10 Surprising Facts About Roman Gladiators
Gladiators are one of the most interesting facets of the history of Ancient Rome. The Romans were so like us in so many ways; they had an organized society that was codified by laws. They had engineers, laid roads and organized their towns very much in the way we do today, they even invented concrete and central heating. Go to the coliseum and you enter a building that has inspired the construction and layout of sports arenas ever since.
The games they watched in their arenas were, however, very different from the mostly harmless baseball and football that we enjoy today. Like us they loved to watch people in the peak of their physical fitness compete against each other. Unlike the contests we watch today, however Romans enjoyed watching bloodthirsty spectacles. People thrown to the lions, gladiators fighting to the death and animals killed for entertainment. Gladiators and the games they competed in underline more than almost any other aspect of Roman life and society, just how different life and morals were in ancient times.
The rules and social usages surrounding the games and the gladiators that fought in them were incredibly complex. Here are 10 surprising facts about Roman gladiators.
10. Women fought as gladiators
Ancient Romans went to watch gladiators in order to be amused, to enjoy a spectacle and to be titillated. Watching the same fights over and over again could quickly become dull so, in order to maintain interest in the ‘games’ organizers were always looking for new angles.
Amazones were the perfect solution to this problem. Named for the warrior women that were ancient myth even in Roman times, female gladiators were something that little bit different, just the ticket to keep the mob coming back for more shows. We know that female gladiators were a historical fact because they are referred to in the writings of well-known contemporaneous Roman historians such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Martial.
Amazones were also depicted in Roman art with a particularly notable piece being on view at the world famous British Museum. From the piece it is clear that the amazons would fight without helmets (so the crowd could see their hair), and naked except for a loincloth (to titillate the crowd even further).
9. Gladiators were the celebrity pin ups of their day
The legal status of gladiators was deeply conflicted in Roman life. They ranked, according to some people, as barely more human than a slave, some even ranked them below slaves in the Roman hierarchy. They had none of the legal protections against punishment and physical injury that applied to Roman freemen.
That said, gladiators were also revered by ordinary people. They were the celebrities, the pop stars of their day, that the mob flocked to see for their entertainment. Like the Kardshianesque stars of modern day reality and talent shows successful gladiators were known and celebrated throughout the city. The details of the latest fights were spoken about by the mob in the tavernas and winebars long after fights were over while the wealthy commissioned portraits and frescos to commemorate famous matches. Some of the most famous gladiators had what can only be described as fan clubs that celebrated their achievements in graffiti around the city.
Children wanted to be them and wealthy women wanted to have sex with them (the scene in the Russell Crowe film Gladiator where the woman pays, ostensibly to have sex with him, was based in reality). Gladiators were widely thought to be sexually irresistible to women, the famous poet Juvenal even wrote a satirical poem about a senator’s wife abandoning her family and eloping to Egypt with her gladiator lover. The ruins of Pompeii show this relationship in real life, the bones of a high class woman were found in the gladiator training school. When the world was ending she sought refuge, not in her expensive home but in the arms of her powerful gladiator.
8. Roman emperors often toyed with being gladiators to impress the mob
Once again we return to the film Gladiator. You may have thought the scenes were Commodus enters the arena to fight as a gladiator were exaggerated but they were firmly based in historical fact.
Commodus was convinced that he was god like and loved nothing better than to have people compare him to Hercules. He even had statues of himself as Hercules made to perpetuate this myth (and encourage his unfortunate friends to make the comparison). Commodus wanted to live his fantasy so he would regularly go to the gladiator arena dressed as Hercules and arrange for amputees or exotic animal to be paraded front of him before clubbing them to death. He charged a steep fee for each public appearance; the organizers of the game were too frightened to refuse.
Commodus was not the only Emperor to enjoy the thrill of the arena from the sand instead of the viewing box. Hadrian, Titus and Caligula, amongst others were reputed to have appeared as gladiators although they probably fought opponents who were armed with blunted weapons or with other safety restrictions in place.
7. Some gladiatorial contests were against animals instead of between people
Exotic animals were beloved of the Roman mob. Not only did they look exciting and unusual but they allowed ordinary people to get a taste of the vast nature of the empire and the many riches that they were the masters of. Animals were expensive and so were not used on a daily basis but when they were the organizers went all out! There was even a special type of gladiator known as a bestarius who specialized in fighting animals.
