What Kinds of Weapons and Armor Did Gladiators Use?

Many different groups of gladiators fought for glory and their lives

Bas relief of gladiators fighting in Italy
Ken Welsh / Getty Images

Much like today's football players or WWF wrestlers, Roman gladiators could win renown and fortune in the arenas. Modern sportsmen sign contracts; ancient ones made oaths. Injuries were common, and the life of a player was generally short. Unlike modern sports figures, however, gladiators were usually slaves or criminals: they were not expected to fight in wars or battles, but instead fought one-on-one (usually) as entertainment, in an arena. As a gladiator, a man could potentially raise his status and wealth; naturally, this occurred only when the individual gladiator was both popular and successful.

Gladiators and Their Weapons

  • Gladiators were often criminals and slaves, hired to provide entertainment in the Roman Circus or another arena. 
  • There were many different types of gladiators, based on their clothing and weapons. 
  • Weapons used by some gladiators included knives and swords, shields, and helmets.
  • The use of the weapons was taught at a professional school called a ludus.
  • They were owned (and rented out) by the head of the professional school they attended. 

Schools and Standing of the Gladiators

Gladiators did not fight in the Roman army, but after the Spartacus revolt in 73 BCE, some were professionally trained to perform in the arena. Training schools (called ludus gladiatorius) were where a prospective gladiator picked up his specific training. The schools—and the gladiators themselves—were owned by a lanista, who would lease the men out for upcoming gladiatorial events. If a gladiator was killed during the battle, the lease would convert to a sale and the price might be as high as 50 times the rent.

There were many types of gladiators in ancient Rome, and they were trained at the ludus by a specialist (doctores or magistrii) skilled in that form of fighting. Each type of gladiator had his own set of traditional weapons and armor. Some gladiators—like the Samnites—were named for opponents of the Romans; other types of gladiators, like the Provacator and Secutor, took their names from their functions: challenger and pursuer. Often, certain types of gladiators fought only specific foes, because the best type of entertainment was thought to be an evenly matched pair with contrasting fighting styles.

Weapons and Armor of the Roman Gladiators

Most of the information about Roman gladiators comes from Roman historians, as well as mosaics and tombstones. One source is the "Oneirocritica" of Artemidorus, a professional diviner of the second century CE Rome. Artemidorus interpreted dreams for Roman citizens, and a chapter of his book discusses what a man's dream of fighting with a specific gladiator type implies about the wife he is going to marry.

There were four principal classes of Roman gladiator: Samnites, Thraex, Myrmillo, and Retiarius. Information below is based on historical evidence but doesn't cover every type of gladiator or every form of arms and armor.

Samnite

The Samnites were named after the great Samnite warriors that Rome defeated in the early years of the republic, and they are most heavily armed of the four main types. After the Samnites became Roman allies, the name was dropped, likely changed to the secutor (pursuer) although that is somewhat debated. Their weapon and armor included:

  • scutum: a large oblong shield made from 3 sheets of wood, glued together and topped with a leather or canvas coating.
  • galea: plumed helmet with a visor and small eye holes
  • gladius: short sword called "divides the throat," one of several words for a sword, used primarily by Roman foot soldiers but also by gladiators; probably a celtic word from which the term "gladiator" comes
  • manicae: leather elbow or wristbands
  • greaves: leg armor that went from ankle to just below the knee.

Traex (plural Thraces)

The Thraces were named after another enemy of Rome, and they usually fought in pairs against the Mirmillones. Artemidorus warned that if a man dreamed he was fighting a Traex, his wife would be rich (because the Traex's body was completely covered by armor); crafty (because he carries a curved scimitar); and fond of being first (because of a Traex's advancing techniques).

  • small rectangular shield
  • sica: curved scimitar-shaped dagger designed for slicing attacks on an opponent
  • galea
  • manicae
  • greaves

Mirmillo (spelled Myrmillo, Murmillo and plural Murmillones)

Detail of a Mosaic of Battling Gladiators from Torre Nuova
A mumillo stands triumphant, in a 4th century CE mosiac from Torrenova. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Murmillones were the "fish men," who wore a large helmet with a fish on its crest, armor with leather or metal scales, and a straight Greek-styled sword. He was heavily armored, with a massive helmet with tiny eye slits and he was often paired with the Retiarii.

