Gladiator contests were the most popular sporting events in ancient Rome. They were not for the faint hearted and from the best we can figure out they were as bloody and violent as they have been made out to be. Based on analysis of the number of gladiators who fought in single events, it has been estimated that each gladiator contest lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Experimental matches staged by scholars seemed to confirm this: long matches were simply too exhausting. Dutch historian Fik Meijer has estimated that most gladiators fought two or three times a year and died between the age of 20 and 30 with 5 to 34 fights to their names.

The classic gladiator battle pitted a myrmillo armed with a sword, a helmet and a round shield against a retiarius armed only with a net and dagger, or a samnite equipped with a visor and a leather sheath protecting his right arm. Many gladiators were slaves who volunteered to fight in hopes that they that they would be freed as a reward for victory, or poor Romans who fought for monetary reward.

"Death is the fighters' only exit," wrote the philosopher Seneca." When a victim fell dead or was fatally wounded he was approached by an official disguised as Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld." According to popular myth the gladiators at major events in Rome entered the stadium and faced the emperor and shouted: “We who are about to die salute you." If the loser fell exhausted or slightly wounded an appeal about his fate was made to the emperor, who usually bowed to the wishes of the crowd. If the emperor gave a thumbs up the man survived. If the decision was a thumbs down, Charon finished the gladiator off with a blow to the head with a wooden mallet. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

This it turns out was not completely right. According to Meijer the “about to die” salute was uttered by the 9,000 prisoners who engaged in a mock sea battle organized by the Emperor Claudius, described by Suetonius, but was not necessarily said at other events. The statement didn't make sense for gladiators who hoped to defeat their opponents and live to fight another day. The exact nature of the up-or-down thumbs gestures or even what they looked like is unclear.

Jamie Frater wrote for Listverse: “Contrary to popular belief, the emperor did not give a thumbs up or down for a gladiator as a signal to kill his enemy. The emperor (and only the emperor) would give an open or closed hand – if his palm was flat, it meant “spare his life”, if it was closed, it meant “kill him”. If a gladiator killed his opponent before the emperor gave his permission, the gladiator would be put on trial for murder, as only the emperor had the right to condemn a man to death. [Source: Jamie Frater, Listverse, May 5, 2008]

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

Film: Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe; Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrik with Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.

Book: “The Gladiators, History's Most Dangerous Sport” by Fik Meijer (Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martins Press, 2005). Meijer is a professor of ancient history at the University of Amsterdam. The book is interesting and is good at anticipating that questions readers have and providing satisfactory answers on topics like the events and weapons in the contests and how the gladiators were paid and fed.

History of Gladiator Contests

Some say the first record of a gladiator contest was in 264 B.C.. Others say gladiator battles date back to 247 B.C., when two brothers decided to celebrate their father’s legacy by hosting a fight between their slaves. Many scholars believe that More likely they evolved out of Etruscan funerary rites. At first they were solemn affairs held at funerals as a blood offering for deceased heros inspired perhaps by the Etruscans who it is said sometimes sacrificed slaves and prisoners during the burials of kings. The first Roman gladiator contests were hand-to-hand combats performed at funerals for prominent Romans to, according to Meijer. celebrate “the virtues that had made Rome great, virtues demonstrated by the deceased during his lifetime: strength, courage and termination." Over time these relatively solemn rituals evolved into gruesome competitions oriented towards satisfying the bloodthirsty appetite of mobs and boosting the prestige of emperors. One fan wrote a friend: “Let us go back to Rome. It might be rather nice, too, to see somebody killed." [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Gladiatorial combats seem to have been known in Italy from very early times. We hear of them first in Campania and Etruria. In Campania the wealthy and dissolute nobles, we are told, made slaves fight to the death at their banquets and revels for the entertainment of their guests. In Etruria the combats go back in all probability to the offering of human sacrifices at the burial of distinguished men, in accordance with ancient belief that blood is acceptable to the dead. The victims were captives taken in war, and it became the custom gradually to give them a chance for their lives by supplying them with weapons and allowing them to fight one another at the grave, the victor being spared, at least for the time. The Romans were slow to adopt the custom; the first exhibition was given in the year 264 B.C., almost five centuries after the assumed date of the founding of the city. That they derived it from Etruria rather than from Campania is shown by the fact that the exhibitions were at funeral games, the earliest at those of Brutus Pera in 264 B.C., Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 216 B.C., Marcus Valerius Laevinus in 200 B.C., and Publius Licinius in 183 B.C. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“For the first one hundred years after their introduction the exhibitions were infrequent, as the dates just given show; those mentioned are all of which we have any knowledge during the period. But after that time they were given more and more frequently, with increasing elaboration. During the Republic, however, they remained in theory at least private games (munera), not public games (ludi), that is, they were not celebrated on fixed days recurring annually, and the givers of the exhibitions had to find a pretext for them in the deaths of relatives or friends, and to defray the expenses from their own pockets. In fact we know of but one instance in which actual magistrates (the consuls P. Rutilius Rufus and C. Manlius, 105 B.C.) gave such exhibitions, and we know too little of the attendant circumstances to warrant us in assuming that they acted in their official capacity. Even under the Empire the gladiators did not fight on the days of the regular public games. Augustus, however, provided the funds for “extraordinary shows” under the direction of the praetors. Under Domitian the aediles-elect were put in charge of the exhibitions which were given regularly in December, the only instance known of fixed dates for the munera gladiatoria. All others of which we read are to be considered the freewill offerings to the people of emperors, magistrates, or private citizens. |+|

Secutor vs Retiarius, Foul
Gladiator contests were staged at the Colosseum and hundreds of smaller amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire and had their heyday in the A.D. 1st and 2nd centuries. Some events were so brutal that fountains — scented with lavender to hide the stench of the blood — were set up. The wooden floor of the Colosseum was covered with sand so the combatants wouldn't slip on the blood. People enjoyed the sport so much they filled their homes with floor mosaics and wall frescoes of bloody gladiator scenes. Emperor Augustus boasted that in the eight gladiatorial contests that were staged during his rule 10,000 men fought to their death.

There are few eyewitness accounts of gladiator contests or detailed information about gladiator training and lifestyle. Historians have pieced together what the know about them today from pieces of verse, some historical accounts, mosaics, sculptures, funeral inscriptions and snatches of graffiti written on the walls of buildings and added little bit of conjecture to how battles might have unfolded between combatants with different weapons.

Places Gladiator Battles Took Place

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “During the Republic the combats of gladiators took place sometimes at a grave or in the circus, but regularly in the Forum. None of these places was well adapted to the purpose, the grave least of all. The circus had seats enough, but the spina was in the way and the arena too vast to give all the spectators a satisfactory view of a struggle that was confined practically to a single spot. In the Forum, on the other hand, the seats could be arranged very conveniently; they would run parallel with the sides, could be curved around the comers, and would leave free only sufficient space to afford room for the combatants. The inconvenience here was due to the fact that the seats had to be erected before each performance and removed after it, a delay to business if they were constructed carefully and a menace to life if they were put up hastily. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

These considerations finally led the Romans, as they had led the Campanians half a century before, to provide permanent seats for the munera, arranged as they had been in the Forum, but in a place where they would not interfere with public or private business. To these places for shows of gladiators came in the course of time to be exclusively applied amphitheatrum, a word which had been previously given in its general sense to any place, the circus for example, in which the seats ran all the way around, as opposed to the theater, in which the rows of seats were broken by the stage.

“Just when the first amphitheaters, in the special sense of the word, were erected at Rome cannot be determined with certainty. We are told that Caesar erected a wooden amphitheater in 46 B.C., but we have no detailed description of it, and no reason to think that it was anything more than a temporary structure. In the year 29 B.C., however, an amphitheater was built by Statilius Taurus, partly at least of stone, that lasted until the great conflagration in the reign of Nero (64 A.D.). Nero himself erected one of wood in the Campus. Finally, by 80 A.D., was complete the structure known at first as the amphitheatrum Flavium, later as the Colosseum or Coliseum, which was large enough and durable enough to make forever unnecessary the erection of similar structures in the city. Remains of amphitheaters have been found in many cities throughout the Roman world. Those at Nîmes (Nemausus), and at Arles (Arelas), France, for instance, have been cleared and partly restored in modern times and are still in use, though bullfights have taken the place of the gladiatorial combats. The amphitheater at Verona, too, in northern Italy, has been partly restored. “Buffalo Bill” gave exhibitions there. “|+|

Amphitheatre of El Djem, where gladiator contests were held and parts of the film "Gladiator" was shot

Amphitheater at Pompeii

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The essential features of an amphitheater may be most easily understood from the ruins of the one at Pompeii, erected about 75 B.C., almost half a century before the first permanent structure of the sort at Rome, and the earliest known to us from either literary or monumental sources. Most of the seats lie in a great hollow excavated for the purpose, so that there was needed for the exterior a wall of hardly more than ten to thirteen feet in height. Even this wall was necessary on only two sides, as the amphitheater was built in the southeast corner of the city and its south and east sides were bounded by the city walls. The shape is elliptical; the major axis is 444 feet long, the minor 342. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The arena occupies the middle space. It was encircled by thirty-five rows of seats arranged in three divisions; the lowest (infima or ima cavea) had five rows, the second (media cavea) twelve, and the highest (summa cavea) eighteen. A broad terrace ran around the amphitheater at the height of the topmost row of seats. Access to this terrace was given from without by the double stairway on the west, and by single stairways next the city walls on the east and south. Between the terrace and the top seats was a gallery, or row of boxes, each about four feet square, probably for women. Beneath the boxes persons could pass from the terrace to the seats. The amphitheater had seating capacity for perhaps 20,000 spectators. |+|

“The arena was an ellipse with axes of 228 and 121 feet. Around it ran a wall a little more than six feet high, on a level with the top of which were the lowest seats. For the protection of the spectators when wild animals were shown, a grating of iron bars was put up on the top of the arena wall. Access to the arena and to the seats of the cavea ima and the cavea media was given by the two underground passageways, of which 2 turns at right angles on account of the city wall on the south. From the arena ran also a third passage (5), low and narrow, leading to the porta Libitinensis, through which the bodies of the dead were dragged with ropes and hooks. Near the mouths of these passages were small chambers or dens, marked 4, 4, 6, the purposes of which are not known. The floor of the arena was covered with sand, as in the circus, but in this case to soak up the blood as well as to give a firm footing to the gladiators. |+|

“Of the part of this amphitheater set aside for the spectators, only the cavea ima was supported upon artificial foundations. All the other seats were constructed in sections as means were obtained for the purpose; the people in the interim found places for themselves on the sloping banks as in the early theaters. The cavea ima was, in fact, not supplied with seats all the way around; a considerable section on the east and west sides was arranged with four low, broad ledges of stone, rising one above the other, on which the members of the city council could place the seats of honor (bisellia) to which their rank entitled them. In the middle of the section on the east the lowest ledge is made of double width for some ten feet; this was the place set apart for the giver of the games and his friends. In the cavea media and the cavea summa the seats were of stone resting on the bank of earth. It is probable that all the places in the lowest section were reserved for people of distinction, that seats in the middle section were sold to the well-to-do, and that admission was free to the less desirable seats of the highest section. |+|

Pomp, Set Up and Rules of the Gladiator Fight

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ The day before the exhibition a banquet (cena libera) was given to the gladiators, and they received visits from their friends and admirers. The games took place in the afternoon. After the editor muneris had taken his place , the gladiators marched in procession around the arena, pausing before him to give the famous greeting: Morituri te salutant. All then retired from the arena to return in pairs, according to the published program. The show began with a series of sham combats, the prolusio, with blunt weapons. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “Gladiatorial displays were red-letter days in communities throughout the empire. The whole spectrum of local society was represented, seated strictly according to status. The combatants paraded beforehand, fully armed. Exotic animals might be displayed and hunted in the early part of the programme, and prisoners might be executed, by exposure to the beasts. As the combat between each pair of gladiators reached its climax, the band played to a frenzied crescendo. [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The combatants (as we know from mosaics, and from surviving skeletons) aimed at the major arteries under the arm and behind the knee, and tried to batter their opponent's skull. The thirst for thrills even resulted in a particular rarity, female gladiators. Above all, gladiatorial combat was a display of nerve and skill. The gladiator, worthless in terms of civic status, was paradoxically capable of heroism. Under the Roman empire, his job was one of the threads that bound together the entire social and economic fabric of the Roman world. |::|

“When the people had had enough of this, the trumpets gave the signal for the real exhibition to begin. Those reluctant to fight were driven into the arena with whips or hot iron bars. If one of the combatants was clearly overpowered without being actually killed, he might appeal for mercy by holding up his finger to the editor. It was customary to refer the plea to the people, who signaled in some fashion not known to us to show that they wished it to be granted, or gesticulated pollice verso, apparently with the arm out and thumb down, as a signal for death. The gladiator to whom release (missio) was refused received without resistance the death blow from his opponent. Combats where all must fight to the death were said to be sine missione, but these were forbidden by Augustus. The body of the dead man was dragged away through the porta Libitinensis, sand was sprinkled or raked over the blood, and the contests were continued until all had fought. |+|

Sometimes defeated gladiators who were still alive but suffering were put to death like wounded animals. In the Pompeii amphitheater the was a special room where losers were put to death and relieved of their armor. Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: ““It was the prerogative of the sponsor, acting upon the wishes of the spectators, to decide whether to reprieve the defeated gladiator or consign him to the victor to be polished off. Mosaics from around the Roman empire depict the critical moment when the victor is standing over his floored opponent, poised to inflict the fatal blow, his hand stayed (at least temporarily) by the umpire.The figure of the umpire is frequently depicted in the background of an engagement, sometimes accompanied by an assistant. The minutiae of the rules governing gladiatorial combat are lost to modern historians, but the presence of these arbiters suggests that the regulations were complex, and their enforcement potentially contentious.” [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Gladiator Code of Conduct

Reuters reported: “Gladiators may have fought and died to entertain others in the brutality of the Roman arena but they appear to have abided by a strict code of conduct which avoided savage violence, forensic scientists say. Tests on the remains of 67 gladiators found in tombs at Ephesus in Turkey, center of power for ancient Rome's eastern empire, show they stuck to well defined rules of combat and avoided gory free-for-alls. Injuries to the front of each skull suggested that each opponent used just one type of weapon per bout of face-to-face contact, two Austrian researchers report in a paper to be published in Forensic Science International. [Source: Reuters March, 2006]

“Savage violence and mutilation, typical of battlefields 2,000 years ago, were out of order. And the losers appear to have died quickly. Despite the fact that most gladiators wore helmets, 10 of the remains showed the fighters had died of squarish hammer-like blows to the side of the head, possibly the work of a backstage executioner who finished off wounded losers after the fight.

“The report confirms the picture given of battles in the arena by Roman artwork, which suggests gladiators were well matched and followed rules enforced by two referees. Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University, who was historical consultant for Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator," agreed with the findings of the report. "The fact that none of the gladiators' skulls was subjected to a repeated battering does seem to confirm that discipline was exercised in gladiatorial combat and its aftermath," she was quoted by New Scientist magazine as saying.

“The scientists, Karl Grosschmidt of the Medical University of Vienna and Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, used special X-ray scans and microscopic analysis to investigate the gladiators' deaths.The bones were uncovered in 1993 and are thought to date from the second century AD. Grosschmidt and Kanz told New Scientist: "Injuries to the front of each skull suggested that each opponent used just one type of weapon per bout of face-to-face contact," they report in magazine. The lack of multiple injuries and mutilation shows that the very strict nature of combat rules for gladiator fights was adhered to."

Proper and Legitimate Gladiator Show at the Colosseum

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The official spectacle, known as the munus iustum atque legitimum (“a proper and legitimate gladiator show”) at the Colossuem, began, like many public events in Classical Rome, with a splendid morning procession, the pompa. It was led by the editor's standard-bearers and typically featured trumpeters, performers, fighters, priests, nobles and carriages bearing effigies of the gods. (Disappointingly, gladiators appear not to have addressed the emperor with the legendary phrase, “We who are about to die salute you," which is mentioned in conjunction with only one spectacle — a naval battle held on a lake east of Rome in A.D. 52 — and was probably a bit of inspired improvisation rather than a standard address.) [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

“The first major phase of the games was the venatio, or wild beast hunt, which occupied most of the morning: creatures from across the empire appeared in the arena, sometimes as part of a bloodless parade, more often to be slaughtered. They might be pitted against each other in savage fights or dispatched by venatores (highly trained hunters) wearing light body armor and carrying long spears. Literary and epigraphic accounts of these spectacles dwell on the exotic menagerie involved, including African herbivores such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and giraffes, bears and elk from the northern forests, as well as strange creatures like onagers, ostriches and cranes. Most popular of all were the leopards, lions and tigers — the dentatae (toothed ones) or bestiae africanae (African beasts) — whose leaping abilities necessitated that spectators be shielded by barriers, some apparently fitted with ivory rollers to prevent agitated cats from climbing. The number of animals displayed and butchered in an upscale venatio is astonishing: during the series of games held to inaugurate the Colosseum, in A.D. 80, the emperor Titus offered up 9,000 animals. Less than 30 years later, during the games in which the emperor Trajan celebrated his conquest of the Dacians (the ancestors of the Romanians), some 11,000 animals were slaughtered.

“The hypogeum played a vital role in these staged hunts, allowing animals and hunters to enter the arena in countless ways. Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air. “The hypogeum allowed the organizers of the games to create surprises and build suspense," Beste says. “A hunter in the arena wouldn't know where the next lion would appear, or whether two or three lions might emerge instead of just one." This uncertainty could be exploited for comic effect. Emperor Gallienus punished a merchant who had swindled the empress, selling her glass jewels instead of authentic ones, by setting him in the arena to face a ferocious lion. When the cage opened, however, a chicken walked out, to the delight of the crowd. Gallienus then told the herald to proclaim: “He practiced deceit and then had it practiced on him." The emperor let the jeweler go home.”

Announcements of the Shows

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The games were advertised in advance by means of notices painted on the walls of public and private houses, and even on the tombstones that lined the approaches to the towns and cities. Some are worded in very general terms, announcing merely the name of the giver of the games with the date: [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]


“Others promise, in addition to the awnings, that the dust will be kept down in the arena by sprinkling. Sometimes when the troop was particularly good the names of the gladiators were announced in pairs as they would be matched together, with details as to their equipment, the school in which each had been trained, the number of his previous battles, etc. To such a notice on one of the walls in Pompeii someone added after the show the result of each combat, The following gives part only of this announcement:


“The letters in italics before the names of the gladiators were added after the exhibition by some interested spectator, and stand for vicit, periit, and missus (“beaten, but spared”). To such particulars as those given above, other announcements added the statement that pairs other than those men would fight each day; these were meant to excite the curiosity and interest of the people. |+|

Roman Gladiator Arena Concession Stands

In March 2017, archaeologists in Austria announced they found the remains of the bakeries, fast-food stands and shops that could have been the equivalent of concessions stands for a 13,000-seat amphitheater in the ancient Roman city of Carnuntum, on the southern bank of the Danube, which at its height was the fourth-largest city in the Roman Empire, and home to maybe 50,000 people, including, for a time, A.D. second century A.D. philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. [Source: Megan Gannon April 4, 2017 |~|]

Pompeii market stalls

In 2011, a team led by Wolfgang Neubauer, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro), identified a gladiator school at Carnuntum. In a later survey, using noninvasive methods, such as aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar systems and magnetometers, they found Carnuntum’s “entertainment district,” separate from the rest of the city and just outside the amphitheater. |~|

Megan Gannon wrote in “They identified a wide, shop-lined boulevard leading to the amphitheater. By comparing the structures to buildings found at other well-preserved Roman cities, such as Pompeii, Neubauer and his colleagues identified several types of ancient businesses along the street. “Oil lamps with depictions of gladiators were sold all around this area,” Neubauer said, so some of the shops likely sold souvenirs. The researchers found a series of taverns and “thermopolia” where people could buy food at a counter. “It was like a fast-food stand,”Neubauer told Live Science. “You can imagine a bar, where the cauldrons with the food were kept warm.” |~|

“They also discovered a granary with a massive oven, which was likely used for baking bread. Material that has been exposed to high temperatures has a distinct geophysical signature, so when Neubauer’s team found a big, rectangular structure with that signature, they thought, “This must be an oven for baking.” “It gives us now a very clear story of a day at the amphitheater,” Neubauer said. The survey also revealed that there was once another, older wooden amphitheater, just 1,300 feet from the main amphitheater, buried under the later city wall of the civilian city.” |~|

Popularity of Gladiator Contests

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “Gladiatorial displays were red-letter days in communities throughout the empire. The whole spectrum of local society was represented, seated strictly according to status. The combatants paraded beforehand, fully armed. Exotic animals might be displayed and hunted in the early part of the programme, and prisoners might be executed, by exposure to the beasts. [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Romans’ love of excitement ultimately made the exhibitions immensely popular. At the first exhibition in honor of Brutus Pera, only three pairs of gladiators were shown, but in the three that followed, the number of pairs rose in order to twenty-two, twenty-five, and sixty. By the time of Sulla, politicians had found in the munera the most effective means to win the favor of the people, and vied with one another in the frequency of the shows and the number of the combatants. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]


“Besides this, the politicians made these shows serve as a pretext for surrounding themselves with bands of professional fighters; these fighters were called gladiators whether they were destined for the arena or not. With these they started riots in the streets, broke up public meetings, over-awed the courts, and even directed or prevented the elections. Caesar’s preparations for an exhibition when he was canvasing for the aedileship (65 B.C.) caused such general fear that the senate passed a law limiting the number of gladiators which a private citizen might employ, and he was allowed to exhibit only 320 pairs. The bands of Clodius and Milo made the city a slaughterhouse in 54 B.C., and order was not restored until late in the following year when Pompey as “sole consul” put an end to the battle of the bludgeons with the swords of his soldiers. |+|

“During the Empire the number of gladiators exhibited almost surpasses belief. Augustus gave eight munera, in which no less than ten thousand men fought, but these were distributed through the whole period of his reign. Trajan exhibited as many in four months only of the year 107 A.D., in celebration of his conquest of the Dacians. The first Gordian, emperor in 238 A.D., gave munera monthly in the year of his aedileship, the number of pairs running from 150 to 500. These exhibitions did not cease until the fifth century of our era.” |+|

Inscriptions from Pompeii About Gladiators

William Stearns Davis wrote: “There are almost no literary remains from Antiquity possessing greater human interest than these inscriptions scratched on the walls of Pompeii (destroyed 79 A.D.). Their character is extremely varied, and they illustrate in a keen and vital way the life of a busy, luxurious, and, withal, tolerably typical, city of some 25,000 inhabitants in the days of the Flavian.” [Source:William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 260-265]

gladiator graffiti from Pompeii

Many of the graffiti inscriptions in Pompeii are related to gladiators, such as one from A.D. 1st century that indicates the outcome of a match between gladiators Severus and Albanus Many of them announce upcoming events. “Twenty pairs of gladiators provided by Quintus Monnius Rufus are to fight at Nola May First, Second, and Third, and there will be a hunt.”

“Thirty pairs of gladiators provided by Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius quinquennial duumvir, together with their substitutes, will fight at Pompeii on November 24, 25, 26. There will be a hunt. Hurrah for Maius the Quinquennial! Bravo, Paris!”

“The gladiatorial troop of the Aedile Aulius Suettius Certus will fight at Pompeii May 31. There will be a hunt, and awnings will be provided.”

“Twenty pairs of gladiators furnished by Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens perpetual priest of Nero, son of the Emperor, and ten pairs of gladiators furnished by Decimus Lucretius Valens his son, will fight at Pompeii April 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. There will be a big hunt and awnings. Aemilius Celer wrote this by the light of the moon.”

Gladiator Graffiti From Aphrodisias

Hundreds of graffiti messages engraved into stone in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in modern-day Turkey, have been discovered and deciphered, more than in most other cities of the Roman East (an area which includes Greece and part of the Middle East)." Many of the inscriptions rale to gladiators.

Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science: “The graffiti also includes many depictions of gladiators. Although the city was part of the Roman Empire, the people of Aphrodisias mainly spoke Greek. The graffiti is evidence that people living in Greek-speaking cities embraced gladiator fighting, Chaniotis said. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, June 15, 2015]

Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, said a lecture at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum: “"Pictorial graffiti connected with gladiatorial combat are very numerous," he said. "And this abundance of images leaves little doubt about the great popularity of the most brutal contribution of the Romans to the culture of the Greek east."

““Some of the most interesting gladiator graffiti was found on a plaque in the city's stadium where gladiator fights took place. The plaque depicts battles between two combatants: a retiarius (a type of gladiator armed with a trident and net) and a secutor (a type of gladiator equipped with a sword and shield). One scene on the plaque shows the retiarius emerging victorious, holding a trident over his head, the weapon pointed toward the wounded secutor. On the same plaque, another scene shows the secutor chasing a fleeing retiarius. Still another image shows the two types of gladiators locked in combat, a referee overseeing the fight.

“"Probably a spectator has sketched scenes he had seen in the arena," Chaniotis said. The images offer "an insight (on) the perspective of the contemporary spectator. The man who went to the arena in order to experience the thrill and joy of watching — from a safe distance — other people die."

Gladiator Blood and Skin Used to Make Medicines and Cosmetics

Romans believed that the blood of a slain gladiator could cure epilepsy. In some cases, after a gladiator was killed and his body removed from the arena, the blood was quickly collected and sold still-warm by vendors. After gladiatorial combat was outlawed around A.D. 400, people began using the blood of executed criminals for the same cure. [Source: Andrew Handley, Listverse, February 8, 2013]

more gladiator graffiti from Pompeii

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “Several Roman authors report people gathering the blood of dead gladiators and selling it as a medicine. The Romans apparently believed that gladiator blood had the power to cure epilepsy and would drink it as a cure. And that was just the civilized approach—others would pull out the gladiators’ livers and eat them raw. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016 ]

“This was so popular that when Rome banned gladiatorial combat, people kept the treatment going by drinking the blood of decapitated prisoners. Strangely, some Roman physicians actually report that this treatment worked. They claim to have seen people who drank human blood recover from their epileptic fits.

“The gladiators who lost became medicine for epileptics while the winners became aphrodisiacs. In Roman times, soap was hard to come by, so athletes cleaned themselves by covering their bodies in oil and scraping the dead skin cells off with a tool called a strigil. “Usually, the dead skin cells were just discarded—but not if you were a gladiator. Their sweat and skin scrapings were put into a bottle and sold to women as an aphrodisiac. Often, this was worked into a facial cream. Women would rub the cream all over their faces, hoping the dead skin cells of a gladiator would make them irresistible to men.”

Critics of Gladiators

Professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University wrote for the BBC: “There were some dissenting voices: the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius found gladiatorial combat 'boring', but he nevertheless sponsored legislation to keep costs at a realistic level so that individuals could still afford to mount the displays that were an obligatory requirement of certain public offices. Both pagan philosophers and Christian fathers scorned the arena. But they objected most vociferously not to the brutality of the displays, but to the loss of self-control that the hype generated among the spectators.” [Source: Professor Kathleen Coleman, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

The following letter indicates how by the age of Nero cultured and elevated men were beginning to revolt at the arena against butcheries which still delighted the mob. Seneca wrote: “I turned in to the games one mid-day hoping for a little wit and humor there. I was bitterly disappointed. It was really mere butchery. The morning's show was merciful compared to it. Then men were thrown to lions and to bears: but at midday to the audience. There was no escape for them. The slayer was kept fighting until he could be slain. "Kill him! flog him! burn him alive" was the cry: "Why is he such a coward? Why won't he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won't he die willingly?" Unhappy that I am, how have I deserved that I must look on such a scene as this? Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games, I pray you. Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them. So stay away. [Source: Seneca (b.4 BC/1 CE-d. 65 A.D.): Epistles 7: The Gladiatorial Games, William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

Gladiators and Hollywood

Famous films with gladiators include: Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe; Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrik with Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. Some historical inaccuracies that appeared in the Hollywood films include Kirk Douglas battle as a gladiator with a trident and net (that event didn't appear until 60 years after Spartacus's time) and Russell Crowe's fight with a gladiator and tiger at the same time (gladiator-versus-gladiator and gladiator-versus-wild-animal contests were separate events).

Commodus, the Roman Emperor
in the film Gladiator
Commodus (ruled A.D. 177- 192, co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius from 177-180) was the vainglorious son of Marcus Aurelius who was assassinated in 192, ending the Antonine dynasty. He fancied himself as a great gladiator and battled opponents armed with lead swords that bent when they struck the emperor. Not surprisingly he ran up an impressive string of victories. Commodus finally lost on New Year's Eve, when he was strangled to death by a wrestler who had been dispatched by his rivals.

Commodus was the emperor depicted in the film Gladiator. Edward Gibbons called him a man of “monstrous vices? and “unprovoked cruelty? and wrote: “His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of every rank, and of every province; and whenever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence."

Commodus 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. Fearing for their lives, members of Commodus's court decided he had to go. A concubine slipped some poison into his wine and then a wrestler strangled him.

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 killing by his son Commodus although the historian Cassius Dio said he was killed by doctors who wanted to “do a favor” for Commodus (most historians believe he died of an illness).

Commodus is believed to have been the only Roman emperor to have taken part in gladiatorial contests. In 2007, archeologists in Rome found a mosaic which they believe depicts a favourite sparring partner of the emperor, named Montanus. The mosaic shows the gladiator holding a trident over a prone opponent who he has apparently defeated in hand-to-hand combat. [Source: Nick Squires, The Telegraph, October 16, 2008]

Film: Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, see History, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

Marcus Nonius Macrinus: Inspiration for the Gladiator Film Character

Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a proconsul and a favourite of Marcus Aurelius, who ruled as emperor from 161 A.D. to his death in 180 AD, is believed to be the inspiration for the main character in the film “Gladiator.” Nick Squires wrote in The Telegraph: “ “Macrinus was born in Brescia, in northern Italy, and won victories leading Roman legions into battle. He became a confidant of Emperor Aurelius, being appointed a proconsul in Asia Minor and describing himself as "chosen out of the closest friends". Elements of his life were incorporated into Maximus Decimus Meridius, the fictional character for which Crowe won an Oscar in the 2000 film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott. [Source: Nick Squires, The Telegraph, October 16, 2008]

Adrian Murdoch wrote: “What is actually known about Macrinus? Er, not that much. First off, all of it is epigraphic, and the majority comes from ILS 8830, the base of a statue found in 1903 in the agora in Ephesus. It is in Greek and in pretty good condition. It describes him as "consul of Rome, proconsul of Asia, quindecimvir sacris faciundis", and "legate and battlefield companion of Marcus Aurelius". He is also described as consular governor of Pannonia Superior, governor of Pannonia Inferior and commander of Legion XV. The inscription then lists his other honours. [Source:]

“Pretty much everything else is a handful of inscriptions found around Brecia. For example:
CIL 05, 04300 which reads: M[arcus] Nonius / Macrinus / ex voto
CIL 05, 04325 which reads: M[arco] Caecilio / Fabia / Privato / amico / M[arcus] Nonius Macrinus / t[estamento] f[ieri] i[ussit]
or CIL 05, 04864: Dis / Conservatorib[us] / pro salute / Arriae suae / M[arcus] Nonius / Macrin[us] consecr[avit]
No mentions of gladiators anywhere.

“In the award-winning film, Maximus is a battle-hardened general and a protégé of the emperor, just as Marcus Nonius Macrinus was....Emperor Marcus Aurelius, played by Richard Harris, is murdered by his ruthless son Commodus, who declares himself emperor and sets about destroying Maximus, ordering the murder of his wife and child. Slave traders take the shattered Maximus to North Africa, where he is sold to a gladiator school and trained as a fighter. Returning to Rome seeking revenge, he eventually kills Commodus in a bloody showdown in the Colosseum, which was famous for its gladiatorial contests.

“The film's scriptwriters also based the character of Maximus on Spartacus, who led a slave revolt against Rome in the 1st century B.C., and Narcissus, a wrestler who brought Commodus' reign as emperor to an abrupt end by strangling him.”

Tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus Found and Left to Decay

In 2008, archeologists said they had unearthed the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus — a Roman general thought to have inspired the character played by Russell Crowe in the film 'Gladiator'.Nick Squires wrote in The Telegraph: “The 1,800-year-old stone mausoleum on the banks of the River Tiber was hailed by experts as an "extraordinary discovery" and one of the most important Roman finds for decades. It was built to contain the remains of Marcus Nonius Macrinus’ [Source: Nick Squires, The Telegraph, October 16, 2008]

“The intricately carved marble tomb, complete with a stone inscription identifying it as that of Macrinus, was found near the Via Flaminia, one of the arterial roads which led in and out of ancient Rome. “The jumble of broken columns, friezes and stone blocks was discovered during the demolition of a warehouse, along with remarkably intact parts of the original Roman road.

Tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus

“"It's been at least 20 or 30 years since a relic of this importance has come to light in Rome," said a senior archeologist, Daniela Rossi. Over the centuries parts of the tomb crumbled into the Tiber but enough has been recovered during months of painstaking excavation work that experts are discussing the possibility of reconstructing it as the focus of an archeological park.

Tom Kington wrote in The Guardian: “On its discovery in 2008, it was hailed as one of the most significant Roman finds in decades. Digging down between the railway line and mechanics' workshops where the Tiber winds its way north out of Rome, archeologists found the remains of a 45ft high structure fronted by four columns. This was what was left of the luxurious tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus...But now cuts mean the tomb may be buried all over again, according to Rome's extremely unhappy state superintendent for archaeology. "I fear we are going to take into serious consideration the idea of protecting these sensational finds by re-covering the entire site with earth," said Mariarosaria Barbera. [Source: Tom Kington, The Guardian, December 9, 2012]

“Today, Macrinus's last resting place – in an industrial wasteland in the suburbs of Rome – appears forgotten. Delicately carved white capitals which were miraculously preserved for 1,800 years under thick clay now sit, discoloured by air pollution, in pools of rainwater, while cracks caused by winter ice have appeared in the stonework.With funding for maintenance of Italy's archeological sites slashed by 20% since 2010 thanks to austerity cuts, the €2m-€3m (£1.6m-£2.4m) needed to preserve the tomb will not be available unless a sponsor is found soon, according to Barbera.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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, the BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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