In today’s world, we have professional athletes competing in boxing, wrestling and martial arts. Like many sports, there is a winner and a loser where the best overall athletes stand out above their peers. In these contests, the athletes are often compared to the Roman gladiators who fought each other in arenas filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of fans cheering.
During the height of the Roman Empire’s power, the people were looking for something to entertain them. The emperors would give them a sport that not only tested a warrior’s overall athleticism, but also how determined they were to survive. In many cases, these warriors were put into the center of an arena to fight until they were the last one breathing.
They were given a variety of weapons that ranged from swords and battle axes to even a net and trident, in an effort to catch their opponents like fish at sea. These bouts between gladiators have often been portrayed in movies, comic books and television shows. They’ve been the inspiration to modern sports; although no one is being killed in combat sports like in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
While there is a common expectation of what a gladiator bout included, there are actually some interesting facts that might come as a bit of a surprise. Maybe you weren’t aware of the different settings that gladiator bouts took place in – whether by land or by “sea.” Or maybe you didn’t realize that being a gladiator wasn’t just a guy thing. The following 15 include those facts and more.
15. They Weren’t Always Slaves
There might be a bit of an expectation that the gladiators who fought for entertainment were put there against their will. Many of the characters portrayed in movies like Russell Crowe’s Gladiator were slaves that were sold for the Roman Empire’s battlefield. But not all of the people who fought each other were there in chains. During the early years of the gladiator games, it was a combination of slaves and those who were imprisoned for a variety of crimes.
But things started to change by the first century as many people who sought the thrill of victory wanted in on the fun. There were a number of gladiators who wanted to sign up voluntarily and even sought money for their wins. Many of these volunteers were retired Roman troops. There were even some higher-class folks and politicians who wanted to jump in on the “fun.”
14. Gladiators Fought During Funerals
This might seem a little strange. Most families nowadays might not be in favor of a battle to the death to take place during a ceremony celebrating someone who had just recently passed away. At least not unless it was part of one of those strange “final request made on a death bed” sort of thing. And yet there are some historians who argue that gladiators fought as part of a blood rite for the funerals of the wealthy.
When someone important passed on, slaves and prisoners would fight next to the grave. Back then, ancient Romans believed that fresh blood was useful in purifying the soul of the recently departed. This became more of a trend when Julius Caesar was in power. In fact, he had hundreds fight each other at the funerals of his father and daughter.
13. Gladiators Had An Oath
Anyone who has watched the hit television show Game of Thrones knows that anyone who goes to the Wall to fend off White Walkers and Wildlings has to take an irreversible oath. One that officially enters someone into the brotherhood that wears the black. The gladiators had a similar oath of their own. The oath was recorded as “uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari.” The best translation historians find that a gladiator says “I will endure, to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.”
While not all bouts ended in death, there is a belief by many historians that some gladiators who lost would actually commit suicide. This became such a problem that there were instances of guards actually on watch to try and prevent some of these gladiators from hurting themselves. Although there was one incident that involved 29 prisoners strangling each other before the last man smashed his head in.
12. Roman Gladiators Also Played Their Version Of ‘Battleship’
When you think of a battle between gladiators in the Roman Empire, the first thing that comes to mind is a sword fight between two or more men, or women, dressed in armor. However, you might be surprised to learn that there were some gladiator arenas prepared to host naval battles. Water and everything. Julius Caesar was believed to have discovered this revolutionary style of gladiator fighting.
One arena in the Field of Mars was constructed with a lake dug up to be filled with water. Then there were about 16 large war ships that would hold more than 4,000 total men between them. More than 2,000 prisoners would then be prepared to fight each other to the death. These battles were also taken to places like the Fucine Lake, where about half a million people watched a larger-scale ship battle.
11. One Gladiator Arena Collapsed, Killing Thousands
Gladiator bouts became so popular in ancient Rome that nearly 200 arenas were constructed throughout the empire. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the mass production of arenas for events like the Olympics, the construction quality may be an issue. Back then, the materials were not as advanced as they are now. This became a problem when fans were filling up the arenas in such large numbers.
Despite approximately 186 total arenas in Rome, overcrowding was still an issue. This led to a collapse of an amphitheater-style arena in Fidenae. The collapse was recorded to be about 50,000, although historians feel that might be an exaggerated figure. Regardless, an arena collapse was nothing to take lightly and was certainly noted as they continued to build more arenas for a variety of events.
10. Gladiators Were Rewarded With ‘Sword Of Freedom’
It was believed that a gladiator who fought valiantly in every battle was viewed in a positive light by not only the fans, but also the people in charge. While some gladiators who started as prisoners would continue to fight until they ultimately perished, many who were labeled courageous were often rewarded for their continual efforts. Some gladiators were given a “rudis,” a wooden sword that was rarely given out as a sign of freedom.
Even at a time when most gladiators were destined to die in the gladiator arena, few were rewarded with the fame and fortune that was achieved with this kind of status. It was an alluring factor that inspire their peers to give more of an effort in the bouts. Maybe it was part of the natural desire to be free after being imprisoned inside the world of gladiators.
9. Gladiators Had Their Own Classes
Considering how much money went into the different gladiator arenas and the training of the fighters, the Roman blood-sport had a sort of class-system. Just like most well-organized sports in today’s modern society, the fighters were often organized in different classes that took a lot of things into consideration. Their wins and losses, the skills they had and how experienced they were. Even things like the type of weapons they used were a factor in how they were classified.
Gladiators who were considered “thraeces” or “murmillones” were sword-fighters. “Equites” were known for battling while riding horses. There were also some strange classes of gladiators, like the “retiarius.” These fighters usually had only a net and a trident to stab a captured foe. However, one bad throw likely meant certain doom for these gladiators.
8. Fights With Animals Were Few And Far Between
Despite what the movies, historical art and other media has displayed, gladiators rarely fought against live animals. Not just any gladiator was considered worthy enough to go up against a ferocious beast that was thirsty for blood. It took one of two special classes of gladiators called the “venatores” and “bestiarii.” These fighters would take on a variety of animals that included lions, bears and even elephants.
In fact, the animals were considered hunted prey for the opening of the games. There was a 100-day ceremony in the first century that saw 9,000 animals slaughtered. Another event in the second century that was hosted by Emperor Trajan saw approximately 11,000 animals killed. Not all animals brought to gladiator games were the targets. Some were even similar to circus animals doing tricks. Other events saw them kill convicted criminals who were punished.
7. Even Some Roman Emperors Joined In Bouts
While traditional gladiator bouts were legitimate sporting contests, there were some that were staged when it came to an emperor wanting to join in on the fun. A Roman emperor would usually enter the arena in an effort to try and win popularity from his people. Many of the emperors who did this included Titus and Hadrian. However, the bouts were a little more controlled. The blades were dulled down and given a bit of a handicap.
If they fought bears, they were on a platform that gave them an advantage. If they fought other gladiators, their opponents were either inexperienced or the arena recruited members of the audience who obviously weren’t trained at all. One emperor named Commodus actually rewarded himself a large purse of money after his victory. Why wouldn’t he?
6. Some Gladiators Formed Unions
Any kind of job in today’s working world that features any risk of injury or death would usually include a union – machinists, assembly workers and warehouse staff included. However, this though of trade unions actually dates back to the Roman gladiators. In a lot of ways, some gladiators considered themselves brothers who would form “collegia,” unions that involved elected leaders.
Many gladiators within these unions would make sure that someone who was killed in battle was given the proper funeral that included a headstone of some kind with an inscription of their achievements as a gladiator. Money was also given to the wife and children of a gladiator who died, if he had any. Unlike many of today’s unions, work conditions were never something they could negotiate with their employers.
5. Not All Fights Ended With Death
There is an expectation that there was a winner for every gladiator bout and then someone who was killed in the process. Roman gladiators were believed to fight to the death every time they walked into the arena. However, a lot of money went into training and preparing a gladiator to battle in front of the paying crowds. Having them die after every battle would actually lead to a loss in profit.
While some battles were fought until someone died, they usually ended with someone being wounded or becoming too tired to continue. All that mattered was that there was a decisive winner. But gladiators were often healed up before their next fight. Skeletons that were discovered in 2007 showed signs of healed wounds for the remains of the fighters found in a 1,800-year-old graveyard.
4. ‘Thumbs Down’ Didn’t Always Lead To Death
One of the most cliché things about gladiator bouts is that the “thumbs down” symbol meant that the loser was going to die. Similar to the video game Mortal Kombat, the winner of the bout was directed to “Finish Him.” The thumbs up or down decision usually came up when a fighter was too hurt or too tired to continue. However, historians have found that the thumbs down was actually a sign for mercy.
It was when the thumb went up that some historians say was the signal for finishing off an opponent. It’s all a matter of how the different paintings and other art depicting the bouts were viewed. Either way, the emperors usually let the fans decide whether someone would live or die. More often than not, the crowds wanted the loser to be finished. But there were occasional cries for letting someone leave.
3. Gladiators Had Strict Diets, Too
It’s no secret that today’s professional athletes are often watching what they eat as part of their training regimen. They are also cared for by highly-trained medical professionals to keep them at the prime fitness for as long as possible. The same held true back then for the Roman gladiators. While it was previously mentioned that gladiators were often healed and treated for injuries to reduce costs of constantly training new fighters, gladiators were also held to a special diet.
In an effort to get them the proper nutrients to train and compete, gladiators were assigned dietary specialists who controlled which food they could consume – foods that promoted muscular development and overall health. One main staple of their diet was barely, which was known for having the fat that prevented heavy bleeding in case of a major cut/injury.
2. Gladiators Were Viewed As Celebrities
Professional athletes are usually considered celebrities who are treated with a lot of favoritism when they go to restaurants, clubs and other public places. There are also some cases of women trying to meet these athletes and often view them as sex symbols. The same held true for the Roman gladiators who were treated very well by the people of the lower classes of the Roman Empire.
There were are historical accounts of children playing with action figures that portrayed these fighters. Even nearly 2,000 years ago, these warriors were also receiving endorsement deals like the athletes currently in the NFL, NBA and other major leagues. It was no surprise that there were tales of some gladiators who were able to swoon a large number of women during the height of their popularity.
1. Being A Gladiator Wasn’t Just A Guy Thing
Just as pop star Cyndi Lauper sang in 1983, girls just want to have fun, too. Just as the demographic expanded in the first century from just slaves, there was an increased number of female gladiators, or as some would call gladiatrices. The evidence comes from a variety of documented writings from back in the first century and also in marble relief displays that are currently in Britain.
Interestingly enough, these femme fatales also didn’t wear helmets and other protective gear that were common among the majority of their male counterparts. This actually allowed for them to be more agile and mobile in their fights. That likely made the female battles something that was unique from the typical gladiator bout.