligula decided to punish the man without delay. At the time of the arrest, there were apparently two gladiators fit to fight at the venue. One was a lightly-armored fighter, possibly a gladiator in the Thracian (short sword and short shield) or Retiarius (net and trident) fashion. The other warrior was more heavily armored, possibly a Samnite-or Myrmillo-styled gladiator. It was these two gladiators that Aesius Proculus met when he was thrown into the arena.

Caligula next announced that there was to be a tournament in which Aesius Proculus would fight one gladiator and, if he survived the bout, he would then immediately battle against the other warrior. Hopefully, Caligula gave the captive a weapon, but Suetonius made no mention of the emperor giving the man any weapons or armor. Nonetheless, the so-called Colosseros, with his giant stature, well-built physique and military background, was likely a competent fighter with or without a weapon.

For the first match, Aesius Proculus came face to face with the lightly armored gladiator. Suetonius merely stated that Aesius won the battle, but it can be assumed that it was a fairly dominant victory, for, after the bout, Aesius was still healthy enough to take the fight to the second gladiator. To Caligula’s dismay, Aesius Proculus defeated the heavily armored gladiator, too, winning the emperor’s tournament.

As a reward for the victory, Caligula spared Aesius Proculus’ life—at least for the time being—and even threw him a parade and presented him with a special outfit to wear. These presents, however, were not meant to bring pleasure, for the items of clothes that Caligula gave to Aesius were only rags, and his victory procession through the city was meant to be as shameful and humiliating as possible. Sadly, at the end of the grim parade, Caligula reportedly sentenced Aesius Proculus to a public execution, which was summarily enforced.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Selection of Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic, c. 200 CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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