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You’ve probably seen a movie or a TV show that took place in ancient Rome where gladiators fought in the coliseum or an amphitheater. At the end of the fight, the emperor or some other official would extend their thumb to see if the defeated gladiator would live or would die.
But how accurate is that depiction of gladiatorial contests? Did gladiators always die in the arena? Did the emperor determine their fate? How exactly did the entire system work, and perhaps most important, why in the world did they do this in the first palace?
Learn more about gladiators and gladiatorial contests, what was fact and what was fiction, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Gladiatorial contests were a very popular form of public entertainment in ancient Rome. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, they probably weren’t the most popular form of entertainment, as that distinction was held by chariot racing.
Gladiatorial games were something that was pretty unique to Roman culture. Other cultures did have blood sports where competitors could be injured and possibly killed, although not on purpose.
The Mayans and Aztecs also had competitions where the losers could be killed, but they weren’t necessarily engaged in combat. They were usually engaging in a violent ballgame.
So why did the Romans engage in this uniquely brutal form of entertainment?
The origin of gladiatorial games is shrouded in the mists of ancient history. The Greek historian Nicolaus of Damascus believed that they were actually adopted from earlier Etruscan funeral rites.
The Etruscans were a people who inhabited the Italian peninsula before the Romans and from whom many Roman traditions originated. They supposedly fought in honor of the deceased person, but it wasn’t necessarily to the death.
Another theory is that the tradition came from the Campanians, who were another Italian tribe. The Roman historian Livy gave a very specific origin and said gladiatorial games were first held in 310 BC when the Campanians celebrated their victory over the Samnites. These gladiatorial contests were held as a part of a celebration, and the games were used to reinforce some moral or historical point, with the gladiators representing Campanians or their enemies.
There might be a bit of truth to both stories as they were both tribes of Italian origin. The earliest physical evidence we have is from frescos in tombs from Campania dating back to the 4th century BC that depict fights matched in pairs.
The first actual Roman gladiatorial games were first recorded in 264 BC during the First Punic War when a former Roman consul named Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva had three gladiators fight to the death in Rome’s cattle market to honor his deceased father.
These early gladiatorial games were considered a munus or a gift or offering to the dead.
However, these munus games eventually became more elaborate and larger. In 183 BC, the funeral of former consul Publius Licinius consisted of three days of gladiatorial games. These games reflected a transition from a funeral style of combat to that of a more celebratory or entertainment type of game.
In 105 BC, the first state-sponsored gladiatorial games were held that were not privately sponsored and not held in association with a funeral.
In the first century BC, they became a staple of Roman celebrations, and an entire industry sprang up around gladiators. They were held for both private and public reasons, with private citizens still hosting them for funeral purposes, but funeral celebrations were conveniently held during election season.
By the first century BC, just as gladiatorial games were becoming popular, the Roman Republic was already in its final days. Gladiatorial games were largely something that was popular during Rome’s imperial period.
From here on out, know that gladiatorial traditions and norms changed over time, so it is difficult to make a universal statement about them that is true over a four-hundred-year period.
So who were gladiators?
The vast majority of gladiators were slaves. They could have been soldiers who were captured in combat and forced into slavery, or they could have been athletic slaves that gladiatorial schools purchased.
Gladiatorial schools were known as ludi. It was here that they were trained and taught the art of combat.
The fact that gladiators were slaves who were trained meant that a great deal of investment was put into them and is the key to understanding how most gladiatorial games worked.
As investments, they weren’t to be thrown away lightly, lest the owner of a gladiatorial school lose their investment.
Gladiatorial games were a cross between professional wrestling and mixed martial arts….but with weapons.
Gladiators, first and foremost, were to put on a good show. They had to please the crowd. That doesn’t mean that the fights were scripted or fake, but that they had actually to put on a good show.
Gladiators came in different styles. These styles reflected the weapons, armor, and fighting techniques of different cultures.
There is a long list, but just to give you an idea of the different types…
A Secutores was a heavily armed gladiator equipped with a large rectangular shield (scutum) and a sword, both of which were quite heavy. They often fought against more lightly armed opponents.
Retiarii were known for using a trident and a net. They wore minimal armor and relied on agility and strategy to defeat their opponents.
The Dimachaerus were gladiators who wielded two swords, and their fighting style emphasized agility and dual-wielding techniques.
There were several other types of gladiators as well who used different styles of weapons, shields, and armor.
You can think of them as different classes in a video game. They would often be pitted against each other as the crowd wanted to see if a slower, heavily defended gladiator could be one who was quicker but with fewer defenses.
Gladiators were certainly athletic, but they were also usually a bit chubby, and this was on purpose. As slaves, they were fed very cheap meals that were very high in carbohydrates, often a lot of grain. This was not only to reduce costs but also to create a layer of Subcutaneous fat. Gladiators were sometimes known as hordearii, which means eaters of barley.
The fat would protect the gladiators from cuts that they might receive during combat.
Speaking of cuts, gladiators would often receive some of the best medical care that Rome had to offer, which isn’t necessarily saying much, given the state of medical knowledge at the time.
One of the most famous surgeons in Roman history was Galen of Pergamon. He got his start treating gladiators, which really was the best place to get on-the-job training for such a career. He was so highly respected that Emperor Marcus Aurelius hired him to be his personal physician.
There was also a huge risk in training slaves to be skilled warriors. This came to a head during the Third Servile War, which was a slave revolt that began at a gladiatorial school and was led by a gladiator named Spartacus.
