We know gladiator battles took place in the Colosseum, but just who were these Colosseum gladiators, and what were their lives like? Learn the history behind the hard-knock life of these Colosseum gladiators and their work.
Gladiators as commodities
Contrary to popular belief, gladiators didn’t always fight to the death. In fact, estimates suggest that only 1 in 8 gladiator fights ended with a slain combatant. Still, 1 in 8 aren’t great odds. And considering each day’s entertainment had a number of different events (including executions) more than a few of the ‘entertainers’ heading into the Colosseum on any given day would not be walking out again.
However, gladiating was a business. And the men who purchased and managed the gladiators (Lanistae) would not part with their investments unless absolutely necessary; gladiators were likely trained to wound rather than kill.
Besides, the gladiators all lived and worked together. They even organized unions called collegia to pay for burials and look after the families of fallen comrades. It’s unlikely that they were keen to seriously harm their brothers-in-arms, no matter what the crowds in the Colosseum were telling them to do.
Even so, the life of a gladiator was far from easy.
Fighting for your life, embracing death
Although it was largely populated by slaves and criminals, free men – including some upper-class patricians – voluntarily entered gladiator schools. Gladiators fought just a few times a year, and spent the rest of their time training.
When they signed up, would-be gladiators swore a sacred oath (called the sacramentum gladiatorium) obliging them to die with honor (or else be beaten, burned, and stabbed). So it was not something to be taken lightly.
But on the upside: gladiators earned money each time they fought and, if they survived their 3-5 years, they were set free – criminals and slaves included. But the threat of death still hung over every battle.
It’s believed that the first gladiatorial duels were held in the 3rd century BC, as part of the funeral rites of warriors and wealthy nobles. Slaves or condemned prisoners would fight to the death as a tribute to the fallen patrician. It’s thought that this display of bravery and fighting spirit were intended to reflect virtues the person had demonstrated in life.
The Colosseum: where gladiators dueled
If you’re looking for evidence of this sport’s popularity, just take a look at the Colosseum. The largest amphitheater ever built, this famous structure (also known as the Flavian Amphitheater) could fit up to 80,000 spectators. Clad in marble and as tall as a modern 12-story building, it was located right in the center of the capital of the mighty Roman Empire – caput mundi.
There were many arenas and gladiator schools dotted throughout the empire, but the Colosseum was the ‘main event’. Construction began in 72 AD by Emperor Vespasian (of the Flavian dynasty), and in 80 AD it was completed by his son and heir Titus. The Colosseum was entirely clad in shimmering marble, had three stories of arches, and was as tall as a modern 12-story building.
Like modern sports stadiums, the Colosseum had box seats for the wealthy and powerful. The higher levels (‘nosebleeds’) were reserved for the commoners, with the seats closer to the action reserved for those of the upper classes.
If you thought it was hard for the men, think of the animals
A sophisticated system of trapdoors and slave-operated pulleys were manipulated to raise men, scenery and wild animals into the Colosseum. Further below, there was a warren of winding hallways, rooms, and cages where men, beasts, and weapons waited to perform.
Emperor Titus had the Colosseum inaugurated with more than 100 straight days of games, during which 9,000 animals were killed. If that sounds like a lot of animals, it was – the hippopotamus was completely eradicated from the Nile as a result.
And this trend of animals marching to their deaths and collective extinctions continued. Several species of lion, bear, and tiger all went extinct, either directly or indirectly due to their participation in the venationes in the Colosseum. It’s a matter of record that on one particular day, Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator) killed more than 100 bears singlehandedly.
A gladiator’s day in the Colosseum
Gladiatorial games were organized only a few times a year, and the sponsors (often the Emperor, but this could also be a wealthy patrician, or high-ranking magistrate in the provinces) were sure to make the most of it.
Colosseum gladiator events followed a set pattern. The morning would begin with an elaborate procession to the arena to showcase that day’s participants. Naturally, the sponsor would act as the parade marshal, leading the way.
Once the crowd was assembled it was game(s) on!
These all-day affairs usually began with animal entertainments. First were the animal hunts (venationes). Special subsets of gladiators, called Venatores and Bestiarii would do battle with beasts often sourced from the far reaches of the empire. These specialized combatants were trained in wrangling with all types of creatures, including ostriches, bears, crocodiles, elephants, and tigers.
Late mornings were reserved for the popular damnatio ad bestias, when criminals and deserters would be crushed by elephants, mauled by wolves, or otherwise slaughtered by wild animals in creative and horrifying ways.
These activities, as enjoyable as they were, were really just warm-up for the afternoon’s main events: gladiatorial combat. Watching men go head-to-head (and in some cases, in Battle Royale-style winner-takes-all matches) were the most popular events, and featured a variety of gladiatorial styles.
Different gladiator styles at the Colosseum
Each type of gladiator received specialized training according to their armor, weapons, and fighting techniques. The Thrax was armed with a curved dagger and a round shield, and the Samnis had a short sword and shield. The Murmillo had helmets with a fish crest, a rounded shield, and a sword. These fish-themed mermen often squared off against the Retiarius – fishermen who fought with a net and trident or dagger.
In addition to these common types, there were other rarer gladiators. The Amazones and Gladiatrices were female gladiators, while the Paegniarius, fought animals armed only with a whip. Some gladiators, known as Andabatae, fought blindfolded.
The winners of the battles would receive a palm frond and a cash prize. For especially outstanding performances a laurel crown was awarded (though the biggest prize was presumably not being dead).
The ultimate prize was permanent discharge from the obligation to fight in the arena, most certainly in recognition of an outstanding career than from just one performance (a sort of ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’). As a symbol of this award the gladiator would be given a wooden sword, perhaps to suggest that he no longer had to risk his life fighting with real weapons.
If the patron of the games spared his life, the loser was sent back to lick his wounds, and train again. He would live to fight another day.
The Gladiator Museum
Located right around the corner from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona roughly three kilometers from the mighty Colosseum, Rome’s Gladiator Museum gives visitors an up-close look at the armor and weaponry made famous by these ancient arena fighters. The exhibition spans the high period of the Roman Empire – from the 4th to the 6th century AD.
Inside you’ll find authentic masks, breastplates, swords, spears, helmets, shields, and more, representing the various classes and fighting styles of ancient Rome’s gladiators. Laid out chronologically and thematically, you’ll see how armor and weapons evolved over the centuries, becoming ever more intricate and sophisticated as new metalwork techniques were developed.
These implements of dismemberment and self-defense are also laid out in thematic pairs, highlighting the typical matchups between certain classes of fighters. For example Thrax against Murmillo, Retiarius against Secutor, Hoplomacus against Murmillo, Provocator against Provocator, etc. So you’ll really get a feel for the pointy-ended odds these warriors were pitted against every time they stepped into the arena.
The perfect way to complement a visit to the Colosseum, the Gladiator museum will immerse you in the gritty reality of gladiatorial hand-to-hand combat. So if you’re checking out the spectacular ancient ruins of the Navona Underground, make sure and stop by this boutique museum of antique violence.
Despite being part of the slave class in ancient Rome, gladiators were lauded and admired for their bravery and proclivity to dish out extreme violence for the viewing pleasure of the Roman public. Much like the sports stars of today, Colosseum gladiators were hero-worshipped by the masses, and for the most part, looked down on by the elite classes. Most gladiators didn’t have long glittering careers, but some managed to outlast the average short life-expectancy of their profession and etch their name into the history books for millennia to come. Here are five of the most famous Colosseum gladiators.
When tasked with fighting rampaging lions, leopards, tigers, and bears on a weekly basis, it helps to be either:
A). An angry African bull elephant
B). A bestiarius
Carpophorus was the most famous of all bestiarius, (the order of gladiator that specialized in taking down the fiercest creatures the Roman Empire could procure). Such was his talent for murdering wildlife, he was one of the first gladiators chosen to ‘perform’ at the grand opening of the Colosseum, where he embarrassed several lions and leopards in single combat. He’s known to have once slayed 20 animals in one afternoon’s work, and is also said to have defeated a charging rhino with one spear. He just loved killin’!
A military commander of the Third Servile War, Crixus was a Gallic warrior whose diminutive stature was belied by his insatiable zest for chopping larger opponents down to size in the arena. Having been a military leader, Crixus was not a fan of violent servitude. So when a revolt broke out in the gladiator training school where he was imprisoned, Crixus made the most of the situation and escaped with the help of around 70 others.
His group of renegade warriors was pursued across southern Itlay by the Roman army, and managed to win several bloody skirmishes before they were ambushed and overwhelmed by the superior numbers. But if the legends are to be believed, his finest gladiatorial performance came in his last stand, where he cut helped cut down waves of not-entertained soldiers before succumbing to his wounds.
Given the short life expectancy and the high chance of dying violently by sword/spear/fangs, not many people volunteered to be gladiators; they were primarily made up of slaves and captured enemy soldiers. Marcus Attilius, however, fell into neither of these categories.
A free-born man, who likely volunteered for a career as a gladiator as a way to clear his personal debts, Marcus Attilius went on to become one of the most successful fighters in the game. He made his debut against the universally feared Hilarus, who was on a 13-fight win streak and was heavily favored. Attilius had other ideas…
His bloody exploits were chronicled in ancient graffiti on the Nocerian gate in Pompeii, and was discovered centuries later after the city was buried under many cubic miles of volcanic debris.
The son of one Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ reign as the emperor of Rome coincided with the end of the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace in the famously brutal empire. Although, given Commodus’ own famous bloodlust, perhaps this was not so much of a coincidence.
A man of sizeable ego who was never content with simply issuing the thumbs up or thumbs down at the end of a gladiator battle, Commodus longed for the visceral glory, brutal heroics and adoration of the crowd that came with being a gladiator. He even had a mini arena constructed in his palace, so that he could cosplay as a gladiator during his executive leisure time.
Commodus hosted grand games which he, of course, starred in. Each morning of the games he would shoot hundreds of animals and each afternoon, he would take part in gladiator contests, and amazingly win them all. His antics eventually caught up with him though, and he was assassinated and declared a public enemy, having tried to rename Rome after himself and rebuild the city in his own megalomaniacal image.
Perhaps the most famous gladiator of all though was Spartacus. The legend of this Thracian soldier-turned-gladiator-turned-fugitive has been told for millennia, and indelibly imprinted into western popular culture by the eponymous 1960 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Along with Crixus and around 70 other gladiators, Spartacus masterminded and lead an escape from their gladiator training school, and was pursued across the span of southern Italy by the Roman army.
Spartacus and his merry band of professional fighters marched all the way to the calm safe refuge of Mount Vesuvius, freeing other slaves and swelling their numbers as they went. Legions of Roman soldiers were sent to recapture the outlaws, and many died trying. Eventually, the odds and might of the Roman Empire caught up with Spartacus, and a force of many thousands of Romans eventually ambushed and overwhelmed the slave army. Spartacus died as he lived, a warrior until the bloody end. But his name has gone down in history as the most famous of all famous Colosseum gladiators, thousands of years later.
With that kind internal glory, it’s no wonder everybody claimed to be Spartacus!
Things to do near the Colosseum and Gladiator Museum
Navona Underground – The Stadium of Domitian
Hidden beneath Piazza Navona is the incredible Stadium of Domitian, a buried remnant of the once-mighty empire, offering a unique time-capsule of the ancient world. This jaw-dropping UNESCO World Heritage Site was Rome’s first permanent venue for gladiator games and competitive athletics, having been commissioned around 80 AD by Emperor Titus, and also functioned as a backup arena when the Colosseum was completed. Now buried beneath the bustle of modern Rome, it’s the perfect way to complement a visit to the Colosseum and/or Gladiator Museum.
When architecture impresses and inspires someone like Michelangelo, it’s probably safe to assume that said architecture is among history’s finest. The famous Renaissance sculptor and part-time fresco artist was a big fan of the Pantheon, and reportedly when he first laid his eyes upon it, said: “it looks more like the work of angels”. If you had any doubts about his admiration for the Pantheon, a quick look at the dome he designed on St. Peter’s Basilica, will make it fairly clear where his inspiration came from.
The Pantheon is easily the best-preserved of all Rome’s ancient buildings. It’s a famous monument, but many of its secrets are not too well-known. Luckily these days you can explore its majestic interior using a multimedia audio guide with embedded film clips. Which is more than Michelangelo got!
Back when Rome was Caput Mundi (Capital of the World), the Roman Forum was the very heart of the grand Empire. Now a haunting complex of time-worn ruins, it’s right here, just a javelin’s throw from the Colosseum, where politicians once pontificated and merchants haggled, and the occasional public execution was carried out too, to the baying roar of the Roman rabble. Highlights include the Temple of Vesta, the Temple of Caesar, and the Senate House. An unmissable window into the past, it’s an essential add-on to your Colosseum visit.
Perched on top of one of Rome’s seven hills and overlooking the Roman Forum is the Capitoline Museum. Consisting of four grand and historic palazzos, this complex of museums was designed by none other than Michelangelo and is considered to be the world’s oldest museum, having been opened by Clementine XII to the Roman public all the way back in 1734. Its large collection is devoted largely to the history of the Roman Empire itself, and it features innumerable treasures from antiquity.
Inside you’ll see the famous she-wolf sculpture featuring Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus, as well as a treasure trove of incredible artifacts that tell the story of ancient Rome.
Just a 5-minute stroll from the Gladiator Museum, this fascinating exhibition is dedicated to the timeless genius that was Leonardo da Vinci. Featuring reproductions of some of his most forward-thinking inventions, and a newly animated hologram section, the Mostra di Leonardo puts you right into the heart of the Renaissance. This is a place where you can play and learn at the same time, interacting with life-sized replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s creations. The exhibition also features an animated hologram section and an underground burial temple all inside one of Rome’s most beautiful buildings, the Palazzo della Cancelleria.
With more than 200 machines, including 65 reconstructed working models and nine animated holograms, you’ll feel like you’re looking at the inner workings of a genius’ mind.
Just across the Tiber, a short 10-12-minute walk from the Gladiator Museum is another of Rome’s iconic buildings, the magisterial Castel Sant’Angelo. A burial site that rivals the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid of Giza, Castel Sant’Angelo was initially commissioned by Emperor Hadrian for his own mausoleum. At the time it was the tallest building in the city and would go on to be used as an impenetrable fortified palace by Rome’s more security-focused Popes. These days, with a ticket, you can walk straight in and explore the many cavernous hallways and chambers within, where shadowy conversations once decided the fate of the Roman Empire.
Kids and ancient cultural heritage sites aren’t always the best combination, so if you want to reward their patience after a long day of historical sightseeing, check out our post on the best things to do with kids in Italy.
This post was updated by Oscar O’Connor on 03/06/2021