17 Facts About Gladiators

17 Facts About Gladiators

Shaina Lucas - January 8, 2019

Through various mediums throughout history, we’ve glorified gladiators. These men are the idols of man, the quintessential ideal of bad-ass. But what is it about them we find so appealing? A gladiator’s life wasn’t sunshine and roses, it was death and survival. The bodies of friends and fellow fighters pass their cell as they awaited their turn. The stench of blood pierced their nostrils with a hint of smoke and bile. Rods and other metal objects were being heated over a fire to test if his comrade was truly dead.

Then it was time. The gladiator stepped out onto the battlefield, wondering if this would be the last time he’d ever see the sun or a beautiful face in the crowd of a woman he loved. Whatever fate the ruling class had for him, he had to accept it. You don’t exactly have to accept these gory and gruesome facts about gladiator deaths, but they did happen.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Dying Gladiator by Fedor Bronnikov. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

1. If You Died, You Were Taken Through A Special Gate

As we all know, gladiators fought inside arenas like the Colosseum in Rome. Gladiators often fought in pairs or mano y mano. Occasionally, the fight would not be to the death at first, one would “tap out” and beg for mercy. The crows and head of show, called the editor, would decide whether the gladiator could live or die at the hands of the other’s blade. When a gladiator won, he was cheered by the crowd and rewarded for his bravery. When they lost, the special gate awaited them.

The special gate was called the Porta Libitinensis. Dead gladiators were put on stretchers and carried out through this gate. Porta means “gate” and Libitinensis referred to the Roman burial goddess Libitina. After passing through the gate, a room was prepared where the body was stripped of its armor. You guessed it, the armor would pass on to another gladiator for use. The bottom line is, don’t be the one who loses, you only get to be special for a few seconds through a cool gate.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Alchetron – Scene from Gladiator movie

2. Die With Honor, Otherwise, You’ll Be Stretched and Dragged

Not everyone was given the honor of a stretcher and carried out through the Porta Libitinensis. That was only reserved for gladiators who fought honorably. If a gladiator faced his death bravely at the hands of another, he was carried ceremoniously from the arena and his dignity remained intact, even though they take his armor for the next person. If a gladiator wasn’t brave, his ending was not pleasant. An outcry in pain or fear during a battle was considered weak and cowardly in the eyes of the Romans.

Outcries and weakness were frowned upon in the arena and considered cowardly. If a gladiator asked for mercy and then denied his life, he too was considered cowardly for not committing his life for the games. These gladiators would be stretched and dragged across the arena floor, no stretcher required. They were already given the mark of a coward, so the Romans saw no point in carrying the body since he was already defiled with disgrace. Most humans have a natural fear of death, so don’t show fear if you want your dignity intact after death.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Realm of History

3. Don’t Try And Fake Your Death, They Make Sure You’re Dead

You may think a gladiator had the bright idea of laying on the arena floor completely still with a bloody wound until he was carried out. Then he’d make his way through the amphitheater and escape a free man to live out his days. Wrong. Some gladiators may have tried this but the Romans had measures in place to prevent this from happening. They made sure you were truly dead and not just faking it to find your way to freedom.

After the gladiator was taken through the Porta Libitinensis and stripped of his armor, there was one more step of the process. His throat would be slit to make sure he was dead. If an unhonorable coward tried faking his death, as usual, it was worse. If a gladiator was declared dead in the arena, a slave would come and bash his head to mush with a large rock or a club used just for the purpose of beating unworthy opponents to death. It was impossible to escape your fate as a gladiator.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian Jackal God of the Afterlife. Ancient Origins.

4. Even Though Slaves Would Carry Out The Dead, They Did It With Flair

There are many primary sources out there that give detailed and differentiating accounts of how a slave would remove a gladiator’s body. In a gladiator grave dated around 70 AD, a decorated lamp revealed the scene of a fallen gladiator. In the same grave, another lamp had the image of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the Underworld. These artifacts were not surprising given the flair for these games. Dressing as death gods to mutilate unworthy gladiators was a thrill for the Romans.

