17. Between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 gladiator fights ended in one fighter dying – so in most cases, both men made it out alive
How risky was being a gladiator? According to most historians, a typical gladiator’s ‘career’ lasted a matter of months, or even a few years. Most died in their mid-20s. Analyzing the remaining records, most historians agree that somewhere between 1 in 5 and 1 in 10 of all gladiatorial bouts ended in one of the fighters dying. That means in the majority of cases, both men made it out of the arena alive. Since it took money to train and then house gladiators, this was the ideal outcome for slave owners, and many trainers even instructed their men to wound rather than to kill.
16. Not all gladiators were men – female gladiatrix also fought in the arenas of Rome, even if they were usually novelty acts
Women most definitely fought as gladiators in Ancient Rome. However, compared to their male counterparts, hardly anything is known of this Gladiatrix. Certainly, they rarely featured in fights and were more a novelty show. Indeed, female fighters were usually seen as a comedy act before the main event. As well as fighting one another, they were also forced to fight wild beasts in the arenas of Rome. The records show that female gladiators didn’t wear helmets in the arena. This allowed them to show off their elaborate hairstyles, accentuating their femininity for the benefit of the baying crowd.
15. Emperor Titus was one of Ancient Rome’s biggest fan of female gladiators and paid females good money to fight for him
Like their male equivalents, female gladiators were almost always slaves. Often, they would be presented to the crowds as fierce warriors with exotic backstories. They fought as ‘Amazons’ for instance, though their backgrounds were almost always fabricated. The records show that Emperor Titus loved female gladiators and would watch women slaves battle to the death. Females also died like men too. In 2001, archaeologists found the grave of a female gladiator in London. She had been buried outside of the main cemetery but placed in a proper grave – proof, perhaps, that gladiatrix, like gladiators, had ‘death clubs’ into which they paid regular subscriptions to pay for a proper burial.
14. Most celebrity gladiators wielded their swords against men – but one of the 1st-century best-loved fighters was a slayer or wild beasts
Normally, bestiarii, gladiators trained to fight wild beasts, never lasted more than one day in the arena. Carpophorus was a notable exception. During the 1st century AD, he made a name for himself as a slayer of ferocious animals. On the opening day at the Flavian Amphitheatre, in front of a huge crowd and Emperor Titus, he faced lions, bears and leopards – and won! For good measure, he also killed a rhino with a spear. For his unique skills, Carpophorus earned huge sums of money and, a rarity for a bestiaries, became a celebrity.
13. A fallen gladiator was expected to show pride and honor – and his throat to his opponent so he could die a ‘good death’
Despite their tough luck in life, gladiators were expected to be noble and ‘honorable’ in death. All gladiators were instructed to accept the will of their editor. So, if the editor decreed that they be killed, they were expected to accept this. That meant a defeated gladiator was not supposed to beg for mercy. They weren’t even supposed to cry out. Rather, a dignified end meant kneeling on the arena floor and showing your throat to your opponent to be cut. If you did indeed die well, then you would be treated with extra dignity, with your body removed gracefully from the arena on a couch dedicated to the Roman goddess of funeral rites, Libitina.
12. Some gladiators formed workplace unions, with funeral benefits and payments to a fallen member’s family
Contrary to the story of Gladiator the movie, real-life gladiators never fought in teams. It really was every man for himself out in the arena. However, there is evidence showing us that some gladiators did form their own unions. Known as collegia, these were established in the training camps. The informal groups, or ‘bands of brothers’ would make sure a fallen gladiator’s wife or children were looked after financially. They would also make sure their deceased comrade would receive a proper burial. However, if required, they would have to fight against one another in the arena – to the death if necessary.
11. The ‘thumbs down’ sign might not have been the signal for the victor to kill his fallen opponent after all
At the Colosseum, if the Emperor was in attendance, then he and he alone would decide the fate of a defeated gladiator. However, despite it being a central part of the way gladiatorial fights have been depicted in art and film, there’s no evidence to suggest that the ‘thumbs down’ signal was given to condemn a man to death. In fact, some historians believe that a thumbs up might have been the signal for death. In any case, the crowd’s reaction usually swayed the mind of the Emperor or the head editor, but not always.
10. Some gladiator fights ended in a draw – in one famous incident, two legends of the arena earned their freedom after battling for hours
In one of the most famous gladiatorial fights of all, both men submitted – and both were deemed victors. Priscus and Versus were two of the best gladiators of the 1st century. Given their popularity, they were chosen to face off against one another to celebrate the opening of the Flavian Amphitheater. The poet Martial was there that day. He wrote of how the two men fought for hours, matching each other for skill and bravery. Ultimately, they both submitted at the same time. Emperor Titus declared both men victors. To the approval of the roaring crowd, both Priscus and Versus were awarded wooden swords, symbolizing their freedom.
