Gladiators in Ancient Rome

Roman history was once considered boring. Then Hollywood glorified the gladiators in Ancient Rome.  Twenty years ago Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator came out starring a buff Russell Crowe as the diehard gladiator Maximus.  Despite being a Hollywood block buster, the film did a good job of portraying the life of a gladiator in ancient Rome.  Today, there is renewed interest in the classics and particularly in the gladiatorial games. 

Gladiator Film
Russell Crowe as Ancient Roman Gladiator

Horror or Spectacle?

It is difficult for us to understand entertainment in ancient Rome.  We see the games as barbaric blood sports, but they were much more than that.  We also think that it was the blood was that brought the crowds, yet the ancient audience came to see skill and sportsmanship as well as the theatre of it all; just like fans of WWF today.  Modern ideas and conceptions obscure our understanding of the games and the gladiators.  Yes, people died in their thousands but is that really what it was all about?  Who were the gladiators?  Why did they fight and was it always to the death?

Gladiators in Ancient Rome

History of Gladiator Fights

Armed combat outside of war was training for warriors and also seen at funerals.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are filled with adventurous exploits, the deaths of nobles and their funerals.  At these funerals, there were chariot races, athletic competitions and re-enactments of the lives of the dead heroes.  The Roman funerals of the wealthy and important were a grand affair.  The public would gather to watch the funerals of the great and mighty with displays of hand to hand combat that recalled the deeds of the deceased. 

In ancient Rome, re-enactments of great battles were called munera and it seems this is where gladiatorial fights began. By the 3rd century BC, the gladiatorial fights were popular as entertainment.  At the same time, Rome was expanding and fighting wars against foreign peoples like the Carthaginians of North Africa.  Before long, conquered peoples (slaves and prisoners of war) were flooding into Roman territory and provided the manpower for these spectacles.

Gladiators in the Colosseum

In the Imperial period entertainment became an extremely effective way for the emperor to show his generosity to the people. Being generous and seen in public were two of the most important factors of being a good Emperor. In 70ad Emperor Vespasian addressed both these concerns by announcing to the citizens of Rome that he was going to create the greatest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire right in the heart of Rome. Just 10 years later it was complete. In 80ad Titus celebrated the completion of the Colosseum with 100 days of games. The Colosseum became the capital of gladiatorial combat and trade in the empire. The citizens of Rome went crazy for it. The Colosseum facilitated the violent bloodsport for over 300 years; the last clear record of fighting between gladiators in ancient Rome is in the mid 430s.

Colosseum Arena Floor
The best gladiators in ancient Rome fought in the Colosseum

Who were the gladiators?

The gladiators were foreigners, mostly slaves and prisoners of war.  We imagine they were forced into it, but that is not entirely the case.  Gladiators, particularly those like Maximus, had contracts.  They were bound to their trainer/manager the lanista for a minimum of five years during which they trained like our modern sportsmen.  After that, if they were still alive, they were granted their freedom.  As slaves they could also buy their freedom earlier if they had earnt enough money. 

As gladiatorial fights became more popular, they gained recognition and fame among the audience.  Think of Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady; men wanted to be like them and ladies wanted to be with them.  Also, if they won their fights there were huge cash prizes, most of which went to the manager of course.  This meant later on, under the empire even the Romans themselves were attracted by the possibility of fame and fortune; some sold themselves into slavery hoping for glory.

Gladiator fight in the Colosseum
Pollice Verso | Gladiators in Ancient Rome

Spartacus Gladiator Revolt

Spartacus is undoubtedly the most well-known gladiator, even before the sexy American series.  His story is a little like Maximus’.  He was a soldier from Thrace (modern day Bulgaria), who was captured by the Romans and became a gladiator.  He trained in a famous gladiator school in Capua, near Naples, where it is believed the Roman gladiators began.  In 73BC he escaped the gladiator school with 70 other slaves, an excellent leader and tactician, he became a serious problem for the Roman legions who chased him all over Italy.  Spartacus had over 70,000 followers – slaves, farmers, shepherds, even Roman war veterans; later this uprising of the down trodden would be called the ‘Servile Wars’.  This was the first serious uprising for Rome and ended in a grisly display of power; 6,000 man were crucified along the Appian Way.

Gladiators in Ancient Rome 1
Cursed field | Spartacus and his men were crucified

What’s in the name Gladiator?

The word gladiator literally means swordsman and comes from the word gladius, (sword).  The gladius was the standard weapon of the Roman army – a lightweight double-edged sword. Roman units fought in tight formations which favored the quick attack of a short sword. It’s success on the battlefield lead to it becoming a weapon of choice for the gladiators in ancient Rome. Not all gladiators fought with a Gladius though. There were different types of gladiators, each had a particular costume, set of armour and weapons. 

Gladius
The Gladius used by Gladiators in Ancient Rome

Types of Gladiators in Ancient Rome

In the early days they originated from conquered nations, like the Samnites a Latin tribe, Gallus from Gaul, Thraex from Thrace, Hispanicus from Spain – they used weapons and armour from those nations.  Spartacus fought as a Murmillo with a plumed helmet with face cover, armour on one arm, a short sword and large rectangular shield. As time passed, more types with more fantastical weapons emerged.  The Retiarius armed with a net and a trident and his opponent the Secutor who had a large rectangular shield and gladius, but limited visibility with a heavy helmet.  Every spectator had their favourites. 

types of gladiator
Different Types of Gladiators in Ancient Rome

Like in boxing today, the opponents were equally matched, the fights were about skill and bravery, not who could kill first.  Just like our combat sports today there was a referee who made sure they followed the rules, unfortunately we do not know what these were today. 

Till the Death

We imagine millions of people died for the bloodthirsty crowd, many people died, criminals and prisoners of war were used as fodder for animals.  But gladiatorial fights were rare, perhaps only five or ten times a year.  These fights were expensive, especially if you wanted the stars.  Gladiator schools trained men and hired them out for the games.  Remember Oliver Reed in Gladiator?  He takes his gladiator troupe around like a travelling circus.  Fighters were rented out like entertainers and if they died – you had to pay double! if it was to the death, why have a ref?  In fact, it was in everyone’s best interest not to kill the gladiators. 

In the ancient sources we hear about the extravagant games of the emperors and the thousands of men and animals that died.  But this didn’t happen all the time, when these games are mentioned by the ancient writers, it is because they were so over the top!

lions in the colosseum
Exotic animals like lions fought in Colosseum

Putting it into Perspective

Rome was a military society, we cannot imagine their mindset, let alone how violent ancient society really was.  We also can’t imagine our lives without weekends or jobs that are short-term, temporary gigs with no benefits.  The importance of festivals (bank holidays) and games to the man on the street are completely lost on us. 

Imagine you are working as a labourer from dawn, you are barely making a living and never get a day off; then the government declares twelve days of holiday and free entertainment for everyone!  At the games you might get free food, the organisers might throw gifts into the crowd and you get to see your favourite sports heroes. Everyone had their favourites, and showmanship was a big part of it, as well as flashy costumes with coloured plumes and decorated armour.  No doubt the men came to see a skilled fight and the ladies came for the half naked rippling bodies.

The Gladiator Experience

Enjoy reading about the Gladiators in ancient Rome? Come and discover the history first hand on our Colosseum Palatine Hill and Roman Forum tour. Want visit the dungeons where the gladiators were kept before they met their fate? Then upgrade your Colosseum experience and venture to the restricted areas on our all access Colosseum Underground tour.

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