If we talk about martial arts in ancient Rome we can say that only evidence of it are written findings. But if we use logic, Romans always adopted good stuff from other nations and ma be most important thing, Roman culture is based on Greek culture.
By the Imperial Period, the Romans had adopted the Greek combat sport (spelled in Latin as pancratium) into their Games. In 393 A.D., the pankration, along with gladiatorial combat and all pagan festivals, was abolished by edict of the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I.
First let talk about Roman army. In that period it was the most powerful force in the known world. The Roman army (Latin: exercitus Romanus) is a term that can in general be applied to the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the Romans throughout the duration of Ancient Rome, from the Roman Kingdom (to c. 500 BC) to the Roman Republic (500–31 BC) and the Roman Empire (31 BC – 395/476 AD), and its successor the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. It is thus a term that may span approximately 2,000 years, during which the Roman armed forces underwent numerous permutations in composition, organization, equipment and tactics, while conserving a core of lasting traditions.
One of the most important text about Roman army training is De Re Militari. De Re Militari (Latin "Concerning Military Matters"), also Epitoma Rei Militaris, is a treatise by the late Latin writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus about Roman warfare and military principles as a presentation of methods and practices in use during the height of Rome's power, and responsible for that power. The extant text dates to the 5th century. Vegetius emphasized things such as training of soldiers as a disciplined force, orderly strategy, maintenance of supply lines and logistics, quality leadership and use of tactics and even deceit to ensure advantage over the opposition. He was concerned about selection of good soldiers and recommended hard training of at least four months before the soldier was accepted into the ranks. The leader of the army (dux or duke) had to take care of the men under his command and keep himself informed about the movements of the enemy to gain advantage in the battle. The treatise are organized into four books. For us is importan second book Secundus liber ueteris militiae continet morem, ad quem pedestris institui possit exercitus, contains traditional military practices with which infantry can be created.
According to Vegetius, during the four-month initial training of a Roman legionary, after conditioning, the recruits underwent weapons training; this was deemed of such importance that weapons instructors generally received double rations. Legionaries were trained to thrust with their gladii because they could defend themselves behind their large shields (scuta) while stabbing the enemy. These training exercises began with thrusting a wooden gladius and throwing wooden pila into a palus (wooden dummy or stake) while wearing full armor. Their wooden swords and pila were designed to be twice as heavy as their metal counterparts so that the soldiers could wield a true gladius with ease. Next, soldiers progressed to armatura, a term for sparring that was also used to describe the training similar one-on-one training of gladiators. Unlike earlier training, the wooden weapons used for armatura were the same weight as the weapons they emulated. Armatura is also the word used for the different kinds of weapons and armament used in Gladiator combat, so it might actually be a latin word for "martial art with weapons and armor" similar to the word hoplomachia in Greek. .Vegetius notes that roofed halls were built to allow for these drills to continue throughout the winter. Gladius was primary weapon of legionary and from Vegetius text we can see described methods and techniques for training and using the gladius. So using of gladius was martial art also.
Also, Vegetius was to ensure that they were a disciplined fighting force capable of effectively engaging their enemies and ideally catching them when they were 'unarmed'.
Vegetius does not describe the training of legionaries or the style of warfare of his time, but proposes to return to "the good old days" and describe his vision of the training of the late Republic to early Empire.
This is not only description of unarmed fighting. In Plutarch's “Life of Coriolanus” we can find next text: “And so Marcius, who was by nature exceedingly fond of warlike feats, began at once, from his very boyhood, to handle arms. And since he thought that adventitious weapons were of little avail to such as did not have their natural and native armour developed and prepared for service, he so practised himself in every sort of combat that he was not only nimble of foot, but had also such a weight in grapplings and wrestlings that an enemy found it hard to extricate himself. At any rate, those who from time to time contended with him in feats of courage and valour, laid the blame for their inferiority upon his strength of body, which was inflexible and shrank from no hardship.”
From unknown source we can also find next text in which we can read that boxing was trained as exercise: “When Sulla plundered Olympia in 80 BC, the Greek Olympic tradition effectively ended, although boxing was evidently in vogue in very ancient times in Italy. During the Republic, boxing was cultivated as a gentlemanly exercise, but contests increased in violence and depravity at the dawn of the Empire."
Relief scene of Roman legionaries marching, from the Column of Marcus Aurelius, Rome, Italy, 2nd century AD
Not only boxing and pankration was trained in army and by nobles. Gladiator combat was not only practiced by gladiators but also by nobles and even women as a hobby/sport/martial art though this was criticized if those wanted to display their skills in public like Emperor Comodus or other nobles before him. If Emperor Comodus want do display his gladiator skills can we call that skills martial arts?
So who was gladiators? A gladiator (Latin: gladiator, "swordsman", from gladius, "sword") was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators. Gladiators was mostly prisoners of war, condemned criminals, slaves, but gladiators were volunteers who risked their lives and their legal and social standing by appearing in the arena.
Gladiators was trained in ludus by gladiator trainer lanista. The earliest named gladiator school is that of Aurelius Scaurus at Capua, employed by the state circa 105 BC to instruct the legions and simultaneously entertain the public. If Aurelius was employed by state to train legionnaires he must have some knowledge of weapon use, and that knowledge can be only martial art.
If gladiator want to live he must train hard. Lanista was mostly ex gladiator or experienced soldiers. So if he train, he train gladiators some skill so they can take life from another gladiator and save his own. I believe that they have some system of using weapons, because every type of gladiator had specialized weapon. That skill of using weapons we can call martial art. So in my opinion gladiators was great martial artists.
Juvenal describes a wife that does hobby gladiator training at the Palus as "going through all the motions". If he said motions , thats mean that gladiators have strict movements that they train.
Uknown autor write about debate in the forum and compared it with a Gladiator fight. Author tells us that if the Gladiator does the "first hand" (=1st attack) the other has to counter with the "second hand" or the "third hand" if the attacker uses the 4th hand. He uses it to visualize the argument and counterargument in a discussion, and his readers will have known what he was refering to. Here we can see use of terminology which suggests the use of established movements of attack and defense.
Gladiators had big influence in Roman army. The gladiator as a specialist fighter, and the ethos and organization of the gladiator schools, would inform the development of the Roman military as the most effective force of its time. Unknown author wrote: “ For he, following the example of no previous general, with teachers summoned from the gladiatorial training school of C. Aurelius Scaurus, implanted in the legions a more sophisticated method of avoiding and dealing a blow and mixed bravery with skill and skill back again with virtue so that skill became stronger by bravery's passion and passion became more wary with the knowledge of this art.”
Unknown author finish his text with very important words: “this art”. In my opinion it is only one art, martial art.
Big thanks to Olaf Kueppers for his expert help.
Roman mosaic of gladiators
Undermaster of historical fencing