37. Not all gladiators were forced to fight – when Rome was running out of prisoners, volunteers stepped in to fight
For many years, Rome had no need to recruit gladiators. The many wars the Roman Empire fought provided a constant stream of prisoners. Women would be taken as domestic slaves, while strong, healthy men of fighting age might be forced to become gladiators. But not all gladiators were slaves. From around the middle of the first century, growing numbers of free men also volunteered to fight. Most were former soldiers, though some nobles also became gladiators. The former usually fought for money, while the latter group stepped into the arena in order to prove their strength and virility or to become celebrities.
36. Fighting as a gladiator was a wise career choice, especially for soldiers struggling with debt
It’s estimated that, by the late Republic, around half of all the gladiators fighting throughout Rome were volunteers. Despite the risks, stepping into the arena was an attractive proposition. A gladiator was often allowed to keep any prize money, as well as any gifts that were thrown to them. Plus, of course, they received housing and food and perhaps even lucrative work as bodyguards to the elite. Mark Antony, for example, recruited his bodyguards from gladiatorial barracks rather than from the Army, paying them handsomely for their service and loyalty.
35. Several Roman Emperors stepped into the arena, including Commodus, though he was a coward rather than a brave gladiator
The most famous of all freedmen to step into the gladiatorial arena was, of course, Emperor Commodus. Following the death of his father, the ‘philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, he ruled over Rome from 180 until 190. Unlike his father, Commodus was not a wise ruler. Instead, he was vain and decadent. He loved gladiators and wanted a taste of the glory for himself. However, he was also a coward. He would fight dwarves or cripples or ‘ferocious’ animals like giraffes and zebras. Ultimately, the Emperor’s plans for lavish, hugely expensive games in his honor led to his assassination.
34. To this day, some historians believed that the Emperor Commodus was actually the son of a gladiator
Commodus was obsessed with gladiators. Since his father had been a wise philosopher, this led to many rumors. Could it really be that his love of the arena was down to the fact that Commodus had been fathered by a gladiator? Certainly, the ancient historian Cassius Dio believed so. According to him, Faustina, the second wife of Marcus Aurelius, loved the company of strong, young men. And so, when she was in the coastal town of Caieta one time, she enjoyed an affair with a strong gladiator. Commodus was, it was said the result of this extra-marital liaison.
33. Ancient graffiti found in Pompeii show just how crazy women and young girls were about the best-known gladiators
If Faustina did indeed have an affair with a gladiator, this wouldn’t have been so shocking at the time. Indeed in Ancient Rome, many gladiators were seen as sex symbols. Graffiti scribbled on the walls of Pompei show this was the case. This notes how one gladiator was “the delight of all the girls” while another “catches the girls at night in his net”. Women and girls from the lower classes would adorn their bedroom walls with pictures of their heroes and would delight at seeing them in action. Noble women, meanwhile, might request a gladiator be sent to her bed-chamber after a fight.
32. Gladiators were ancient sex symbols – and their sweat and blood were sold as aphrodisiacs
A whole industry was built up around the sexual attractiveness of gladiators. Thracians – gladiators armed with just a short sword and a tiny shield – were seen as particularly virile, mainly because they wore hardly anything in the arena. Enterprising entrepreneurs would bottle gladiators’ sweat and sell it in tiny bottles, marketing it as a powerful aphrodisiac. It was also said that noble women would ask for their hairpins or other pieces of jewelry to be dipped in a favorite gladiator’s blood. Again, this was seen as a good aphrodisiac or conception aid.
31. A man’s strength or height usually determined what class of gladiator he would train and fight as
Whether they were slaves or freedmen who signed up voluntarily to fight (for money or glory), each future gladiator was first assigned a class. This was usually dependent on a man’s physical stature. For instance, stronger, larger men were more likely to be assigned as dimachaerus, gladiators who fought with two swords at once. The majority would have been made thraeces or murmillones, equipped with a simple sword and shield but little body armor. And the unluckiest slaves would have been made a retiarius. They were armed with a net and a trident. The crowds loved them, but if they missed their opponent when they threw their nets, they were almost completely helpless.
30. Dreaming of gladiators was seen as a sign – and could be a good way of seeing who you would marry one day
For many gladiatorial aficionados, provocatores were the coolest of all fighters. Their name literally meant ‘challengers’ and they were deemed to be the best fighters. These men would often be saved for big set-piece battles, including re-enactments of the Empire’s most famous victories. As with other classes of gladiator, provocatores would usually fight one another, guaranteeing a fine show for the crowds. According to Roman superstitions, any young man who dreamed he was fighting such a gladiator was destined to marry a beautiful woman, but one that loved to flirt with others.
29. Gladiators ate a vegetarian diet most of the time – but probably because this was the cheapest way of feeding them
They may have had rippling muscles and the strength of two men, but the typical gladiator was probably around 80% vegetarian. Far from gorging on protein-rich red meat every day, the evidence suggests that gladiators ate a plant-rich diet. Indeed, Pliny the Elder noted that gladiators were often referred to as ‘hordearii‘, literally meaning ‘barley eaters. Of course, this focus on a plant-rich diet was not of their choosing. More likely, it was simply cheaper for the owners of the gladiators to feed their fighting slaves plants and beans rather than meat.
