a modern actor
Some gladiators were runaway slaves and criminals. Others were stars. William Grimes of the New York Times wrote: “the gladiator was a contradictory figure. Socially, he was a despised outcast, but the warrior code and the unflinching courage displayed by most gladiators made them in a sense, ideal Romans...Not surprisingly , gladiators captured the public imagination. They were celebrities; young women left amorous graffiti on the walls of gladiator schools."

The combatants in some contest are believed to have been women. This idea is based on images of female gladiators found on reliefs in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, mentions of a female in records from a gladiator school, and a tomb found in London of a Roman woman buried with objects usually found with buried gladiators.

Gladiator sports became professionalized, with managers, fixed schedules, tours and training centers, where gladiators developed skills in the different events. The gladiators are believed to have been highly trained. They were trained at special clubs where they were given instruction in martial arts and gymnastics and drilled to increase their strength and endurance.

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “Today, the idea of gladiators fighting to the death, and of an amphitheatre where this could take place watched by an enthusiastic audience, epitomises the depths to which the Roman Empire was capable of sinking. Yet, to the Romans themselves, the institution of the arena was one of the defining features of their civilisation. Hardly any contemporary voices questioned the morality of staging gladiatorial combat. And the gladiators' own epitaphs mention their profession without shame, apology, or resentment. [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011. Coleman is a professor of Latin and was a historical consultant on Ridley Scott's 2000 'Gladiator' |::|]

“The Romans believed that the first gladiators were slaves who were made to fight to the death at the funeral of a distinguished aristocrat, Junius Brutus Pera, in 264 B.C. This spectacle was arranged by the heirs of the deceased to honour his memory. Gradually gladiatorial spectacle became separated from the funerary context, and was staged by the wealthy as a means of displaying their power and influence within the local community. Advertisements for gladiatorial displays have survived at Pompeii, painted by professional sign-writers on house-fronts, or on the walls of tombs clustered outside the city-gates. The number of gladiators to be displayed was a key attraction: the larger the figure, the more generous the sponsor was perceived to be, and the more glamorous the spectacle.” |::|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Graffiti: Important Source on the Lives of Gladiators

graffiti on a piece of ceramics

There are virtually no accounts written by gladiators themselves presumably at least in part because few of them could read or write. Not even Spartacus, the most famous of all gladiators, spoke for himself. Most of what we know about gladiators is based on descriptions by Roman historians and writers, Roman-era images (many of them mosaics), and bits and shreds of archaeological evidence. A surprising amount of transportation has been gleaned from Roman-era graffiti.

Natasha Sheldon wrote in “Graffiti and other archaeological evidence tell us a great deal about the lives and life expectancy of Roman gladiators in Pompeii. Despite the Pompeian’s appetite for blood, their life expectancy was not as low as one would expect. In the main, gladiators were slaves purchased for their strength by local businessmen. They were trained in troupes and then hired them out to fight in the games. Many gladiators had single names like ‘Princeps’ and 'Hilarius’ which indicated that they were slaves. Some gladiators were also free. The gladiator Lucius Raecius Felix was probably a freedman. Felix was a common slave name and his other two names were probably adopted from his former master’s name and added after his freedom. Some gladiators were also freeborn. Graffiti in Pompeii records the name of a gladiator Marcus Attilius. His name is not that of a slave and does not indicate he was a freedman, suggesting he signed up to the arena for profit. [Source: Natasha Sheldon,]

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “Regardless of their status, gladiators might command an extensive following, as shown by graffiti in Pompeii, where walls are marked with comments such as Celadus, suspirium puellarum ('Celadus makes the girls swoon'). Indeed, apart from the tombstones of the gladiators, the informal cartoons with accompanying headings, scratched on plastered walls and giving a tally of individual gladiators' records, are the most detailed sources that modern historians have for the careers of these ancient fighters. [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Sometimes these graffiti even form a sequence. One instance records the spectacular start to the career of a certain Marcus Attilius (evidently, from his name, a free-born volunteer). As a mere rookie (tiro) he defeated an old hand, Hilarus, from the troupe owned by the emperor Nero, even though Hilarus had won the special distinction of a wreath no fewer than 13 times. |::|

“Attilius then capped this stunning initial engagement (for which he himself won a wreath) by going on to defeat a fellow-volunteer, Lucius Raecius Felix, who had 12 wreaths to his name. Both Hilarus and Raecius must have fought admirably against Attilius, since each of them was granted a reprieve (missio). |::|

Where Did the Gladiators Come From


Contrary to the popular misconception almost all of the gladiators were pagans not Christians. For the most part they were slaves, prisoners of war and criminals who were trained, clothed and fed by men who were hired to supply gladiators by the local magistrates who arranged the competitions. Convicted criminals could fulfill a potion of their sentence battling it out with other criminals and prisoners of war in the arena. Free men such as soldiers and well-born Romans signed contracts to be gladiators to win fame and prize money.

