We have long been fascinated by gladiators, as evidenced by things like the blockbuster Russell Crowe movie, but how much do we really know about the gladiators of Ancient Rome?
While gladiators dressed and acted like soldiers, they were not Rome’s army. Instead, these men performed their acts of combat in the middle of arenas (like Rome’s Colosseum) in front of thousands of spectators. They may have been fighting one another in very real circumstances (nothing like the fake “professional wrestling” so popular today), but this was entirely for show.
Roman gladiators were celebrities in one sense, in that people knew their names and would cheer for certain men. They were usually not, however, free men who were paid for risking their lives in the arena. In many cases, the gladiators were slaves, offered the opportunity to fight as a way to earn their freedom. As you can imagine, it was an incredible gamble that didn’t typically work out in the gladiator’s favor. For the gladiators who triumphed, the rewards included prize money from that particular fight, as well as a kind of immortality, as their images and names were preserved in mosaics and poems.
Gladiators fought in what were called “gladiatorial games,” which included fighting criminals who had been sentenced to fight in the arena, other gladiators, and even wild animals such as lions and tigers. There is evidence of gladiatorial games as far back as the 3rd century BCE, and were popular forms of entertainment for several centuries.
Despite the risks, many Ancient Romans wanted to become gladiators, and would try to get into the gladiator schools. In these, they were at least guaranteed food and shelter, as well as the potential to become famous. Gladiators who survived their fighting days would often live quite comfortably, thanks to the emperor.
Do you want to learn what it takes to be a gladiator? You can still enroll in a Roman Gladiator School – only this one lasts just two hours and doesn’t involve any wild animals.