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The Roman Gladiator

Adopted from the earlier Etruscans, perhaps by way of Campania, gladiatorial games (munera) originated in the rites of sacrifice due the spirits of the dead and the need to propitiate them with offerings of blood. They were introduced to Rome in 264 BC, when the sons of Junius Brutus honored their father by matching three pairs of gladiators. Traditionally, munera were the obligatory funerary offerings owed aristocratic men at their death, although the games did not have to be presented then. Elected aedile in 65 BC, Julius Caesar commemorated his father, who had died twenty years before, with a display of 320 pairs of gladiators in silvered armor (Pliny, XXXIII.53: Plutarch, V.9). Still mindful of Spartacus' rebellion, a nervous Senate limited the number of gladiators allowed in Rome (Suetonius, X.2). In 46 BC, after recent victories in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar again hosted elaborate games at the tomb of his daughter Julia, who had died in childbirth eight years earlier (together with stage plays and beast fights, they included the first appearance of a giraffe). The display was criticized, however, for its extravagance and the number slain, including several of Caesar's own soldiers, who protested that none of the money was being allotted to them (Dio, XLIII.24).

During the Republic, munera had been privately financed by the family, whose duty it was to present them. Increasingly a display of aristocratic wealth and prestige, the ritual lost much of its religious significance and became more overtly political. To limit this power, Augustus assigned the games to the praetors and restricted the number of shows to two per year and sixty pairs (Dio, LIV.2.4). Eventually, the games were assumed by the emperors, themselves, as enactments of their own power. Indeed, by the end of the second century AD, Tertullian could criticize in De Spectaculis (XII) that "this class of public entertainment has passed from being a compliment to the dead to being a compliment to the living."

After the slave revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC, the State assumed greater control of public games (ludi), and large numbers of gladiators were trained in imperial schools. (Interestingly, ludus means "game" and "school," because both required imitation and repetition.) Under the tutelage of a manager (lanista), a troupe (familia) of gladiators could be sold or hired out, and many were retained privately by politicians and wealthy citizens as bodyguards, especially in times of civil unrest.

Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals sentenced to serve in the schools (damnati ad ludos). At a time when three of every five persons did not survive until their twentieth birthday, the odds of a professional gladiator being killed in any particular bout, at least during the first century AD, were perhaps one in ten. But for the criminal who was to be publicly executed (damnati ad mortem) or for Christian martyrs who refused to renounce their faith and worship the gods, there was no hope of survival in the arena.

Seneca, who once arrived at the amphitheater in the middle of the day, between the wild-beast shows that occurred in the morning and the gladiatorial shows presented in the afternoon, protested this lunch-time slaughter of common criminals.

"The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain....There is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death....The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty" (Epistle VII).

Free men also volunteered to be gladiators (auctorati) and, by the end of the Republic, comprised half the number who fought. Often, they were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service. They signed on for a fee and swore a fearful oath of absolute submission to the lanista to be burned, flogged, beaten, or killed if so ordered (Petronius, Satyricon, CXVII; Seneca, Moral Epistles, XXXVII.1). In spite of the opprobrium, Roman citizens, even nobility, sometimes assumed the career of a gladiator—as did women (Amazones). Often, they were compelled but sometimes prompted , as "a number of Italian towns vied with one another in holding out financial inducements to undesirables among the younger generation" (Tacitus, Histories, II.62). To celebrate his triumphal return to Rome in AD 46, Caesar sponsored gladiatorial games in which a former senator fought to the death (Suetonius, XXXIX.1). Another senator had wanted to fight in full armor but was denied permission (Dio, XLIII.23.5). When a member of the Gracchi fought as a retiarius, the scandal was all the greater because his face could be seen. Indeed, writes Tacitus, the year AD 63 of Nero's reign "witnessed gladiatorial displays on a no less magnificent scale than before, but exceeding all precedent in the number of distinguished women and senators disgracing themselves in the arena" (Annals, XV.32).