Not all animals were sent into the arena to die, some were trained as circus exhibits but the Roman thirst for the combination of death and spectacle meant that many beasts were transported to their deaths. The animals were killed in a variety of ways – some were used in combat with bestarii or to hunt and kill undesirables such as Christians in front of the bloodthirsty crowd. Others were used in venationes (hunts) where they were herded into the arena, sometimes against a range of different backdrops, to be hunted by special gladiators called venatores. These shows were popular with wealthy romans and some emperors liked to participate with the venatores
The inaugural games at the coliseum were one of the largest spectacles of all time. They lasted for 100 days and resulted in the deaths of over 9,000 wild animals including elephants, hyenas, tigers, lions etc. In 240 AD the animal deaths included an unfortunate hippopotamus and rhinoceros. The Roman appetite for exotic animals was so voracious that they commanded very high prices. This led to a huge trade in exotic animals that almost drove some species to extinction – the hippopotamus disappeared from the Nile and the European Wild Horse and the Eurasian Lynx became extinct.
6. Gladiators were ranked according to performance and according to their fighting method
Because of the need to keep the games fresh and interesting there were a number of different types of Roman Gladiator. The most well-known of these gladiators were the retarius, murmillo and the secutor. The retariuas was armed with a trident and a net but had very little armor, as such he was fast but very vulnerable. The retarius usually fought a secutor who was more heavily armored with a helmet and shield in addition to their swords. Murmillos were even more heavily armored than the secutors. Provocators fought each other with a sword and shield wearing full body armor and a helmet with a visor.
Other popular types of gladiators included the hoplomachus who fought with a lance, dagger and small shield. The eques fought on horseback initially but moved to the ground as the fight went on and the essedarius who rode chariots and were armed with lances and swords. Dimacherius was armed only with two daggers and a Sagittarius who was armed with a bow. A laquerius was a variant on the retarius but used a lasso in place of a net. Perhaps the most bizarre type of gladiator was the andabatus who fought on horseback carrying a lance. Their faces were completely covered by their helmets so they were unable to see their opponents.
Gladiators tended to be matched in such a way that they were disadvantaged in different ways so a lightly armored but fast gladiator might be matched against a slower but more heavily armed opponent. The rudarius was the elite of the elite of all the gladiators, these men had fought well enough to win their freedom but preferred to continue to battle it out in the arena.
5. Gladiators had their own trade unions
Gladiators organized themselves into trade unions which they called collegia. In return for the subscription payments the collegia would ensure that a fallen gladiator would be decently buried with a good funeral and a grave marker, they also saw that his wife and children would receive some small amount of compensation. Where gladiators did not subscribe their colleagues might sometimes club together to ‘do the decent thing’. Those gladiators who were unlucky enough not to be members of a collegia or whose colleagues could not afford to look after them would not be buried at all. Instead their remains would either be thrown in the river or would be given to the animal trainers. They would then carve up the bodies and give the meat to the animals. This meant that they associated the smell of human flesh as prey and therefore be more likely to try to attack any humans they encountered in the arena.
The collegia were run along democratic lines with the members voting to elect their own leaders and, being from a polytheistic society, having their own gods to whom the members of the collegia would pray.
4. The mob did not use a thumbs down signal to call for a gladiator to be put to death
We all know what the signal thumbs up and thumbs down meant at the end of the gladiator fights. After all, thumbs down is a negative gesture in our society and it must have come from the romans – right? As it turns out we may all have been laboring under a misconception.
The final decision on whether a defeated gladiator would live or die was not left to the victor. Instead he had to ask the ‘editor’ of the games (the most senior person in attendance, usually a regional Governor, Senator or other notable and occasionally the Emperor himself) what he should do. The Editor would listen to the calls of the crowd and then make his final decision which he communicated to the victorious gladiator using his thumb.
We know from the writings of Juvenal that the thumbs up gesture actually signified that a defeated gladiator should be put to death, the thumb pointing at the heart. The thumbs down signal actually meant that the victor should lay down his sword. Our modern day mix up regarding the meaning of the signal came about in 1873 when the famous artist Léon Gérôme made a mistake in his Latin translation and painted thumbs down instead of up. The painting was extremely popular and fixed the thumbs up signal as a positive thing in our cultural understanding of ancient Rome.
3. Not all gladiators were slaves
In the popular imagination Roman gladiators were all slaves, usually from vanquished tribes who had fought the legions and lost. These men were sent to Rome to serve the empire by bringing bloody entertainment to the masses. There is truth in this; many gladiators were captured on the battlefield and auctioned off to the ludi or gladiatorial training schools which were run by a lanista. Many more were condemned criminals who were sent to the arenas instead of the mines or galleys.