Slaves would often dress up as various underworld gods to remove the bodies of fallen gladiators. In this particular grave, it noted the slaves dressed as Anubis to remove the bodies. Other accounts state that slaves would dress up as Hermes Psychopompous and Charun, an Etruscan demon of death. the Charun slave would hammer the gladiator’s skull in, and Hermes would impail him with a hot iron rod. Interesting how they choose gods not associated with their own Roman interpretations.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Mosaic of gladiator training. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

5. Not All Gladiators Were Slaves, Some Were Just Condemned To Death

Most people assume that gladiators were only slaves. This was not the case in Ancient Rome. Many free men and freedmen joined the gladiator ranks willingly. It was a chance to be seen as a hero, glorified in the eyes of the Roman people and with money to boot. However, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be with glory and gold. Men who were bought to become gladiators didn’t get tossed into the ring immediately, they needed training first.

The men were sent to gladiator school where they learned everything they needed to know about becoming a fierce warrior who battled to the death. They were given extensive physical training and learned how to handle various weapons to survive the games. The school also taught them entertainment, how to win over the audience. This gave the slaves and the free men an equal chance to walk out of the ring successfully. There were certain people who did not receive training, the ones who were condemned to death. No matter how well he fought, he wasn’t leaving that ring alive.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Regardless of historical accuracy, we were all entertained. Shortlist Magazine

6. Don’t Be Scared To Face Death, They’ll Make It Worse For You

One of the things gladiators were taught in school was the ludus, or how to face death. Future gladiators were taught mannerisms like correct eye contact and posture when their fate is being decided. When a gladiator was dealt a defeat, it’s customary for the winning opponent to pause and look at the presenter of the games. The presenter would give a signal to say if the fallen gladiator would live or die. During this brief moment, the editor and the crowd would look at the fallen warrior.

If he has shown any sign of weakness such as in pain or frightened, the signal was given to end his life. If a fallen gladiator was able to look at his opponent with defiance and an unwavering eye, he was seen as brave and possibly given the signal of mercy. There was more to it than just a steady look. A gladiator also had to hold out his nack as if he welcomed the sword. With a willingness to die, the gladiator could live to fight in future games and entertain the crowd.

17 Facts About Gladiators
For the glory of Rome. Gladiator painting. The Modern Gladiator.

7. Some Thought Suicide Was Better Than Being A Gladiator

Not all men were convinced that fighting to your death in an arena for glory was a good idea. There are many instances in Ancient Rome documents where prisoners of war chose to end their own life before stepping into the ring. Symmachus, a 4th-century politician, collected 20 gladiators for an event. When it was time for the event to take place, they all killed each other, and the last man killed himself. It was a collective suicide that left the audience bewildered.

Another account was of a prisoner of war who was being transported back to the arena. He stuck his head into the moving wheel of the cart. Consequently, his neck was broken and he was free from entering a bloody battle. A German gladiator, while waiting to enter the arena, went to the bathroom and grabbed the stick for wiping bums. He jammed it down his throat, the filthy sponge on the end caused him to suffocate. So it seems that dying your way was better than dying brutally.

17 Facts About Gladiators
A sewed wound. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Romans Believed A Gladiator’s Blood Would Cure Epilepsy

There’s no known cure for epilepsy, but there are ways to help with the symptoms with modern technology. Before our technological advances, Romans had a different idea of what would cure the disease. When a gladiator was cut down, it was common for spectators to see someone run towards him and start drinking his blood like a vampire. Romans were often told that the blood of a gladiator would cure epilepsy. They had to drink the blood directly from a wound in the gladiator’s body.

Gladiators who had been gutted was a different story. Many from the crowd would rush to gain a piece of the man’s liver. But why the liver? The liver would then be sold to those to suffered epilepsy. Those who suffered the disease would be told to take nine separate doses of the gladiator’s liver to be free of the disease. Sad to say, that idea didn’t work and they continued to have a life with seizures. All that liver eating and blood drinking for nothing.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Scene from Spartacus TV series. World History.

9. Obviously, Gladiators Were Seen As Sex Objects

Many of us have seen the movie Gladiator with Russell Crowe or the classic 1960 film Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. And during the height of their career, these Hollywood idols are seen as sex objects as much as a gladiator was in Ancient Rome. They had everything a woman wanted: strong, courageous, and dangerous. Quite a few free women left their husbands and children to chase around and have a fling with a gladiator. Free men were often jealous of them, facing death and getting the adoration of the crowd.

Gladiators appeared everywhere on mosaics, pottery, into walls, you name it. They had so much attention it was no wonder Romans often sought their blood. Not only did they believe gladiator blood had healing powers, they also believed it would enhance a man’s sexual prowess. Unlike those with epilepsy, men who wanted an ancient version of Viagra would purchase it to drink for a one-time deal. The blood was expensive and highly sought after. Makes you wonder how much of it was actually animal blood or other humans.

17 Facts About Gladiators
11th or 12th-century Anglo-Saxon burial, Cambridgeshire, UK. Ancient Origins.

10. After Everything, Their Honor and Bravery Determines Their Burial

After all the valor and bravery, how a gladiator fought still determined their grave. Heroic gladiators who died bravely in battle were often cremated. Friends and family were allowed to recover the body for funeral rites. After the cremation, the ashes would be buried with offerings. In some places, the body’s would have single graves as we do today set aside for them. To this day these graves are being uncovered and shedding light on the lives of Roman gladiators.

As usual, cowards and disgraceful fighters weren’t given the same luxury. If the bodies remained unclaimed, they would be tossed into the river or dumped on a wasteland to rot. As they insulted their people, a body remaining unburied was also considered insulting. The Romans believed that a soul could not rest and move on until the body was covered by dirt. It’s possible that the bones may still remain in these wastelands if found by anthropologists and historians. For now, we’ll never know.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Women Gladiators. José de Ribera. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Surprise! Women Were Gladiators Too

This whole time we talked of men as gladiators as if they were the only ones. Well, they weren’t. Battling to death can get boring even with the spectacles and entertainment training. One can only see someone getting ripped to shreds or stabbed so many times before it becomes stale. The organizers were always looking for new angles to keep the games fresh and exciting. In comes the idea of women gladiators. These women were known as the Amazones, based on the ancient myth of warrior women.

Even during Ancient Rome, these women were a myth that they could use as a marketing ploy to keep people coming back. The Amazones are talked about in the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Martial. They were depicted in Roman art, most notably in loincloths with no helmets. This was so the crowd could see their hair and much of the body to further entice them. These women became so popular we have references of them today with Wonder Woman, sexy costumes, and featured in TV series and films.

17 Facts About Gladiators
The twisted brother-sister relationship at the heart of Rome was central to the plot of Gladiator. YouTube.

12. Roman Emperors Like To Play Dress Up As Gladiators

There are many films out there were we see Roman Emperors step into the arena to battle. Again we step into the film Gladiator because it has one of the most accurate depictions of this idea. Commodus enters the arena to fight because he saw himself as god-like and loved being compared to Hercules. He was pompous living in a fantasy world and would often go dressed as Hercules into the arena to fight. He often arranged for an amputee or exotic animal to be paraded in front of him before he clubbed them to death.

Commodus also charged a hefty fee for his appearances, and the organizers were much too afraid to refuse him. Commodus wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the sand under his feet and blade in hand instead of the comfortable viewing box. Emperors Hadrian, Titus, and Caligula also appeared as gladiators. They may have fought opponents with blunted weapons and other safety precautions in place since we wouldn’t want the death of the Emperor at the hands of a mere gladiator.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Jean Léon Gérôme. The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer. Wikimedia Commons.

13. They Didn’t Just Fight People, They Fought Animals Too

Now we come to the famed depictions of gladiators fighting lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my.) But why did they fight exotic animals instead of humans sometimes? They were fresh, unusual, exciting, and allowed spectators to see the vast nature and riches the Roman Empire had to offer. Animals were expensive so organizers only used them when they pulled out all the stops. There was even a special name for a gladiator who specialized in animals called a bestarius.

Not all of the animals were sentenced to die in the arena. Some were trained a circus exhibits but the bloodlust for death and entertainment often caused the animals to be transported to their deaths. The animals were used in the ring in a variety of ways. They would combat with the bestarii or used to kill undesirables such as Christians, torn to bits in front of a large crowd. The use of animals led to high trade and almost caused extinction. The hippo disappeared from the Nile and the European Wild Horse and Eurasian Lynx became extinct.

