The World of the Gladiatores

This article examines the ancient world of the Roman Gladiators. What their lives were like, what they could expect.  Covering what we know about their routines, equipment, weapons training and mental approach.

Origins

In the ancient Roman world, gladiator games were used for a variety of reasons.  For emperors and rich aristocrats, they were an opportunity to display their vast wealth to the populace.  Gladiatorial games were also used to commemorate military victories, mark visits from important officials or celebrate birthdays.  On a more cynical note, they were a tool to distract the populace from the political and economic problems of the day.  Hence the term ‘bread and circuses’, provide the lower classes with those and you keep them from asking too many inconvenient questions. 

The games were a widely popular source of entertainment for the Roman public, who were drawn to the contests that featured mortal combat. These events were held in massive arenas throughout the Roman Empire, with the Colosseum being the largest among them. 

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The Colosseum in Rome. Sight of many gladiator battles to the death. Still standing after all these years.

People from all walks of life in Roman society, numbering in the tens of thousands, came to watch gory spectacles where exotic animals were hunted, prisoners were executed, and religious martyrs were thrown to the lions. 

The gladiators themselves, were individuals who came from all manner of social and economic backgrounds. Some of them were unfortunate, such as slaves, prisoners of war, retired soldiers, or criminals, whose bad luck had led to them being forced into the life of a gladiator. However, gladiators also included individuals from more fortunate backgrounds, such as freeborn volunteers or even wealthy individuals, who were drawn to the fame and fortune that could be gained in the arena.

Gladiator Schools

It has been estimated that there were more than 100 Gladiator Schools (ludus pl. ludi) throughout the Roman Empire. New Gladiators were formed into troupes called ‘Familia gladiatorium’ which were under the overall control of a manager (lanista) who recruited, arranged for training and made the decisions of where and when the gladiators fought.

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Gladiator training involved (naturally) a lot of sparring with weapons in preparation for the real thing. Practice makes perfect.

Unfortunately only very few sources describing their training survive, so it is very hard to reconstruct their training regimen. There was also never just one specific way of training gladiators. Gladiator training varied across time and geographic locations. The type of training they received, as well as their diets, also often depended on how rich the owners of their schools were.  The richest and most prestigious schools could employ the very best trainers and physicians and also provide the highest quality food, while the poorer schools, especially in the outlying provinces often suffered from a lack of resources.

The Trainers

When a novice (novicius) joined a gladiator school, he would undergo an assessment by the lanista (manager), trainers, and a doctor (as in medical doctor and not to be confused with a doctores – see below) to determine his physical fitness and ability to train as a gladiator. The trainers (called doctores) were retired gladiators who specialised in specific combat styles and weapons, such as the Retiarius or Secutor (again see below). Thus, a trainer for a Retiarius would be called a Doctores Retiarii, while one for a Secutor would be called a Doctores secutorum.

Learning How to Die

Gladiator training was more than just learning how to kill; it also involved teaching the gladiators how to behave and die appropriately.  In the Roman Colosseum, there were specific death rituals, and spectators expected the gladiators to die with bravery and honour.  They were expected to show no fear in the face of death at the hands of their opponents. Therefore, gladiator training included instruction on how to die gracefully.

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In defeat a Gladiator was expected to die gracefully, accepting their death.  The Roman crowd’s did not like a coward.

Initial Training

Gladiator training began with getting the new recruits in peak physical condition. Initially, wooden training swords (called the rudus) were used instead of real weapons.  This was to prevent injuries to other fighters and trainers.  Also, owners did not want the Gladiators armed with real weapons in case they entertained ideas of revolting in a bid to escape their fates.  (Gladiator revolts were something that happened from time to time in these schools, the most famous being the revolt of Spartacus).  New recruits were called novicius initially.  After completing their initial training, they were referred to as Tirones gladiatores or Tiro and were then ready to fight in the arena.

Fighting Styles, Armor and Weapons

Gladiator training was tailored to different fighting styles and weapons used by specific types of gladiators (see below). Those who fought in heavy armour were slower and needed different techniques and skills compared to those who were lightly armed and quick. The varied fighting styles required customised training based on the gladiator’s armour, weapons, and techniques.

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Some of the types of Gladiator that could be found in arenas throughout the Roman world.

Types of Gladiator

The different types of gladiators would typically fight against each other based on their armor, weapons, and combat style. For example, the Retiarius was a lightly armored gladiator who fought with a trident and a net. He would typically fight against the heavily armored Secutor, who carried a large shield, sword, and helmet with a rounded top, making it difficult for the Retiarius to entangle him with his net. Another example would be the Thraex (Thracian), who wore a helmet shaped like a fish with a curved sword called a sica, fighting against the heavily armored Murmillo, who had a distinctive fish-shaped crest on his helmet and carried a large rectangular shield and a short sword.

The different types of gladiators and their specific armor and weapons were chosen to provide a diverse range of fighting styles and entertainment for the audience.

