Roman Gladiators

By Tim Lambert

Origins of the Gladiators

In Rome and other major cities in the Roman Empire gladiators were men (or sometimes women) who fought, sometimes to the death, to provide entertainment.

The first gladiators fought in 264 BC at a funeral. Six gladiators fought to entertain the guests. The word gladiator means a man who fights with a gladius (a short sword) and the word for a gladiatorial fight is a munus, which means a duty owed to the dead.

In time gladiatorial fights became separated from funerals. They evolved into public shows put on by rich Roman politicians to please their supporters. Eventually, Roman Emperors were expected to put on costly shows to keep the poor people of Rome happy.

At first gladiator shows were held in the forum (marketplace) but later they were held in purpose-built arenas. The most famous is the Colosseum (so named because it was next to a giant statue of Nero, the Colossus). The Colosseum was built in 80 AD and it could seat more than 50,000 spectators.

At first, gladiators were slaves but later some were criminals who were sentenced to fight for a set period or a set number of games. Surprisingly some people volunteered to be gladiators. Again they fought for a set time or number of games and were given a large sum of money if they survived.

Types of Gladiator

A gladiator training school was called a ludus. At its head was the owner and trainer of gladiators, called a lanista. Among the types of gladiators were the Thracian, who carried a small round shield called a parma, and a retiarius who carried a fishnet and a trident. A murmillo carried a sword and shield similar to those used by Roman soldiers.

Other types of gladiators were equites who fought on horseback with lances. British gladiators fought from chariots. They were called essedarii. Gladiators called andabatae fought wearing helmets with no eye holes. As they were blind they had to listen for their opponent!

Gladiators also fought animals such as lions and tigers. Furthermore fights sometimes took place on artificial lakes. Small ships were launched on an artificial lake and sea battles called naumachia were held on them.

From about 55 AD some women fought as gladiators but the practice was banned in 200 AD.

Not surprisingly a gladiator’s life was usually short. However, a defeated gladiator could appeal for mercy by holding up the first finger of his left hand. If the crowd wanted him to die they held their fists with their thumb pointing down. If they wanted him to live they concealed their thumb inside their fists. The last gladiatorial fights were held in the early-5th century.

Last revised 2024

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