Not all gladiators, however, fell into this category. Some gladiators won their freedom but chose to remain as fighters because they could make a good living from the prize money. Others were free Romans who were down on their luck, lacking the money to support their families they turned to the arena as a way to make fame and money. Others may have just enjoyed fighting. These free gladiators had a pretty good standard of living. All gladiators were well fed and received a lot of protein compared with many free Romans as they needed the energy to be able to fight. They were also under the care of a doctor so they were very healthy and were provided with access to women for sex. In addition to these benefits free gladiators were not subjected to the restrictions that were imposed on slave gladiators, they were not shackled at meals, were allowed to speak whenever they wanted and had the freedom to come and go from the ludus as they wanted – many even had families. Add to this the chance to become wealthy and to be a household name and life as a gladiator became a valid career choice for many.
2. Gladiator games were part of Roman life for 700 years
Gladiator games were a large and important part of Roman life for around 700 years from 300 BC to 400 AD. The Romans themselves thought that the concept of gladiator games came from the Etruscans but this may not have been the case. The Campanians were recorded as holding games in 310BC to celebrate an important military victory. A few years later in 246BC two loving sons, Marcus and Decimus Brutus held a small funeral games comprising of three fights and a cattle market to honor their father. This led to the origin of the name for private games which were called munera (coming from the word munes or gift).
Other families saw the political prestige that staging funeral games could bring the surviving relatives and started to put on funeral games to increase their public profiles. These fights also played rather neatly into the Roman belief that the souls of the departed needed human blood. As more and more families started to put on games lanistas or gladiator trainers started to cash in on the trend by training gladiators for combat.
Julius Caesar noticed that his compatriots were on to a good thing and started the fine Roman tradition of state sponsored games when he arranged for 320 fights to commemorate the death of his much loved daughter Julia. Realizing that gladiators could be used as a private army to overthrow the state all training schools were taken into public ownership overseen firstly by the Senate and later by the emperor. Following this the holding of games became a religious obligation to the state. The games continued to be a popular part of Roman life until Christianity became the state religion in 393AD and all pagan rituals were banned.
1. Gladiators rarely fought to the death but if they did lose gladiators were expected to submit to death valiantly
When we think of the gladiator fights of antiquity the moving phrase ‘those who are about to die salute you’ reverberates in our minds. While poetic this may not have been said very often and many gladiators (who were expensive assets for their owners) could expect to survive bouts in which they were not too badly wounded.
Gladiators were, however, expected to meet death ‘honorably’ and show no fear. This was an essential part of the draw of the games for many Romans – as they could show their children what it was to show no fear in the face of death, if a mere gladiator could do this so too could a freeborn Roman citizen. Many soldiers were also encouraged to watch gladiator fights for this same reason.
A condemned gladiator would lie at the feet of the victor and hold on to his thigh. The victorious gladiator would then grab hold of the losers head and thrust his sword straight down into the man’s neck, killing him instantly. This last act of bravery was seen to redeem the shame of failure in the preceding match. The body was unceremoniously dragged from the arena before being taken behind the scenes where a man dressed as the Roman god Mercury touched a red hot piece of iron to the dead body to make sure that he was really gone. Another man, dressed as Charon or Pluto would hit them over the head with a heavy mallet to remove all doubt. The bodies were then disposed of (see 5 above).
For almost 700 years Romans flocked to games that saw their fellow human beings inflict horrifying wounds on each other all in the name of good entertainment. Gladiators have entered our collective cultural conscious – we all think that we know who and what they were but the truth is that most people, in actuality, know very little about these men. Russel Crowe might have looked good in a breastplate but the film he stared in did not depict the realities of what life was like for the average Roman gladiator.
Men and women, freemen and slaves worked and trained together to provide a spectacle to Rome; fighting valiantly and submitting to death willingly, graciously and with honor to inspire Roman citizens. Many were seen as figures of awe, revered by the masses for their prowess (both martial and sexual), the best earned wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Sadly, however, they were also regarded as an underclass, as less than Roman. Even free gladiators who chose to make their career in the arena and those revered by the crowd were tainted by their association with other gladiators. They were, in legal and social terms, the lowest of the low. Emperors might enjoy strutting their stuff in front of the crowd but they would not want to associate with the real deal!