Ancient History & Civilisation



OF ALL ORDINARY ROMANS, gladiators probably have the highest profile in the modern imagination. Their representation in ancient settings, as well as in later mythical, metaphorical and artistic incarnations, intrigues and excites. But like other ordinary folk, the men (and a few women) who became gladiators lived real lives. Those lives, focused on the arena as a venue for one of the most popular entertainments in the Romano-Grecian world, were hardly typical. But balanced between glory and the finality of death, they made their way.

The arena was, as its name implies, a sandy surface. It could be in a gigantic edifice like the Colosseum at Rome, or in one of the very many more modest amphitheaters scattered around the empire, or in a converted theater, or even in a town plaza blocked off temporarily for a local event. Gladiators were trained entertainers who fought with swords and other weapons in pairs (except in very rare cases) in the arena for the entertainment of a crowd. But before discussing these gladiators in detail, it is important to identify carefully the demographics of the arena. In particular, it is important to separate the arena as an execution venue from the arena as a contest venue. Romano-Greeks firmly believed in the necessity and efficacy of painful, brutal death for those ordinary people condemned for serious antisocial behavior such as murder. Thus crucifixion, burning alive, and condemnation to be torn to pieces by wild beasts or killed by fellow prisoners featured strongly in their capital-punishment universe. In these cases the combination of spectacle meant to deter others and the reestablishment of social order by brutalizing those who had brutalized that order appealed very strongly to their sense of justice and order. Executions in the arena typically took place at the ‘noon break’ between wild-beast hunts in the morning and gladiators in the afternoon; they were advertised as part of a normal event, as this painted notice from Pompeii demonstrates:

Twenty pairings of gladiators and their back-ups will fight at Cumae on October 5th and 6th. There will also be crucifixions and a wild-beast hunt. (CIL 4.9983a)

They involved a completely different group of people – condemned criminals – and they were not in any way a ‘contest’ or a ‘sport,’ as the other two events could at least be presented as being. Criminals were sometimes executed outright, as when beasts were set upon tied-up victims, sometimes as faux gladiators or wild-beast hunters, sent into the arena to fight each other or beasts without training and without protective armor. Also, on occasion a criminal might be condemned to a gladiatorial school, in which case, after training, he would perform in the afternoon, with the same chance of survival as any other gladiator. If he lived through three years of fighting and two more of service in the school, he was freed. But in discussing gladiators it is important to remove criminals from our imaginations; their circumstances, prospects, and fates were altogether different.

In fact, gladiators were drawn from two groups: slaves and free volunteers. A slave, as the possession of another, had no choice about becoming a gladiator. There were two motivations for the slave owner: retribution and gain. The owner might wish to get rid of a misbehaving slave, and sell him to a gladiatorial agent. He also might wish to take advantage of the special physical condition and abilities of a slave, and sell him to be trained for the arena. Volunteers, on the other hand, freely contracted themselves to become gladiators. A Pompeiian graffito gives an example:

Severus, a freeborn man, has fought 13 times. ‘Lefty’ Albanus, also freeborn, fought 19 times – and beat Severus! (CIL 4.8056)

Putting oneself under contract – auctoratus was the Latin term – was a legal transaction in which the volunteer received a signing bonus and the prospect of prize money if successful, and in return agreed to be trained and to fight. Quite specifically, he swore he would give up his rights to protection under the law, promising to allow himself to ‘be burned, chained, beaten, or killed’ in his contracted position. This is not, however, reduction to slavery. The closest (although still imperfect) equivalent is joining the army, where enlistment is also for a specified time, legal rights are given up, and an oath is taken which includes a promise to die for the emperor. Petronius replicates the gladiatorial enlistment oath in his novel. In order to trick the sympathy of possible patrons, the anti-hero Eumolpus offers a plan:

‘Make me your master, if my idea pleases,’ Eumolpus said. No one dared criticize the suggested artifice. And so, in order that the falsehood remain safe among us all, we took an oath to obey Eumolpus. We swore ‘to be burned, bound, beaten, and slain by the sword’ – as well as whatever else Eumolpus might order. Just like real gladiators, we pledged ourselves body and soul to our new master. (Satyricon 117.5)

The gladiator volunteer’s contract was for a specified time and although the contractee agreed to very severe terms, presumably he would be released if the contractor failed to live up to his side of the bargain, especially in the matter of the signing bonus and pay for appearances.

