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.