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The Gladiators of Rome

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Gladiator reenactment.

Gladiators were skilled fighters. To entertain the crowd, they were often forced to either kill their opponent or die in the arena. Most gladiators were slaves, but some free men also volunteered to enter the arena for fame or wealth.

Combat between gladiators started as a religious ceremony; it may have had Etruscan roots, as the Romans themselves claimed. The first written account describes a ceremony to honour the eminent citizen Junius Brutus Pera in 264 BC. His sons purchased three pairs of gladiators who were forced to fight to the death at the bustum1, or funeral pyre. The practice spread and the gladiators of this time were known as bustuarii or bustum fighters. They shed blood to appease and honour the gods and to ensure a welcome for the deceased in the afterlife.

In later years, gladiators were prisoners taken in military campaigns, and they fought in their national style. This gave rise to several types of gladiator, including the Thracians, the Samnites and the Gauls. Over the years, other gladiatorial styles were added to the list as the taste of the crowd demanded. Wherever the empire expanded, the spectacle of the gladiator went with it. Every new town or settlement of any importance soon built an arena2.

After a history of 668 years, the last known gladiator tournament took place in Rome on 1 January, 404 AD. There are around 240 known arenas spread around the Roman Empire3, an indication of the popularity of the games.

The Gladiators Of Rome

The name 'gladiator' derives from the Latin word gladius4, meaning 'sword', but the weaponry they used varied greatly. There were more than 20 styles of fighter, and some proved to be more popular with the crowd than others. The favourites became the mainstay of any event for most of the 668 years the games were in existence.

The Most Popular Foot-gladiators

The Thracian, inspired by one of Rome's ancient enemies, wore a visored helmet with a distinctive brim and high crest, and was armed with a dangerous curved sword (a sica) and a small shield (a parma). They were protected with armour from wrist to elbow on the sword arm, as well as long greaves5, and often wore articulated armour on the thighs. The normal opponent of the Thracian was the Mirmillo or the Hoplomachus.

The Mirmillo (plural Mirmillones) was armed with a gladius and an oblong military-style shield. Like the Thracian he wore armour from wrist to elbow on the sword arm. For protection he wore a helmet with a mormylos or fish symbol. The normal opponent of the Mirmillo was the Thracian, the Retiarius or the Hoplomachus.

The Retiarius (plural Retiarii) or fisherman, like most gladiators fought bare chested. Armed with a trident, and a dagger carried in a belt at his waist, he also carried a weighted net. The Retiarius wore armour from wrist to elbow on the left arm. He was always put against heavily armed opponents, such as the Mirmillo or the Secutor, as his speed and skill was supposed to even the odds.

The speciality of the Secutor (plural Secutores), or 'chaser', was to fight the Retiarius. He was armed with a gladius, an oblong military-style shield and also a dagger. For protection he wore a full-face close-fitting helmet with small eye holes. This was designed to be hard to snare in the net of the Retiarius, but made it hard for him to get his breath in a long fight. The Secutor also wore articulated armour from wrist to shoulder on the left arm.

Other Foot-Gladiators

Based on a Greek fighter, the Dimachaerus (plural Dimachaeri) was armed with two sicae (curved swords). He was protected with padded leggings and leather greaves, and wore a light helmet with a visor. He also wore light armour from wrist to elbow on the left arm. The normal opponent of the Dimachaerus was the Murmillo.

Inspired by the peoples of Gaul, Rome's defeated enemy, and pre-dating both the Secutor and Murmillo, the Gallus (plural Galli) was armed with a sword and an oblong military-style shield. Protected with a greave on just the left leg, he wore the galea, a helmet with a visor and a wide brim which had a high decorated crest running from the front to the back. He also wore armour from wrist to elbow on the right arm. The normal opponent of the Gallus was the Thracian or the Mirmillo, occasionally the Scissor.

The Hoplomachus (plural Hoplomachi) was inspired by Rome's ancient enemy, the Greek Hoplite. Each was armed with a spear and a circular shield, and protected by padded leggings and greaves. He wore a traditional helmet which bore a griffin crest. The normal opponent of the Hoplomachus was either the Thracian, the Mirmillo or the Gallus.

The Laquerius (plural Laquerii) was quite unusual and only seen in the early empire era. Possibly of Balkan origin, the similarity with the Retiarius is unmistakable. He was armed with a spear and dagger that was carried in a belt at his waist, and he carried a laqueum (lasso). He also wore armour from wrist to elbow on the left arm. Like the Retiarius, he was put against heavily-armed opponents due to his speed and skill. The normal opponent of the Laquerius was the Mirmillo or the Secutor.

The Lusiarius (plural Lusiarii) wore a padded arm guard on the left arm and a broad belt. Designed mainly for a contest of skill, he was armed with two rods or a combination of rods, whips and scythes. He wore no armour but was known to occasionally wear a greave on the left leg. The only opponent of a Lusiarius was another Lusiarius.