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “Most gladiators were slaves. They were subjected to a rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Hence they were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly. For a gladiator who died in combat the trainer (lanista) might charge the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who survived. Hence it was very much more costly for sponsors to supply the bloodshed that audiences often demanded, although if they did allow a gladiator to be slain it was seen as an indication of their generosity. Remarkably, some gladiators were not slaves but free-born volunteers. The chief incentive was probably the down-payment that a volunteer received upon taking the gladiatorial oath. This oath meant that the owner of his troupe had ultimate sanction over the gladiator's life, assimilating him to the status of a slave (ie a chattel). “Some maverick emperors with a perverted sense of humour made upper-class Romans (of both sexes) fight in the arena. But, as long as they did not receive a fee for their participation, such persons would be exempt from the stain of infamia, the legal disability that attached to the practitioners of disreputable professions such as those of gladiators, actors and prostitutes.” [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “In the early Republic the gladiators were captives taken in war, naturally men practiced in the use of weapons, who thought death by the sword a happier fate than the slavery that awaited them otherwise. Captives always remained the chief source of supply, though it became inadequate as the demand increased. From the time of Sulla, training schools were established in which slaves with or without previous experience in war were fitted for the business. These were naturally slaves of the most intractable and desperate character. From the time of Augustus criminals (in all cases non-citizens) were sentenced to the arena (later “to the lions”), for the most heinous crimes, treason, murder, arson, and the like. Finally, in the late Empire the arena became the last desperate resort of the dissipated and prodigal, and these volunteers were numerous enough to receive as a class the name auctorati. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“As the number of the exhibitions increased, it became harder and harder to supply the gladiators demanded, for it must be remembered that there were exhibitions in many of the cities of the provinces and in the smaller towns of Italy as well as at Rome. In order to supply this increasing demand, thousands died miserably in the arena whom only the most glaring injustice could number number in the classes mentioned above. In Cicero’s time provincial governors were accused of sending unoffending provincials to be slaughtered in Rome and of forcing Roman citizens, obscure and friendless, of course, to fight in the provincial shows. Later, when the supply of real criminals had run short, it was common enough to send to the arena men sentenced for the pettiest offenses, and to trump up charges against the innocent for the same purpose. The persecution of the Christians was largely due to the demand for more gladiators. So, too, the distinction was lost between actual prisoners of war and peaceful non-combatants; after the fall of Jerusalem all Jews over seventeen years of age were condemned by Titus to work in the mines or fight in the arena. Wars on the border were sometimes waged for the sole purpose of taking men who could be made gladiators; in default of men, women and children were sometimes made to fight. |+|

Gladiator Barracks in Pompeii

gladiator barracks at Pompeii

Gladiators often lived in barracks. A entire gladiator barracks was unearthed in Pompeii, complete with decorated helmets, leg and shoulder guards, shields, and swords that had been discarded by fleeing gladiators.

Natasha Sheldon wrote in Before A.D. 62, the House of the Gladiators “was the original gladiator’s barracks and training area for gladiators in Pompeii. A converted house, it consisted of a central peristyle surrounded by rooms. Graffiti on the pillars of the peristyle informs on the types of gladiators who appeared in Pompeii and how the gladiators themselves saw each other. Besides the well-known fighters such as Thracians, Murmillos and Retinarii (net men) the House of the Gladiators trained essedarius (chariot fighters) and eques (cavalrymen). There are also various pieces of graffiti that refer to the popularity of certain gladiators with local women, suggesting that the gladiators at least saw themselves as sex symbols.” [Source: Natasha Sheldon,]

“After 62 AD, the gladiator’s training venue moved to the portico of the large theatre. This large complex known as the Gladiator’s Barracks was occupied at the time of the 79 A.D. eruption. Eighteen human skeletons were found on the premises as well as that of a horse. The barracks consisted of a kitchen, mess hall, stables and armoury for storing the ceremonial armour and helmets that the gladiators wore in processions. Stairs on the east side were believed to lead to the lanista’s quarters on the second floor. A further set of stairs led below the barracks to an ergastulum or slave prison. Four more skeletons were found here. They were unchained despite the provision of iron fetters. [Source: Natasha Sheldon,]

Gladiator Barrack Life

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “The gladiatorial barracks were marked by heterogeneity. Membership was constantly fluctuating, as troupes toured the local circuit. Some members survived to reach retirement; new recruits were enlisted, many of them probably unable to understand Latin. [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“In the larger barracks, members of the same fighting-style had their own dedicated trainer, and they often bonded together in formal associations. Frequently it was a gladiator's fellows who furnished his tombstone, perhaps through membership of a burial society. Yet gladiators must frequently have met their intimate fellows in mortal combat. Professionalism and the survival instinct would have demanded a merciless display of expertise, inculcated by the gladiator's training. Within a training-school there was a competitive hierarchy of grades (paloi) through which individuals were promoted. |::|

“The larger barracks, at least, had their own training arena, with accommodation for spectators, so that combatants became accustomed to practising before an audience of their fellows. The system meant that combat and heroic prowess were brought right into the urban centres of the Roman empire, whereas real warfare was going on unimaginably far away, on the borders of barbarism. |::|

Gladiators Diet Determined by Examining Their Bones

barley bread

“Roman historians sometimes called gladiators hordearii, which means "barley eaters" in Latin. Ancient texts by Roman scholars Pliny, Galen and Tacitus describe a special "gladiator diet" of barley and bell beans. Is this backed up by archaeological evidence?

