Gladiators: Tragic Heroes of Entertainment in Ancient Rome

Gladiators in ancient Rome lived lives of extreme brutality. Some, like Spartacus, also gained an awe-inspiring public following. Read on to discover more about the stars of the ancient arena.

Sep 26, 2021By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek

gladiators ancient rome


Gladiators held a unique position in ancient Roman society. They were simultaneously feared and loved, reviled and admired by the people they entertained. They occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder alongside slaves. Some also suffered the ignominy of infamia — the removal of all the rights of a citizen. Yet they were also revered for their bravery and skill, and the lucky few achieved impressive levels of popularity and fame. Some, like Spartacus, even took on the empire.


Gladiators were men, and occasionally women, who encountered fear and brutality on a daily basis. They fought for their lives as public entertainment across the Roman Empire and often only left the arena as a result of victory or death.


Where Did the Concept of Gladiators in Ancient Rome Originate?

A terracotta statuette of a gladiator, identified as a Secutor due to his helmet and shield, 1st—2nd century CE, via the Met Museum


It is widely believed that the concept of armored combat as a form of entertainment originated from the Etruscans. The Etruscans were from the Etruria region of Italy, and their power reached its peak in the 7th century BCE. In Etruscan culture, paired combat fights were held at the funerals of dead warriors. There is also evidence of funeral games being held to honor the dead in Greece stretching as far back as the Bronze Age.


The first gladiatorial games were introduced to Rome in 264 BCE. Here three pairs of men fought to honor the death of Decimus Iunius Pera. In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar was the first to hold gladiatorial games that served no commemorative purpose. Soon public games became a useful tool for wealthy individuals to gain widespread popularity. This continued into the Imperial era; both Augustus and Trajan held games involving thousands of gladiators during their reigns.

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Amphitheaters and Gladiators

A large mosaic depicting various types of gladiators along with their names (the Greek letter theta denotes those who had died), 4th century CE, via the Villa Borghese Entrance Hall, Rome


Vast stone amphitheaters have become synonymous with gladiatorial contests. But the first gladiator fights in Rome were actually held in the Forum in temporary wooden structures. The first stone, purpose-built amphitheater in Rome, built by Titus Statilius Taurus, was not constructed until 29 BCE. Soon many large Roman towns had their own amphitheaters. The archaeological remains of these structures can be found everywhere from Britain to Turkey.


Undoubtedly, the most famous Roman amphitheater is the Colosseum in Rome. Known in Roman times as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it was completed during the reign of Titus and formally opened in 80 CE. It had a capacity of around 50,000 and even had a mechanical awning installed to keep the sun off the seats. Here everyone could witness the gladiatorial games, from senators to women and even slaves, albeit with segregated seating. The inclusive nature of this public entertainment was a key factor in the widespread popularity of the gladiators.


The Life of a Gladiator

A fragment of a glass drinking vessel depicting a gladiator, possibly a Retarius, 4th century CE, via the British Museum


People became gladiators for a variety of reasons. Many were prisoners of war captured on military campaigns across the empire. Some were convicted criminals who had avoided execution and had been forced to become a gladiator as punishment. A few were freeborn citizens who bound themselves to a gladiator owner for a fee and fought under that owner’s name. Many gladiators were slaves who were sold to gladiator schools because of their physical aptitude. Some were even bought as investments, like racehorses are today.


Gladiators lived and trained at a school, known as a ludus, under a trainer (lanista), who was often an ex-gladiator. As such, gladiators were expensive commodities for the owners of the schools and, therefore, were relatively well cared for. They had a structured daily training regime and a strict diet, much like modern-day athletes.


A bronze figure of a gladiator, possibly a Murmillo, identified as part of a wagon fixture, 1st—2nd century CE, via the British Museum


The term “gladiator” derives from the Latin word gladius meaning sword, a vital piece of equipment for any gladiator. Gladiators were differentiated by their weaponry and armor and each type of gladiator had a specific name. The Murmillo was named after a Mediterranean fish and this theme was continued in the fish-shaped crest on his helmet. He was heavily armed with a large oblong shield, a short sword, and a greave on the left leg. The Samnite was also heavily armed with an oblong shield and short sword. He wore a distinctive helmet with a grill-like visor which offered protection but also limited vision.