The Provocator (plural Provocatores) was similarly only paired against a gladiator of the same kind. Known as the 'challenger', they issued challenges to each other prior to combat. Each was armed with a sword and an oblong military-style shield, and wore a helmet, a Provocator Galea, which had no crest or ornamentation. He was the only gladiator to wear a breast plate. The Provocator also wore armour from wrist to elbow on the right arm, and a greave on the left leg.

The Pugilatus (plural Pugilatus) was a specialist of early boxing, a gladiator of Greek origin. They always fought against other Pugilatus. Their arms were protected with padded leather coverings and the hands were covered with a thick leather pads across the knuckles. The head was protected by a close-fitting leather helmet, if at all. There were no rules; they fought until one of the fighters could not go on.

The Retiarius Tunicatus (plural Retiarii Tunicati) fought wearing a padded tunic, something often regarded as improper, and was armed with a trident, a dagger carried in a belt at his waist and the weighted net. He also wore armour from wrist to elbow on the left arm. Like other Retiarii, he was also put against heavily armed opponents, normally the Mirmillo or the Secutor.

The Samnis (plural Samnites) was inspired by Rome's ancient enemy, the peoples of Samnium, and was armed with a sword and an oblong shield. Each was protected with a greave on just the left leg, and with a close fitting helmet which had a high crest running from the front to the back. He also wore armour from wrist to elbow on the right arm. The Samnis may eventually have been replaced by the Hoplomachus.

The Scissor (plural Scissores) had a similar fighting style to the Lusiarius but was armed with two swords. He wore a rounded smooth helmet and his upper body was protected by armour: a breast plate and a mixture of chain mail and scale armour covering other exposed regions. He was also known to wear a greave on the left leg. The probable opponent of the Scissor was another Scissor, however his equipment suggests that he was possibly paired against the Retiarius or the Gallus.

The Veles (plural Velites) was a very lightly-armed gladiator equipped with a spear and a sword. No armour or helmet was worn; this gladiator relied on speed and skill. Velites often fought against each other, against mounted opponents and chariot fighters, or as skirmishers in mass events.

Mounted Or Chariot Fighters

The Andabata (plural Andabatae) was a very unusual form of fighter; each was a condemned criminal fighting for his life. They only fought other Andabatae and various numbers were put in the arena to amuse the crowd. Each was mounted on horseback and armed with a sword, but wearing an enclosed helmet that allowed no vision. The entertainment saw them blundering around the arena guided by shouts from attendants until they made contact or collided with each other. They continued in this way until they were maimed or killed, often fighting until the last man alive was freed as a reward for survival. These bouts were only held in the mornings to warm up the crowd. Any wounded were dispatched by arena attendants.

The Eques (plural Equites) was a mounted fighter, armed with a sword and spear. For protection each wore a padded tunic with an arm guard. Their normal opponent was another Eques.

The Essedarius (plural Essedarii) fought from a chariot, resembling the Celtic warrior the Romans met during the conquests of Britain and Gaul. Normally these were only used in re-enactment events. They wore no armour, but carried a spear and an oval shield and wore a crested Celtic-style helmet.

The Sagittarius (plural Sagittarii) was a mounted bowman based upon the cavalry of the Parthian Empire. Mainly used in battle re-enactment events, they thrilled the crowd with their skill and horsemanship.

Animal-fighting Gladiators

The Bestiarius (plural Bestiarii) was armed with a leather dagger and a spear, and occasionally carried a shield. The legs and arms were protected with padded leather coverings and the head and face by a helmet with a visor. The helmet was often adorned with appropriate crests. The opponents of the Bestiarius were large carnivores – essentially big cats.

The Paegniarius (plural Paegniarii) was armed with a leather whip and protected with a padded military-style tunic, padded leggings, a wide leather belt and a wooden shield strapped to his arm. The only opponents of the Paegniarius were wild animals6.

Both the Bestiarius and the Paegniarius were also skilled as beast trainers.

Gladiators with a Special Function

The Praegenarius (plural Praegenarii) provided entertainment between events to amuse the crowd. They used wooden weapons and emulated the other gladiators' styles. They were not expected to kill each other and their role was purely entertainment. Their function has been compared to that of clowns.

The Tertiarius Suppositicius (plural Tertiarii Suppositicii) was a substitute gladiator, always ready to take the place of any fighter that could not enter the arena.

The Training

Gladiator training took place in a camp known as a Ludus. The trainer, known by the title lanista, ran the school with his staff. The gladiators at the school were known as the familiae.