Tia Ghose wrote in Livescience: ““In 1993, archaeologists surveying the holy procession path between the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the city of Ephesus, Turkey, uncovered a mass burial pit not far from an ancient gladiator stadium. The pit contained the battle-scarred bones of 68 people who had died between the second and third centuries. The cemetery also contained some gladiator gravestones depicting battles, and most of the skeletons belonged to men between the ages of 20 and 30, according to a 2006 article in the journal Forensic Science International. Gladiators — who were typically prisoners of war, condemned men or slaves — usually lost all right to a proper burial, but it's possible the owner of the local gladiator school had purchased or rented this plot for his students,” scholars have speculated. [Source: Tia Ghose, Livescience, October 27, 2014]

A team led by Fabian Kanz, a forensic anthropologist at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, decided to take a closer look at the bones from Ephesus. “The team analyzed the skeletal fragments' ratio of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen isotopes (atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons). (Because different plants and animals contain different ratios of these isotopes, their ratios in bones can reveal the long-term dietary patterns of ancient people.)

“The gladiator bones showed low levels of the isotope nitrogen-15, which is typical of a diet high in nitrogen-fixing plants, such as lentils and beans. Even so, the gladiators' diet probably wasn't all that different from the mostly vegetarian fare eaten by the Roman populace, Kanz said. Because the chemical signals of a diet can take years to appear in the bones, however, it's possible that the gladiators did eat a different diet — but simply didn't live long enough after entering the deadly profession for that chemical signature to show up in their bones, he said.

Roman Gladiators: Fat Vegetarians?

Robert Koch of AFP wrote: “Roman gladiators were overweight vegetarians and not the muscle-bound men portrayed by actors like Russell Crowe, anthropologists say. Austrian scientists analysed the skeletons of two different types of gladiators, the myrmillos and retiariae, found at the ancient site of Ephesus, near Selsuk in Turkey. "Tests performed on bits of bone taken from the skeletons of some 70 gladiators buried at Ephesus seem to prove that they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit," said Dr Karl Grossschmidt, who took part in the study by the Austrian Archaeological Institute "This diet, which has been mentioned in the oral history, is rather sad but it gave the gladiators a lot of strength even if it made them fat," said Grossschmidt who is a member of the University of Vienna's Institute of Histology and Embryology. [Source: Robert Koch, AFP, 5 April 2004 ]

“The Austrian palaeoanthropologists relied on a method known as elementary microanalysis that allows scientists to determine what a human being ate during his or her lifetime. With the help of a sonar, they could establish the chemical concentrations inside cells in the bone samples taken from the skeletons at Ephesus. From this, they could deduce how much meat, fish, grains and fruit made up the diet of the Roman fighting machines. A balanced diet of meat and vegetables leaves equal amounts of zinc and strontium in the cells, while a mainly vegetarian diet would leave high levels of strontium and little zinc, Grossschmidt said.

“Fabian Kanz, from the university's department of analytical chemistry, said the gladiators' bone density gave us clues to how they lived. "The bone density here was higher than usual, as is the case with modern athletes," he said. This line of testing allowed the scientists to debunk another myth, that gladiators wore strappy Sparticus sandals in the arena. "The bone density is particularly high in samples taken from the feet, which would suggest that the gladiators fought with their bare feet in sand," Kanz said. He believed that because some gladiators fought with little more than their bare hands, they could have "cultivated layers of fat to protect their vital organs from the cutting blows of their opponents. It seems that the gladiators tried to put on some weight before their battles. But this does not mean that they did not work hard to lose it again once they stepped out of the ring."

Gladiator Energy Drinks

It appears that energy drinks may have been as common among ancient Roman gladiators and athletes as they are among modern athletes. Said to have performance-enhancing abilities, these drinks often architecture plant ash, a rich source of calcium that is known to help improve bone growth. High calcium levels are common in excavated gladiators. How did it taste? Like ash and water, with vinegar added to make it taste better. [Source: Gordon Gora. Listverse, September 16, 2016]

gladiator bones

Tia Ghose wrote in Livescience: “The skeletal remains of gladiators unearthed in a cemetery in Ephesus, Turkey, suggest the fighters may have drunk a beverage made from ash, vinegar and water. The new analysis, which was detailed online in the journal PLOS ONE, also casts doubt on the notion that the fighters ate a special gladiator diet, as historical documents suggest. The gladiators' mostly vegetarian fare wouldn't have been much different from the diet of the general population, said study co-author Fabian Kanz, a forensic anthropologist at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria. [Source: Tia Ghose, Livescience, October 27, 2014]

“The team analyzed the ratio of the elements strontium and calcium in the bones. Strontium is readily taken up from the soil by plants, but is removed from the body by animals that eat those plants or other animals, Kanz told Live Science. However, a strontium atom will occasionally replace a calcium atom in the bones, so planet eaters and those eating lower in the food chain will have higher levels of strontium, Kanz added.

“The team found that the gladiators had almost twice the ratio of strontium to calcium in their bones, as did other populations, even though they ate a very similar diet. That led the researchers to speculate that the gladiators were guzzling a post-battle drink described in ancient texts: a mixture of vinegar, water and ash. The ash, which Romans typically added to food for a smoky flavor and even used for medicinal purposes, would have provided an extra heaping of strontium, Kanz said. "They didn't have coffee; they didn't have tea," Kanz told Live Science. "But they had wine, and then they drank a mixture of vinegar and water. It's not as horrible as it sounds." With some good vinegar, the drink might have tasted like refreshing lemonade, Kanz said.”

Schools for Gladiators

Training schools for gladiators were called ludi gladiatorii. Although more than 100 gladiator schools were built throughout the Roman Empire, the only known remnants are in Rome, Carnuntum, Austria and Pompeii.Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Cicero speaks of one at Rome during his consulship, and there were others before his time at Capua and Praeneste. Some of these were set up by wealthy nobles for the purpose of preparing their own gladiators for munera which they expected to give; others were the property of regular dealers in gladiators, who kept and trained them for hire. The business was at first almost as disreputable as that of the lenones. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“During the Empire, however, training schools were maintained at public expense and under the direction of state officials, not only in Rome, where there were four at least of these schools, but also in other cities of Italy, where exhibitions were frequently given, and even in the provinces. The purpose of all the schools, public and private alike, was the same, to make the men trained in them as effective fighting machines as possible. The gladiators were in charge of competent training masters (lanistae); they were subject to the strictest discipline; their diet was carefully looked after, and a special food (sagina gladiatoria) was provided for them; regular gymnastic exercises were prescribed, and lessons in the use of the various weapons were given by recognized experts (magistri, doctores). In their fencing bouts, wooden swords (rudes) were used. The gladiators associated in a school were collectively called a familia. |+|

Ancient Rome's gladiators lived and trained in fortress prisons, according to archaeologists who examined the gladiator school found in Austria described below. “"It was a prison; they were prisoners," Wolfgang Neubauer, an archaeologist at Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, told National Geographic. "They lived in cells, in a fortress with only one gate out." Gladiators were "big business," Neubauer says. [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, February 25, 2014]

Parts of Gladiator Schools

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “These schools had also to serve as barracks for the gladiators between engagements, that is, practically as houses of detention. It was from the school of Lentulus at Capua that Spartacus had escaped, and the Romans needed no second lesson of the sort. The general arrangement of these barracks may be understood from the ruins of one uncovered at Pompeii, though in this case the buildings had been originally planned for another purpose, and the rearrangement may not be typical in all respects. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“A central court, or exercise ground, is surrounded by a wide colonnade, and this in turn by rows of buildings two stories in height; the general arrangement is not unlike that of the peristyle of a house. The dimensions of the court are nearly 120 by 150 feet. The buildings are cut up into rooms, nearly all small (about twelve feet square), disconnected and opening upon the court; those in the first story are reached from the colonnade, those in the second from a gallery to which ran several stairways. These small rooms are supposed to be the sleeping rooms of the gladiators; each accommodated two persons. There are seventy-one of them (marked 7 on the plan), affording room for one hundred forty-two men. The uses of the larger rooms are purely conjectural.

“The entrance is supposed to have been at 3, with a room (15) for the watchman or sentinel. At 9 was an exedra, where the gladiators may have waited in full panoply for their turns in the exercise ground (1). The guard room (8) is identified by the remains of stocks, in which the refractory were fastened for punishment or safekeeping. The stocks permitted the culprits to lie only on their backs or to sit in a very uncomfortable position. At 6 was the armory or property room, if we may judge from articles found in it. Near it in the corner was a staircase leading to the gallery before the rooms of the second story. The large room (16) was the mess-room, with the kitchen (12) opening into it. The stairway (13) gave access to the rooms above kitchen and mess-room, possibly the apartments of the trainers and their helpers.” |+|

Ludus Magnus: Gladiator Training Ground in Rome

Ludus Magnus was one of the four training grounds for Roman gladiators, close to the Colosseum. Its name means "big training ground". According to Livius: “It was one of the four places where Roman gladiators were taught the tricks of their trade. (The other gladiatorial barracks were known as the Ludus Dacicus, the Ludus Gallicus, and the Ludus Matutinus. The latter appears to have been specialized in animal fights.) All were built by the emperor Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96) and were east of the Colosseum, the great amphitheater that had been constructed by Domitian's father Vespasian and inaugurated by his brother Titus. The ruin of the Ludus Magnus can be seen immediately east of the Colosseum. [Source: Livius]

“The cells of the gladiators on the northern side of the building have been excavated and are visible. This part was connected to the Via Labicana by a monumental entrance. The Greek-Roman historian Herodian states that the emperor-gladiator Commodus (r.180-192) used to sleep in one of these cells.

“There were three other wings of cells and the building seems to have had at least two storeys. All in all, there must have been about 130 cells. In the four corners between the arena and the surrounding porticoes, where the cells were, were water basins. The arena, which has been partially excavated, was surrounded by seats for the public, including a VIP box. It seems that people liked to watch the exercising gladiators, because there were no less than 3,000 seats. The Ludus Magnus was restored by the emperor Trajan (r.98-117).”

Roman Gladiator School Found in Austria

In 2011 it was revealed that some well-preserved ruins of a Roman gladiator school had been found in Carnuntum near Petronell-Varnuntum, Austria. AP reported” “The Carnuntum ruins are part of a city of 50,000 people 45 kilometers east of Vienna that flourished about 1700 years ago, a major military and trade outpost linking the far-flung Roman empire's Asian boundaries to its central and northern European lands."Source: George Jahn, AP, September 6, 2011]

Dan Vergano of National Geographic wrote: “At least 80 gladiators, likely more, lived in the large, two-story facility equipped with a practice arena in its central courtyard. The site also included heated floors for winter training, baths, infirmaries, plumbing, and a nearby graveyard. Within the 118,400-square-foot (11,000-square-meter) walled compound at the Austrian site, gladiators trained year-round for combat at a nearby public amphitheater [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, February 25, 2014]

Mapped out by radar, the ruins of the gladiator school remain underground. Yet officials say the find rivals the famous Ludus Magnus - the largest of the gladiatorial training schools in Rome - in its structure. And they say the Austrian site is even more detailed than the well-known Roman ruin, down to the remains of a thick wooden post in the middle of the training area, a mock enemy that young, desperate gladiators hacked away at centuries ago.