17 Facts About Gladiators
A depiction of a gladiator. The Times.

14. Gladiators Were Ranked Based On Performance And Fighting Method

There wasn’t just one type of Roman gladiator. The most well-known of these fighters were the retarius, murmillo, and the secutor. The retarius was armed with a trident and a net but had very little armor, he was fast but very vulnerable. The retarius usually fought a secutor since they were more heavily armored with a helmet and shield in addition to their swords. Murmillos were even more heavily armored than the secutors. Provocators fought each other with a sword and shield wearing full body armor and a helmet with a visor.

Other popular types included the hoplomachus, eques, Dimacherius, and the Saggitarius. The hoplomachus were armed with a lance, dagger, and a small shield. The eques fought on horseback and then moved to the ground but the essedarius rode chariots and were armed with lances and swords. The Dimacherius were armed with only two daggers and the Saggitarius only a bow. The most bizarre gladiator was the andabatus which fought on horseback and carried a lance. Their faces were completely covered by their helmets so they were unable to see their opponents.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Union members were encouraged to only buy goods which bore this label, or similar labels issued by other unions, to demonstrate solidarity. Library of Congress

15. Gladiators Had Their Own Labor Unions, Like The Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa

One would never think a gladiator would be part of a trade union, but they were. They called these unions the collegia. In return for consistent payments, the collegia would make sure the fallen gladiator would be buried properly with a decent funeral and a grave marker. The collegia would also see that the gladiator’s wife and children would receive a small amount of compensation. Sometimes if a gladiator didn’t have a subscription, his colleagues would band together and pay for it.

If a gladiator didn’t have a subscription or his friends couldn’t afford to chip in, he would receive no burial at all. If the body wasn’t thrown into the river, it would be carved up for animal trainers. The trainers would feed the meat to their animals for training. The animal would get used to the smell of human flesh and be more prone to attack in the arena. The collegia were democratic with elected leaders and had their own gods they would pray to.


17 Facts About Gladiators
Commodus gives a thumbs down in Gladiator. Youtube.

16. Thumbs Down Did Not Mean A Gladiator Was To Die

The signal of a “thumbs down” has a negative connotation in our society. The thumbs down had to come from somewhere, but it wasn’t the Romans like we think. The thumbs-down gesture to signal death is a misconception. We know that the final death call was not up to the victor, but to the editor. The editor would listen to the calls of the crowd and then make his final decision. The editor was the senior official in attendance, usually a Governor, a Senator, or occasionally the Emperor himself.

The writings of Juvenal state that if the thumb is pointed up, towards the heart, the fallen should be put to death. If the thumb was pointed down towards the ground, that meant the victor should lay down his sword. So how did we get it messed up? The painting from Léon Gérôme in 1873 famously mixed up the Latin translation and he painted the thumb down instead of up. The famous painting has now changed Roman meaning that thumbs up means good, and thumbs down mean bad when it was the other way around.

17 Facts About Gladiators
Whilst we know much about the history and culture of the Ancient Romans,

17. Gladiator Games Were Part of Roman Life for 700 Years

When we look through history, some customs last a mere few years and some last centuries. Unlike American culture where fashion trends died quickly and other cultural norms, Roman culture didn’t change much. Gladiator games lasted from 300 BC to 400 AD. The Romans thought the concept came from the Etruscans but the Campanians were recorded having games in 310 BC to celebrate an important military victory. A few years later in 246 BS two brothers, Marcus and Decimus Brutus, held a small funeral game consisting of three fights and a cattle market to honor their father.

Other families saw the games as political prestige as it played into Roman belief that the souls of the departed needed human blood. As more and more families started to put on games lanistas or gladiator trainers started to cash in on the trend by training gladiators for combat. Julius Caesar saw a good thing going and ordered 320 games to commemorate the death of his daughter Julia. He also realized that gladiators could be used in place of a private army.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Anderson, Dave. “Top 10 Cool Facts About Roman Gladiators.” ListLand.

Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You May Not Know About Roman Gladiators.” History.com.

Mandal, Dattatreya. “12 Things You Should Know About The Ancient Roman Gladiators.” Realm of History.