Who were the gladiators of ancient Rome? Plus Spartacus, Crixus and 8 more fighters you should know

Gladiatorial games were organised by the elite throughout the Roman empire in order to distract the population from the reality of daily life, and fearsome fighters of the Colosseum ranged from lowly animal wrestlers to egotistical emperors. Here, BBC History Revealed brings you a quick guide to the fighters of ancient Rome, plus ten famous gladiators

Spartacus is now associated with political upheaval, as in the 1919 Spartacist uprising.

Q: Who were the gladiators of ancient Rome?

A: Most gladiators were purchased from slave markets, being chosen for their strength, stamina and good looks, says Dr Miles Russell. Although taken from the lowest elements of society, the gladiator was a breed apart from the ‘normal’ slave or prisoner of war, being well-trained combatants whose one role in life was to fight and occasionally to kill for the amusement of the Roman mob.

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Not all those who fought as gladiators were slaves or convicts, however. Some were citizens down on their luck (or heavily in debt) while some, like the emperor Commodus, simply did it for ‘fun’ (read more below).

Whatever their reasons for ending up in the arena, gladiators were adored by the Roman public for their bravery and spirit. Their images appeared frequently in mosaics, wall paintings and on glassware and pottery.

Relief depicting gladiators
There were dozens of different gladiators, but spare a thought for the ones that had to fight blindfolded. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Q: What was life like for a gladiator in ancient Rome?

A: Until the discovery of the cities of Vesuvius in the 18th century, virtually everything we knew about gladiators came from references in ancient texts, from random finds of stone sculptures and inscriptions, and the impressive structures of the amphitheatres dotted about all over the Roman empire, writes Tony Wilmott.

Gladiators were at the bottom of the heap in Roman society. This remained the case no matter how much they were feted by the people. Above most qualities, the Romans valued ‘virtus’, which meant, first and foremost, acting in a brave and soldierly fashion. In the manner of his fighting, and above all in his quiet and courageous acceptance of death, even a gladiator, a despised slave, could display this.

Gladiators were divided into categories – each armed and attired in a characteristic manner – and were then pitched against one another in pairings designed to show a variety of forms of combat.

Q: What types of Roman gladiator were there?

When Romans went to the gladiatorial games, they wouldn’t just have seen the same old fight to the death over and over. They’d have seen a well-orchestrated sequence of dozens of different warriors – of course, still doing the fight to the death over and over.

Each type of gladiator had his set weapons, armour and look, and would be matched off against a different fighter. So a man with little armour was vulnerable yet swift, while those in full breastplate tired quickly.

Among the first gladiators were prisoners of war – experienced warriors who kept their names, such as Thracians (such as Spartacus), Samnites and Gallus. But most were given a name specifically for the arena. They could be a retiarius, fighting with a trident and net, usually against a secutor, armed with a sword, shield and smooth helmet.

A hoplomachus had a lance and dagger, while a bestiarius would face wild beasts. An eques rode a horse, but if on a chariot they were essedarius. Perhaps the strangest type was the andabatus, who fought in helmets with no eye holes.

Q: Did Roman emperors take part in gladiatorial games?

A: As a rule, no – competing would be beneath the emperor. But that didn’t stop Commodus and Nero

The bloody gladiatorial games and fast-and-furious chariot races were entertainment for the masses – and a magnificent opportunity for the emperor to show off. But two especially deranged and sadistic emperors decided to get closer to the action. In the second century, Commodus, who fancied himself the reincarnation of Hercules, caused countless scandals by fighting in staged bouts, usually against terrified members of the crowd or wounded soldiers. Unsurprisingly, he never lost. He would also take on wild animals – as long as they were caged, and he stood on a raised platform armed with a bow.

Nero, meanwhile, was a chariot racing fan. He even changed the date of the Olympics in AD 67 to allow him to take part, not-so-subtly cheating all the way. He used ten horses instead of the standard four and was declared the winner – even though he fell from the chariot on the very first bend.

Joaquin Phoenix as Roman Emperor Commodus
Joaquin Phoenix as Roman Emperor Commodus in ‘Gladiator’. (Image by Alamy)

Q: Did gladiators usually fight to the death?

A: 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, explains historian Justin Pollard.

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.

Q: How popular was gladiatorial fighting in ancient Rome?

A: Not as popular as you might think, says Dr Harry Sidebottom. The seating capacity of the main venues formed a ‘rough and ready’ index of the popularity of the different public shows in Rome. The arena for gladiatorial combat, the Colosseum – known in antiquity as the Flavian Amphitheatre – was huge. Modern archaeologists estimate that it could accommodate 50,000 people. One ancient source put the number even higher, at 87,000.

Yet it was dwarfed by the Circus Maximus, where some 250,000 could watch chariot racing. Despite the popularity of pantomime (closer to our ballet than modern panto), theatrical shows came off a poor third. The largest theatre in Rome, that of Marcellus, could hold a mere 20,500.

  • Bread and circuses: what happened in the amphitheatres of the Roman empire?

Q: Did people have to pay to see gladiators fight in ancient Rome?

A: The Roman games of gladiatorial combat and animal hunts were great spectacles put on by senators, businessmen and later solely by emperors, in order to win the affection and favour of the masses. From the importation and feeding of exotic animals to the maintenance of warrior gladiators, the cost of laying on such events was immense. But the hosts understood that the masses required entertainment to distract them from the grinding realities of life.

The inaugural games at the Colosseum, for example, lasted for 100 days in AD 80, and were entirely paid for by Emperor Titus. All tickets were freely allocated (by lottery) to the citizens of ancient Rome. The nature of the audience was strictly regulated, though, with the best seats in the house going to the wealthy and upper classes.

Historical accuracy and the Russell Crowe film Gladiator

The hollywood blockbuster Gladiator (2000), which starred Russell Crowe, is a great film, says Tony Wilmott of English Heritage, but inaccurate, right from the opening battle when second century German tribes chant in 19th-century Zulu (as the soundtrack from the movie Zulu was overlain here).

Historical errors are numerous. The catapults use Greek fire (invented by the Byzantines), there is too much medieval armour in the arena, and where did they get the Bengal tigers?

The film caters to a view of the amphitheatre which is popularly familiar, based on the 19th-century painting Pollice Verso (thumbs down) by Jean-Leon Gerome. There is no subtlety in the exploration of the various meanings of the amphitheatre, shown just as a place for violent entertainment.

The scale of fights in the African town where Maximus first enters the arena would be considered lavish and wasteful (who funded the event, and why?), and evidence from mosaics in this part of the Empire indicates that venationes were more popular than munera.

Read on to find out more about 10 famous gladiators of ancient Rome…
1

Amazon and Achillia

Female gladiators were often a source of amusement for the Roman mob – they were usually matched against dwarves or animals, in semi-pornographic comedy fights. However, the fight between these two women survives as an interesting example of a serious female contest. Their names refer to the mythical conflict between the god Achilles and the queen of the Amazon warrior tribe. An ancient marble relief, now in the British Museum, shows that these two women fought well and respectably, and were both granted their freedom at the end of it.

A relief of female gladiators
This relief of the two women commemorates the granting of their freedom. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


2

Commodus

Played by Joaquin Phoenix in 2000’s Gladiator, here was an emperor who not only enjoyed watching fights to the death, he actively participated in them. A narcissistic tyrant, he was known to maim and injure the people and animals he was pitted against, or give his opponents wooden swords, making him unpopular with the Roman crowds. Each time he won, he awarded himself one million silver coins. He met a grisly end when he was assassinated in AD 192, partly motivated by his ridiculous antics as a gladiator.

3

Marcus Attilius

A volunteer, Attilius probably took up work as a gladiator to pay off his hefty debts. Luckily, he managed to find his true calling in the arena. In his first battle, despite being faced against a man who had won 12 out of 14 fights, the debtor not only defeated his opponent, he repeated the feat in the next contest – where his opponent had also won 12 out of 14 battles, earning Attilius a lot of admiration and following.

Exotic animals, such as lions, were transported from Rome’s faraway provinces. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)
Exotic animals, such as lions, were transported from Rome’s faraway provinces. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

 

4

Flamma

Gladiators were usually slaves, and Flamma came from the faraway province of Syria. However, the fighting lifestyle seemed to suit him well – he was offered his freedom four times, after winning 21 battles, but refused it and continued to entertain the crowds of the Colosseum (right) until he died aged 30. His face was even used on coins.


5

Spartacus

Spartacus is arguably the most famous Roman gladiator, a tough fighter who led a massive slave rebellion. After being enslaved and put through gladiator training school, an incredibly brutal place, he and 78 others revolted against their master Batiatus using only kitchen knives. The movement eventually accumulated 70,000 followers, pillaging towns across Italy. Spartacus attempted to lead his rowdy band back home to their native lands, but they preferred to stay and increase their ill-gotten gains. The Roman legions eventually defeated and crucified thousands of them, and Spartacus was killed in battle in 71 BC.

There is no way of knowing how the legendary leader died. He would have been in the thick of the fighting when Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman commander with money to burn and glory to win, landed the killer blow against his slave revolt, so it is no wonder that he disappeared in the mass of bodies and gore. He certainly wouldn’t have been wearing a sign around his neck reading ‘I AM SPARTACUS’.

For all we know, Spartacus may have been among the 6,000 prisoners that Crassus had crucified along the Appian Way.

Did you know?

Being mauled by a wild beast in the arena was used as a punishment for ‘enemies of the state’, including war prisoners and criminal slaves


6

Spiculus

This friend of the notorious Emperor Nero definitely received some preferential treatment. Spiculus was one of his favourite gladiators, a real crowd-pleaser and showman. Nero gave him vast wealth, palaces and land, and when the evil Emperor was overthrown in AD 68, Nero asked to die by the hand of Spiculus, a man he clearly respected. However, the gladiator was nowhere to be found, so Nero took his own life.


7

Priscus and Verus

These two were frequently rivals in the arena, and have been immortalised by the poet Martial. He writes that after hours of combat, putting on a great show for the crowd, the pair laid down their swords at the same time – leaving their fate in the hands of the audience, who could decide whether the fighters lived or died by putting their thumbs up or down, at the request of the Emperor. Touched by their good sportsmanship, Emperor Titus allowed both men to walk away from the battle as free men, a completely unique and unexpected outcome.

Emperor Titus
Titus hosted the inaugural games to celebrate the completion of the Colosseum in AD 80, which lasted 100 days. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)


8

Carpophorus

Gladiators battled with wild animals, as well as each other, though most of this type were merely ill-equipped criminals sentenced to death by beast. A rare example of a successful ‘bestiarius’ was Carpophorus, who allegedly killed 20 animals in one day, including a lion, bear and leopard in a single battle. He also managed to spear a rhinoceros to death. The public started comparing him to the god Hercules, which he gladly played up to.

9

Tetraites

Tetraites had previously been lost to history, until graffiti in Pompeii, discovered in 1817, revealed his tale. He fought bare-chested with a sword, a flat shield and only basic armour. Popular across the empire, memorabilia (such as glass vessels) detailing his battle with fellow gladiator Prudes was uncovered in places as far away as France and England.


10

Crixus

This Gaul was Spartacus’s right-hand man. Helping him to transform their band of rebels from slaves to savvy soldiers, Crixus fought alongside him, earning his trust and respect along the way – although they split up just before Spartacus wished to leave Italy. When Crixus was killed in battle in 72 BC, Spartacus ordered the slaughter of 300 Roman soldiers in his honour.

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This article was first published in the February 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed