Gladiators In Ancient Rome

We have all seen pictures or old movies about the Roman Coliseum, and the crowds that packed it to see the bloody life and death spectacle of the gladiators who fought there….Who were these men, and most of them were men, (sometimes women were included, but their stint in the arena came to an end around 200 A.D., when the Emperor Septimius Severus banned their participation in the games.) So who were these men who risked their lives in the arena, on the floor of the Coliseum, in the ultimate thrill kill “sport” of life and death duels played out before a jaded, sun baked, wine swilling crowd of cheering, jeering Romans?

The overwhelming majority of them had no choice at all, they were mostly slaves, prisoners of war and their options were to fight or die in the arena…But surprisingly, this was not always true…Sometimes freed men, lured by the excitement and thrills and glory of combat in the arena, volunteered with different gladiator training schools with the hope of achieving glory, “street cred” or prize money…. Some included warrior members of the upper classes and of course the notorious Emperor Commodus, who was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the classic Russel Crowe movie “Gladiator”.



There are several myths about gladiators behind the Hollywood extravaganzas that may surprise you like they did me…According to my Google sources: “They didn’t ALWAYS fight to the death..Hollywood movies and television shows often depict gladiatorial bouts as a bloody free-for-all, but most fights operated under fairly strict rules and regulations. Contests were typically single combat between two men of similar size and experience.

Referees oversaw the action, and probably stopped the fight as soon as one of the participants was seriously wounded. A match could even end in a stalemate if the crowd became bored by a long and drawn out battle, and in rare cases, both warriors were allowed to leave the arena with honor if they had put on an exciting show for the crowd.

Since gladiators were expensive to house, feed and train, their promoters were loath to see them needlessly killed. Trainers may have taught their fighters to wound, not kill, and the combatants may have taken it upon themselves to avoid seriously hurting their brothers-in-arms. Nevertheless, the life of a gladiator was usually brutal and short. Most only lived to their mid-20s, and historians have estimated that somewhere between one in five or one in 10 bouts left one of its participants dead.



If a gladiator was seriously wounded or threw down his weapon in defeat, his fate was left in the hands of the spectators. In contests held at the Colosseum, the emperor had the final say in whether the felled warrior lived or died, but rulers and fight organizers often let the people make the decision. If the crowd willed it, the victorious gladiator would deliver a grisly coup de grace by stabbing his opponent between the shoulder blades or through the neck and into the heart.


By the time the Colosseum opened in 80 A.D., gladiator games had evolved from freewheeling battles to the death into a well-organized blood sport. Fighters were placed in classes based on their record, skill level and experience, and most specialized in a particular fighting style and set of weaponry.

Most popular were the “thraeces” and “murmillones,” who fought with sword and shield, but there were also the “equites,” who entered the arena on horseback; the “essedarii,” who battled from chariots; and the “dimachaerus,” who may have wielded two swords at once. Of all the popular gladiator types, perhaps the most unusual was the “retiarius,” who was armed with only a net and a trident. These warriors tried to ensnare their opponents with their net before moving in for the kill, but if they failed, they were left almost entirely defenseless.


HENRY SIMMONS in Spartacus *Editorial Use Only* Ref: FB Supplied by Capital Picturesgladiatortypes

Special classes of “gladiators” slaughtered animals…”Nine thousand animals were slain during a 100-day ceremony to mark the opening of the Colosseum, and another 11,000 were later killed as part of a 123-day festival held by the Emperor Trajan in the 2nd century A.D. While most animals were merely slaughtered for sport, others were trained to do tricks or even pitted against one another in fights. Wild animals also served as a popular form of execution. Convicted criminals and Christians were often thrown to ravenous dogs, lions and bears as part of the day’s entertainment.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, “Gladiators often became celebrities and sex symbols…Though often dismissed as uncivilized brutes by Roman historians, the gladiators won massive fame among the lower classes. Their portraits graced the walls of many public places; children played with gladiator action figures made of clay; and the most successful fighters even endorsed products just like the top athletes of today.

They were also renowned for their ability to make Roman women swoon. Graffiti from Pompeii describes one fighter who “catches the girls at night in his net” and another who is “the delight of all the girls.” Many women wore hairpins and other jewelry dipped in gladiator blood, and some even mixed gladiator sweat—then considered an aphrodisiac—into facial creams and other cosmetics.


The Colosseum was dedicated in AD 80 with 100 days of games. One day 3,000 men fought; on another 9,000 animals were killed. It seated 50,000 people. The most spectacular gladiatorial shows were given by the emperors themselves at Rome. For example, the Emperor Trajan, to celebrate his conquest of Dacia (roughly modern Romania), gave games in AD 108-9 lasting 123 days in which 9,138 gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were slain.

Christians, burnt to death as scapegoats after the great fire at Rome in AD 64, were not alone in being sacrificed for public entertainment. Slaves and bystanders, even the spectators themselves, ran the risk of becoming victims of emperors’ truculent whims. One day when there was a shortage of condemned criminals, the Emperor Caligula commanded that a whole section of the crowd be seized and thrown to the wild beasts instead. Isolated incidents, but enough to intensify the excitement of those who attended. Imperial legitimacy was reinforced by terror.



Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. Gladiatorial shows and public executions reaffirmed the moral order, by the sacrifice of human victims – slaves, gladiators, condemned criminals or impious Christians. Enthusiastic participation, by spectators rich and poor, raised and then released collective tensions, in a society which traditionally idealized impassivity.

Gladiatorial shows provided a psychic and political safety valve for the metropolitan population. Politically, emperors risked occasional conflict, but the populace could usually be diverted or fobbed off. The crowd lacked the coherence of a rebellious political ideology. By and large, it found its satisfaction in cheering its support of the established order. At the psychological level, gladiatorial shows provided a stage for shared violence and tragedy. Each show reassured spectators that they had yet again survived disaster. Whatever happened in the arena, the spectators were on the winning side.”

They say NFL football games and players are the modern equivalent of the Roman gladiators, but I think that is stretching the point more than a little…I like to think that the strategy of the NFL game is still the main thing, that the scoring of points is paramount, and that the significant rises in injuries, while extremely alarming and in need of a much fuller, comprehensive examination, is still a peripheral by product of the game action….

But the parallels are becoming eerily more similar, death and impairment are just a delayed reaction for our modern day gladiators…I will address this in another blog, tomorrow I will point out some of the more unique features of the Roman Coliseum, an engineering marvel even in these times….

For more information on Gladiators, please visit the History site “10 Things You May Not know About Roman Gladiators” and “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome” as well as “Gladiator History-Roman Colosseum”….

For more articles by John Whye, click on


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