  • cassis crista, a heavy bronze helmet used to protect the face
  • galea
  • manicae but made of mail
  • ocrea: shin guards

Retiarius (plural Retiarii)

Detail of a Mosaic of a Gladiator Fight from Torre Nuova
Retiarius fights and wins against another, in this Roman mosiac from Torrenova. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Retiarii or "net men" usually fought with weapons modeled on the tools of a fisherman. They only wore armor on the arm and shoulder, leaving legs and head exposed. They most commonly fought the secutor and murmillo or one another. The Roman satirist Juvenal describes a disgraced nobleman named Gracchus who trained as a retiarius because he was too proud to wear defensive armor or use offensive weapons and refused to wear a helmet that would have hidden his shame. Artemidorus said that men who dreamed of battles with the retiarii were sure to find a wife who was poor and wanton, roaming about for any man who wanted her.

  • rete a weighted net used to entangle the opponent
  • fascina: long, three-pronged trident which was thrown like a harpoon
  • galerus (metal shoulder piece)
  • short quilted tunics

Secutor

A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident, after a mosaic from the villa at Nennig, Germany
Engraving of Ancient Roman Gladiators Fighting, Retiarius vs. Secutor.  

Secutors were armed almost exactly like a murmillo, except that they had a smooth helmet that wouldn't get entangled with the nets of the retiarii. Aremidorus reports that the man who dreamed of fighting with a secutor was sure to get a woman who was attractive and rich, but proud and disdainful of her husband.

  • loincloth with a leather belt
  • distinctive simple helmet
  • galea
  • manica
  • ocrea

Provacator (pl. Provacatores)

Roman floor mosaic of gladiators, c.3rd century.
Provacator battles a retiarii, mosaic from the 3rd century CE. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

A provacator (or challenger) was dressed as a legionnaire during the Republic era but later stripped down in elegance. The provacatores starred in what were considered the best battles, and they mostly fought each other. The Roman dream analyst said that dreams of fighting this man meant you would get a wife who is attractive and graceful, but also flirtatious and wanton.

  • galea
  • round top helmet with circular eye grates and feather plumages on either side of the head
  • highly decorated square scutum (shield)
  • cardiophylax: small breastplate, usually rectangular or crescent-shaped.
  • manica
  • greave

Eques (pl. Equites)

Equites fought on horseback, they were essentially gladiator cavalrymen, who were lightly armed and only fought one another. Artemidorus said that dreaming of battle with an eques meant you would have a bride who was rich and noble but of limited intelligence.

  • sword or a spear
  • medium sized shield
  • brimmed helmet with two decorative feathers and no crest

Gladiators of Lesser Fame

  • The dimachaerii ("two-knife men") were armed with two short scimitar blades (siccae) designed for slicing attacks on an opponent. The rest of their armor varied, or at least the reports do, sometimes only in a loincloth or a belt, other times with a variety of armor including chain mail.
  • The essadarii ("chariot men") fought with a spear or gladius from war chariots in the fashion of the Celts, introduced by Julius Caesar when he got back from Gaul
  • The hoplomachii ("armored fighters") wore a helmet and basic arm and leg protection, a small round shield called a parmula, a gladius, a short dagger known as a pugio, and a gladius graecus, a leaf-shaped sword used only by them.
  • The laquearii ("lasso men"), used a noose or a lasso.
  • Velites or skirmishers hurled missiles and fought on foot.
  • A scissor fought with a specialized short knife with two blades in the shape of an open pair of scissors without the hinge.
  • Catervarii battled each other in groups, rather than one-on-one.
  • Cestus fought with their fists, which were wrapped in leather wrappings studded with spikes.
  • Crupellarii were trainee slaves who wore heavy armor of iron making it hard for them to fight, rapidly exhausted and easily dispatched.
  • Noxii were criminals who fought animals or each other: they were not really armed and so not really gladiators.
  • Anadabatae wore helmets without eyeholes.

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