For a long time it was assumed that the gladiatorial fights
were of Etruscan origin since frescoes were found in Etruscan
tombs on which a duel with weapons was depicted, often supervised
by a figure with a mask and hammer symbolizing the death demon
Charun. Since there was an arena worker equipped in the same
way, the connection to the Etruscans seemed obvious. This
attendant appeared more likely at the executions though, but
never was a dead or executed gladiator beaten with a hammer
to check if he was really dead.
In South Italy many frescoes were found which show such kinds
of duels (mainly at funeral celebrations). We can therefore
assume an Oscan-Campanian-Lucanian origin, though the Oscans
and Samnites were considered "backward" by the Romans.
Anyhow, later on the most renowned gladiator schools were
located in Campania, e.g., in Capua.
The origin remains unsettled further on. The first recorded
gladiatorial fight in Rome took place at the Forum Boarium
in the year 264 BC at the funeral of Decimus Iunius Brutus
Pera and was organized by his sons, as the Greek-Syrian historian
Nicolaus of Damascus reports at the time of Augustus. Three
pairs of gladiators fought against each other at his funeral
pyre. Coincidentally this was also the year in which the First
Punic War broke out.
We can assume that there were gladiatorial fights in Rome
before, but they were not recorded, since such a tradition
does not evolve from one day to the next. However, there are
no reports or inscriptions which witness gladiatorial bouts
before this date.
Until the Late Republic, gladiatorial fights which were called
munera (pl. of munus, Latin "obligation,
duty") were held only in connection with remembrance
days and funerals; e.g., C. Iulius Caesar organized gladiator
fights in honor of his deceased father during his office as
aedilis curulis. In addition, he wanted to boost his
popularity with the people of Rome, proving his generosity
by showing them extravagant games. After his assassination
on the Ides of March in 44 BC, the senate hosted the first
gladiator fights which were publicly funded. Before, the munera
had been paid by the editor himself.