Roman Gladiators

A Dangerous Job for a Chance for a Better Life

Roman Centurion Soldier Helmets and the Coliseum
piola666 / Getty Images

A Roman gladiator was a man (and sometimes a woman), typically a slave or convicted criminal, who participated in one-on-one battles with each other, often to the death, for the entertainment of crowds of spectators in the Roman Empire.

Gladiators were mostly first-generation slaves who had been bought or acquired in war or were convicted criminals, but they were a surprisingly diverse group. They usually common men, but there were a few women and a few upper-class men who had spent their inheritances and lacked other means of support.

Some emperors played as gladiators; the warriors came from all parts of the empire.

However they ended up in the arena, in general, throughout the Roman era they were considered "crude, loathsome, doomed, and lost", men altogether without worth or dignity. They were part of the class of moral outcasts, the infamia.

History of the Games

The combat between gladiators had its origins in Etruscan and Samnite funeral sacrifices, ritual killings when an elite personage died. The first recorded gladiatorial games were given by the sons of Iunius Brutus in 264 B.C.E., events that were dedicated to their father's ghost. In 174 B.C.E., 74 men fought for three days to honor the dead father of Titus Flaminus; and up to 300 pairs fought in the games offered to the shades of Pompey and Caesar. The Roman emperor Trajan caused 10,000 men to fight for 4 months to celebrate his conquest of Dacia.

During the earliest battles when the events were rare and the chances of death were about 1 in 10, the fighters were almost entirely prisoners of war.

As the numbers and frequency of the games increased, the risks of dying also increased, and Romans and volunteers began enlisting. By the end of the Republic, about half of the gladiators were volunteers.

Training and Exercise

Gladiators were trained to fight in special schools called ludi ([singular ludus]).

They practiced their art at the Colosseum, or in circuses, chariot racing stadiums where the ground surface was covered with blood-absorbing harena 'sand' (hence, the name 'arena'). They generally fought one another, and were rarely, if ever, matched with wild animals, despite what you may have seen in the movies.

Gladiators were trained at the ludi to fit into specific gladiator categories, which were organized based on how they fought (on horse back, in pairs), what their armor was like (leather, bronze, decorated, plain), and what weapons they used. There were horseback gladiators, gladiators in chariots, gladiators who fought in pairs, and gladiators named for their origin, like the Thracian gladiators.

Health and Welfare

Popular skilled gladiators were allowed to have families, and could become very wealthy. From under the debris of the volcanic eruption of 79 C.E. in Pompeii, a presumed gladiator's cell was found that included jewels that may have belonged to his wife or mistress.

Archaeological investigations in a Roman gladiators cemetery in Ephesus identified 67 men and one woman—the woman was likely a gladiator's wife. The average age at death of the Ephesus gladiator was 25, slightly more than half the lifespan of the typical Roman.

But they were in excellent health and received expert medical care as evidenced by perfectly healed bone fractures.

Gladiators were often referred to as hordearii or "barley men," and, perhaps surprisingly, they ate more plants and less meat than average Roman. Their diets were high in carbohydrates, with an emphasis on beans and barley. They drank what must have been vile brews of charred wood or bone ash to increase their calcium levels—analysis of the bones at Ephesus found very high levels of calcium.

Benefits and Costs

The gladiator life was clearly risky. Many of the men in the Ephesus cemetery died after having survived multiple blows to the head: ten skulls had been bashed by blunt objects, and three had been punctured by tridents. Cut marks on rib bones show that several were stabbed in the heart, the ideal Roman coup de grace.

In the sacramentum gladiatorium or "oath of the Gladiator'" the potential gladiator, whether slave or hitherto free man, swore uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari patior—"I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword." The gladiator's oath meant that he would be judged dishonorable if he ever showed himself unwilling to be burned, bound, beaten, and killed. The oath was one way—the gladiators demanded nothing of the gods in return for his life.

However, victors received laurels, monetary payment, and any donations from the crowd. They could also win their freedom. At the end of a long service, a gladiator won a rudis, a wooden sword which was wielded in the games by one of the officials and used for training. With the rudis in hand, a gladiator might then become a gladiator trainer or a freelance bodyguard—like the men who followed Clodius Pulcher, the good-looking trouble-maker who plagued Cicero's life.

Thumbs Up!

Gladiatorial games ended one of three ways: one of the combatants called for mercy by raising his finger, the crowd asked for the end of the game, or one of the combatants was dead. A referee known as the editor made the final decision about how a particular game ended.

There appears to be no evidence that the crowd signified their request for the life of the combatants by holding their thumbs up—or at least if it was used, it probably meant death, not mercy. A waving handkerchief did signify mercy, and graffiti indicates the shouting of the words "dismissed" also worked to save a downed gladiator from death.

Attitudes Towards the Games

The Roman attitudes towards the cruelty and violence of the gladiator games were mixed. Writers like Seneca may have expressed disapproval, but they attended the arena when the games were in process. The Stoic Marcus Aurelius said that he found the gladiatorial games boring and abolished a tax on gladiator sale to avoid the taint of human blood, but he still hosted lavish games.

Gladiators continue to fascinate us, especially when they are seen to rebel against oppressive masters.

Thus we have seen two gladiator box-office smash hits: the 1960 Kirk Douglas Spartacus and the 2000 Russell Crowe epic Gladiator. In addition to these movies stimulating interest in ancient Rome and the comparison of Rome with the United States, art has affected our view of gladiators. Gérôme's painting "Pollice Verso" ('Thumb Turned' or 'Thumbs Down'), 1872, has kept alive the image of gladiator fights ending with a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

Sources: