This post looks at the actual training methods and equipment Gladiator trainers employed to hone their fighters into deadly and efficient warriors
Since one wrong move in the arena could cost the gladiator their life, technique-wise they had to be on point. For that reason, much of their training was on simulating and drilling for fights that would take place in the arenas and coliseums in the Roman provinces.
Weapons sparring gladiators undertook was designed to imitate actual bouts in the pit.
The weapons sparring they undertook was designed to imitate actual gladiator bouts in the pit. Naturally, the training was designed to be incredibly gruelling to prepare the fighters for the rigours of actual combat. However, it was unusual for a Gladiator to die during training (that would not be very profitable for fight promoters).
The first weapon a Gladiator would train with was the sword. During sparring, gladiators were taught the proper way of using the sword. They were taught not to slash at the opponent, but instead to stab him. This was considered the most efficient way of killing the opponent or causing him the most harm.
Sword training was not undertaken using real weapons but with a wooden sword known as a ‘rudus’. The wooden swords used throughout palus training were often double the weight of the actual weapon. This was to allow the gladiator to build up their upper body and arm strength. This would also make it much easier for the Gladiator to fight with lighter, real weapons when they needed to. For the same reasons, shields, bucklers and other fighting paraphernalia they would use would likewise be twice as heavy as the real thing. They would drill with these weapons right throughout the course of a day.
The gladiator ‘Rudus’ a short wooden sword used for practice.
However, very often a sword would not be the only weapon a gladiator would need or use within the arena. Many were chosen (due to size and ability or to cater to the demands of the arena) to use certain specialised weapons only. To win fights, they needed to be extremely proficient in the use of these weapons. Excavations at various training grounds have revealed many different types of gladiatorial armour and weapons (some traditional to Romans, others more exotic and unique).
The main weapons used by the gladiators included different types of swords, knives, shields and special weapons such as the trident for the retiarius, or a spear for some other types of gladiators. More exotic weapons included the Trident and net, Sica (a curved sword also known as a ‘thraex’), Scissor (a type of shear-like open scissors), lasso and Falcata (another curved blade used by people from the Spanish/Portuguese peninsula).
Examples of some exotic gladiator weapons.
A wooden pole (called a palus) was used as a target to practise moves with the sword. Palus training allowed a gladiator to practise various attacks such as thrusting, cutting, and slicing without having to worry about injuring an opponent. Other training equipment (such as shields and dummies) was also suspended from a swinging pole. When the shield was hit the whole apparatus would rotate. The gladiators’ task was to avoid the rotating arms which sometimes had a heavy sandbag attached to them.
Wrestling and Pancratium
The gladiators also spent considerable time practising fighting without weapons. Forms of unarmed combat such as wrestling were a very important part of training for any gladiator. Some descriptions of ancient hand-to-hand fighting survive. For example, boxing, wrestling and ‘Pancratium’ (Romanized version of the Greek fighting art Pankration) were official sports in the Ancient Olympics. Gladiators could be disarmed at any point during the uncertainties of combat. It made sense for them to be able to go on fighting until they could disarm their opponent or retrieve their weapon(s). Later in Roman history as the bloodlust of the crowds grew, an even more savage version of Pancratium emerged. This version involved spiked boxing gloves known as ‘caestus’ used to inflict even further damage to their opponents.
The Roman ‘Caestus’ used in unarmed Pancratium matches.
Sadly, there are not many sources available on actual unarmed gladiator training methods at that time. However, it is safe to presume it involved a lot of drilling of different moves and resembled the instructions for boxing, wrestling or pankration found around that time. We do know for practising punching and kicking, the gladiators used a variety of different types of punching bags.
Strongman/Functional Training Methods
Gladiators were no strangers to resistance training. Many of their manuals mention the types of resistance training methods they utilised. They would not have had access to some of the more ergonomically, safety-orientated training equipment we have today. Their equipment in contrast was simple and spartan, yet effective, brutally effective. Much of their training was of the kind favoured by strongman gyms today. Carrying objects of various awkward shapes and designs. Lifting and using objects of heavy weight over periods of time to increase their strength, power and endurance. The movements they would use were designed to target all the major muscle groups to enable the fighters to be strong in all areas.
Training equipment - Halteres
Another type of training equipment the Romans would use included the ‘halteraes’. The Halteres were basically an ancient version of the dumbbells. There were different types of halteraes and they were used for different purposes.
Halteraes were used in different types of resistance training, just like we use dumbbells today. Basically, all the moves that we do today with dumbbells could be performed in the ancient world using halteraes. They would undertake exercises that we do today like lateral raises, bicep curls, or walking lunges. There are examples of Gladiators undertaking walking lunges with arms outstretched in front of them holding the halteraes.
Another purpose of the halteraes was to help develop a Gladiator’s explosive power. For instance, using weighted jumps to gradually help an athlete jump farther.
Other equipment that were used in ancient times were all kinds of more natural equipment, such as big stones, logs or sandbags. There were different types of stones that were utilised by the fighters for their training.
These stones could weigh 100 kg or more. Some of the stones had grips for hands cut into them (similar to halteres) whilst others were just round and natural. A variety of exercises could be performed with them. For example, picking them off the ground (like atlas balls), hoisting them above your head, throwing them, or for the heaviest stones just rolling them in a manner similar to a sled push.
Sandbags? Check. Atlas balls/med balls? Check. Dumbbells? Check. Yeah the Romans had all that shit, or variations of them at least.
Sandbag training was probably also used (this type of training was already practised by the Ancient Egyptians). Early Mediterranean cultures shared many types of concepts and ideas in many areas (from laws to agricultural methods). This included physical training methods such as wrestling drills and resistance training, it is quite likely sandbags also made the jump.
Alongside resistance training, the gladiators utilised bodyweight exercises in order to further develop their strength. Common callisthenics exercises that were also performed by gladiators would have included variations of exercises we know today. So think variations of push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, jumps, pull-ups, squats, dips, static holds etc.. Many of the exercises involved full-body movements, some involved isometric holds. These type of exercises were great for improving grip strength (important to a gladiator holding their weapons) and endurance.
Alongside the resistance training, there is much documented evidence that gladiators undertook many bodyweight exercises to improve strength and power. Exercises such as the push up, squat jumps and variations of pull ups or rows would certainly have been familiar to them.
Galen, in his writings also mentioned the benefits of rope climbing. The gladiators spent a significant portion of their time climbing ropes. This would help develop great upper body and core strength, grip strength and work the stabiliser muscles. Another favourite activity of the trainers was to have the gladiators hang off ledges or beams for as long as they could. These types of exercises served to build a strong grip, as well as other muscles, especially the stabilisers.
Covering all bases
To succeed in the arena, gladiators knew that they needed to be on point in many areas as opposed to solely being strong. Speed, agility, flexibility, balance (and quickness), endurance and stamina.
For agility training, they used different types of machines or swinging bags, where they had to run through a gauntlet of these different things and not fall. Also, hand-eye coordination was important, and in order to improve this, Galen recommended a variety of exercises with small balls.
R and R
Warming up and cooling down
Gladiator trainers also knew about the extreme demands of intensive training on the body. They had undoubtedly learned through trial and error that diving into training at full speed straight away caused injuries. They recognised that athletes needed to warm up properly prior to intensive exercise. Galen wrote:
“Intensity should be gradually increased, peaking at the end. This should be of special concern in order to avoid injury to competitors.”
The cool-down process was also an important consideration. Hippocrates (an Ancient Greek doctor) said that “those who walk after exercising will then have a stronger and more rested body. This means that there should be a period of cool down after intense training and people should not fall down and lie on the ground immediately, but instead, the person should cool down by walking around”. Also on rest days, according to Hippocrates, the athlete should avoid doing completely nothing, but instead, do something of low intensity.
Recovery period - Ahead of their time
The ancients were also very aware of the dangers of over-training and many doctors preached against it. They knew that the body needs rest in order to recover from intense training. They also knew that the body achieves the best results if effective rest and recovery were part of a fighter’s routine.
Romans as we know loved their baths. Baths were a common way of relaxation and recovery in Ancient Rome and many sections of Roman society used baths regularly. To aid with recovery, many of the gladiatorial schools included bath complexes, which the gladiators got to use after training sessions. Visiting baths frequently was actually one of the main recommendations to promote good health by Celsus in his work on medicine titled “De Medicina”. Roman baths often resembled what we know as spas in the modern world. They included pools of cold, warm and hot water and could also be used for swimming.
Hygiene and recovery were very important in the Roman world for rich and poor alike. The ruins of Roman baths can be found throughout countries formerly part of the Roman Empire.
The importance of eating in order to perform was recognized in the ancient world and great attention was paid to diet. There was no one gladiatorial diet, but the diet of gladiators differed based on place, time, money, availability and the philosophical approaches of the trainers and doctors of that particular ludus.
Just like the nutrition debates of today, the ancient Greek and Roman experts were in a continual debate about what diets were most effective. Diets for training ranged from an all-meat diet (this was used by a few Greek athletes) to something which was almost an all-carbohydrate vegetarian diet.
According to ancient Roman commentators, gladiators primarily consumed simple carbohydrates such as barley and beans in the form of soup, porridge, or pancakes. Galen, a Roman physician, complained that this diet did not strengthen their flesh but instead made it flabby. Gladiators seemed to maintain a layer of fat over their well-developed muscles, which is quite different from the muscular and toned physiques portrayed in modern Hollywood movies. However, this layer of subcutaneous fat could have been beneficial to them since it protected them from superficial wounds. In contrast, slimmer fighters were vulnerable to life-threatening injuries since their thin layer of fat could easily be penetrated by blades.
What’s for dinner? Barley polenta again eh? Bon appetit.
Other commentators noted that dried figs, moist cheese, and wheat were standard breakfast items for many athletes. Beans and cheese were also popular among them. Different types of fiber were considered essential. It appears that gladiators consumed a simple diet of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that was both effective and affordable. Owners were mainly interested in maximizing profits and thus did not want to spend too much money on their fighters.
While some gladiatorial schools had diets which were to a large extent close to vegetarian and full of carbohydrates, some gladiatorial schools instead focused on a diet full of meat. The Ancient Greeks were aware that meat helps athletes grow much stronger. It became a staple in the diets of many athletes. Meat was expensive and so difficult to come by unless you were well-to-do or knew/were a hunter. So a large part of the meat that was eaten in the ludi often came from the animal battles that occurred in the arenas.
Looks like meat’s back on the table boys!!
The ancients also realised the importance of calcium to have strong bones and they had different sources of it. One of the ways that the gladiators used to replenish calcium was through drinking an old-school ’sports drink’ made out of the charred ashes of plants… Thankfully today we have far better sources of calcium available.
We hope you have enjoyed this look at Gladiator training. The Gladiator Workout post will look at what we can take from their training methods… and what we can leave in the arena…
More on Gladiatores Training
Click on the links below for an insights into this combat systems history, principles, influences and to see the benefits of training in the Roman world.