Myth 8) Gladiators always fought to the death
The biographer Suetonius wrote that upon entering the arena the combatants would say, “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant” (Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you). Yet they probably said this more for dramatic effect than in expectation of their imminent death. For, in reality, it was rare for a professional gladiator to perish in the arena, not least because of the considerable financial cost this would have meant for their owners.
The amount of training gladiators had to go through in the ludus was expensive. Novices fighting under instructorsâprobably former gladiators themselvesâwould have to progressively pass through a series of grades (palus), the highest being the primus palus. For the gladiator owner (lanista), it would have been terrible for business if he lost the cream of his crop every time he entered the games. It’s for this reason a defeated gladiator could requestâthough not always successfullyâto leave the arena alive.
Contrary to popular belief, as long as you were lucky enough to avoid being brutally murdered as part of a public spectacle, being a gladiator was actually a highly desirable occupation. For anybody who’s seen the recent TV Series “Spartacus”, it might surprise you to know that with all its sex, swearing and extreme (but not always lethal) violence, it actually offers one of the most realistic insights into everyday life of a Roman gladiator.
Another widely believed misconception is that of the pollice verso or the upturned thumb. The gesture first entered popular imagination with Jean-LÃ©on GÃ©rÃ´me’s 1872 painting (above) and has been universally famous since Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic “Gladiator”. Traditionally, we have always thought that the upturned thumb meant mercy while the downturned thumb spelled death.
However, a medallion found in southern France in 1997 should make us think differently. It shows a gladiatorial scene in which the presiding figure has tucked his thumb under his fingers, saving the lives of the defeated combatants. This suggests that the upturned thumb spelled death while the thumb tucked under the finger (which represented sheathing a sword) meant mercy.
It’s also worth mentioning that, while the power to decide did ultimately rest with the emperor, good emperors used the occasion of the games to gauge public feeling and try to ingratiate themselves with the plebeian masses. They would therefore often go with the decision of the peopleâwhichever verdict was shouted loudestârather than with their personal decision.