In the Flavian amphitheater, gladiator fights took place in the afternoon. Their name comes from the short sword they used in fighting: the "gladius." The gladiator of Rome learned the art of gladiatorial combat in "ludi," schools that were barracks much like prisons found throughout the empire; he slept in small cells arranged around the courtyard where he trained.
The ludi were directed by an owner (the lanista), an instructor of the gladiators who had absolute power over them. In Rome, the imperial ludi, (the only authorized schools), housed up to 2,000 men: the “ludus matutinus” where wild beast hunters practiced, the “ludus gallicus,” the “ludus dacicus,” and the “ludus magnus.”
Gladiators could be prisoners of war, criminals, convicts, slaves, condemned men, or free men with no future; they could be inexperienced or true professionals, especially prisoners of war who after experiencing several armed struggles, fights, battles, and sufferings were particularly tempered and fierce and often came from distant lands such as Thrace and Germany. These characters were the most sought-after, and since they had no other way to live their existence decently, they willingly put themselves forward and became heavily involved in the dangerous career of the gladiator.
Women also fought but they were very rare and therefore also in high demand. The popularity of the winning gladiator was truly remarkable, the people extolled him and followed the fights and shows with passion, and his name became famous.
Gladiators trained in different assault or defense techniques using different weapons, and depending on the type of weapon and technique they used they were called: “cetervari,” “secutores,” “reziari,” “mirmillones,” and “traces.”
Different pairs of gladiators were always pitted against each other in the fights; the most classic ones were between the “reziari” and the “mirmilloni” and between the “traci” and the “secutores.”
The gladiator who had vanquished his opponent would turn to the amphitheater audience to ask what fate the crowd wanted to reserve for the vanquished, and the crowd, with a hand sign, would decide for death or life: the thumb pointing upward, “mitte” (safe) meant he should live and the thumb pointing downward, “jugula” (death) meant he should die. In the end, however, it was the emperor or whoever organized the spectacle in question who determined the fate of the defeated gladiator with his thumb.
Each gladiator killed cost a very high amount of money to the emperor or the one who organized the show, and clearly they did not easily ask for their death; it probably also depended on the high demand of the spectating populace.
The gladiatorial fights took inspiration from mythological episodes while always trying to compete with new spectacles and new ideas so as not to tire the audience, while also staging grotesque situations that would entertain and excite the crowd at the same time.
Gladiators, in fact, were prisoners and could not escape; they could only regain their freedom by fighting in the arena and hoping that some powerful person would notice their courage and strength and decide to free them. This hope was in the hearts of the gladiators and helped them to better endure their fate.
The gladiator had, therefore, a difficult and very risky life. He fought for life, freedom, and glory, and the Roman people appreciated and were fascinated by the strength and courage of the victorious gladiator who became a great hero.
Who were the Roman gladiators?
Gladiators slaves, prisoners of war but also free men. One could also choose to become a gladiator.
From the first century B.C., in addition to prisoners of war, large numbers of slaves guilty of very serious crimes were forced to become gladiators.
They were required to enter a gladiatorial school and in most cases postponed their death sentence but also had the chance to rehabilitate themselves.
Some gladiators managed to regain a place in society by fighting in the arena and demonstrating courage and skill with performances that captured the approval of spectators.
For some slaves the outlook was worse; some were condemned to death by fierce beasts (ad bestias). Citizens who committed very serious crimes could also be sentenced to atrocious death in the arena by the sword (ad gladium), and for other slaves there was the even more tragic death by crucifixion (crucifixio).
Most gladiators, therefore, were forced into this role but there was no shortage of free men who showed up voluntarily because they were fascinated by the risk and violence.
These men entered into a contract that lasted for a certain period and entered gladiator schools to prepare for fighting.
Many did it for money, others because they were attracted by the strong emotions involved in fighting, and others to leave behind a state of great poverty that made it very difficult for them to live and find a decent place in society.
Most of the free citizens who enlisted were discharged military personnel who after being subjected to so much violence could no longer integrate into normal city life.
It also happened that the sons of knights and senators fought as volunteers in the arena, perhaps for one time and with less dangerous weapons, probably doing so to prove something or to change their lives in some way.
They also fought in the arena certain aristocrats without following the training of gladiator schools. Senators and knights momentarily became gladiators for fun or because they were forced to by the emperor who wanted to charge them something.
Apparently, even the emperors themselves could not resist the allure of fighting in the coliseum.
Some of them such as Titus, Hadrian, Caligula, and the famous Convenor who regularly dressed as a gladiator performed in the arena.
Conveniently it seems to have been a real hobby, a kind of game and fun, and it is clear that no gladiator would have dared to harm his emperor…
Life expectancy of the Gladiators of Rome
What life expectancy did the gladiators have? Under what conditions did they face the arena? For a gladiator, how could a fight end in the arena?
Fighting with one’s colleagues and friends.
A fight in the arena for a gladiator could end in five different ways: the gladiator could win or he could be killed, he could be executed by the people or by the emperor after surrendering, he could leave the arena alive by grace, and if the fight ended in a draw he could leave with his opponent.
Whenever a gladiator faced a fight he knew that the probability of dying was quite high both on the arena and from his injuries. Gladiators who behaved heroically were more likely to be pardoned by the people.
Many gladiators died young even after one fight.
Trying to imagine the state of mind of the gladiators as they trained, as they shared schools and where they lived, I am reminded that it was probably difficult for many of them to have a word with the friend who on the arena would become an enemy to be confronted and perhaps killed or by whom to be killed.
The stress to which gladiators were subjected on a daily basis was certainly no picnic, and living conditions were anything but easy especially for those who did not have a great reputation and were considered mediocre fighters.
Indeed, it seems, many gladiators, especially new recruits, often attempted to escape. It also appears that many of the gladiators not regarded as heroes and great fighters, living a very difficult daily life preferred suicide to the humiliation and honorless death that could present themselves to them in the arena.
Origin of gladiatorial fights or gladiatorial games
How did gladiatorial fights or gladiatorial games begin? When were gladiatorial fights done?
Gladiatorial fighting and the cult of the dead.
Gladiatorial fights (munera) derive their origins from the cult of the dead. We can see that as early as Homer’s Iliad, it is told that in honor of the late hero Patroclus, funeral games were held and prisoners were sacrificed for it and had to fight each other to the death. With these sacrifices it was thought that the spirit of the deceased could find peace, real magical rites
Apparently the first Roman ludi can be traced back to the time of Tarquinius Priscus when Rome was under the influence of the Etruscans but gladiatorial fighting came much later.
In 264 B.C., there was the first gladiator fight in honor of the 10th Junius Brutus Pera during the funeral ceremony.
Soon gladiatorial combat became essential in the funeral ceremonies of Roman nobles but also in the special events, festivities of Roman life.
“[…] the inferiae are the sacrifices for the dead, offered to the realm of the dead. Undoubtedly it was customary to kill prisoners of war before the sepulchres of valiant men: since this custom seemed cruel, it seemed expedient to have gladiators called bustuarii, from the busta […]”
(commentaries in vergili aeneidos, book x, 519)
Gladiatorial fights, executions, and hunting shows with ferocious animals were also joined by tragedies and comedies, and beginning in 186 bc. Greek professional athletes also began to perform in Rome.
Another great spectacle was provided by the chariot race where the first to cross the finish line with the chariot pulled by the four horses achieved great fame among the Roman people.
But despite the variety of spectacles the favorite was always the gladiatorial fights that were organized by public officials elected by the people.
To become someone and be appreciated by the people, one had to create an unforgettable spectacle with various lavish and expensive entertainments.