Training was important. The method of fighting was refined to such a point that it was vital that gladiators knew their appointed style. There was also a great deal of skill involved in the pairing of gladiators to ensure sport and entertainment for the crowd. The training was based on the eventual pairings as it took some time for a gladiator to perfect these skills. A bout between two of the same or similar gladiators was a show of skill and stamina, but the Romans also enjoyed the spectacle of gladiators with apparently unequal chances.

A system was developed to even the odds, initially by restricting the more heavily-armoured gladiators by their equipment. The odds were further adjusted by restricting the field of vision of the better armed men. In addition, the crests and projections on helmets gave an opportunity for opponents such as the Retiarius to snare the head of his opponent. The lightly-equipped and lightly-armed gladiator was therefore given speed, vision and time to wear down his heavily armed opponent and if he had the skill to disable him and bring him down. This led to the diversity in the types of gladiator and the many styles of combat, with the emphasis being on skill rather than brute force. The gladiators became such experts in single combat that they were often used to train soldiers in the art, the training taking place in the legionary camps.

The gladiators who fought animals were trained in schools known as the bestiariorum or scholae bestiarum. The Paegniarii and Bestiarii were the least likely to be killed in the arena, but despite this were very popular with the crowds.

Security was reinforced by strict discipline, especially after the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 - 71 BC. The two main offences were escape – this also included attempted suicide – and revolt, and the punishments could be harsh even by Roman standards. Even the volunteer gladiators, the auctorati, were under contract and the only way out was to win your freedom. If a gladiator survived long enough or if he was outstanding in skill or valour, he was freed and rewarded. The symbol of a freed gladiator was the rudis, a simple wooden sword that was presented to him to mark the end of his career. The presentation also marked the start of his life as a free man. Many freed gladiators stayed on as trainers; some even started their own gladiatorial schools.

Who Are You Calling Fat?

In surviving carvings and mosaics, gladiators were often depicted as bulky, heavy-set men. Their diet was mainly vegetarian: they were nicknamed hodari or barley-eaters due to their diet of barley and beans with little meat. The barley diet enabled them to put on weight and build a layer of fat, which would to some extent make up for the lack of armour, the padded tissue protecting both the bone and nerves from crushing blows. Gladiators were an investment and their diet was of vital importance in keeping them healthy. They also received the best medical care: Claudius Galen, the personal physician of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was once a doctor in a gladiator school.

The average age of gladiators killed in the arena was 28. Few fought beyond that age; most died in their early twenties.

The Venue

All games were sponsored by a prominent citizen, or munerarius, who needed to be wealthy to stage even a moderate event. A typical programme of events at a large arena may have run as follows.

For Your Entertainment

The first into the arena would be the Andabatae, the blind, mounted, condemned criminals, whose bouts were held to warm up the spectators. These were often followed by contests between man and beast. The beasts were slaughtered at the end and cooked to provide food at noon for the crowd.

Midday was reserved for the executions of more serious criminals; sometimes beasts were used as a method of execution. The upper classes would leave the arena rather than watch executions, as this was considered as being beneath them. If there were no executions, contests involving the Bestiarii or Venatores were staged.

It was then the turn of the gladiators. The main bouts were often preceded by exhibition and demonstration warm-up bouts, using wooden weapons. These served to loosen up the gladiators after a morning of sitting around waiting, also to excite the crowd and encourage betting.

To begin the afternoon entertainment a procession, the pompa entered the arena. The games contractor and staff displayed the equipment to the crowd, and the armour and weapons were inspected in public by the patron. The gladiators would then assemble before the sponsor to acknowledge and salute him. The traditional salutation was:

Ave, morituri te salutant

(Hail, they who are to die salute you.)

At the sponsor's acknowledgement of the salute an arena official would signal the commencement of the gladiatorial combat. The main bouts would then begin with pairs of gladiators fighting one-on-one.

Many arenas had musicians playing in time to the action. This has parallels with the piano accompaniment to the silent films of the 1900s, the tempo matching the action in the arena. The Romans loved theatrics and the musicians could be dressed as animals or figures from mythology. Their instruments included the flute, the trumpet and the cornu or horn. As with chariot racing the gladiatorial games had fanatical supporters, and these were divided into two groups, the scutarii (large shields) and the parmularii (small shields). The scutarii supported the lightly armoured gladiators such as the Retiarii or the Dimachaeri. The parmularii were followers of the armoured gladiators such as the Thracians or the Mirmillones, who adopted a more combative form of fighting.

At Britain's largest amphitheatre in Chester (Deva Victrix), a row of iron loops fixed in stone blocks has been found along the centre of the arena. The only reference to this, found on a mosaic at the villa at Bignor in West Sussex, depicts a pair of gladiators fighting with the block between them. It is speculated that there were some contests in which the gladiators were tied together with bonds that passed through the loop. The most likely tethering point was the ankle of each man. They also may have been used to tether wild beasts for the combat displays of the Bestiarii. The discovery of the blocks proves that gladiatorial games were indeed played out at Chester, quashing the theory, argued by some, that British amphitheatres were used solely for military training, tattoos and ceremonial functions.

At The End

It was important for a defeated gladiator to end his life well. If condemned, he knelt and the victor would pull back his head then deliver the final blow. At the base of the neck, from a point on the left of the throat, a blade was thrust into the chest cavity and the heart. To avoid slaves escaping, a man wearing the costume of Mercury would touch the defeated gladiator with a hot iron. If still alive he would be dispatched with a blow with a large mallet administered by a man dressed as Charon, the ferryman. At the end of mass battles the dying gladiators were again killed by Charon's large mallet.

The Gods Of The Arena

The gladiators developed a tradition of favouring certain gods, particularly:

All were associated with the ritual of death, and the transportation of souls to the afterlife. The practice of honouring these gods started in Rome and rapidly spread to the provinces. The danger of the gladiators' profession forged their reliance on these particular gods for a safe welcome to the afterlife. As the gladiators came from all parts of the empire, so did the Gods.

The Spectacular

A spectacular was a massive show sponsored by a fabulously wealthy citizen, often a member of the imperial family or even the emperor himself. Julius Caesar's games staged in 45 BC took the form of a mass battle with 800 men and 18 elephants, and lasted many days. The senators of Rome imposed a limit on Caesar's games as they felt they were too large, however as the games were increasing his political popularity there might well have been other motives.

The largest event was sponsored by Emperor Traianus in 105 AD, to celebrate his conquest of Dacia. The games cost over 10,000 lives and lasted more than four months7. It was held in the Flavian Amphitheatre, now known as The Colosseum.

Other emperors sponsoring games on a spectacular scale included Caligula, Claudius and Dometianus.

The Place Of The Gladiator In Society

Caladus, the Thracian, makes all the girls sigh
— Roman graffiti.

The gladiators appeared to operate outside the rules of normal Roman society: the best ones seemed to transcend the rigid class barriers. It was even said that Emperor Commodus8 was fathered by a gladiator, his mother Faustina sleeping with one during the usual pre-games festivities. They were often treated as heroes, some even becoming the companions of Emperors.

The Amazon And The Achillia

Now commonly referred to as a gladiatrix, there is no doubt that women fought in the arena. There are a number of references from classical writers that confirm this. Cassius states that women fought as Venatores. Petronius mentions a female in the arena as an Essedarius or chariot fighter, with men as opponents.

The emperor Septimius Severus stopped women fighting in the arena in 200 AD, but the practice appears to have lingered in some of the outlying provinces of the empire.


It could be said that the legacy of the gladiator is still with us today; the arena-based bullfight is still as popular as ever and boxing is avidly followed worldwide. It should be remembered that at an average toll of 1,600 arena deaths each year, the games would have cost the lives of well over a million men and women during their 668 year history. It is fitting to remember that only they truly deserve the title of gladiator.

Arenas In Roman Britain

LocationRoman nameTranslation
Broughbridge, YorkshireIsurium Brigantum'Place of the Brigantes'
Baginton, WarwickshireLunt'A Wooded Hill'
Bawdrip, SomersetIscalis'River Settlement'
CaerleonIscia Silurum 'The Waterside Settlement of the Silures'
CaerwentVenta Silurum 'The City of the Silures'
Caistor St EdmundVenta Icenorum'The City of the Iceni'
CarmarthenMoridunum'Cty of the Demetae'
ChichesterNoviomagus Reginorum'The New Port'
ChesterDeva Victrix 'Deva Victorious'
CirencesterCorinium Dobunnorum'Cironion of the Dobunni'
ColchesterCamulodunum 'The Fortress of the War God'
DorchesterDurnovaria'The Town of the Durotriges'
InvereskCamulodunum 'The Fortress of the War God'
LondonLondinium'The Town of Lugh'
NewsteadTrimontium 'Three Peaks'
RichboroughRutupiae'The Muddy Estuary'
St AlbansVerulamium'City of the Catuvellauni'
Silchester Calleva Atrebatum'A Place in the Woods'
Tomen-y-MurMediomanae'In the Middle of the Mountains'
Wroxeter Viroconium Cornoviorum 'The Town of Vinco Cornovii'
YorkEburacum'Place of Yew Trees'
1A pyre of oil-soaked timber built over a pit. When the pyre burnt down the ash fell naturally into the pit enabling collection or burial.2From the Latin arena, meaning 'sand'. Sand covered the fighting surface of the amphitheatres.3A total of 21 in Britain are listed at the end of this Entry.4The gladiolus flower also derives from gladius, through its sword-shaped leaves.5Lower leg armour.6Big cats, bears, elephants, bulls – anything that would fight back.7124 days in total, claiming the lives of over 85 men and beasts each day.8The rumour was likely started by the emperor himself to raise his stature.

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