The gladiator complex is part of a 10 square km site over the former city, an archaeological site now visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. This is “a world sensation, in the true meaning of the word," Lower Austrian provincial governor Erwin Proell told Associated Press. The Carnuntum ruins, he said, were "unique in the world ... in their completeness and dimension". Officials said they had no date yet for the start of excavations of the gladiator school, saying experts needed time to settle on a plan that conserves as much as possible.

Life at the Austrian Gladiator School

A gladiator school was a mixture of a barracks and a prison, kind of a high-security facility," said the Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, one of the institutes involved in finding and evaluating the Austrian gladaitor school: "The fighters were often convicted criminals, prisoners-of-war, and usually slaves." [Source: George Jahn, AP, September 6, 2011]

Dan Vergano of National Geographic wrote: “The gladiators slept in 32-square-foot (3-square-meter) cells, home to one or two people. Those cells were kept separate from a wing holding bigger rooms for their trainers, known as magistri, themselves retired survivors of gladiatorial combat who specialized in teaching one style of weaponry and fighting. "The similarities show that gladiators were housed and trained in the provinces in the same way as in the metropolis [of Rome]," Coleman says. The one gate exiting the compound faced a road leading to the town's public amphitheater, reportedly the fourth largest in the empire. The fortress prison also undermines the image of gladiators as traveling from town to town in a circus-like setting, as seen in the movie Gladiator released in 2000. "They weren't a team," Neubauer says. "Each one was on his own, training to fight, and learning who they would combat at a central post we can see the remains of in our survey." [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, February 25, 2014]

George Jahn of AP wrote: “Still, there were some perks for the men who sweated and bled for what they hoped would at least be a few brief moments of glory before their demise.At the end of a dusty and bruising day, they could pamper their bodies in baths with hot, cold and lukewarm water. And hearty meals of meat, grains and cereals were plentiful for the men who burned thousands of calories in battle each day for the entertainment of others.

Thick walls surround 11,000 square metres of the site, and the school and its adjacent buildings stretch over 2800 square metres. Inside, a courtyard was ringed by living quarters and other buildings and contained a round, 19sqm training area - a small stadium overlooked by wooden seats and the terrace of the chief trainer.

The complex also contained about 40 tiny sleeping cells for the gladiators; a large bathing area; a training hall with heated floors and assorted administrative buildings. The cells, where the gladiators lived, were barely big enough to turn around in Outside the walls, radar scans show what archeologists believe was a cemetery for those killed during training.

The institute said the training area was where the men's "market value and in end effect their fate" was decided. At the same time, it gave them a small chance for survival, fame and possibly liberty. "If they were successful, they had a chance to advance to 'superstar' status - and maybe even achieve freedom," said Carnuntum park head Franz Humer.

Gladiator Rewards

Winners of gladiator contests received palm branches, and sometimes prizes. Successful gladiators not only got to live they often became sports celebrities with women hanging all over them. Coins were issued by emperors with the faces of famous gladiators. Charioteers sometimes amassed great wealth but there is no evidence of any gladiator being particularly wealthy.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ Before making his first public appearance, the gladiator was technically called a tiro. When after many victories he had proved himself to be the best of his class, or second best, in his familia, he received the title of primus, or secundus, palus. When he had won his freedom, he received a wooden sword (rudis). From this the title prima rudis and secunda rudis seem to have been given to those who were afterwards employed as training masters (doctores) in the schools. The rewards given to famous gladiators by their masters and backers took the form of valuable prizes and gifts of money. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“These may not have been so generous as those given to the aurigae, but they were enough to enable them to live in luxury the rest of their lives. The class of men, however, who became professional gladiators probably found their most acceptable reward in the immediate and lasting notoriety that their strength and courage brought them. That they did not shrink from the infamia that their lives entailed is shown by the fact that they did not try to hide their connection with the amphitheater. On the contrary, their gravestones record their classes and the number of their victories, and have often cut upon them their likenesses with the rudis in their hands. |+|

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Famous Gladiators

Andrew Fitzgerald wrote for Listverse: Gladiators were the athletic superstars of Ancient Rome. Their battles in the arena drew thousands of fans, often including the most important men of the day....Successful gladiators gained thousands of supporters, enjoyed lavish gifts, and could even be awarded freedom if they’d tallied up enough victories. Described below are some gladiators who all experienced glory and fame—both in and out of the arena—in Ancient Rome. [Source: Andrew Fitzgerald, Listverse April 2, 2013 ]

“Tetraites: Originally discovered through graffiti found in Pompeii in 1817, Tetraites was documented for his spirited victory over Prudes. Fighting in the murmillones style, he wielded a sword, a rectangle shield, a helmet, arm guards, and shin guards. The extent of his fame was not fully comprehended until the late Twentieth Century, when pottery was found as far away as France and England which depicted Tetraites’ victories.

“Priscus & Verus: Not much is known about these two rivals, although their final fight was well-documented. The battle between Priscus and Verus in the First Century AD was the first gladiator fight in the famous Flavian Amphitheatre. After a spirited battle which dragged on for hours, the two gladiators conceded to each other at the same time, putting down their swords out of respect for one another. The crowd roared in approval, and the Emperor Titus awarded both combatants with the rudis, a small wooden sword given to gladiators upon their retirement. Both left the theater side by side as free men.

“Spiculus, another renowned gladiator of the First Century AD, enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the (reportedly) evil Emperor Nero. Following Spiculus’ numerous victories, Nero awarded him with palaces, slaves, and riches beyond imagination. When Nero was overthrown in AD 68, he urged his aides to find Spiculus, as he wanted to die at the hands of the famous gladiator. But Spiculus couldn’t be found, and Nero was forced to take his own life.

“Marcus Attilius: Though a Roman citizen by birth, Attilius chose to enter gladiator school in an attempt to absolve the heavy debts he had incurred during his life. In his first battle he defeated Hilarus, a gladiator owned by Nero, who had won thirteen times in a row. Attilius then went on to defeat Raecius Felix, who had won twelve battles in a row. His feats were narrated in mosaics and graffiti discovered in 2007.

“Carpophorus: While other gladiators on this list are known for their hand-to-hand combat against other humans, Carpophores was a famed Bestiarius. These gladiators fought exclusively against wild animals, and as such had very short-lived careers. Fighting at the initiation of the Flavian Amphitheatre, Carpophores famously defeated a bear, lion, and leopard in a single battle. In another battle that day, he slaughtered a rhinoceros with a spear. In total, it is said that he killed twenty wild animals that day alone, leading fans and fellow gladiators to compare Carpophorus to Hercules himself.

“Crixus, a Gallic gladiator, was the right-hand man of the number one entry on this list. He enjoyed notable success in the ring, but resented his Lanista—the leader of the gladiator school and his “owner.” So after escaping from his gladiator school, he fought in a slave rebellion, helping to defeat large armies amassed by the Roman Senate with relative ease. After a dispute with the rebellion leader, however, Crixus and his men split off from the main group, seeking to destroy Southern Italy. This maneuver diverted enemy military forces from the main group, giving them valuable time to escape. Unfortunately, the Roman legions struck Crixus down before he could exact his revenge on the people who had oppressed him for so long.

“Flamma, a Syrian slave, died at the age of thirty—having fought thirty-four times and having won twenty-one of those bouts. Nine battles ended in a draw, and he was defeated just four times. Most notably, Flamma was awarded the rudis a total of four times. When the rudis was given to a gladiator, he was usually freed from his shackles, and allowed to live normally among the Roman citizens. But Flamma refused the rudis, opting instead to continue fighting.

Commodus: the Emperor in the film Gladiator

killing ostriches on the Zilten mosaic

Commodus was the emperor depicted in the film Gladiator. He occasionally appeared in the arena during gladiator battles. He never put his life in danger and battled gladiators; instead he liked to decapitate ostriches with crescent-headed arrows. The crowds liked the show. They cheered and roared with laughter as the ostrich continued to run around after their heads were cut off. Once Commodus chopped off the head of an ostrich, and brandished its bloodied head and told senators the same fate awaited them if they went against him. Commodus enjoyed slaughtering other animals. He reportedly killed more than 100 bears in a single day.

Andrew Fitzgerald wrote for Listverse: “Commodus enjoyed battling gladiators as often as possible. A narcissistic egomaniac, Commodus saw himself as the greatest and most important man in the world. He believed himself to be Hercules—even going so far as to don a leopard skin like that famously worn by the mythological hero. But in the arena, Commodus usually fought against gladiators who were armed with wooden swords, and slaughtered wild animals that were tethered or injured. [Source: Andrew Fitzgerald, Listverse April 2, 2013 ]

“As you could guess, most Romans therefore did not support Commodus. His antics in the arena were seen as disrespectful, and his predictable victories made for a poor show. In some instances, he captured disabled Roman citizens, and slaughtered them in the arena. As a testament to his narcissism, Commodus charged one million sesterces for every appearance—although he was never exactly “invited” to appear in the arena. Commodus was assassinated in AD 192, and it is believed that his actions as a “gladiator” encouraged his inner-circle to carry out the assassination.

In the movie Gladiator Marcus Aurelius was played by Richard Harris and Commodus was played by Joaquin Phoenix. Contrary to impression given by the movie, Aurelius did no try to restore the republic, he had no general name Maximus (the Russell Crow character) and he was not killed by his son Commodus although the historian Cassius Dion said he was killed by doctors who wanted to “do a favor” for Commodus (most historians believe he died of an illness).

Film: "Gladiator", directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe.


Spartacus (died 71 B.C.), a slave from Thrace trained to be a gladiator, is arguably the most famous gladiator of all time. From what little we know about him he fought gladiator battles mostly in the Pompeii and Naples area before launching the rebellion.. He left behind no testimony of his own. Most of the sources that wrote about him and his rebellions where upper class members who regarded slaves as subhuman and viewed a slave rebellion as a horror of horrors. Tom Holland, an author of books on Rome, wrote in the Washington Post, “Despite the terror he inspired, there was a quality to Spartacus that even the Romans seemed sneakily to have admired. Whether he was overpowering his guards or putting consuls to flight to killing his horse to deprive himself of any means of flight when he finally faced defeat he lived “fortissime” — as a man of exceptional courage."