9. As a final indignity, a fallen gladiator could be clubbed by a man in costume, just to make sure he was dead
The fun for the crowd didn’t stop at a gladiator’s death. Before the body was taken from the arena, officials had to make sure the fighter was really deceased – and this became a bloody spectacle in itself. In some cases, a fallen gladiator’s throat was simply cut in the arena mortuary, out of sight of the bloodthirsty crowds. But sometimes, usually during more expensive Games, an arena official would dress as Dis Pater, the brother of Jove, the God of the Underworld. Swinging a giant mallet, he would bash the heads of the fallen and then drag their bodies from the arena floor.
8. The lowest class of gladiators stood no chance in the arena, and were treated with no dignity after death
The archaeological evidence suggests that, the lower the status of the gladiator, the more likely it was that they would be treated badly in death. The Noxii class of gladiators, the lowest of the low, made up of criminals, would be bashed with the big mallet before being dragged out of the arena. Even if they had died with dignity, a noxii gladiator would still be denied a proper burial. Most likely, their bodies would simply be tossed into a nearby river or taken outside of the town or city and left to the wild beasts and birds.
7. Not all gladiators wanted to be free – the legendary Flamma fought 34 times, and refused his freedom on 4 separate occasions
Not all gladiators wanted to be free. Some seemingly became addicted to the life. In one notable example of this ‘addiction to the arena’, the celebrated fighter Flamma was offered his freedom on four separate occasions. Each time, he declined to accept the rudis of wooden sword symbolizing freedom. Instead, he preferred to carry on, eventually dying in an arena in Sicily. He died at the age of 30, in the arena of course. In his career, he fought an amazing 34 times, winning 21 of his contests and drawing in 9 of them.
6. Most gladiators only fought a few times a year, and the best might even have had year-long breaks between bouts in the arena
If a gladiator made it out of the arena alive, he would return to his barracks or training camp to recover until the next fight. According to some estimates, based on the number of victories credited to some of the most celebrated fighters, the typical gladiator is likely to have fought 4 or 5 times a year – giving them plenty of time to train and recuperate. Some major names, who were real celebrities of the age, may only have stepped into the arena juts once a year, and some only came out of retirement very rarely – and only for a sizable fee, of course.
5. A gladiator usually needed to fight 15 times to win his freedom – so lots of them never escaped their violent slavery
Unless he had performed exceptionally well in the arena, a gladiator was unlikely to be made a freeman after just one victory. He would be allowed to return to his training camp and rest before getting back to work. In most cases, a gladiator needed to fight 15 times in order to be freed from slavery. Since they fought 3 times a year, this was a long time. What’s more, since as many as one-fifth of all fights ended in one of the combatants dying, the odds of making it to freedom were not so great.
4. Gladiators drank water mixed with ashes to get their strength back after a fight
According to the ancient writer and historian Pliny the Elder, gladiators had a unique way of getting back into peak fitness after a grueling fight. In his Natural History, he advised that a cup of water mixed with ashes was the perfect remedy for “abdominal cramps and bruises”. He continued “one can see how gladiators after a combat are helped by drinking this.” Notably, archaeologists have found evidence of high levels of calcium in their bones – proof, perhaps, that they really did drink foul-tasting ash drinks after a fight.
3. Emperor Nero was a massive gladiator fan – and even requested his favorite fighter give him a swift death when he was overthrown
When the notorious Emperor Nero was overthrown in 68 AD he had one last request. He wished to be killed by his favorite gladiator, Spiculus. As Emperor, Nero had watched his Spiculus in the arena on many occasions. The gladiator was known for his speed and his skill with a sword. He also became famous for his courage, always taking on the hardest opponents. After Spiculus was made a freeman, Nero lavished him with riches, including several palaces. In the end, however, Nero couldn’t get the gladiator to him in time, so ended up taking his own life.
2. Rome’s first Christian Emperor brought the age of gladiators to an end in the year 325 – though gladiators remained slaves
Gladiatorial games were finally brought to an end in the year 325 by Emperor Constantine. He was the ruler who adopted Christianity as the sole religion of the Empire. Officially, Constantine ruled that such bloody games were unnecessary at a “time of civil and domestic peace”. However, most historians agree that, since Rome was fighting fewer wars by this point, there was no longer a regular supply of victims to play the role of combatants. Far from being set free, slaves who were destined for the arena were simply made to work in the Empire’s mines.
1. Organized fights between men and beasts carried on for hundreds of years after gladiators were outlawed
Even after Emperor Constantine outlawed gladiatorial fights in the year 325, gory entertainment continued for another 300 years. Above all, crowds still paid to watch humans fight beasts in so-called venationes until well into the middle of the 6th century. And, of course, gladiators continue to live on in the popular imagination. Spartacus, the most famous gladiator of all, went on to inspire everyone from German Communist revolutionaries to Soviet-era soccer clubs, not to mention artists, writers and movie directors.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: