Gladiators of Ancient Rome

Ancient roman gladiators were spectacular fighters who fought each other and sometimes even with animals for the entertainment and pleasure of the Roman people. Gladiatorial combat signified the epitome of Roman civilization and class, although it is not viewed with the same level of enthusiasm today. GladiusThe name “Gladiator” comes from the word ‘gladius’, a short, broad sword, the most commonly used weapon of gladiators. A gladiator was usually a prisoner of war or a slave, in other words, a person whose life was expendable for the entertainment of the community. This bloody sport had its origins in a funerary ritual (called munus), which called for the soul of an important man to be accompanied into the other world by the soul of another man sacrificed for this purpose. For this reason slaves of the dead men were made to fight each other till one of them was killed in the process. The first recorded occurrence of such a funerary sacrifice happened in 264 BC, at the funeral of an aristocrat called Junius Brutus Pera. Julius Ceaser in 65 BC arranged for gladiatorial combat between 640 gladiators and convicted criminals and also included combat with animals. In 46 BC, Ceaser arranged for combat between not just individuals but between whole squadrons of fighters on foot and on horses at his daughter’s funeral. The trend soon caught on, and the bloodlust of the Romans got the better of them, causing the gladiatorial games to exit the funerary scenario and enter amphitheatres where large scale bloodshed could be arranged for audiences.


Gladiatorial games and their organization played an important role in the careers and social lives of aristocrats and politicians, as their popularity was directly proportional to the number of games they could organize and the ferocity and intensity of the fights they could sponsor. These games served as a venue for political propaganda and socializing, allowing prominent politicians to romance their voters with a little bloodshed. These games were organized by an Editor, who was either a senator, politician or even the emperor for increasing his popularity among the masses. Amphitheatres especially constructed to host these games were wide spread and enormous in size, giving an indication of the popularity and scale of these brutal killings.


Status of Gladiators in Society

Slaves, prisoners of war and criminals sentenced to death figured commonly among the gladiator class, although free men could sell their freedom to the owner of a gladiator school (Lanista) in search of financial aid or fame. A career in gladiatorial combat gave men some security in terms of sustenance, provisions and social standing. The gladiators were often paid for their work, which meant that the riches of Rome could percolate even to the slave class. Once they had amassed enough money from their gladiatorial services, they could buy their freedom and live as free men, thus giving hopes of freedom to slaves.


Emperors and women in the arena

Such was the glory and adoration received by a gladiator, that even emperors were tempted to partake in the sport to prove their courage and might. Emperors like Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Verus are known to have participated, although the games were usually skewed putting the odds in favour of the emperors. Women as gladiators (Gladiatrix plural Glariatrices) were rare, although their presence is archaeologically proven. The brutality of watching women fight dwarves and wild beasts was too much even for the blood thirsty Romans, who found it repulsive.


Training and privileges

Gladiators were seldom thrown into the arena without being properly trained. Perhaps because they would not be able to entertain the crowds enough without being properly taught the art of landing a punch and evading the enemy’s blow. The sport demanded more of showmanship than just raw strength to draw and keep the audience’s attention. A gladiator’s career started with being recruited into a gladiator training school, called a ludus, where he was expected to work out and bring his body to its best level of physical fitness. The training involved practice with heavy wooden weapons, before he could graduate to the real weapons made of metal. The training they received was specialized according to the kind of gladiator they aspired to be, focussing on strengthening relevant muscle groups. For example, the Eques, the armed fighter on horseback would be given training focussed on his riding skills and balance. He generally had to strengthen his thigh muscles so he could grip the horse better. On the other hand, the Rettiarius or the net fighter had to strengthen his arm and shoulder muscles to swing his net over his enemy and trap him. The remains of a Rettiarus fighter were found in a gladiator graveyard in York which showed enlarged bones of the shoulder in one arm meaning this was very well muscled when compared to the other. As morbid as it may sound, gladiators were also taught to die well, a death that was befitting a hero, never to lose courage and fight with bravery till the end.


Some well known types of Gladiators
Andabata Fought blinded by helmet
Bestiarius Fought exotic animals such as tigers, bears and even elephants
Eques Horseback fighter
Murmillo Fighter with a fish shaped crested helmet
Rettiarus Fighter with a net and trident, classically fought with the Murmillo who represented a fish


Types of Gladiators

Types of Gladiators: Bestiarius – The Beast fighter                     —-    Retiarius- The net figher

Brilliant medical support was available to the gladiators and the surgeons of that time were comparable to the trauma surgeons of any respectable hospital today. Doctors typically saw sprains, ligament tears and muscle pulls on an everyday basis at the gladiator school, which they could treat with massage, medicines, ointments, lotions and rehabilitation programs. But more serious injuries typical during a fight would call for the skilled hands of a surgeon. Surgeons at gladiator schools were very knowledgeable about the human anatomy, as the nature of the wounds educated them of the various bits and pieces of the human machine. They were able to perform emergency procedures, like stitching torn skin and tissue, setting bones and even amputations. There have been numerous gladiator bones and skulls that show brutal fractures and slashes on bone, evidence of medical intervention and surprisingly even signs of healing. Besides this, gladiators were given an incredibly nutritious diet, rich in vegetables, lentils and barley, which was a form of carbo-loading, gladiator style! This came as a surprise as all meat was prohibited in their diet, leaving them to rely totally on vegetarian food to build and maintain their bulk.


Rules in Combat

Despite what we would like to believe about combat being a fight to the death, most defeated gladiators could walk away from the arena to fight another day. Recruiting and training a gladiator was an expensive affair for the owners of the training schools and losing a gladiator for every combat would run them into monetary loss although they were compensated for this by the Editor. The gladiators could plead for mercy if the fight got out of hand, but the final decision was with the Editor. Death, when it was inevitable, came swiftly and mercifully, as a man dressed as Charon (ferryman to the land of the dead), would bash the loser’s skull in with a hammer. Several gladiator skulls have been found with blunt force trauma on them, killing them instantly. Death in the arena was honourable and their funerals were respectful and attended by their peers.


In conclusion, the gladiator games served as a platform not only for political propaganda but also to communicate to the masses, the might and strength of the Roman military. It served as a message to the people of the kind of courage and bravery expected of them. It emphasized on values such as heroism, perseverance and gallantry, unflinching even when staring at death.