Commodus (AD 180-192) enthusiastically participated as a gladiator. Boasting of victory in a thousand matches, sparring with his hapless opponents (slicing off in the process, say Cassius Dio, "the noses of some, the ears of others, and sundry features of still others, LXXIII.17.2"), and slaughtering exotic animals brought from as far away as India and Africa, he had rooms at one of the schools and intended to march from there, dressed as a gladiator, to assume the consulship. This prospect was considered so outrageous by those closest to him that, fearing for their own lives, they had him assassinated the day before he was to take office.

Originally, captured soldiers had been made to fight with their own weapons and in their particular style of combat. It was from these conscripted prisoners of war that the gladiators acquired their exotic appearance, a distinction being made between the weapons imagined to be used by defeated enemies and those of their Roman conquerors. The Samnites (a tribe from Campania which the Romans had fought in the fourth and third centuries BC) were the prototype for Rome's professional gladiators, and it was their equipment that first was used and later adopted for the arena. The Samnite wore an elaborate helmet (galea), a wide leather belt (balteus) reinforced with bands of metal, a large oblong shield (scutum), a sword (gladius, so called, says Isidore of Seville, XVIII.6, because it "divides the throat," gulam dividere), and probably a greave (ocrea) on the left leg. Two other gladiatorial categories also took their name from defeated tribes, the Galli (Gauls) and Thraeces (Thracians).

By the time of Augustus, the Samnites were allies of Rome and the name disappeared, to be replaced by the secutor (pursuer), the class in which Commodus competed. The secutor usually was matched against the more nimble retiarius, who was armed with a trident and a net to ensnare the opponent, and protected only by a shoulder piece (galerus) on the left side. Fittingly, they sometimes fought against the heavily armed murmillo, whose helmet had a fish-like crest. They, in turn, usually competed against the thraex, who carried a scimitar (sica) and a small square shield, or hoplomachus, who fought with a small round shield, and carried a lance and short straight sword. Because of the smaller shields, both wore long greaves. Often, protective leather straps (fasciae) were wrapped around the arms and legs, as well.

There were even more exotic types: the essedarius, who fought from war chariots in the fashion of the British Celts and probably were introduced by Julius Caesar after his invasion of that island; the equites, who entered the arena on horseback; the laquearii, who, says Isidore of Seville (Etymologies, XVIII.56), used a noose or lasso to bring down their opponents; the velites or skirmishers who hurled missiles this side and that, a indiscriminate form of combat that was "more pleasing to the spectators than the others"; the sagittarius, who fought with bow and arrow; the dimachaerus, who held sword in each hand; the ominously named scissor (carver) and provocator (challenger), and others still about which little is known. One of the most bizarre were the andabata, whose helmet effectively acted as blindfolds as he groped in the dark.

It was important that these different types of gladiators be appropriately paired, the advantage of one being compensated for by the strength of the other. There could be no virtue in defeating a weaker opponent. Gladiators were to be evenly matched but not identically so. The retiarii were lightly armed but mobile, the secutores and murmillones protected but weighted down by their armor. It was this asymmetry that was considered so intriguing. Each type had its own particular weapons, strategies, and skills, and only by comparison could they be demonstrated. Gladiators who were similarly armed, therefore, rarely competed against one another. Most contests, in fact, seem to have been between the thraex or retiarius and their more heavily armed adversaries, between what the public favored as parmularii or scutarii (small-shield and big-shield men). Gladiators also participated in simulated naval battles (naumachiae) on large artificial lakes or even in the arena of the Colosseum, which originally could have been flooded for such shows.

The bestiarii were not gladiators, as such, but fought for their lives in the arena against wild beasts. The venatores were specialists of wild animal hunts (venationes). The popularity of these cruel spectacles was such that, by the time they were abolished in AD 523 during the consulship of Flavius Anicius Maximus, tens of thousands of animals had died, and entire species were no longer to be found in their native habitat, all having been captured or driven away. There were no more hippopotamuses in Nubia or elephants in northern Africa; the lions which once had been represented in Assyrian reliefs were gone. Either five thousand or ten thousand animals were reported to have died in the dedication of the Colosseum; eleven thousand died in the celebration of Trajan's conquest of Dacia; and Augustus boasted that, in the twenty-six venationes presented in his reign, thirty-five hundred animals had been killed. When Pompey presented elephants (and the first rhinoceros) at the Circus Maximus, he did so in part to demonstrate his power over even the strongest of beasts.

Gladiatorial games originally had taken place in the Forum, where temporary stands were erected. According to Cassius Dio, Julius Caesar, "built a kind of hunting-theatre of wood, which was called an amphitheatre from the fact that it had seats all around without any stage" (XLIII.22.3). Nero built a wooden amphitheater in AD 57 and others were constructed, as well. Occasionally, they collapsed, tragically killing hundreds, even thousands, of those who had come to witness the death of others. During the reign of Tiberius, a wooden amphitheater gave way and buried either twenty thousand (Suetonius) or fifty thousand (Tacitus) spectators. The first permanent amphitheater in Rome dates to the consulship of Augustus in 30 BC. Holding as many as fifty thousand spectators, the largest and most magnificent of the amphitheaters was the Amphitheatrum Flavium, or Colosseum, which was begun by Vespasian and inaugurated by Titus in AD 80 with games that lasted one-hundred days. Domitian (AD 81-96) completed the elaborate substructure of ramps and pulley-drawn cages which allowed animals to be introduced through trapdoors into the arena (from harena, the sand used to absorb the spilled blood). He established, as well, four nearby schools, including one for training the bestiarii. The largest of these, the Ludus Magnus, was connected to the amphitheater by an underground passage. Each had its own oval arena and seating so one could watch the gladiators train.

The sponsorship of the games was prestigious and an expected part of what Juvenal calls bread and circuses (panem et circenses). A million people inhabited Rome under the Antonine emperors, a sizable portion of them, because of slavery, unemployed. For their amusement, there were baths, theaters, and circuses, including the Circus Maximus. After Domitian, sponsorship of the munera was jealously retained by the emperor, who alone could present such spectacles (if individuals or local magistrates wanted to offer games outside Rome, they required official sanction). Fighters usually confronted one another in single combat (perhaps even as meal time entertainment), but there also were massed duels, sometimes between hundreds of pairs. Five thousand pairs fought in games given by Augustus, and in AD 107, in celebration of his conquest of Dacia, the same number of men fought for Trajan during a single four-month period.

Gladiatorial games were presented perhaps ten or twelve days each year and often coincided with the celebration of the Saturnalia. (Because they almost were never part of the games that honored the gods, they occurred much less frequently than theater or circus performances.) In Rome, no more than one hundred twenty pairs usually fought in any one munus, which were advertised in red letters by professional sign painters (scriptores) and proclaimed by heralds. Programs were made available; there was betting, and partisanship was strong, Caligula and Titus, for instance, favoring the Thracians, and Domitian the murmillones. The day before the event, a public banquet (coena libera) was given for the gladiators, some of whom gorged themselves at what might be their last meal, others eating in hopeful anticipation of the next day, and some with no appetite at all, terrified at the prospect of what was to come. With a diet that included the consumption of so much barley that Pliny refers to gladiators as hordearii ("barley eaters"), it must have been a welcome meal (Natural History, XVIII.72).

The day of the games, the gladiators were ceremoniously led in and paraded around the arena (pompa) before presenting themselves at the emperor's podium, exclaiming Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant! (already condemned to die by the sword, this declaration was made by the condemned criminal rather than the professional gladiator). Preliminary events included bloodless, sometimes farcical, duels between paegniarii, who likely fought with wooden weapons. Those to be used by the gladiators were demonstrated to be sharp and lethal, lots were drawn, and the war trumpet sounded. Then the games began. Together with the sound of flutes and horns and a water organ, there were shouts of encouragement from the lanista, often enforced by whips or hot iron rods.

When a man went down, cries of Habet, Hoc habet! (He's had it!), and shouts of Mitte! (Let him go!) or Iugula! (Kill him!) could be heard. If able, the wounded gladiator would lay down his shield and raise his index finger, usually of the left hand, to plea for mercy, either from his opponent or from the judge, who, wielding a long staff, then had to ensure there were no further blows. The crowd signified their approval by turning their thumbs (pollice verso). As patron of the games and the most conspicuous member there, it was the emperor who made the final decision, although it often was politic to heed the crowd. Indeed, he was expected to attend the amphitheater, where, in collective anonymity, the crowd could demonstrate its wishes. Martial writes in De Spectaculis (XXIX), that, when spectators pleaded for the lives of both men who had fought well, "Caesar himself obeyed his own law: that law was, when the prize was set up, to fight until the finger was raised (ad digitum)," i.e., until one had acknowledged defeat. It was this enactment of power and munificence before the citizens of Rome that served to legitimate and dramatize his imperial position.

If the emperor was not in attendance, the producer (editor) of the games decided the fate of the victim. Even if defeated, a gladiator might be granted a reprieve (missus) if he fought well or, if neither fighter prevailed, both could be reprieved stans missus. But a gladiator also could be forced to fight again the same day, although that was considered bad form, and there were contests in which no reprieve was granted the loser (sine missione). Victors were awarded crowns or a palm branch and the prize money stipulated in their contracts, as well as any money awarded by the crowd, which was collected on a silver tray. The fallen were taken away through the Porta Libitinensis to the spoliarium, where they were stripped of their armor and weapons, which were returned to the gladiatorial troupe. Victors exited through another gate, the Porta Triumphalis, and those who had been defeated but spared departed through the Porta Sanavivaria. If a gladiator repeatedly survived the arena and lived long enough to retire, a symbolic wooden sword (rudis) was awarded as a token of discharge from service.

The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They were depicted in mosaics, on lamps and funerary monuments, and were the object of graffiti—in this case, boasts written by the gladiators themselves: "Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls' heart-throb" and "Crescens the Netter of young girls by night." But, even in victory, gladiators were infamis. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions (cf. Tacitus, Annals, I.76, commenting on Drusus, who took pleasure in the shedding of blood "however vile"). And yet, as Tertullian exclaims, "Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection....The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace" (De Spectaculus, XXII).

The blood lust of the spectators, populus and emperors alike, the brutality of the combat, and the callous deaths of men and animals still disturb modern sensibilities. Certainly, Rome was cruel. Defeated enemies and criminals forfeited any right to a place within society, although they still might be saved (servare) from the death they deserved and be made slaves (servi). Because the life of the slave was forfeit, there was no question but that it could be claimed at any time. The paterfamilias of the family had absolute control over the lives of his slaves (and little less over those of his wife and children). In the army, decimation was the consequence of cowardice. The plague was ever present, as was the capricious whim of the emperor, who might seize a spectator from the crowd and have him thrown into the arena (Suetonius, Claudius, XXIV; Caligula, XXXV; Domitian, X; Dio, LIX.10). Beyond the city walls and the pomerium (a religious demarcation of the city's boundary), nature threatened. The gladiatorial shows were part of this culture of war, discipline, and death.

The public execution of those who did not submit to Rome, betrayed their country, or were convicted of heinous crimes vividly demonstrated the consequences of those actions. In a society that was deeply stratified (including seating in the Colosseum), the usurpation of undeserved rights could be rectified only by public degradation and death. Having rejected civilized society, the criminal no longer could claim its protection from the forces of nature and so is given up to them: to the wild beast (ad bestias) or to consuming fire (ad flammas). As Martial writes, "His lacerated limbs lived on, dripping gore, and in all his body, body there was none. Finally he met with the punishment he deserved; the guilty wretch had plunged a sword into his father's throat or his master's, or in his madness had robbed a temple of its secret gold, or laid a cruel torch to Rome" (De Spectaculus, IX).

In publicly witnessing such punishment, citizens were reassured that the proper social order has been restored and they, themselves, deterred from such actions. In this display, the games reaffirmed the moral and political order of things, and the death of criminals and wild animals, the real and symbolic re-establishment of a society under threat. In the arena, civilization triumphed over the wild and untamed, over the outlaw, the barbarian, the enemy.

The gladiator demonstrated the power to overcome death and instilled in those who witnessed it the Roman virtues of courage and discipline. He who did not fight and die bravely dishonored the society that sought to redeem him. There was little sympathy, therefore, for the gladiator who valued his life too highly and flinched at the point of the sword. If not to have triumphed over his opponent, the defeated gladiator was expected, at least, to master the moment of his death. Not to do so reduced the gladiator to victim and the audience to onlookers at a sordid spectacle. If, in the morning venationes, there was the transition from life to death, so in the afternoon munera was the possibility of passing from death to renewed life. Earlier in the day, the threat outside society was overcome; in the afternoon, the threat of those who were no longer part of society. In their mutual defeat, the order of things was reasserted and death, itself, conquered.

In witnessing how men faced the necessity of dying, in viewing the fate they feared, themselves, Romans confronted their own mortality and triumphed. In fighting courageously and skillfully, the gladiator might demonstrate sufficient valor to win salvation; in a death accepted without protest, he could acquire it as well. For the gladiator, the measure of his valor was a measure of the desperation of the circumstances in which it was acquired, and, paradoxically, if he could fight in contempt of life and glory, there was the possibility that he could regain them both. Indeed, Christian unease with the games was due not so much to their cruelty as to the fact that the gladiator could be saved by his own virtus.

At the time, only Seneca protested the carnage of the arena; most other Roman authors were silent or approving. Ostensibly, gladiatorial games were prohibited by Constantine in AD 325 (Theodosian Code, XV.12) and the remaining schools closed by Honorius in AD 399. But they continued, in one form or another, until AD 404, when Honorius finally abolished munera altogether, prompted, says Theodoret (Ecclesiastical History, V.26), by the death of a monk, Telemachus, who had entered the arena, endeavoring to stop the fight, and was stoned to death by the indignant crowd—a monk, observes Gibbon (Decline and Fall, XXX), "whose death was more useful to mankind than his life."


"If any man has a right to feel proud of himself, and satisfied, surely it is I. For I have written about the Coliseum, and the gladiators, the martyrs, and the lions, and yet have never once used the phrase 'butchered to make a Roman holiday.' I am the only free white man of mature age, who has accomplished this since Byron originated the expression."

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (XXVII)

The offending line is from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (IV.141).


References: Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (1918) translated by Richard M. Gummere (Loeb Classical Library); Tertullian Apology and De Spectaculis (1931) translated by T. R. Glover (Loeb Classical Library); Appian: The Civil Wars (1996) translated by John Carter (Penguin Classics); Plutarch's Parallel Lives (1916) translated by B. Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Cicero: Letters to His Friends (1929) translated by W. Glynn Williams (Loeb Classical Library); Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (1959) translated by Michael Grant (Penguin Classics); Dio's Roman History (1927) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Pliny: Natural History (1945) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); Polybius: The Histories (1923) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Martial: Epigrams (1993) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); Prudentius (1949) translated by H. J. Thomson (Loeb Classical Library); Appian's Roman History (Vol I: The Wars in Spain) (1912) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol III: Theodoret) (1892) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Petronius: The Satyricon and the Fragments (1965) translated by John Sullivan (Penguin Classics); The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (2006) by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof.

Gladiators and Caesars (2000) edited by Eckart Köhne and Cornelia Ewigleben; Gladiators (1967) by Michael Grant; Emperors and Gladiators (1992) by Thomas Wiedemann; Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History (1983) by Keith Hopkins; Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (1972) by Roland Auguet; "The Roman Games" by John H. Humphrey, in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean (1988) edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger; The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans (1993) by Carlin Barton; The Colosseum (1990) by Roberto Luciani; Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (1969) by J. P. V. D. Balsdon; The Roman Empire (1992) by Colin Wells; Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995) edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics).


Visually, no one can do better than to see the first hour of Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus (1960). As spectacular as is Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), Commodus, of course, did not allow himself to be killed in the arena but just as melodramatically was strangled in his bath on New Year's Eve. The historians Cassius Dio and Herodian both were contemporaries of Commodus, Dio actually witnessing the antics of Commodus in the arena. Their accounts of those days are more chilling than anything to be seen on the screen.

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