Throughout the Roman Empire, gladiatorial combat was – for over five centuries – one of the most watched and celebrated forms of popular entertainment. Men, women and animals shed each other’s blood in a fierce arena where, more often than not, there were only ever two basic choices: to kill or be killed.
Roman gladiatorial combat emerged in the 3rd century BCE in Campania, southern Italy, as part of funeral rites, with combat – simulated or not – put on as part of commemorations. It quickly evolved, growing in both stature and lavishness with increasingly large celebrations. By the 1st century CE it peaked with the adoption of gladiatorial combat into state-held games – extravagant, month-long celebrations put on for victories, coronations and religious dates. This upscaling in the size of the events led to the creation of dedicated gladiatorial schools, where slaves, convicts and prisoners were forced to fight. The gladiator schools were run by a school head (or lanista), who would acquire potential gladiators, then house and train them over a series of months or even years. The school would then either lease or sell gladiators to the state or private families. Nobles often invested in them and were encouraged to as it was seen as an acceptable business for the upper classes. Interestingly, while it was deemed proper for the aristocracy to own gladiators, the heads of gladiatorial schools were perceived as lowly members of society, with most referred to as nothing more than common slavers.
Gladiator training was equally complex. Far from each person solely being trained to fi ght with a simple sword and shield, in fact individuals were categorised into a number of gladiatorial types, each differing in arms, apparel, armour, accessories and technique. Indeed, records show that there were over 20 different kinds of gladiator, ranging from retiarius net fighters, through to cestus fist-fighters and on to dimachaerus dual-weapon fighters, among many others. Importantly, specific gladiators were paired against others of their same class, or those from one that complemented them, the latter designed to provide greater entertainment. For example, the smooth-helmeted secutores were often pitted against retiarii as the latter’s net generally struggled to capture secutores.
Upon arriving at an arena, gladiators were stored in cells near to or under the playing field. Here they could prepare for their upcoming match, select their weapons (or, if they weren’t so fortunate, have them assigned) at an armoury, and then be transported via a walkway or elevator to the arena proper. Matches varied in complexity, ranging from straight gladiator-on-gladiator bouts, which could end in death for the loser if so decreed by the crowd/emperor, gladiator-on-animal fights, or historically inspired team fights, where groups of opposing gladiators would attack each other as part of epic re-enactments.
Importantly though, gladiatorial games did not simply involve gladiators fighting one another. On the contrary, a vast array of events and activities were held within the arena, ranging from animal hunts to musical recitals, theatrical plays to straight-out executions, state announcements and forays into the arena by the emperor himself. Here HIW takes a closer look at gladiators and the life-and-death games they participated in, explaining some of the key people, places and processes that made this pastime so well-loved in the Roman era.