Gladiators – The Rock Stars of the Roman Era

Christina here. As I mentioned in my last post, the hero of my new dual time story SHADOWS IN THE ASHES is a gladiator, a word that evokes images of extreme violence and gory death in vast amphitheatres during Roman times. Most of them died young, with the audience baying for their blood, but I was fascinated to discover that those who survived for any length of time could become famous and feted like rock stars! (Women, in particular, seem to have been huge fans!) They feature in mosaics and on items like vases, and were clearly very popular, but what were their lives really like?


Gladiatorial games were put on as entertainment for the masses. They were usually paid for by one of the local magistrates or councillors of the town, who were rich enough to afford to sponsor them. He was called the editor. This was expensive indeed, as not only did they have to pay the lanista (the owner and trainer of gladiators) for use of his troupe, but they also had to provide prize money for those who won, and hire musicians and other entertainers as well. If you’re interested in reading more about how the tradition of gladiatorial games started, have a look at this fascinating article Wench Anne kindly found for me here.

The games usually started in the morning with a procession into the arena – the organiser/sponsor, local magistrates, the gladiators, animal hunters and musicians took part. Musicians performed first, then it was time for the venationes – wild animal hunts, although it was more than that. It could be animals being hunted, animals fighting each other, or others trained to perform in some way. Obviously, the more exotic, the better. This could be followed by acrobats and other entertainers. Around lunchtime (when some people had gone off to eat lunch), public executions were held. They were often done in the cruellest possible ways, not just straightforward killing. Then finally it was time for the gladiatorial bouts.

Gladiators were mostly slaves or criminals, but there were the occasional free men who chose to become one in the hope of fame and fortune. They were owned by the lanista and had to sign contracts for a certain period of time, and the terms were harsh. Living together in caserma (barracks), they trained daily and were given plenty of food. Mostly they ate a lot of carbohydrates to make them strong and muscular. There were physicians and masseurs on hand to keep them fit and healthy. However, they could be severely punished – put in shackles, whipped or branded – and had no choice about whether to fight or not.

Each gladiator was given a role to play – the audience expected entertainment, and it was more fun for them if the combatants were mismatched. There were therefore different kinds of gladiator with various types of armour and weapons, some very strange indeed to make them seem barbaric. It was never an equal pairing and the lanista had to come up with the most exciting combinations. For example, the murmillo fought with a short sword and carried a large rectangular shield, the hoplomachus fought with a 6ft long spear and carried a round shield, while the retiarius had no shield, just a circular fishing net and a long trident. The spectators would have known exactly what each one was and what they could do. It might seem as though a man with a trident and a net should be easy to beat by a gladiator with a sword and shield, but if he could get the sword entangled in the net, the tables were turned. They fought in pairs, always matched for maximum entertainment value.

Gladiators fought barefoot, to give them better grip in the sand the arena was covered with. They were commonly dressed in just a loincloth, often vividly coloured ones, as well as armour and sometimes leather or quilted padding. The armour worn by some of them was quite heavy – greaves (leg protection), arm protectors and bronze helmets of various kinds weighing between 6-15 lbs. I saw examples of helmets in a museum in Naples and they looked extremely heavy and uncomfortable, especially if the fights were taking place during the hot summer months. The retiarius was usually bare-headed, and the men chosen for this role were often the most handsome ones, which made them great favourites with the ladies. Some had quite a fan club!

Each time they won, they were given a prize – could be coins or precious stones – and a palm leaf to signify victory. If they lost a bout, they had to throw down their shield and raise their left arm in surrender, then wait for the editor’s verdict. He had the power to decide whether the man should die or if he’d fought bravely enough to live to see another day. The audience would add their opinion, shouting ‘mitte’ (mercy) if they wanted him to be given mercy, or ‘iugula’ (kill him) if they thought he should be killed. They were obviously a blood-thirsty lot and it’s difficult for us these days to imagine this as entertainment.

To enter the amphitheatre in Pompeii, you pass through a dark tunnel paved with basalt blocks that slopes downwards. As I walked through that into the vast arena, I could imagine what it must have felt like for those men who would be fully aware that they might never get out of there alive. The noise would have been deafening. The crowd – and there is seating for up to 15,000 people in three tiers – would have egged them on to feats of courage. And they could also have boo-ed if they didn’t like what they were seeing. How thoroughly demoralising!

Training a gladiator for peak performance took time and money, and the owner would obviously have been reluctant to have his best men killed. It would also cost the editor more if someone died because he had to pay for the value of the lost gladiator. So there was probably some collusion between the lanista and the sponsor to make sure not too many died. I have read about gladiators who survived as many as 50 bouts, and who were buried in rich tombs. If you were an excellent fighter, it was clearly possible to survive and do well, perhaps even gain your freedom eventually. My hero, Raedwald, is more realistic, however, and decides to try and free himself. He has no idea that he might get help from a very unlikely quarter – a slumbering volcano!

We obviously wouldn’t consider gladiatorial games as entertainment these days – what’s your favourite kind of entertainment?