We know gladiator battles took place in the Colosseum, but who were the gladiators, and what were their lives like? Learn the history of the fight-filled 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 and 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 Nilea 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 Myrmillo 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.
Skip the line to see the gladiator’s arena in the Colosseum!
The Colosseum is just one of Rome’s many ancient architectural treasures, check out our post on Classic Rome for more inspiration.