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A Roman gladiator

The unglamorous lives of Ancient Rome's gladiators

Hollywood is full of movies depicting the thrilling lives of gladiators. However, the reality was often very far from what we see on the silver screen.


The Colosseum’s violent events and festivals are a thing of legend and Hollywood blockbusters alike. Although free for citizens to attend, everything from their tickets to scenery, music, and costumes was planned in infinite detail to demonstrate the might of the Roman Empire.

The undisputed stars of Rome’s notorious amphitheatre were the men and women who trained year-round to fight and die for the entertainment of the masses. But let’s take a look at what went on behind the scenes.

Gladiator school

Directly east of the Colosseum are the remains of the Ludus Magnus, the largest of Rome’s four Gladiator schools. Here up to 2,000 gladiators lived, ate, and trained for a year before their first appearance.

Their diet was mostly vegetarian supplemented with a hearty concoction of charcoal and water to improve bone density. Multiple fighting techniques were taught by retired gladiators and even soldiers, using shields and wooden swords twice the weight of the real thing in hopes of building enough stamina to outlast an opponent.

The opening acts

Days at the Colosseum began at 6am, so while the Gladiators were still nibbling on their barley porridge, 85,000 people were finding their seats ready for the opening parade of musicians and exotic animals, culminating in the entry of Vestal Virgins, the Senate, and finally the emperor.

Up first was an animal hunt which the emperor also participated in by firing arrows from the safety of the royal box, with the resulting meat distributed amongst the crowd. Next were the executions, wherein unarmed criminals were pitted against animals like wolves and tigers with no chance of survival.

Around midday, lightly armoured gladiators came out to fight ahead of lunch, horse racing, and some pretty horrific ‘comedic relief’ in the form of criminals forced to blindly slash at each other in helmets with no eye holes.

The 'backstage' areas

The gladiators descended a flight of narrow stone steps from the Ludus Magnus to enter the Colosseum through the Stern or Gladiator Gate into the arena’s labyrinthian underbelly. Hidden beneath the arena floor were two storeys, each with 15 crosshatched corridors where animals, gladiators and prisoners were held awaiting their curtain call. Even today, with the upper storey and most of the arena floor missing, it’s claustrophobic. Completely devoid of sunlight, packed with bodies, scenery, and the stench of terror, it must have been beyond oppressive.

While large animals, including elephants, entered through the eastern gate, ramps were used to bring forth scenery from below. Fighters and smaller animals, like tigers, originally hitched a ride in one of 28 hoists at the perimeter, with 60 new elevators installed after a fire in 217 CE.

The main event

The crowds were shaded from the Italian sun by a huge moveable canopy mounted on 240 wooden masts, this also effectively turned the afternoon sun into a spotlight on the arena and the gladiators as they rose through its floor to the roar of the crowd.

The gladiatorial proceedings were opened by fighting with whips and clubs. Then the occasion or desired theatrics decided who fought and how. The progress of the Empire across Europe was often depicted in reenactments. Meaning that, as well as the familiar fighting, there were battles between war chariots and mounted bowmen. Once a year the arena was even flooded to allow for naval reenactments.

All of this was usually carefully refereed by a retired gladiator, ensuring strict protocols were followed. When a fight ended, the champion exited to the east through the ‘Gate of Life’, with the loser leaving through the opposing gate to the west.

Life or death

Gladiators were an investment and payment for any killed during games was negotiated by the Ludus based on experience before they stepped into the arena. Because of this, and because these events were political propaganda, the sponsors rarely opted to kill a defeated gladiator. Therefore, often exiting through the dramatic sounding ‘Gate of Death’, just meant limping off into the sunset and the nearest hospital.

While we’re on the subject, a thumbs up actually meant death to the defeated party, whereas a closed fist with the thumb firmly wrapped around meant they lived to fight another day. The event sponsor could also present a wooden Rudis after any fight in a gladiator’s career to free them if they were willing to pay the purchase fee to the Ludus.

The rest of the year

While gladiators lived and trained for their life-or-death moments in the arena, in truth there weren’t that many of them. Most gladiators only fought a handful of times a year, with around 50% surviving their first year of games. Fortunately, being a highly trained fighter did have transferable skills and gladiators served in roles such as bodyguards, debt collectors and personal trainers when not preparing to fight for their lives.

Despite the admiration received for their skill on the arena floor, outside of the Colosseum gladiators were outcasts, considered of a similar social standing as prostitutes, and were therefore not allowed to vote, hold office, or even be buried in most cemeteries.