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.