From Academic Kids

This article is about the Roman professional fighter. For other uses of the word, see gladiator.
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Pollice Verso, an 1872 painting by Jean-Lon Grme, is a well known history painter's researched conception of a gladiatorial combat.

Gladiators (Latin gladiatores) were professional fighters in ancient Rome who fought against each other and against wild animals, sometimes to the death, for the entertainment of spectators. These fights took place in arenas in many cities during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire.

The word comes from gladius, the Latin word for a short sword used by legionnaires and some gladiators.


1 Gladiators in modern popular culture

2 References

Ancient Roman gladiators

The gladiatorial games were originally established by the Etruscans, but were later adopted by the Roman as a means of entertainment. The Etruscans believed when an important man died his spirit needed a blood sacrifice to survive in the after life (Nardo, Games of 21). The first recorded gladiatorial combats took place in Rome in 264 BC. Decimus Junius Brutus staged it in honor of his dead father. It was held between three pairs of slaves, and held in the Forum Boarium. The ceremony was called a munus or duty paid to a dead ancestor by his descendants, with the attention of keeping alive his memory (Baker, Gladiator 10). These were held for notable people and were repeated every one to five years after the persons death.

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Bronze medallion depicting the fight between a gladiator and a wild animal (venatio).

Public spectacles (called munera, singular munus) took place in amphitheatres (like the Colosseum) and took the latter half of the day after the fights against animals (venationes) and public executions (noxii). Initially rich private individuals organized these, often to gain political favor with the public. The person who organized the show was called the editor, munerator, or dominus and he was honored with the official signs of a magistrate. Later the emperors would exert a near complete monopoly on staging public entertainment which included chariot racing in the circus (ludi circenses), hunts of wild animals, public executions, theatrical performances (ludi scaenici) and gladiator fights. There was usually musical accompaniment.

Gladiators were typically picked from prisoners of war, slaves, and sentenced criminals. There were also occasional volunteers. They were trained in special gladiator schools (ludi). One of the largest schools was in Ravenna. There were four schools in Rome itself, the largest of which was called the Ludus Magnus. The Ludus Magnus was connected to the Colosseum by an underground tunnel. Gladiators often belonged to a troupe (familia) that traveled from town to town. A trainer of gladiators or the manager of a team of gladiators was known as a lanista. The troupe's owner rented gladiators to whoever wanted to stage games. A gladiator would typically fight no more than three times per year.

It should be noted that fights were not generally to the death during the Republic, although gladiators were still killed or maimed accidentally.

Gladiators could be also the property of a wealthy individual who would hire lanistae to train them. Several senators and emperors had their own favorites.

Criminals were either expected to die within a year (ad gladium) or might earn their release after three years (ad ludum) — if they survived.

Different gladiators specialized in different weapons, and it was popular to pair off combatants with widely different equipment. Gladiator types and their weaponry included:

  • Andabatae: Fought with visored helmet and possibly blindfolded and on horseback.
  • Cimachaeri: Carried two short swords (the gladius)
  • Bestiari: Fought against beasts, usually with spears.
  • Equites: Fought on horseback with a spear and gladius, dressed in a full tunic, with a manica
  • Essedari: Charioteers in Celtic style.
  • Hoplomachi: Fully armored, based on Greek hoplites. They wore a helmet with a stylized griffin on the crest, woollen leg wrappings, and shin-guards. They carried a gladius and a small, round shield, and were paired with mirmillones or Thraces. They apparently became Samnites later.
  • Laquerii: Lasso Laqueatores were those who used a noose to catch their adversaries
  • Mirmillones (or murmillones): Wore a helmet with a stylized fish on the crest, as well as a manica. They carried a gladius and an oblong shield in the Gallic style. They were paired with hoplomachi or Thraces.
  • Provocatores: Fought with the Samnites but their armament is unknown (might have been variable, hence the term "provocators")
  • Retiarii: Carried a trident, a dagger, and a net, and had at least naked torso, no helmet, and a larger manica. They commonly fought secutores or mirmillones.
  • Samnites: Carried a long rectangular shield, visor, plumed helmet and short sword. The name came from the people of the same name Romans had conquered.
  • Secutores: Had the same armour as a murmillo, including oblong shield and a gladius, however, they wore a helmet with only two eye-holes. They were the usual opponents of retiarii.
  • Thraces: Had the same armour and weapons as hoplomachi, but instead had a round shield and also carried a curved dagger. Their name came from Thracians, and they commonly fought mirmillones or hoplomachi.
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A flask depicting the final phase of the fight between two gladiators (mirmillones).

Gladiators usually fought in pairs (Ordinarii), that is, one gladiator against another. However, sponsor or audience could request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii) or specific gladiators against each other even from outside the established troupe (Postulaticii). Sometimes lanista had to rely on substitutes (supposititii) if requested gladiator was already dead or incapacitated. Emperor could have his own gladiators (Fiscales).

At the end of a fight, when one gladiator acknowledged defeat by raising a finger, the audience could decide whether the loser should live or die. It is known that the audience (or sponsor or emperor) pointed their thumbs a certain way if they wanted the loser to be killed, but it is not clear which way they pointed. It is possible that they pointed their thumbs upwards if they wanted the loser to live, and downwards if they wanted him to die; or, they may have done the opposite, pointing downwards if they wanted the gladiator to live. Another possibility is that they raised their fist but kept their thumb inside it if they wanted the loser to live, and pointed down to signify death. A gladiator did not have to die after every match - if the audience felt both men fought admirably, they would likely want both to live and fight for their amusement in the future. A gladiator who won several fights was allowed to retire, often to train other fighters. Gladiators who managed to win their freedom - often by request of the audience or sponsor - were given a wooden sword as a memento.

The attitude of Romans towards the gladiators was ambivalent: on the one hand they were considered as lower than slaves, but on the other hand some successful gladiators rose to celebrity status. There was even a belief that nine eaten gladiator livers were a cure for epilepsy. Gladiators often developed large followings of women, who apparently saw them as sexual objects. This may be one reason that many types of gladiators fought bare-chested. It was socially unacceptable for citizen women to have sexual contact with a gladiator, but Faustina, the mother of the emperor Commodus, was said to have conceived Commodus with a gladiator (Commodus likely invented this story himself).

Despite the extreme dangers and hardships of the profession, some gladiators were volunteers (called auctorati) who fought for money; effectively this career was a sort of last chance for people who had gotten into financial troubles.

Their oath (which Seneca describes as particularly shameful) implied their acceptance of slave status and of the worst public consideration (infamia). More famous is their phrase to the emperor or sponsor before the fight: Morituri te salutant ("Those about to die salute you").

Some emperors, among them Hadrian, Caligula, Titus and Commodus also entered the arena for (presumably) fictitious or rigged combats. Emperor Trajan organized as many as 5000 gladiator fighting pairs. Gladiator contests could take months to complete.

Gaius Marius had gladiators train the legionnaires in single combat.

Female gladiators also existed; The Emperor Domitian liked to stage torchlit fights between dwarfs and women, according to Suetonius in "The Twelve Caesars".

One of the most famous gladiators was Spartacus who became the leader of a group of escaped gladiators and slaves. His revolt, which began in 73 BC, was crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus two years later. After this, gladiators were deported from Rome and other cities during times of social disturbances, for fear that they might organize and rebel again.

The Greek physician Galen worked for a while as a gladiator's physician in Pergamon.

Gladiator fights were first outlawed by Constantine I in 325 but continued sporadically until about 450. The last known gladiator competition in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404.

Gladiators in modern popular culture

Science fiction and fantasy

Gladiators are sometimes mentioned in science fiction, being depicted in the film The Running Man; as well as the games Battletech, Quake, and Unreal. The Unreal Tournament series is especially notable as a futuristic pro-wrestling take on gladiators.

The exploits of gladiators are also typical fare in the sword and sandal genre of fantasy films.

Reality entertainment

For obvious human rights and liability reasons, it has been impossible to revive gladiator fights in the historically accurate Roman sense (where the fight concludes with serious bodily injury or death).

In the U.S. during the 1990s, there was a game show called American Gladiators, and around the same time, World Wrestling Entertainment popularized a rather wild style of wrestling which some compared to gladiator combat. However, the competitors on American Gladiators never directly attacked each other, and the WWE fights have been criticized as staged due to the rare occurrence of severe physical injuries (indeed, the WWE admitted as much in certain lawsuits it was a party to).

In California, Corcoran State Prison became infamous in 1997 when it was discovered that the guards were staging informal "gladiator" fights with the prisoners (some of which were videotaped). Such fights differ from true gladiator fights in that they were not state-sponsored or approved.


et:Gladiaator fr:Gladiateur he:גלדיאטור it:Gladiatore la:Gladiator nl:Gladiator pl:Gladiator sr:Гладијатор fi:Gladiaattori sv:Gladiator zh:角斗士 ja:剣闘士


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