The Secutor wore mid-weight armor, which included protection on his sword arm and a greave on one leg. He carried a small shield to allow him better movement. The Thracian had similar armor but held a curved sword, known as a scimitar. Perhaps the most famous Thracian was the rebel leader Spartacus.


Marble statue of a wounded Amazon warrior, 1st—2nd century CE, via the Met Museum


The most lightly armed gladiator was the Retiarius. He wore almost no armor and his weapons consisted of a net and a trident. What he lacked in protection he gained in agility as he was able to use speed to outpace his opponents.


Interestingly, there are also accounts of female gladiators occasionally appearing in the arena. The female gladiator, or gladiatrix, only fought other women. Usually, they wore no armor except for one leg greave and carried an oblong shield and a sword. Female gladiators were often associated with the Amazons, the warrior women of Greek mythology. There are records of names such as Amazonia and Penthesilea. The satirist poet Juvenal describes women who fought in the arena as “bare-breasted” which was also a trait of the Amazons.


Gladiators – the Sports Stars of the Ancient World

A terracotta oil lamp with the image of a heavily armed gladiator, possibly a Murmillo or Samnite,  40—80 CE, via the Met Museum


Gladiators were a social paradox; they were ostracized due to their social status, but greatly admired for their skills. The popularity of the gladiators can be seen in the number of everyday objects that carry their image. Lamps, such as the one above, and household bowls decorated with gladiatorial scenes were very common.


Public games, which included gladiator fights, were hugely popular with everyone from senators to slaves. Remarkably, there is evidence that senators and equestrians even wished to fight as gladiators themselves. Emperors Augustus and Tiberius introduced laws forbidding members of these elite sections of society from becoming gladiators. However, the Roman historian Cassius Dio tells us that Emperor Commodus once declared himself a gladiator. He is said to have killed many men and wild beasts in the public arena for his own entertainment.


A cameo of the emperor Nero, 16th century, via the British Museum


Emperor Nero was also a huge fan of gladiatorial combat and even founded his own gladiator school. During his reign, a gladiator named Spiculus rose to fame due to his many victories. The Roman historian Suetonius says that Nero personally rewarded Spiculus with houses and estates as if he were a victorious general returning from war.


Poets were even known to dedicate poems to well-known gladiators. Martial wrote a poem to a fighter named Hermes who was a Retiarius and also a trainer. Martial says he was so skilled that he could win without even wounding his opponent.


Roman women were said to be much enamored with the muscular and brave men of the arena. The satirist Juvenal tells of Eppia, a senator’s wife no less, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator names Sergius. Juvenal says that Sergius was not handsome but ‘he was a gladiator. That makes anyone an Adonis’.


Spartacus – the Rebel Gladiator

Engraving of Spartacus, Auguste Blanchard after Domenichino, 1839-1847, via the British Museum


Spartacus is perhaps the most famous Roman gladiator. He was a former Roman auxiliary soldier who became a Thracian gladiator based at a school in Capua, southern Italy. In 73 BCE, collective unrest began to grow throughout the gladiator schools in the Capua area. Spartacus, a natural leader, rose to the fore alongside his right-hand man Crixus, who was of Celtic origin.


Soon, slaves and even freeborn citizens who worked in the rural areas of southern Italy joined their cause. Estimates put the number of supporters at between 70,000 and 100,000 at the height of the rebellion. The ancient historian Appian provides an explanation for the scale of this resistance against the Roman regime. Many freeborn men living in the countryside were tired of losing their land to wealthy landowners, who then set up huge slave-run estates. So Spartacus’ army gained the loyalty not just of slaves but also Roman citizens.


Spartacus, Denis Foyatier, 1830, via the Louvre Museum


From 73 and 72 BCE this informal army defeated two Roman commanders, and both consuls and their legions. When they eventually reached Cisalpine Gaul in the north, Spartacus thought most of his supporters would disperse to their homelands. But instead they stayed with him. So they returned south with plans to invade Sicily. But at Lucania they were brought to an abrupt halt by the Roman general Crassus and his legions. Crassus was merciless and crucified all who were caught. Spartacus was also killed but mysteriously his body was never found.


The unprecedented scale and nature of the rebellion rocked the Roman establishment. Spartacus left behind quite a legacy as the gladiator who brought the most powerful state of its time to its knees. Plutarch says that those who fought with Spartacus greatly admired him for his bravery, intelligence, and compassionate leadership.


Routes Out of the Arena – Death or Freedom

Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant! (Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!), Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859, via Yale University Art Gallery


A gladiator’s fate could be decided in a few short moments in the arena. It was this sense of jeopardy that really fired up the fervor of the crowd. The entire schedule for a day of public games was structured around the gladiator fights. Other events, held earlier in the day, included wild beast hunts, mock naval battles, and the execution of criminals.


When their time finally came, the gladiators were paraded around the arena for the crowds to admire. If an emperor was present, they would stand together and declare the following: “Hail Caesar! We, who are about to die, salute you!”


Then the first duels would begin. It is not true that all gladiator fights ended with the death of one of the combatants. Gladiators were very expensive and a defeated fighter would often be spared, especially if they were popular with the crowd.


Pollice verso, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872-1900, via the Phoenix Art Museum


The victor, in theory, could decide whether he gave life or death to his opponent. But if the emperor was present then this privilege passed to him. The roaring crowd was also heavily influential towards the final decision. The emperor would indicate his choice with a thumb up for clemency or a thumb pointing to the throat for death.


Successful gladiators were normally given some sort of reward. This could include gold coinage or silverware, as well as time with prostitutes. Those who were regular victors would eventually be offered their freedom, at the discretion of the lanista. A wooden sword (rudis) was then presented to them as a symbol of their freedom. Some emperors were also known to give freedom on the spot in the arena. In CE 109 Emperor Trajan declared that all those who survived his gladiatorial games (which lasted for 123 days) could go free.


The Last Word – Gladiators and their Epitaphs

A mosaic depicting various types of gladiators along with their names, ‘VIC’ denotes those who were successful, 4th century CE, via the Villa Borghese Entrance Hall, Rome


Much of what we know about gladiators comes from the literature of the elite and there is little first-hand evidence of their lives. Inscriptional evidence offers some of the best examples but even this is not in plentiful supply.


There are some fascinating graffiti in Pompeii, which give the names of specific gladiators, alongside the number of successful fights that each had completed. But graffiti are most likely to have been created by fans, rather than the gladiators themselves.


Funerary epitaphs are perhaps the only examples of when we might hear the authentic voice of the gladiator. These inscriptions can provide interesting insights into the careers of individuals. For example, the epitaph of a famous gladiator called Flamma tells us that he was offered the wooden sword of freedom four times. Each time, he rejected it in favor of continuing his life in the arena.


Grave marker for a gladiator named Myron, decorated with wreaths of victory (just visible), 3rd—4th century CE, via the Louvre Museum


There are also poignant details to be found. The epitaph of a gladiator named Macedo tells us that he died aged twenty, having succumbed in his first fight. Some inscriptions include extra information, such as advice or warnings to others, which offers a glimpse of personality. One man wisely advises that everyone should kill their opponent when they have the chance, in case they return to seek revenge.


Some gladiatorial epitaphs use the more formal language of funerary inscriptions. This was perhaps an attempt to elevate themselves from their lowly social status. Imagery was also sometimes employed, such as the victory wreaths in the funerary relief above. Specific weaponry can often be seen, which had the purpose of personalizing the memorial.


In short, tombstones and epitaphs were a precious opportunity for a gladiator to reflect their own identity and showcase their achievements, that stood against a life of unimaginable brutality and servitude.

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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.