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Rare gladiator fights were staged over water; these may have given rise to the concept of a gladiator based on a fisherman.

Fights between differently armed gladiators became popular in the Imperial period; the secutores with their scaly armour evolved from them.

Suetonius reports this anecdote: "Once a band of five retiarii in tunics, matched against the same number of secutores, yielded without a struggle; but when their death was ordered, one of them caught up his trident and slew all the victors." The reaction of Emperor Caligula showed the disgust with which he viewed the gladiators' actions: "Caligula bewailed this in a public proclamation as a most cruel murder, and expressed his horror of those who had had the heart to witness it." Juvenal's second satire, wherein he deplores the immorality he perceived in Roman society, introduces a member of the Gracchus family who is described as a homosexual married (in female persona) to a horn player.

Greater still the portent when Gracchus, clad in a tunic, played the gladiator, and fled, trident in hand, across the arena—Gracchus, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini, or the Marcelli, or the descendants of Catulus or Paulus, or the Fabii: nobler than all the spectators in the podium; not excepting him who gave the show at which that net was flung. When he has cast without effect the nets suspended from his poised right hand, he boldly lifts his uncovered face to the spectators, and, easily to be recognized, flees across the whole arena.

Usually, the retiarius had to rely on his trident and dagger to finish the fight.

The net-fighter made up for his lack of protective gear by using his speed and agility to avoid his opponent's attacks and waiting for the opportunity to strike. If this succeeded, he attacked with his trident while his adversary was entangled.

His trident lies at the foot of his secutor adversary, and his net is missing.

He is also seen bleeding from an artery in his leg The retiarius is the most readily identifiable gladiator type, due to his signature equipment: arm guard (manica), shoulder guard (galerus), net (rete), trident (fuscina or tridens), and dagger (pugio).

It is unusual to see a gladiator depicted this way in a satire, as such fighters usually take the role of men who are "brawny, brutal, sexually successful with women of both high and low status, but especially the latter, ill-educated if not uneducated, and none too bright intellectually." The retiarius tunicatus in the satire is the opposite: "a mock gladiatorial figure, of equivocal sex, regularly dressed in costume of some sort, possibly usually as a woman, and matched against a secutor or murmillo in a mock gladiatorial exhibition." A mosaic found in 2007 in a bathhouse at the Villa dei Quintili shows a retiarius named Montanus.

The fact that his name is recorded indicates that the gladiator was famous. CE 130, when the Quintilii family had the home built; the emperor Commodus, who fought in gladiatorial bouts as a secutor, acquired the house in CE 182 and used it as a country villa. CE 200), a retiarius armed only with a dagger raises a finger in surrender.

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It was a strong weapon, capable of inflicting piercing wounds on an unprotected skull or limb.

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