Ancient Roman Gladiators

Perhaps no figure from ancient Rome is as famous as the gladiator — a warrior of the arena that fought to the death against beasts, criminals, and other gladiators, for the entertainment of Roman society.

Gladiators have become heavily mythologized figures, in part thanks to famous works of fiction like the film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, or the classic Spartacus, but what were they like really?

A gladiator standing over his defeated foes in the Colosseum, waiting for the Emperor to signal thumbs up or thumbs down
Pollice Verso, With a Turned Thumb, by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Who were the Roman gladiators

Most Roman gladiators were de-facto slaves, and as such had no rights in Roman society and were scarcely considered people. For every epic story of a gladiator becoming a legend of the arena and winning fame and freedom, thousands of others died anonymously on the sand.

They led violent, dangerous lives and were subject to the whims of their superiors. Some managed to overcome these circumstances and became celebrities, but they were a very small minority.

Types of gladiators

There were over two dozen different types of gladiators, distinguished from each other by the weapons they used, the armor they wore, the fighting styles they employed, and the events at which they fought. Below you will find a list of the most recognizable ones:

  • Murmillo, heavily armored gladiators that used a large, oblong shield and a sword called a gladius. Their most distinctive trait was the full-cover helmet decorated with a fish-shaped crest.
  • Thraxes, which wore similar armor to the Murmillo, but who used a smaller, rectangular shield and a curved thracian sword. Their helmet also covered the entire head, but was decorated with a griffin instead of a fish.
  • Retiarius, the famous gladiators wielding a large net and a trident. They wore lighter armor and had no shield, and fought by attempting to trap their opponents under their net and stabbing at them with their three-pronged spear.
  • Essedarius, which were mounted gladiators. There is little information on them beyond that they fought mounted on chariots.
  • Hoplomachus, which translates to ‘armed fighter’ in greek, were gladiators who carried a throwing spear, a short sword, a small, round shield, and who sported a plumed helmet.
Mosaic of two gladiators fighting, a retiarius and a secutor, with referees watching
A retiarius fighting against a secutor, the referees monitor the duel.

Were there women gladiators?

There were female gladiators, although they were a very small minority and according to writings from the times, they were apparently viewed as an oddity and a peculiar entertainment, more than as simply a regular type of gladiator.

Gladiator training

Gladiators belonged to the infame class, infamous, and as such their lives were forfeit and belonged to their masters. Gladiatorial schools were incredibly strict, and the training they provided was harsh, with some archaeological evidence suggesting that gladiators could be killed as punishment for misbehavior.

In school, gladiators would likely train under a master who was an expert in their particular style of combat, and all the different groups were kept separate from each other, possibly so as to avoid conflicts between combatants who would meet in the arena.

Upon entering gladiator school (those who had not been condemned to it as punishment for a crime), gladiators would sign a contract stipulating the type of combatant they would become, how many times a year they would fight, and signing themselves over into the property of their master.

Famous gladiators

Most gladiators lived and died anonymously, but a few became popular celebrities and their names have reached the present day.

  • Crixus was a Gallic slave and gladiator that escaped captivity and became one of the leaders of the rebel army in the Third Servile War, between slaves and the Roman republic.
  • Emperor Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator, was a known fan of gladiator combat and ventured into the the arena himself many times. However, he was known to be a cruel fighter who used the privilege of his position to set up fights against handicapped opponents who had no chance of fighting back and whom he would maim and kill in often-sadistic spectacles. This earned him great antipathy and is said to have contributed to his eventual assassination.
  • Priscus and Verus were a pair of gladiators who had the honor of fighting each other at the inauguration of the Flavian Amphitheater. It is said that after battling for hours they agreed to end the fight in a draw, at which point Emperor Titus granted them the rudis, making them free men.
  • Spiculus was a rock star of the gladiatorial world. He was a favorite of the bloody Emperor Nero, who lavished him with gifts. When overthrown, Nero called on him because he wanted to die at his hands, but Spiculus didn’t respond to the former emperor’s request and Nero was forced to kill himself.

Was spartacus a real person?

Spartacus is without a doubt the most famous gladiator of the Roman Empire, and he was in fact a real person. He was a Thracian soldier or mercenary who ended up being sold a slave and then became a gladiator. He was one of the leaders of a revolt at the gladiator school of Capua, which ended in 70 of the trainees escaping.

After their escape and some subsequent skirmishes with the roman military, which the gladiators won, their ranks grew until they became an army of multiple tens of thousands. Spartacus led this rebel slave army in what came to be known as the Third Servile War, until his forces were routed and he was supposedly killed in 71 BC.

Spartacus falling in battle in the painting Tod des Spartacus, The Death of Spartacus, by Hermann Vogel
Tod des Spartacus, The Death of Spartacus, by Hermann Vogel.

Gladiator games

Most often, gladiators engaged in one on one combat and would be paired against different types that were considered complementary. Murmillos often fought against Thracians, as well as Hoplomachus, and Retiarius. Retiarius (net and trident wielders) usually faced gladiators armed with more conventional weapons.

Fights were highly organized and monitored by referees. Not all ended in death. Often a fight would end without either combatant dying — the reason for this was quite simple: training and maintaining a stable of gladiators was expensive, so their owners wanted them to survive as long as possible. In the early years of the Colosseum more fights were to the death, but as time went on the contests became less lethal because replacing dead gladiators was costly.

There were other types of violent entertainment that were popular in ancient Rome that have often been connected with gladiators, but which were in fact separate from them.

What animals did Roman Gladiators fight?

That gladiators fought against beasts is a common misconception. Gladiator combat was highly regimented and organized, and gladiators only fought against other human combatants. Wild beasts did appear in the arena, but they usually did so as part of the damnatio ad bestias, which means literally condemnation to beasts, in which criminals and prisoners of war would be publicly executed at the claws and fangs of wild beasts, or as part of mock hunts by professional hunters. There was one type of combatant that fought against wild animals, the bestiarus, but he was not regarded as a gladiator in the same sense as others.

Staged naval battles, the Naumachia

Naumachia, staged naval battles with real ships and combatants, were probably the most spectacular of all Roman blood sports. Unlike gladiator battles which took place somewhat regularly in the arenas of many large cities, naumachia were reserved for special occasions, such as the commemoration of Julius Caesar’s triumph in 46 BC. Participants were often prisoners of war or criminals condemned to death, and the battles were much bloodier than gladiatorial combat and fatality rates much higher.

Naumachia were usually held in specially constructed arenas, large channels or artificial lakes dug specifically for this purpose, but in some occasions they were held in conventional Roman amphitheaters. The Roman Colosseum is known to have held two near the date of its inauguration.

Slaves and prisoners fighting in a Naumachia before the Emperor, painting by Ulpiano Checa
La Naumachia, by Ulpiano Checa