the 1956 Stanley Kubrick film

Andrew Fitzgerald wrote for Listverse: “Spartacus was a Thracian soldier who had been captured and sold into slavery. Lentulus Batiatus of Capua must have recognized his potential, for he purchased him with the intention of turning him into a gladiator. In 73 B.C., Spartacus persuaded seventy of his fellow gladiators—Crixus included—to rebel against Batiatus. This revolt left their former owner murdered in the process, and the gladiators escaped to the slopes of nearby Mount Vesuvius. While in transit, the group set free many other slaves—thereby amassing a large and powerful following. The gladiators spent the winter of 72 BC training the newly freed slaves in preparation for what is now known as the Third Serville War, as their ranks swelled to as many as 70,000 individuals. Whole legions were sent to kill Spartacus, but these were easily defeated by the fighting spirit and experience of the gladiators. In 71 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus amassed 50,000 well-trained Roman soldiers to pursue and defeat Spartacus. Crassus trapped Spartacus in Southern Italy, routing his forces, and killing Spartacus in the process. Six thousand of his followers were captured and crucified, their bodies made to line the road from Capua to Rome.” [Source: Andrew Fitzgerald, Listverse April 2, 2013]

Appian wrote: “Spartacus, a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been a prisoner and sold for a gladiator, and was in the gladiatorial training-school at Capua,” Plutarch said: One Lentulus Batiates trained up a great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for the object of fighting one with another.”

Florus (A.D. c. 74 - c. 130) wrote in “Epitome of Roman History”: “Nor did he, who of a mercenary Thracian had become a Roman soldier, of a soldier a deserter and robber, and afterwards, from consideration of his strength, a gladiator, refuse to receive them. He afterwards, indeed, celebrated the funerals of his own officers, who died in battle, with the obsequies of Roman generals, and obliged the prisoners to fight with arms at their funeral piles, just as if he could atone for all past dishonour by becoming, from a gladiator, an exhibitor of shows of gladiators. [Source: Florus (A.D. c. 74 - c. 130 ), “Epitome of Roman History,” 8.20]

Spartacus became a symbol to what slaves and slaveowners feared most. Historians and observers have wondered what his motivations were: whether he was fighting for principal or freedom or was simply trying to grab his share of the loot. Barry Strauss, author of a book on the Spartacus wars, wrote that perhaps he died for “honor, power, vengeance, loot and even the favor of the gods."

Mortality Rate Amongst Gladiators

Many gladiators who died in the arene presumably bled to death after their arteries were slashed by swords, as crowds cheered on their attackers.. So much blood was shed in gladiatorial combat that the arena floors were covered with sand to absorb it all. The English word “arena” comes from the Latin word for sand: “harena.” Yet, Austrian archaeologist Wolfgang Neubauer, told National Geographic, "They weren't killed very often, they were too valuable. Lots of other people were likely killed at the amphitheater, people not trained to fight. And there was lots of bloodshed. But the combat between gladiators was the point of them performing, not them killing each other." [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, February 25, 2014]

Natasha Sheldon wrote in “Graffiti is commonly found on tombs flanking the major routes into the city, detailing the outcome of gladiatorial combat. The equivalent of modern day sports reports, these accounts named the participants, how many bouts they had fought and how many of these fights they had won.Victors were indicated by the letter ‘v’. Losers could be marked as either ‘m’ for 'missus' indicating that they had lost but been reprieved or ‘p’ for ‘perrit’ indicating they had been killed. Far more gladiator’s names were marked with an m indicating that losers often survived. [Source: Natasha Sheldon,]

Nigel Spivey wrote The Guardian, “Complex calculations about gladiatorial death-rates similarly indicate a strong tendency to exaggerate, and not only by ancient writers. Christian martyrologists piously inflated the number of casualties among the faithful. (In an unsually candid reflection, one persecuted Christian witness, Origen, wondered if the total tally of Christian martyrs at Rome actually reached double figures.) There is, in fact, no firm evidence to prove that any Christian was ever torn apart by lions inside the Colosseum. [Source: Nigel Spivey, The Guardian, March 12, 2005 ^^]

Gladiator Graveyards?

Heather Ramsey of Listverse wrote: “In southwest France about 250 meters (820 ft) from the Saintes amphitheater used for gladiator battles, a large Roman-Gallo necropolis has been discovered with the remains of hundreds of people, including five shackled skeletons. Three adults had iron chains around their ankles, one adult had a neck shackle, and a child had a shackle on the wrist. Archaeologists believe these shackled skeletons may be the remains of slaves killed in the arena. [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015 ]

As a regional capital, Saintes was a bustling town with an amphitheater capable of holding 18,000 people during the first and second centuries, when these individuals are believed to have died. Some graves contained two people, often buried head-to-toe in trench-like pits. However, the necropolis yielded few artifacts. One man had some vases lying beside him, and one child had coins on his or her eyes. The coins were supposedly to pay a ferryman to transport the child’s spirit safely across a river that led from the land of the living to the afterlife.

stele of a gladiator who killed 13 foes and died at age 22

“Archaeologists hope to figure out how these people died, if they belonged to the same community, and what their social standing was. In 2005, shackled skeletons were also found in a graveyard excavation from Roman days in York, England. Some of those human remains had bite marks, indicating they may have died in the arena from attacks by wild animals.