This, of course, brings up the big question, how likely was a gladiator to die in the arena?
The answer to this question is surprisingly difficult. Much of what we know comes from the tombs of former gladiators, and these suffer from a form of survivor bias…..or in this case, non-survivor bias.
What we do know is that the depiction in movies of every fight being a fight to the death is absolutely not true. The owner of the gladiators didn’t want to lose their investments, and the crowds also didn’t necessarily want to see a good fighter die.
I’ve seen a range of estimates that put the odds of dying in the area anywhere between 5 to 25%. That is a pretty big range, but it shows that the odds of coming out of a fight alive were good.
This, however, only deals with dying in the arena. It is quite possible that a high number of fatalities were suffered from wounds gained in the area, which resulted in later infections.
Even if they survived, a fight with real weapons would take a toll on someone. The average gladiator would only fight a few times a year for this reason.
There was a fight known as a sine missione. In such a fight, only one person could survive. However, these were banned under Emperor Agustus as the cost of having so many gladiators die was becoming too prohibitive.
When the emperors Claudius and Caligula didn’t spare the lives of popular fighters, their popularity with the masses suffered, as the crowds wanted to see good fighters spared.
The average gladiator usually didn’t live beyond the age of 30.
One thing which is almost never depicted in movies showing gladiatorial combat is that the fights had referees. The referees were an important part of the fight. They could separate the fighters, order a pause to allow the combatants a chance to catch their breath, allow them to get some water, or stop fights entirely.
Referees were usually retired, well-respected gladiators.
Another staple of gladiatorial fights in movies is the combatants standing before the emperor and saying, “We who are about to die salute you.” In Latin, it would be “Morituri te salutant!”
There is little indication that this was actually used before fights. It comes from a story from the historian Suetonius who wrote about a naval fight that was to take place before the opening of a large public works project for Emperor Claudius.
The battle, which was to be held on a lake that was going to be drained, had thousands of participants, mostly consisting of condemned criminals. Supposedly, before the battle was to take place, they all shouted in unison, “Ave, Imperator: Morituri te salutant!”
To which Claudius supposedly replied, “aut non” which means “or not.”
The men thought they had been pardoned and pretended to fight. This was the only case of the phrase ever recorded being used.
The other thing that is often associated with gladiatorial combat is the emperor or some other official giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate if someone would die.
We don’t really know what hand signals are, but many historians think that the hand signals were, in fact, the exact opposite. A thumbs down, or a closed fist, meant that the victor should put down their weapon and spare their opponent.
A thumb up in Rome was known as the hostile thumb or the infestus pollex. It was considered to be an insult on par with using the middle finger today. Alternatively, some think the symbol for someone to die was a sideways thumb, as it would then be drawn across the neck.
I previously mentioned that gladiators were mostly slaves. There were actually freedmen who voluntarily became gladiators. There were even some cases of men of equestrian and senatorial status who became gladiators.
Why would they do this?
Despite being formally placed at the lowest rung of society, gladiators could be incredibly popular. They had fans. They had groupies. Despite being slaves, some gladiators could wind up becoming quite rich. Even Emperor Commodus performed as a gladiator in the Colosseum, which the public loved, and the upper class was totally embarrassed by.
In addition to regular combat, there would often be special events, including beast hunts, where wild animals from all over the empire were brought in to face gladiators.
On rare occasions, there were even female gladiators. They would occasionally appear starting in the first century, but they had a very mixed reaction. Some people thought that women fighting and battling beasts was quite the spectacle, and others thought that it was an example of the decay of Roman morals.
The use of women in gladiatorial combat was banned in the year 200 by Emperor Septimius Severus after he failed at an attempt to have women compete in gladiatorial games.
There were two things that brought about the end of gladiatorial games in Rome.
The first was that it became very expensive. In the late empire, money was needed to fund armies, and funding gladiatorial spectacles was considered to be a waste.
The thing that was the final nail in the gladiatorial coffin was the rise of Christianity in the empire. Early Christian writers such as Tertullian and Saint Augustus both condemned gladiatorial games.
In 393, Theodosius I adopted Christianity as the state religion and banned pagan festivals, which eliminated the funeral excuse for many gladiatorial games.
They were finally formally banned in 399 by Emperor Honorius and again in 404. There were contests that were held in distant parts of the empire for the next century, but they were few and far between. As the gladiatorial schools were closed, there was less talent able to compete, and people eventually lost interest as fewer games were held. For most of the Byzantine Empire, there were no gladiatorial games.
Gladiators and gladiatorial combat were unique to Rome and really only something which existed for a part of Rome’s history, albeit for several centuries.
Ancient Rome had many accomplishments but gladiatorial games were certainly not one of them. It that was something uniquely barbarous and brutal about Roman culture and practice that almost no other culture in the world developed, at least certainly not on the scale which it did in Rome.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Blake Wood over on Podbean. They write:
I listen to your podcasts every night as I’m laying to fall asleep! I really like all the different things that you cover in your episodes! Thanks! And I just discovered the playback speed adjuster… I put it on 0.5x just to see what it would be like and you sound so drunk it was cracking me up!
Thanks, Blake! A good reminder to everyone that so long as you are using a podcast app where you can control the speed, I can talk as fast or as slow as you want. As to whether I sound drunk or not, I leave that up to you.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.