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Gladiators fighting

18 surprising facts about the gladiators


Gladiators were celebrities of the Roman working classes. Audacious and highly trained warriors, they were beloved and watched by the masses for more than 650 years.

Discover more about Ancient Rome's most infamous and popular form of popular entertainment:

1. Gladiators didn't just fight to the death

The best gladiators were prized local celebrities of their day. Therefore, most didn't fight 'til the death as quite simply their managers will have wanted to make as much profit out of them as possible. They were trained to wound, not to kill. Most matches would end with one seriously injured, but a survivor none the less.

Despite this, the life of a gladiator was a short one. Most only lived to their mid-twenties (many only until their late teen years) and historians estimate that the average gladiator would likely only fight around ten matches until he met his demise.

2. The thumbs down wasn't what you think

Who can forget the infamous thumbs down scenes in the 2000 epic movie Gladiator? While in this movie it was interpreted as permission from the emperor for the gladiator to be killed, in Ancient Roman times, a thumbs down probably meant to give mercy. A thumbs up likely meant to kill the gladiator off. If this was the case, the other gladiator would usually kill him by slashing him in between the shoulders or straight through the heart.

3. Fighting against animals was rare

While in popular culture we often see gladiators fighting tigers and lions, this was quite rare. It was only in the late Roman period when people began to grow bored of the Coliseum games and gladiators that it became more commonplace to use animals. Introduced as a new gimmick to bring in more crowds, gladiators were forced to fight wild cats and there's even some records that claim the area was deliberately flooded and crocodiles and sharks were let loose.

4. Not all gladiators were slaves

Traditionally, gladiators were selected slaves or conquered people. Typically chosen for their strong physiques, they would be hand selected and trained into gladiators. However, as the gladiator games gained steam, many gladiators were free working class men who willingly signed up. Lured by the fame, crowds and potential money and prizes to be won, there were even gladiator schools that accepted volunteers.

5. There were female gladiators

Female gladiators existed, but they were almost all slaves. A prominent fixture on the gladiator scene, female gladiators were pitted against one another as well as male gladiators and even against dwarfs.

6. They started out as a funeral ritual

Historical records indicate that gladiator matches began as a crude form of human rituals at funerals. Nobleman or royalty would force slaves to fight to the death as part of a funeral service. Once this gained popularity, it transcended into public displays and matches.

7. There were different types of gladiators

Gladiators were divided by type of skill and fighting style type. Placed in categories rated on their skill level, experience and weaponry specialty. The “thraeces” and “murmillones" were the most popular and remembered type of gladiator - fighting by sword and shield. There were also gladiators that fought on horse with a sword known as "equites" and the “dimachaerus" who fought with two swords at once.

8. Roman Emperors fought

A few Roman Emperors even got in on the action and fought amongst the gladiators. Caligula and Titus are just two of the known Emperors to enjoy a bit of gladiator fighting. Historians argue that these were likely highly styled, and the opposing gladiators would have more than certainly allowed the Emperor to easily win and win unwounded. Insane Emperor Commodus even shot down panthers and bears from the comfort of a protected platform and forced members of the crowd to fight him - who he almost certainly would have killed.

9. They were the celebs of their day

Gladiators were major celebrities of their day. Triumphant gladiators would appear on paintings, walls and sculptures. Women were particular fans, and saw them as sex symbols. Gladiator blood was believed to have magical powers and some women dipped it into their hair pins. Gladiator sweat was even mixed into perfume - believed to be an aphrodisiac.

10. Some gladiators were blindfolded

Some of those who fought in the arena did so without the ability to see. These fighters were called the ‘Andabatae’ who often were criminals condemned to die in the arena. Each criminal fought with the same handicap, a helmet with no eye slots. Neither man was provided with any armour and all they were allowed was a sword.

The blind slashing was hardly a grand spectacle, therefore these fights usually took place early on before the main events had got going. The last man standing stood the chance of being spared his life.

11. There were gladiator referees

A role that’s been left out in all of Hollywood’s adaptations of gladiator combat is that of a referee. Just like in our modern sports, gladiatorial combat operated under strict rules and regulations. Overseeing those was the fight referee known as the ‘summa rudis’.

The referee was usually a retired gladiator who wore a white tunic with purple edging. They had the power to stop the fight if they saw a rule violation or if a fighter was too badly wounded.

Using sticks and whips they controlled the flow of the fight, encouraging gladiators to fight bravely and skilfully. In cases where battles went on too long, they had the power to call the fight to ensure the crowd didn’t become bored.

Gladiator in the arena

12. Some gladiators dressed as fishermen

Known as the ‘retiarius’, these gladiators resembled fishermen more than they did great warriors, entering the arena equipped with just a trident, a net and a dagger. The only armour they wore was one arm guard and one shoulder guard, which provided them great manoeuvrability but little defence.

They were often pitted against the heavily armed ‘secutor’ gladiator in a battle of brain vs brawn and speed vs strength. The retiarius would throw the net to either entangle their opponent and/or their weapon. If the net throw had been successful, the retiarius would then move in with their trident.

If the net failed or the opponent got too close, then the retiarius had little to fall back on.

13. Night fights took place

Whilst the majority of gladiatorial fights took place during the daylight hours, some were known to have occurred during the night. According to the Roman historians Cassius Dio and Suetonius, under Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), torchlit fights were held and involved more than just men, with women pitted against each other as well as dwarfs.

14. The gladiators had trade unions

Although many gladiators were enslaved it didn’t mean they were completely without rights. Many formed what we’d define as trade unions, or as they called them, ‘collegia’. These unions had elected leaders as well as protector deities and gave the gladiators a sense of brotherhood.

They also provided financial compensation to the families of gladiators who died in battle, whilst also ensuring the fallen received a proper burial along with a grave inscription detailing their achievements.

15. Gladiator schools were prisons

Gladiators were afforded little luxuries in life and the place they called home resembled a prison more than it did a school. With only one gate in and out, the schools were designed around a central practice arena with cell accommodation wrapping around it. They were fortresses and depending on their size could house up to 100 gladiators.

The design reflected the status of most gladiators as slaves; prized and well-valued slaves, but still slaves.

Within the school, the gladiators learned and perfected their craft. Their training was even worthy of spectators, as was the case of the Ludus Magnus, the largest of the gladiatorial schools in Rome. Up to 3,000 spectators could be accommodated at the school, allowing people to watch the gladiators go about their daily training.

16. Spartacus never fought as a gladiator

Although he’s one of Ancient Rome’s most famous gladiators, Spartacus never actually fought in the arena. The Thracian was captured by the Roman army and sold into a gladiatorial school near Capua, where he was trained to fight in the arena.

However, before Spartacus ever got the chance to fight as a gladiator, he rallied several of his fellow slaves and escaped the school. He then gathered more men and organised his famous uprising which became known as the Third Serville War (73–71 BC). Spartacus’ rebellion was eventually quashed by the might of the Roman army.

17. Fame didn’t come easy

Whilst some gladiators enjoyed fame, celebrity and even ‘sex-symbol’ status, it wasn’t the case for the majority of those who fought.

The opportunity to showcase one’s skills in the arena of combat didn’t happen as often as people might think. During the course of a year, a gladiator might only have fought somewhere between two to five times. Even when they did fight, it was often in contests involving upwards of 15 different gladiatorial battles.

With an individual battle sometimes lasting just a matter of minutes, the ability to make one’s name memorable was difficult. To be a famous gladiator you really had to stand out from the crowd.

18. Christianity ended the gladiators

The rise of Christianity went hand-in-hand with the decline of the gladiatorial fights. Christians disapproved of the fights and in 325 AD, Emperor Constantine (who is considered the first Christian emperor) banned gladiatorial games. However, fights still took place and it wasn’t until 404 AD that gladiator fights were completely outlawed.

Alongside the change in public opinion towards the fights, the costs of staging them had also grown too much for the state to fund, with the Western Roman Empire falling in 476 AD.