On a site in London, Ramsey wrote: “Executed criminals, Roman gladiators, or war trophies? “That question has yet to be answered about the 39 male human skulls discovered in the late 1980s in a burial pit near a Roman amphitheater and Walbrook stream in London. These men, most of whom were 25–35 years old, led hard lives judging by the evidence of decapitation, fractures, sharp-edged weapon injuries, and blunt-force trauma on their skulls. Their deaths have been dated to 120–160 when Londinium (now London) was a thriving capital in Roman Britain.” [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015 ]

The skulls, housed at the Museum of London, have been analyzed by bioarchaeologist Rebecca Redfern and earth scientist Heather Bonney. “They published their findings in early 2014 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Although the skulls don’t look as though they were mounted on posts, the researchers believe they may have been exhibited in the Londinium amphitheater after the men died. They could have been thrown into the burial pit later. But Kathleen Coleman, a Roman gladiator expert from Harvard, disagrees. Without gravestones proving these men were gladiators, she believes they may have been killed in riots, common assaults, or gang warfare.

“Redfern doesn’t buy that argument. “There is no evidence for social unrest, warfare, or other acts of organized violence in London during the period that these human remains date from,” she said. “[Instead, there are] two possible outcomes—that these are fatally injured gladiators, or the victims of Roman head-hunting—a tantalizing prospect.” Were these head-hunting trophy skulls, such as those displayed by the military at Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain? The archaeologists want to do isotope analyses to determine where these men resided originally. The answer to whether they were locals or distant strangers may help scientists to narrow the possibilities of how and why they died.

Decapitated Gladiators Show Genetic Impact of the Romans on Britain

DNA from seven decapitated skeletons thought to be gladiators is helping researchers unravel the genetic impact of the Roman Empire, with initial findings suggesting genetic impact of the Romans on Britain is considerably less than previously thought. Taylor Kubota wrote in Live Science: “The headless skeletons were excavated between 2004 and 2005 from a Roman burial site in Driffield Terrace in York, England, the archaeologists said. Around the time the bodies were buried, between the second and fourth centuries A.D., the area that's now York was the Roman Empire's capital of northern Britain, called Eboracum. The cemetery where the bodies were discovered was located in a prominent area, near a main road that led out of the city, according to the researchers. [Source: Taylor Kubota, Live Science, January 28, 2016]

“Most of the skeletons found at this site were of males younger than 45 who were taller than average and showed evidence of trauma, such as cuts to their arms and fingers, the archaeologists said. Famously, the majority of them had been decapitated. These standout traits led some experts to suggest that this was a burial site for gladiators. However, it is also possible that these men were in the military, which, in Roman times, had a minimum height requirement, the researchers said. [See Photos of the Decapitated Gladiator Skeletons]

“"It was a very curious assemblage of individuals with their heads cut off, who may or may not be gladiators," said Matthew Collins, a professor of archaeology at the University of York and one of the paper's authors. The distinctiveness of these remains were featured in two documentaries in the years following the excavation, "Timewatch: The mystery of the headless Romans" in 2006 and "Gladiators: Back From the Dead" in 2010.

“In the new study, Collins and his colleagues collected high-quality DNA samples from the dense petrous bone of the inner ears from the skeletons. In total, nine genomes were compared: seven from the York Romans (all male) and two from skeletons found in other cemeteries, including one from a more ancient Iron Age female and one from a more recent Anglo-Saxon male. The genomes from the decapitated Romans were found to be similar to the Iron Age genome but significantly different from the Anglo-Saxon genome. This suggests that the Roman Empire's genetic influence on Britain was not nearly as strong as its cultural influence, the researchers said. "We are used to the idea of the Romans coming in and changing things," Collins said. "Yes, they changed things, but the people fundamentally didn't change."

“The results also indicate that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons during the Dark Ages had a greater effect on the genetic makeup of Britain than did the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, this period of history is still shrouded in mystery, the researchers said. “The new study also revealed that the York Romans were genetically similar to modern-day British Celtic populations, especially the Welsh. This makes sense, the researchers said, given the movement of people from central Britain to the margins of the country following Anglo-Saxon invasions. [Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]

“In addition to their more violent injuries, the Roman skeletons appeared to have experienced infections and childhood stress, the archaeologists said. Their genomes, in combination with evidence from studying different forms of elements (isotopes) and how they changed over time, showed that six of the seven were British, but one was from the Middle East, possibly Lebanon or Syria. This unexpected finding is an example of how dynamic the Roman Empire was — and brings to mind the present-day diaspora occurring in the Middle East, Collins said. It's likely that most of these men had brown eyes and black or brown hair, but one may have been blue-eyed and blond — the same as the Anglo-Saxon man, the researchers said.

“These remains have been studied extensively, but the sequencing of their DNA is a major achievement, the researchers said. In their paper, they called this "the first snapshot of British genomes in the early centuries A.D." Collins said that the researchers couldn't have attempted such a feat when the skeletons were first discovered because the approximate cost would have been about $70 million. (With technological advances, the cost of such analyses has gone down, according to the Human Genome Project.)

“Collins noted that the work exemplifies a new stage in archaeology. "The excitement is, we are now technologically able to do this kind of work, which is mind-boggling when you consider the great achievement of sequencing the first human genome was less than 15 years ago, and now we can sequence the genomes of Romans from York and Anglo-Saxons in Cambridge," Collins said. "It's just absolutely extraordinary." “The research was detailed online in the January 19, 2016issue of the journal Nature Communications.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston. except bones from Live Science

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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