28. Gladiator schools were nothing like Hogwarts for warriors – they were more like prisons for condemned captives
Gladiator training schools were a long way from real schools. And gladiators were hardly everyday pupils. Instead, according to historian Wolfgang Neubauer, who discovered one such ancient training school in Austria, they were more like prisons, with the men prisoners. There was only one way in and out and the prisoners lived in cells rather than dorms. In the Austrian school, for instance, the gladiators lived in cells 32-square feet (3 square meters) in size, only coming out to practice and eat.
27. Schools rented their gladiators out for individual fights – and this would turn into a sale if the fighter was killed
Gladiator schools were owned by wealthy men, called lanistas. They would rent their gladiators out for individual events. Of course, the price varied. Untested novices were the cheapest, while veterans who were loved by the public could fetch huge sums. According to the sources from the time, if a lanista’s gladiator was killed in the arena, the rental contract would be automatically upgraded to a sale agreement – and this could be 50 the cost of the daily rental rate!
26. Some gladiator schools had their own cemeteries, even though the trainee fighters were kept as safe as possible
If there were any luxuries in gladiator training schools, they were only there to protect the slaveowners’ investments – and to make sure they were in peak physical condition when they went into the arena. Even provincial schools were equipped with underfloor heating, so the fighters could train year-round, as well as reliable hot water for baths to soothe sore muscles. Tellingly, the school uncovered in Austria not only had its own infirmary, it also had its own graveyard just a short distance away!
25. Gladiators trained with wooden swords known as rudis – and would get another if they won a real fight and their freedom
Since they were expensive to keep and train, slaveowners wanted to protect their investments. That meant training injuries had to be kept to a minimum. During training, gladiators would use wooden weapons rather than sharp metal blades. The dull wooden swords were known as the rudis. These same wooden swords were also given to the victor of a gladiatorial fight. If he did indeed get a wooden sword, he would be set free from slavery. Freemen who returned to the arena fought as rudiarii and would often draw huge crowds.
24. There was a code gladiator were expected to follow – and killing an opponent wasn’t included in this
It was in the ludus that gladiators learned the ‘rules’ they were supposed to follow in the arena. Above all, they were taught that they were entertainers first and killers second. According to the sources from the time, the key code of the gladiator was to defeat one’s opponent without inflicting a mortal blow. The owners of the gladiators, or the main official overseeing a fight – that is, the editor – would ensure the men fought bravely and with skill. However, he might step in if it looked like a gladiator could be seriously injured or even die.
23. Old gladiators knew the ‘rules’ of the arena best and would be on hand with whips to ensure they were obeyed
Some retired gladiators went on to become officials. These were the umpires who ensured that gladiators fought properly and according to the ‘rules’ in the arena. They carried whips to keep the men in line and batons with which they could point out infractions to the head official, or editor. The very best former gladiators would become summa rudis. These were the very elite officials and wore white tunics with purple borders – an imperial color. They even had the power to decide a fallen fighter’s fate or to stop a bout.
22. Retired gladiators could enjoy lucrative second careers as celebrity officials, known as summa rudis
In some cases, these elite former gladiators turned officials, the summa rudis, became superstars in their own right. Crowds would flock to see these old legends of the arena. That meant that many could charge large sums to officiate contests. Indeed, the histories of the time note that many rudis earned themselves wealth and power in their second careers. An inscription uncovered in modern-day Ankara, Tukey, tells how one summa rudis, called Aelius, was granted citizenship by several Greek towns due to his bravery and generosity.
21. Gladiator schools were usually staffed by retired fighters called magistrii
Few gladiators lived long enough to retire. And many of those who did make it out alive had few useful skills they could use to get by in ‘normal’ Roman society. Unsurprisingly, then, many went back into the gladiatorial business. Almost all magistri, or gladiator trainers, were former gladiators themselves. They would pass on the skills they learned in the arena to a new generation of fighters – and they would usually only train men who fought in the same class as them. The magistri lived in the training camps, though they had bigger rooms than the gladiators and their quarters were kept separate.
20. Gladiators learned to fight in front of huge crowds in their training schools – one in Rome could hold 3,000 bloodthirsty spectators
In the city of Rome, and possibly elsewhere across the Empire, the gladiator training schools each had their own arenas. In time, these would be modeled on the Colosseum itself. This didn’t just give the gladiators themselves the chance to train in realistic conditions. It also gave the public the chance to see gladiators in action even when there were no Games taking place. The Ludus Magus, the biggest such training facility in the city of Rome, for example, had an arena that could hold up to 3,000 spectators.
19. Gladiator schools were usually specialized, and some were so big men trained to ride and fight on chariots in them
In the city of Rome, there was no single school for gladiators. Once a man – or, less commonly, a woman – was assigned a fighter class, they would be sent to the appropriate Ludus for training. The Bestiaries School, for instance, would only train Bestiarii, the gladiators who would fight wild and exotic animals in the arena. The biggest school in the city, the Ludus Magus was so big that gladiators could practice riding chariots or fighting on horseback. Outside of Rome, however, provincial schools often trained all types of gladiators in the same space.
18. After the Spartacus rebellion in 73BC, Rome made sure gladiator schools were disciplined and loyal
For many years, gladiator training schools, or ludus, were privately owned. The Roman State would simply pay the schools’ owners every time they wanted to use their gladiators. However, the rebellion of Spartacus and his fellow gladiators in around 73BC changed all this. From then on, the State took a much closer interest in these schools, ensuring that the gladiators they trained wouldn’t use their specialist fighting skills against Rome itself! Emperors even got involved – for example, Domitian, who ruled from 81 to 96, commissioned four such schools to be built in the very heart of Rome.
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: