Great misconceptions

Did gladiators usually fight to the death?

The image of a row of gladiators standing before their emperor reciting the dread words, “We who are about to die salute you,” is a powerful but highly misleading one. While a convicted criminal could not look forward to a long and happy life in the arena, most gladiators were professionals for whom fighting was a way of life, not a mode of death. Fights to the death were actually rare and many gladiators became the sports heroes of their day. Women scratched their names on jewellery, teenagers painted their slogans on public bath walls and, if all went well, they retired rich and free. The famous amulet from Leicester lost by a young girl sometime in the second century AD has scratched on it “Verecunda loves Lucius the Gladiator!” – and it was a common sentiment. Of course, that’s not to say there wasn’t some risk involved. On special occasions the sponsor of the games – and nearly all games were entirely paid for by sponsors – might splash out and ask gladiators to fight to the death. But they had to pay a great deal for the privilege and they had to compensate the trainer for the gladiators he lost. Of course, being a gladiator was dangerous, but so is playing rugby or boxing. Barring accidents and ‘special occasions’, gladiators were fighting not for their lives but for the day they received their wooden sword – a symbol of their retirement and freedom. Many would then go on to found their own gladiatorial schools.

Answered by: Justin Pollard, author of Secret Britain: the Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, 2009)

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