Barbaric: Life and Death of Gladiators in Ancient Rome

We’ve come to imagine gladiators as oiled-up sexy warriors in armour that left little to the imagination, who fought each other to the death for the entertainment of rich people. Life and death of Roman gladiators was quite fascinating, actually. Keep reading to find out more.


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Slaves and Free Men

Gladiators. Mosaic

Gladiators. Mosaic. Source: Wikimedia

Traditionally, we believe all the gladiators were slaves. However, this wasn’t the case. While the slaves were the only ones who initially participated in the games, the members of nobility and other social classes also got involved after the Coliseum opened in 80 AD. The gladiator schools invited free men to get involved, promising a lucrative career, money and glory, as well as a sex symbol status. It is believed, however, that the thrill and the glory was what really mattered to the free men who enlisted.

Funeral Rituals

Sculpture depicting a Roman Funeral

Sculpture depicting a Roman Funeral. Source: Wikimedia

Originally, gladiator fights were part of funeral rituals for members of wealthy Roman nobility. The somewhat macabre eulogy involved fights between slaves at the burial site. This ritual was rooted in the belief that human blood could purify a deceased’s soul. In fact, the gladiator rituals didn’t become the games as we know them until Julius Caesar when he hosted a massive funeral for his father, and by the end of 1st century BC, the government allowed gladiator games as entertainment.

Lady Gladiators

Relief of two lady gladiators

Relief of two lady gladiators. Source: Wikimedia

Yes, female slaves were also forced to fight in the arena on occasion, although some noblewomen also joined in sometimes. They might not have been taken as seriously as the male gladiators – they were forced to fight against dwarves, for example, on many occasions – but it doesn’t mean that they were any less impressive (fans of Scandal would agree!). In 200 AD, Emperor Septimus Severus, however, banned them from participating.

Sex Symbols

Mosaic of Gladiators.

Mosaic of Gladiators. Source: Wikimedia

Unfortunately, celebrity culture had begun a lot earlier than the noughties – it actually started back in Ancient Rome. The gladiators might have been brutal by today’s standards, but back then they were considered quite the sex symbols. Many kids today play with action figures of Iron Man, Captain America, etc., depicted by conventionally attractive male actors on the big screen; the Romans had their own “superheroes” that also had their own action figures. Quite a few noblewomen wore accessories dipped in gladiators’ blood because it was believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Training Schools and Trade Unions

Amphitheater in Capua.

Amphitheater in Capua. Source: Wikimedia

Capua was the most well-known gladiator school, but it was only one of the three in Rome. The students were recruited by agents that promised them honour and glory. In reality, schools served as alternatives to prison – people were fed but weren’t allowed to talk during meals. The food was akin to today’s diet of bodybuilders, for obvious reasons.

Often deadly fights with each other didn’t, however, prevent gladiators from forming friendships with each other. Some of them even organised themselves into what today is known as “trade union”, and back then, as “collegia”. The groups’ primary responsibilities were funeral arrangements for their fallen members and ensuring that the relatives of the deceased received the appropriate monetary compensation.

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