Ancient Roman Gladiators- History and Facts

Ancient Roman Gladiators

Roman Gladiators. Image source: historycollection.co

Roman gladiators were fierce fighters that brutalized each other for ancient Rome’s sole entertainment. The gladiators were usually pitched against each other in an arena and had to sometimes fight to the death. It is believed that this brutal and infamous form of entertainment was not only restricted to men. For a brief period of time, women also fought in the arena. Considering the fact that the majority of these fighters were slaves or former slaves, the organizers did not always have to get the consent from the fighters.

Who were Roman Gladiators?

Ancient Roman Gladiator Arena

An ancient Roman Gladiator arena – where gladiator battles took place. Image Source: Britannica

Roman gladiators were fighters who had gone through training in a particular skill or in the use of particular weaponry. Their fights usually happened in open spaces called arenas. The number of spectators that graced the event varied from city to city. One thing is for sure however, a large fraction of the public found the gladiator games very entertaining.

The life of a gladiator was anything but short. Most of the time, they fought among groups or within groups. Some of those fights went on until there was just one fighter standing in the arena. Gladiators fought other gladiators, wild animals and even prisoners with no hope of freedom or survival.  It was very common for the Romans to compel prisoners of war to engage in fights in the arena.

Also, the Romans had a very stable pipeline of slaves and convicted criminals whose sole purpose was to fight as gladiators. Regardless, gladiators were revered and in some cases idolized or worshiped for their daring acts and fights in the arena.

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Origins of the Roman Gladiatorial Games

The origins of gladiators or their games have different stories according to a different account. It is believed that the gladiator games started among the Etruscans.

It is also known that Campania had the earliest schools for the gladiators. According to Livy, a Roman historian, the first game of gladiators in ancient Rome was when General Decimus Brutus Scaeva and his brother, Marcus, paired six gladiators to fight with their partners till there was just one gladiator standing. Brutus and Marcus did this as a form of honor for their dead father.

Aside from it being entertaining to the Romans, the fights in the arena were also done to honor or appease Roman deities and gods. Gladiators were given the weapon that they were most skilled in. Typically, swords, bows, spears and among other things such as shields and helmets were used by the fighters.

Historians believe that the era of gladiators was between 105 BCE to 400 CE.  It was certainly one of the most popular forms of entertainment in ancient Rome. On the day of the event, people from all walks of life, high status in the society as well as peasants, swarmed into the arena to witness one of the greatest, but barbaric, spectacles of the ancient Roman Empire.

In about 200 CE, women were allowed to become gladiators as well. It was also around this time that the school for gladiators grew tremendously. They were filled to capacity by agents who went around looking for people qualified to become gladiators.

More on the Origin of the Gladiator Games

Although the arena fighting game was initially used to honor a father’s death, subsequent games had nothing to do with that. With the passage of time, the game transitioned from one of purely religious affair to a full-fledged business. The gladiatorial games had what we would call promoters, scouts, betting groups and organizers and MCs.

After every game, the gladiator that was badly hurt was killed by an attendant. The attendant would strike the forehead of the gladiator- completely killing the injured person.  These attendants often dressed as Hermes, the Greek messenger god believed to have accompanied the souls of dead people to the underworld. The god’s Roman equivalent was the deity Mercury.

8 Famous Roman Gladiators

There was no shortage of expertly skilled fighters in the arena. The best of them built a reputation on being ferocious and absolutely ruthless. To put into perspective of how this occurred, we have selected eight very famous Roman gladiators.

CARPOPHORUS

Carpophorus specialized in battles with wild dangerous animals.  He fought a lot of different animals from lions to bears. It is believed that at the opening of the Flavian Amphitheatre, Carpophorus fought a leopard, bear, and lion all at the same time and won. Another account of Carpohorus’ story states that he killed about 20 different wild animals in the arena in just a single day.  His exploits were famously compared to the ones of the demigod, Hercules (also known as Heracles).

HERMES

It is said that Hermes was such a revered gladiator that a poem was made about him by the poet Martial. Hermes was known to relish in his advantage over other gladiators.  He had diverse skills in combat and weaponry which made him a dangerous adversary. This also gave him an edge in the arena. Whenever Hermes was mentioned, other gladiators panicked because he was versatile and very skilled.

FLAMMA

Flamma is said to have been a Syrian and deemed one of the best gladiator ever known in the ancient world. It is said that he was a soldier before he was captured and forced to become a gladiator. In the thirty-four or so battles that he partook in, he only lost four. He was one of the few gladiators that had the option to be free on several occasions but turned down the offers. The arena became part and parcel of Flamma. It was something that he could not live without.

SPARTACUS

Unknown to a great number of people, Spartacus was actually a real-life gladiator and not just an American TV series. Before becoming a gladiator, Spartacus started off as a soldier of old Bulgaria. His time at a gladiator school (near Capua) came to an end when he and Crixus one day decided to escape the slave-styled nature of the school. The authorities made lots of efforts to capture him but to no avail. The Senators of Rome even sent over ten thousand (10,000) soldiers to fight against Spartacus and his army of soldiers/gladiators. All of such attempts proved futile. After years and years of being on the run and resisting, Spartacus was killed by Marcus Licinus Crassus.

CRIXUS

Crixus was a very fierce and revered Gallic gladiator. The name Crixus in Gaulish means “one with curly hair”.  Also a very astute military mind, Crixus often stood beside the great Roman gladiator, Spartacus. He was Spartacus’ second in command. Before that, he was part of a gladiatorial training school (Lentulus Batiatus) in Capua. However,  he hated his boss so much that when the opportunity presented itself, he ran away, along with about 70 gladiators, and became a part of Spartacus’ school.

Crixus and his men fought bravely to repel the attacks of a small Roman force on Mount Vesuvius. This victory, as well as many other wins, galvanized other slaves to revolt against their masters in various gladiatorial schools. In time, Crixus became a high-ranking general of Spartacus. It is believed that at their peak, the Spartacus militia had about 150,000 militiamen.

Crixus would later split from Spartacus’ army and march towards the countryside of Rome. Some historians believe that Crixus was bent on taking Rome down with his 30,000 men. Unfortunately, this ambition of his was thwarted by the Roman general Lucius Gellius Publicola around 72 CE.  Crixus died during that brutal skirmish, along with about twenty thousand of the thirty thousand men that marched with him. Hearing the death of his very close friend, Spartacus organized several games in honor of Crixus. 

COMMODUS

Unlike the other gladiators, Commodus was no ordinary gladiator. He was a Roman emperor with an ego the size of the Colosseum. He often attributed god-like powers to himself.  Emperor Commodus was cocky and believed that he was the reincarnation of Hercules.  Obviously, ancient Rome saw its fair share of emperors that usually thought themselves god, but not many basked in that glory as Commodus did.  He requested that carvings of him be displayed through the town. He ordered that these statues be made with him dressed as Hercules with a club and a cloak of lion skin.

Commodus was cunning and very picky in terms of the people he fought against in the arena. It has been noted that he never fought anyone that could seriously injure him in the arena.  He only fought against weak and wounded gladiators. And even when he fought the strong ones, he made sure that they let him win all the time. Also, he took to killing animals as a way of showing his people he had control over the animals. Ultimately, his people and cronies got fed up with his prideful habits and killed him in 192 CE.

In the highly acclaimed 2000 Blockbuster film, Gladiator, Commodus was portrayed brilliantly by  Joaquin Phoenix.

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TETRAITES

Tetraites was one of the most known and terrific gladiators of ancient Rome.  Although it is difficult to find enough stories about him, it has been said that his level of skills and sheer strength dwarfed his opponents. It was not uncommon to have images and artworks of him littered across Rome.  Tetraites is usually portrayed wearing a helmet, a shield in one hand and a sword in the other hand.

SPICULUS

It is said that Spiculus rose to fame and honor during the reign of Emperor Nero.  Even though he was known to be a terrible emperor, Nero developed a great affection for Spiculus- thereby spoiling him in any way he found possible.  He gave him a palace with slaves to cater to his daily needs among other things.  It is known that when Emperor Nero lost his seat, he needed Spiculus to end his life but he could not find him and had one of his servants do it.

Key Facts about Roman Gladiators

Here are a few more facts that you should absolutely know about ancient Roman gladiators:

  • Not all the battles in the arena had to end in death

A great number of the fights were not as free or lawless like we often thought they were.  Some of them had rules and restrictions.  Sometimes, when a gladiator is badly wounded, the fight is stopped.  It is also known that sometimes when both gladiators are very good, they are not allowed to kill each other.

There are also situations where gladiators are allowed to end the fight because they provided good entertainment for the people watching in the Arena. Sometimes also, fights were allowed to end if the opponents fought for a long time without any serious injuries. The continuing of such long and dragging fights took out the excitement from the game. Therefore, they had to be stopped.

Another reason gladiators were not just killed sometimes was because some of them had been invested in. Despite that, sometimes, they truly do fight to the death.

  • Fighting animals was not a rampant act in the arena

Roman Gladiator

Bestiarii were special Roman Gladiators who went to combat with animals. Image Source: AncientHistoryLists

Not all Roman gladiators fought animals.  There was a special type of gladiators who fought animals.  They were referred to as “Bestiarii”. They fought against different types of animals such as lions, leopards, bears, crocodiles, deer among others. Prisoners and weak gladiators were in some cases fed to these animals during the events as a way of also entertaining the people. It is said that fights against animals were usually used as a kind of break time during main events, or they were used to introduce the main event of the day. Irrespective of this, there were still a significant number of very fine gladiators that were mauled by the animals.

  • The gladiator games were originally filled with a lot of slaves and convicts

At the initial stages of the game, most of the gladiators were slaves at first. However as the game evolved, more people started to get interested in fighting- some of them women as well. They voluntarily attended the gladiatorial training school to hone their skills and build a profession out of the game. The game’s appeal was in its exciting but very dangerous nature. Some of the gladiators mainly fought to make money, others fought for glory and fame.  Those who signed up ranged from ordinary people to knights and soldiers who had been in wars and wanted to prove their worth. There was significant usage of convicts in the arena.

  • There were female gladiators as well

In the beginning, women were not found worthy to compete or fight in the arena.  As much as they trained, it was usually unlikely for them to be pitched with people they could match up with.  Historians believe that some of them were matched up against dwarves and weak soldiers.  As time passed, some women managed to succeed in one-on-one combats and gained popularity.  However, this rise to fame was cut short in 200 CE when the Roman authorities banned women from taking part in the gladiatorial games.

  • Gladiators were sometimes seen as sex gods

It is known that there were images of them all over the place with women fantasizing about them. During those times, it was believed that the sweat of a gladiator, when mixed with their creams and oils, worked as a potent aphrodisiac.

  • There were lots of different types of gladiators

Gladiators were not just put in the arena and asked to fight any Tom, Dick and Harry. The Romans developed a sophisticated system of categorizing the fights into skill types and skill levels. There was also the ratings or rankings of the best gladiators in Rome.

For example, the “murmillones” and “thraeces” fighters were highly ranked and adored for their usage of sword and shield. Clearly, these gladiators were the talk of the town. They walked the streets of Rome with their chest held high, feeling invincible like demigods. Several sculptures, carvings and other art works were made about them. They were literally Rome’s first celebrities.

On the other hand, the “equites” and the “dimachaerus” were known to use horses and wield two swords simultaneously. They did not achieve as much fame as the murmillones and thraeces.

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