Roman gladiators are some of the most iconic characters in history and they have defined how we think of entertainment in ancient Rome. Their portrayal in films and through stories have turned them into archetypal legends who faced death on a daily basis – certainly something not to be taken lightly. The expectations of gladiators are incomparable to anything we see or do today, making their lives even more fascinating and yet inconceivable. We tend to associate gladiators with an image of blood, gore and brutality but we wanted to give them a bit more credit and explore the real history behind these characters to learn about what ‘being a gladiator’ was really like. The term gladiator is derived from the Latin gladiatores in reference to their weapon the gladius – short sword. Many historians believe the tradition of gladiator fighting dates back to the Etruscans who hosted the contests as part of religious rites of death. However, it’s been disputed that the contests were also to commemorate the deaths of distinguished aristocrats and wealthy nobles, forcing condemned prisoners to fight, with the act of combat and bravery representing to the virtues of those who had died. The sport of gladiator fighting ran for over 650 years – a proof of its popularity! Spanning throughout the Roman Empire it was a fixture in the Roman entertainment calendar from 105 BC to 404 AD and the games mainly remained unchanged bar a few small rules. Early on, most gladiators were condemned prisoners and slaves, who were sacrificed by their Emperors. Later, when the Coliseum opened in 80 AD, being a gladiator proved a lucrative career move and thanks to this change in trend, gladiator schools were set up to train these volunteer fighters, enticing free men with the hope of winning a stake of the prize money and ultimately, glory. These new fighters included retired soldiers, warriors and desperate men looking to make a living. Some were even knights and nobles who wanted to prove their pedigree and show off their fighting skills. Rome had three notable training schools, Capua being one of them for the calibre of gladiators it produced. Agents would scout for potential gladiators to try and persuade them to come and fight for their honour. These gladiator schools offered both safety and captivity, comparable to a prison with its gruelling schedule, yet offering the comfort and security of three hearty meals a day and the best possible medical attention. Although these men were free men, they had to live in shackles and were not allowed to speak at mealtimes but they were allowed to keep any rewards and money if they won a fight. Their diets consisted of protein and carbohydrates like barley porridge and cereals – with no option of wine, water only. Although the gladiators were fighting fit, most of them were a little on the round side as it was preferable to have some extra padding around the midsection to protect them from any serious damage from superficial wounds. Gladiators were an expensive investment for those who ran the gladiator schools, so it was preferable that the fighters did not die on the field – meaning they had to be strong enough to last more than one fight. Contrary to popular belief, not many gladiators actually fought to the death. Some historians say 1 in 5 died in battle, others 1 in 10, yet most only lived to their mid-twenties which compared to today’s average is shocking! However, it was also common place at fights held at the Coliseum for the Emperor to have the final say as to whether the combatants lived or died – often invoking the opinions of the audience to help decide on the matter. So whether you fought well or not, your fate could lie ultimately in the hands of your ruler. When we think of gladiators in ancient Rome we tend to stereotype and think of men; warriors or slaves. But interestingly female slaves were also forced into the pit to fight alongside their male counterparts, or as Emperor Domitian preferred, to face them against dwarves for his particular entertainment. Women fought in gladiator fights for 200 years until Emperor Septimius Severus banned their participation from these blood thirsty games. The brave, strong gladiators not only had their strength to bring into the pit but also their swords. The type of armour and weapons they fought with depended on their social ranking as a gladiator. There were four main classes of gladiator: the Samnite, Thracian, Myrmillo and Retiarius. The Samnites were equipped with a short sword (gladius), rectangular shield (scutum), a graeve (ocrea) and a helmet. The Thracians fought with a curved short sword (sica) and a very small square or round shield (parma). The Myrmillo gladiators were nicknamed ‘fishmen’ as they wore a fish-shaped crest on their helmets and also carried a short sword and shield, like the Samnites, but their armour consisted only of padding on arm and leg. Finally, the Retiarius were the most exposed of all, with no helmet or armour other than a padded shoulder piece, and whose defence included a weighted net used to entangle the opponent and a trident. Although gladiators may have seemed well equipped, the strength and courage it must have taken to step into battle and face death on a regular occurrence is unfathomable. We can be grateful that this brutal form of entertainment came to an end in 404 AD thanks to the Emperor Honorius who closed down the gladiator schools, years before. Who knows when this diversion might have ended had he not have stepped in and called it a day? Learning that the majority of gladiators weren’t actually slaves, but free men who had volunteered for a slice of glory and winnings, makes gladiator fighting seem all the more bizarre and barbaric; opting into a blood battle over traditional forms of trade and commerce. However, it doesn’t take away from the pedestal on which we will always place them – venerating those who survived as heroes and legends of their time. But in the context of the 21st century, I think it’s safe to say that this is one sporting game we’re glad hasn’t come around again!
The Life of Gladiators in Rome