No Mercy

If a gladiator was seriously wounded or threw down his weapon in defeat, his fate was left in the hands of the spectators. The losing gladiator often appealed for mercy by dropping his weapon and shield and raising a finger. His opponent could then decide to show mercy, or not. Since there was the possibility of meeting again in the arena, it was the smart play to simply kill an opponent. However, local rulers and fight organisers would often let the people make the decision. If the emperor were present then he would decide, although the crowd would certainly try to influence his judgement by waving cloths or gesturing with their thumbs. Contrary to popular belief that the ’thumbs down’ gesture was a signal to finish off a fallen gladiator, some historians think the sign for death may have actually been the thumbs up. Whereas a thumbs down might have actually signalled for mercy. Whatever gesture was used, it was typically accompanied by cries of either shouts of “Mitte!” (let him go) or “Iugula!” (execute him). The victorious gladiator would then finish off their fallen opponent by stabbing his opponent between the shoulder blades or downwards through the supraclavicular fossa (the dip between your neck and shoulder) and into the heart.

Elite Fighters

Although the lives of many Gladiators would be short and end in bad ways.  Some Gladiators obtained glory and greatness winning not only their battles but also winning the crowd over.  Popularity meant riches for Gladiator owners so these fighters were well looked after.  They could expect the best treatment and rewards any Gladiator could hope for (think sex and wine).  They got the best aftercare massages and medical care post-fights and training.  They would even have their own training team to give them every advantage in battle. 

Gaining Heat

Gladiators also received training as showmen. It was not enough to simply be good at fighting and killing.  You had to do it with flair and panache.  To sell the spectacle of the combat to the crowd.  This in many ways resembles modern professional wrestling, where a wrestler has to ‘gain heat’ to win over the crowd to help sell the matches.  For a wrestler or indeed any combat sports fighter today, more heat means a bigger crowd which translates to a bigger payout.

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Being popular with the crowd came with bonuses, money, fame, women.. it also meant the crowd might be on your side if you were defeated and the choice whether you live or die was up to them.

Furthermore, having the crowd on your side could often be the difference between life and death.  If the fight went bad for a Gladiator and they found themselves at the mercy of the crowd.  Popular fighters might receive a more merciful reaction from the crowd than a less popular fighter.

Living conditions

With the exception of the elite high-profile fighters, most gladiators led a simple life. They only had a few possessions and slept in very meagre conditions. They were housed in barracks or cells and were often kept in cramped and unsanitary conditions. They were fed a high-protein diet to build muscle mass.  However, the quality of their food and the frequency of their meals could vary widely depending on the wealth of their owners. Some gladiators were given better food and accommodations than others, but in general, their living conditions were poor.

It’s worth noting that regardless of a gladiator’s background, rich or poor, Roman or Barbarian, they were all subject to the same harsh training and discipline. Furthermore, they were typically treated as property rather than as free individuals. Most gladiators lived and died in obscurity, with little hope of ever gaining their freedom or improving their lot in life.

Death and Theatre

Romans had a very religious and theatrical method of ensuring that the condemned loser really was dead. Two attendants dressed in mythological garb made their way onto the sand of the arena. One attendant was dressed as Charon, the ferryman who brought souls to the afterlife, and the other as Mercury, the messenger to the gods. Mercury carried a red hot piece of metal which was used to prod the body of the fallen. If there was any sign of life, ‘Charon’ would finish the gladiator with the use of a giant mace. Effectively bludgeoning the skull of the fighter until he was lifeless.

End of the Line

The end of Gladiatorial combat came with the rise of Christianity.  The savagery and immorality of the contests were at odds with the upstart peaceful religion.  Since Rome had adopted Christianity this put intense pressure on the Emperor to appease his subjects and end the brutality. In 404CE, Emperor Honorius shut down many of the gladiator schools.  Gladiator combat still limped on in some regions, however. 

However, the death knell for the games occurred when a monk named Telemachus was stoned to death after attempting to stop the fight between two gladiators.  Consequently, Honorius, impressed with the monks’ martyrdom, officially banned gladiatorial contests.  The practice of gladiatorial games was already in decline at that time for a number of reasons.  The increasing cost of the games made them financially unsustainable. Additionally, the political instability and economic decline of the Roman Empire made it difficult to maintain the infrastructure and resources needed to stage large-scale games.

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Christianity was not popular in the early Roman world.  Many were martyred to wild animals and gladiators to the delight of the bloodthirsty crowds.

It is highly likely that underground fights probably occurred for another century or so, but they eventually died out.  By the 5th century, gladiatorial games had largely been replaced by other forms of entertainment, such as chariot racing and theatrical performances. 

Legacy

However, the legacy of the gladiatorial games continued to be felt in Roman culture and history.  For the ordinary populace, gladiators personified Rome’s martial ethics and inspired admiration due to their bravery and skill.  They were celebrated in art, their feats and courage reflected in precious and commonplace objects found throughout the Roman world. 

The legacy of the gladiatorial games continues to be felt in Roman culture and history, and they remain a fascinating and controversial subject of study to this day.

Ironically it is them that are remembered today as opposed to their exploitative masters and their over-grandiose, decadent tastes .

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When the Emperor was present for Gladiator battles they could change a fighters fortunes for better or worse with the wave of a hand.  Bestowing great fortune or freedom on those that entertained him or signalling the death of defeated fighters he felt unworthy.  

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.

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