A Day in the Life of a Gladiator in Ancient Rome
A Day in the Life of a Gladiator in Ancient Rome

A Day in the Life of a Gladiator in Ancient Rome

Patrick Lynch - February 23, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Gladiator in Ancient Rome
Illustration of Gladiator School found at Carnuntum in eastern Austria. National Geographic

The Life of a Gladiator

There were three major gladiator training schools, with Capua probably the most famous for producing high-quality fighters. It wasn’t unusual for agents to roam the empire to find potential gladiators; then they would try and persuade them to come and fight. Obviously, slaves and prisoners of war had no say in the matter.

Although free men were not hauled into the arena in chains, they had to live a disciplined life once they agreed to join a school. Most gladiators ate three decent meals a day which included meat, fish, cereals, vegetables, eggs, cheese, and goat’s milk, with water the only other drink. Even free men were shackled and slept in cells; they were only freed for mealtimes and training; no one was allowed to speak during mealtimes. On the plus side, they received massages along with hot and cold baths because hygiene was crucial. Gladiators had to be incredibly fit, but most had some extra ‘padding’ around the midsection to protect vital organs from minor wounds.

Training was intense, but in the beginning, the focus was on increasing the fitness of the gladiators. As a result, initial combat involved wooden swords in honing the fighters’ technique and teaching them different fighting styles. The precise type of training they received depended on how much armor they wore; heavily armored warriors needed to learn different methods than lightly armored gladiators for example.

A Day in the Life of a Gladiator in Ancient Rome
Scene from Gladiator movie. Alchetron

Fighting in the Arena

Gladiators only fought 3-5 times a year on average. On the evening before an event, a banquet was held for combatants who were told to enjoy themselves because it could be their last great meal. Contrary to popular belief, most gladiators didn’t fight to the death. According to some historians, fewer than 20% of them died in the arena. If the crowd was bored by a long-drawn-out affair, a stalemate could be declared. Alternatively, both warriors could leave if they thrilled the audience with a brave battle.

Those who ran gladiator schools didn’t want their fighters to die because each man and woman was an expensive investment. It is possible that trainers taught their warriors how to wound and not kill opponents while gladiators were probably reluctant to kill their ‘brothers.’ Despite the relatively small death rate during combat, the average life expectancy of a gladiator was only in the mid-twenties.

When a gladiator was overmatched and faced inevitable defeat, the crowd could decide his fate. The wounded person sometimes held up his finger as a request to be spared, but the crowd could shout for his death if they felt he didn’t put up a good enough fight. If the emperor was in attendance, it was usually left to him to have the final word. Incidentally, the ‘thumbs down’ signal didn’t necessarily mean ‘death.’ A ‘thumbs up’ could have meant death while signs of mercy might have included the ‘thumbs down‘ or a clenched fist with two fingers extended.

If a gladiator had to die, his opponent plunged their weapon into the victim. Apparently, an attendant dressed as Pluto appeared afterward to strike the body with a mallet, someone else checked to ensure the person was dead and the corpse was finally removed. The winner received money and a laurel branch and would run around the arena waving the palm. For free men, the goal was to earn as much as possible before retirement. Slaves hoped to one day win enough to buy their freedom. If a gladiator had an outstanding career and was allowed to leave the school, he would receive a wooden sword as a sign that he no longer had to risk his life in the arena.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 17 Facts About Gladiators

Smithsonian Magazine – The Discovery of a Roman Gladiator School Brings the Famed Fighters Back to Life

Ancient Origins – Gladiator School Discovery Reveals Hard Lives of Ancient Warriors

History Today – Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome

Time Magazine – Where Does the ‘Thumbs-Up’ Gesture Really Come From?

Today I Found Out – The Truth About Gladiators And The Thumbs Up

History Collection – The Secret Lives of Female Gladiators

History of Yesterday – 5 Lesser-Known Facts About the Gladiators of Ancient Rome

Medium – 11 Fascinating Facts About the Roman Gladiators

Quora – Did The Romans Free Gladiators After Winning Their Freedom?