The relative proportion of slaves and volunteers in gladiatorial events is unknown. In the few and mutilated lists of gladiators that survive, there seems to be a preponderance of slaves, although both slave and free figure in all lists. Most epitaphs are of free or freed men, but these gravestones must represent only a small portion of all the gladiators who fought. Furthermore, it is more likely that free or freed fighters would have the resources and relationships necessary to have a monument set up. Free gladiators in general were thought to be better fighters than slave, because they had entered voluntarily into the profession. But that does not mean that they outnumbered slaves in the arena. In the end, the proportion is simply unknowable.

Some women became gladiators. A relief from Halicarnassus (Turkey) shows two, ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achillia,’ fighting each other; it is now in the British Museum. The inscription states that they fought to an honorable draw, so presumably they fought again. Elite literature mentions a number of times the disgrace of noblewomen fighting in the arena, and of shows put on by emperors featuring women (and dwarfs). An inscription from Ostia boasts of fielding ordinary women:

Hostilianus, Head Town Councilor, Treasurer, and Chief Priest of Ostia, put on the Youth Games by decree of the town council. He was the first from the very founding of the city to put on gladiatorial games featuring women. He did this together with his wife Sabina. (CIL 14.5381)

Such displays always remained a rarity, however. No woman gladiator memorializes herself in a gravestone inscription. Nothing is known about these entertainers or their lives.

There were many players in the creation, organization, management, and provision of gladiators. The lanistae were the most infamous. These men acquired, trained, and rented out gladiators. However, individuals and groups (priests, associations) also played a role in the industry, as did, on a very large scale, the imperial government. In all cases, the gladiators had to be housed, fed, prepared, treated if sick or injured, and leased out for fights. They represented a significant, ongoing investment, and an elaborate business.

A slave who was chosen by his master to be trained as a gladiator, of course, had no choice in the matter. But the volunteer certainly did. While the elite’s rhetoric stigmatized free men who chose the gladiator’s profession by claiming that they were degenerates, bankrupts, desperate men driven to desperate choices, the persistence of the rhetoric and even of official and legal attempts to discourage or even to prevent volunteers shows the strong pull of the arena for both men and the occasional woman as well. And, of course, the elite concern was only for those of their own class. If men and women from a cultural background of superiority found the arena nonetheless appealing even though emerging onto the sand brought the opprobrium of their peers, what must the pull have been for ordinary people who stood to win all the glory and gain, while leaving their previous life behind them entailed only a modest loss in rights, and a gain in prestige? The risk was great, that could not be denied. If the training regimen went well and a man escaped the normal life-threatening experiences of disease and accident, there was a one in ten chance of dying in the first bout, assuming he was pitted against another tiro. If a person survived, his chances in a second round were probably not any better. However, if he managed to fight through, his chances improved just as his prizes and glory did. And even if he were a slave forced into gladiatorial work, the same calculus was at work in motivating him. The basic premise was that a slave who served his master well at least had some chance of freedom; this would play out in the arena as well as in other aspects of a slave’s life. In winning, a gladiator gained a purse which (allowing for all the potential risks of the peculium) he hoped could be accumulated to buy his freedom. The living conditions in gladiatorial slavery were better than field work, certainly, and perhaps equaled those of favored household slaves, for the investment in a slave gladiator was great. In the case of a volunteer there was no initial cost beyond the signing bonus, whereas with a slave the manager had to recoup not only the cost of training and maintenance, but that of acquisition. He had every reason to keep the slave gladiator not just alive but healthy and, ideally, committed to his role in the arena, for a willing slave gladiator was like a volunteer: much more likely to prevail, or at least put up a good fight and so enhance the manager’s reputation and the prices he could command for future leases for future games. The promise of freedom was the best motivation – and the fact that freed slave gladiators continued as volunteer fighters shows that for some, at least, the career was not merely from compulsion but freely worth the risks.


29. Female gladiators. Although quite uncommon, women did fight. Here two, Achillia and Amazon, fight to an honorable draw on a relief from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor.

It is not surprising that freeborn ordinary young men, presumably healthy and strong, volunteered for the gladiator’s life. This career offered opportunities that no other did. By being a gladiator, a person succeeded in the recognition game that emphasized the importance of the ego-individual. The hierarchical Romano-Greek social structure meant that it was very difficult to jump the status queue either in wealth or social standing. As a gladiator, however, a young man possessed currency valued by all levels of society: excellence in courage, physical prowess and skill (especially at weapons), and perseverance. By showing himself to be ‘manliness-positive’ he could propel himself to heights of social adoration, for outstanding manliness (what Romans called virtus)trumped even money and birth and education when it came to gaining awe. From the elite standpoint, this fact explains at least some of the anxiety felt about gladiators – they gained a position of renown and recognition that could outshine the elites.’ Not that the young man contemplating a gladiatorial career would care about such things. What he cared about was that he had not only a guarantee of being fed and housed, and of earning money on a regular basis, but the possibility of recognition, of becoming a star:

Men train and exert themselves for the worldly contest and think it their honor’s glorious day if they win through with the people looking on and the emperor himself present. (Cyprian, Letter 58.8)

Gladiators’ epitaphs often stress their fixation on glory: ‘I am famous among men fighting with arms’; ‘I did not lack for fame among all men’ (Robert, nos. 69 and 260). They gloried in their strength, skill, daring, and victory over all rivals. They knew the appeal such glory had. It did not escape actual and potential fighters that, as Tertullian remarks (On Spectacles 22), ‘men surrender their minds and spirit – and the women! – they give up their very bodies as well’ to gladiators.

The feeling of self-importance, enhanced especially by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the pageantry of the fights in the arena, fed this very natural desire for fame. The day before a fight there was a parade of the men who were to perform. Their enthusiasm and good looks were enough to inspire others, as they did the friends Lucian features in his tale Toxaris:

The next morning, while walking about the marketplace he saw a sort of procession of high-spirited, handsome young men. These had been enrolled to fight duels for hire and were to settle their combats on the next day but one. (Toxaris 59/Harmon)

The friend is inspired to try to earn money in this way, and signs up. While that was not a very likely scenario – gladiators were trained fighters, not picked up from the street – the inspiration of the men parading through the marketplace before a gladiatorial display certainly was. The day after this procession, the combatants reclined on couches – not the usual stools at table – and ate a ceremonial meal together, the cena libera, literally the ‘unrestricted meal,’ meaning they could eat anything they wanted, breaking from their usual training regimen. Indeed, the whole day was a release from rules and regulations, culminating in the feast. Not all gladiators were so blasé about the dangers that awaited them in a few hours that they simply enjoyed the excess of the day of liberation; rather, they took thought for their family and possessions:

Why even among the gladiators I observe that those who are not utterly bestial, but Greeks, when about to enter the arena, though many costly viands are set before them, find greater pleasure at the moment in recommending their women to the care of their friends and setting free their slaves than in gratifying their belly. (Plutarch, Customs, ‘A Pleasant Life Impossible’ 1099B/Delacy and Einarson)

At the last feast, as part of the pageantry and advertising, the public was allowed in to watch and mingle. The last meal of (soon to be) St. Perpetua, before she was to be executed as a criminal (criminals also shared this cena libera), illustrates this:

The day before the games it was customary to feast at a last meal, which they called the ‘unrestricted dinner.’ But Perpetua and Saturnus made this into a Christian Last Supper feast (agape), not a ‘last meal.’ And with the same steadfastness, they taunted the people standing around, threatening the judgment of God, bearing witness to the good fortune that was their suffering, ridiculing the curiosity of those pushing and shoving about them. And Saturnus said, ‘Is tomorrow not enough for you? Why are you so eager to look on those you hate? Are we friends today, enemies on the morrow? Take a good look at our faces, so you can recognize us on that day!’ Thunderstruck, all then departed – and not a few believed. (Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 17)

The public could thus vicariously participate in the pageant by tossing comments to the gladiators and generally engaging in a personal way with the upcoming event. Presumably if autographs had been part of the culture, they would have had miniature swords or clay helmets signed as souvenirs.

And so the gladiator’s career would generate passionate enthusiasm and recognition that he excelled in manliness among fellow men. Gladiators themselves reveled in this effect. Their epitaphs record such sentiments as ‘great shouts roared through the audience when I was victor’; ‘I was a favorite of the stadium throng’ (Robert, nos. 55 and 124). One Pompeiian gladiator even took as an ‘arena name’ Celadus, which is derived from the Greek word for ‘clamor.’ Augustine has a vivid account of how the arena seized hold of a young man named Alypius:

Not wishing to lay aside the worldly career set down for himself by his parents, he had gone ahead of me to Rome in order to study law. And there he was utterly swept away by an unbelievable passion for the gladiatorial games. For despite the fact that he was opposed to – even detested – such things, a fatal meeting with friends and fellow students – he met them by chance returning from his midday meal – changed everything. With friendly urging they brought him, strongly objecting and resisting, into the amphitheater, seat of the savage and deadly games. He said to them, ‘Although you drag my body into this place, do you think you’ll be able to turn my spirit and eyes to that spectacle? I am here – but I’m not here. And so I’ll get the best of both you and the games.’ When they heard this, they hastened all the more to coerce him along with them, eager to find out if in any way he was able to do as he said. When they got there and had gotten settled into their seats, everything seethed with unimaginable raw emotion. Alypius, eyes tightly closed, forbade himself to get involved in such monstrous evil. Oh, if only he had closed his ears as well! For at a critical moment in the fight, when a huge clamor wildly pulsated from the whole crowd, overwhelmed by curiosity and thinking himself ready to condemn and control whatever might be happening, even gazing on it, he opened his eyes. That was it. His spirit was stabbed with a more severe wound than the gladiator whom he longed to see received in his body, and he fell, more miserable than the fighter whose fall had brought the roaring crowd to its feet … As soon as he saw the blood, he drank in at once the fierce cruelty of it all. He did not turn away, but rather stared, rooted to the spot, imbibing the madness, and didn’t even realize what was happening. He took wicked delight in the contests; he was drunk with the gory excess. Now he was not the person who had entered the amphitheater; now he was one of the mob he had joined, a true fellow fan of those by whom he had been dragged in. He looked on; he shouted; he threw himself into it completely – and he left consumed by that insanity that would impel him to return again not only with those friends who had first brought him, but even without them, inducing others to come along. (Confessions 6.8)


30. Souvenirs. Gladiator memorabilia was very popular. It ranged from vastly expensive engraved glass beakers to common lamps with battle scenes embossed. Here are two more laborate lamps in the shape of gladiators’ helmets.

The enthusiasm of the crowd could easily spill over into disorder. Elite literature is sprinkled with examples of the crowd shouting insulting things at the emperor from the protection (which sometimes proved illusionary) of the mob. Indeed, the assembling of ordinary people in such venues as the amphitheater or theater provided perhaps their best opportunities to confront their leaders. Beyond local ramifications, gladiatorial contests could become proxies for local competitions, jealousies, and rivalries. The most famous example of this is the rivalry of Nucerians and Pompeiians from two small cities in Campania, Italy. The historian Tacitus describes the riot this rivalry brought about in the course of gladiatorial games attended by spectators from both towns:

About this same time a terrible mayhem arose from a really inconsequential beginning. It all happened at gladiatorial games given by Livineius Regulus, a local Pompeiian bigwig recently expelled from the Roman senate. Locals from the neighboring towns of Nuceria and Pompeii were hurling insults at each other the way small-town rivals often do. Words became stones; then swords were drawn. The Pompeiians got the best of it – they were the home crowd, after all. As a result, many wounded Nucerians were carried up to Rome, and many wept over the death of a parent or child. The emperor referred the matter to the senate, the senate to the consuls. They, in turn, put the question again in the senate’s lap. That body decreed a ten-year moratorium on gladiatorial events at Pompeii, and the clubs, which had been formed illegally, were disbanded. Livineius and the others who had fomented the riot were exiled. (Annals 14.17)

Quite amazingly, a fresco painting from Pompeii survives that illustrates this very riot. Some citizens fight inside the arena, while outside Nucerians and Pompeiians are attacking each other with clubs and fists. Elsewhere a graffito adds immediacy to the painting: ‘Campanians, by this victory you’ve been destroyed with the Nucerians’ (CIL 4.1293). Other graffiti express similar thoughts, probably unrelated to this specific event: ‘Bad luck to the people of Nuceria!’ (CIL 4.1329); ‘Good luck to all the people of Puteoli, good luck to the people of Nuceria, and down with the people of Pompeii!’ (CIL 4.2183). Passions clearly ran high, and not just regarding who was going to win a particular gladiatorial combat.

In addition to the adoration of the crowd, a gladiator was likely to gain access to unlimited sexual partners, for the adoration, not to say lust of women for gladiators – virtually naked, muscular, shining with virtus, notoriously available – was common knowledge. The graffiti of Pompeii reveal the pull of sexual conquest that went along with victory in the arena. The successful gladiator Celadus boasts in a couple of scribbles, ‘Celadus, one of Octavius’ Thracian gladiators, fought and won three times. The girls swoon over him!’ (CIL 4.4342 = ILS 5142a) and ‘Celadus the Thracian gladiator. Girls think he’s magnificent!’ (CIL 4.4345 = ILS 5142b).

But it would be a mistake to assume that every gladiator became a crowd favorite. For every man who won the heart of the crowd, there were many others who slogged along in the profession, trying to stay alive and not especially admired. Petronius in hisSatyricon records a fictional critique of such fighters. After praising a future game that will feature free, not slave, gladiators, and ones who won’t shy away from fighting, Echion adds:

After all, what has Norbanus [a wealthy Pompeiian] ever done for us? He put on a two-bit gladiatorial show, decrepit men who would have fallen down if you breathed hard on them. I’ve seen better beast fighters than those guys. He killed off some caricatures of mounted fighters – those castrated cocks, one a feckless spawn, yet another bandylegged, and in the third match a man as good as dead, already hacked up badly. There was, I’ll admit, a thrax who had some gumption, but even he fought strictly by the rules. In short, their manager flogged each and every one after the matches – and the crowd hollered for him to beat them more! They were little better than runaway slaves! (Satyricon 46)

Not everyone became a star.

Beyond the arena, gladiators were the objects of popular culture. There were lamps and fancy glass jugs featuring gladiatorial motifs; Trimalchio had expensive cups illustrated with scenes from an apparently epic contest between two very famous gladiators, Petraites and Hermeros, and he planned to have further scenes from Petraites’ victories carved on his tomb monument (Satyricon 52, 71); and children dressed up and played as gladiators. With all the hype and cultural popularity, it is small wonder that once in the service, a gladiator yearned to fight:

But among the gladiators in the emperor’s service there are some who complain that they are not put up against anyone or set in single combat, and they pray to God and approach their managers begging to go out to single combat in the arena. (Epictetus, Discourses 1.29.37)

It was in fighting that the gladiator gained and maintained his luscious fame.

But despite the draw, a gladiator also knew that he was betting everything. One speaks from a Cretan grave: ‘The prize was not a palm branch; we fought for our life’ (Robert, no. 66). And things did not always work out so well. A gravestone tells it all:

I, who was brimful of confidence in the stadium, now you see me a corpse, wayfarer, a retiarius from Tarsus, a member of the second squad, Melanippos [by name]. No longer do I hear the sound of the beaten-bronze trumpet, nor do I rouse the din of flutes during onesided contests. They say that Herakles completed 12 labors; but I, having completed the same [number], met my end at the thirteenth. Thallos and Zoe made this for Melanippos as a memorial at their own expense. (Robert, no. 298/Horsley)

The scanty evidence from epigraphy indicates that perhaps 20 percent of participants were killed; if all fought in duels, then one in ten duels would end in a death, although other scholars have put the fatality rate at 5 percent, or one in twenty matches. On either calculus, fighting in more than ten duels would be pushing the odds severely. In all likelihood most gladiators were killed in their first or second fights (George Ville makes an arresting comparison to World War I aerial combat), while survivors went on to win many more. In exceptional cases every fight would end in a death, but this was an expensive result, and a games’ sponsor who lost a lot of valuable property thought it worth boasting about:

Here at Minturnae [Italy] over a four-day period Publius Baebius Iustus, Town Mayor, in honor of his high office put up 11 fighting pairs of first-rate gladiators from Campania; a man was slain in each of the combats. (CIL 10.6012 = ILS 5062)

But once a gladiator hit his stride, his career could be long. There are inscriptions boasting of between fifty and a hundred-plus victories. One example of a gladiator with a long career can be found in the epitaph of Flamma (meaning ‘Flame’), a secutor, i.e. a heavily armed man who normally fought against a retiarius, a man with sword and net:

Flamma the secutor lived thirty years and fought thirty-four times. He won outright twenty-one times; fought to a draw nine times; was honorably defeated four times. He was from Syria. Delicatus [‘Delightful’] made this to his well-deserving fellow-at-arms. (ILS 5113, Palermo)

Flamma therefore fought for around thirteen years (about age seventeen to thirty), and so on average 2.5 times a year. This is more frequent than most. Of the fifteen gladiators whose records are known, most fought less than twice a year; perhaps a few gladiators fought more than three times a year – although for some, fighting was much more frequent, as a graffito recording a summer’s games demonstrates:

Florus won at Nuceria on July 28th. On August 15th he came out on top at Herculaneum. (CIL 4.4299, Pompeii)

Chances of survival might actually increase as the fighter progressed, not only because his skills were honed by experience, but because his owner/manager would protect his investment as the price per fight increased. Perhaps he would create matches against easier opponents, perhaps he would have the other gladiator ‘throw’ the match, perhaps he would manage a ‘draw with honor’ (missio) rather than a mortal defeat. But the evidence of gladiators who earned the official release from service, the wooden sword (rudis),offers an impression of relatively numerous victories: The three examples epigraphy gives of their victories detail numbers ranging from seven to eighteen. These men thus earned their release fairly quickly. With so little data to go on, I can only say that some successful gladiators had long careers, some short; it is impossible to know the reason why this would be so in individual cases, or even what an overall, generalized picture might actually be.

The life of a gladiator was significantly shorter than ordinary people’s in other occupations, that is for certain: While a person who reached the age of twenty might expect to live to forty-five or so, on average, of the fifteen gladiators just noted, only two lived past age thirty, and while most seem to have died in the arena, not all did. This evaluation is confirmed by the gladiator graveyard discovered at Ephesus, Turkey, in 1997: Almost all the sixty-seven skeletons were males under thirty. To judge by the descriptions of the physical deformities of gladiators the physician/researcher Galen examined as a medical assistant to gladiators, and the traumas discovered on the Ephesus remains, those who lived suffered from serious injuries, which probably helps to explain why even those who survived fights did not live long lives.

The gladiator did not make his life worse in pursuing this career. The trade-off is clear: life at immediate risk in return for a life not otherwise accessible. But even the life risk has its positive side: By training and innate physical ability – ‘athleticism’ as it is called today – a man could have a greater degree of control over his fate than, say, as a day-laborer or even as a soldier. That control might be chimerical, but a strong young man, perhaps already predisposed to thinking himself indestructible in the way of youth, could be forgiven for believing in it, especially in the face of a world with so few options for propulsion into the stratosphere of public recognition and (at least relatively) good living conditions.

In spite of this reality, ancient elite sources and modern sources emphasize, one could almost say fixate on, the stigma – what the Romans called infamia – attached to becoming a gladiator auctoratus, voluntarily; the same dishonor, it is claimed, came to the voluntary beast fighter (venator, bestiarius). This fixation arises from the ancient elite’s obsession with status and dignity and a modern willingness to accept this obsession as a guiding light in interpreting the lives of gladiators. It is true that this attitude existed among some of the ordinary people as well. For example, the dream interpreter Artemidorus interweaves this in a dream analysis:

A man dreamed he was being carried aloft by some people in a bread-kneading trough filled with human blood, and he ate some that had congealed. Then his mother confronted him and said, ‘My child, you dishonor me.’ Then he further dreamed that the men carrying him set him down and he went to his home. Then in reality he enrolled as a gladiator and fought many years in fights to the finish. For to feast on human blood portended his would be the raw and unholy nourishment of human blood, and the words of his mother foretold the dishonor of his life. The bearing in a kneading trough portended the constant and unceasing danger he would be in, for everything put into such a trough must be consumed. His good luck in his fights might have run out, except that he laid down his profession and returned to his home. For after a long time, with some of his friends strenuously pressing him, he gave up being a gladiator. (Dreams 5.58)

Infamia was an inchoate concept at best, and certainly not a legal formula; nonetheless it was used as a catch-all to label many forms of behavior that seemed to undermine the basic social contract. For example, conviction in criminal court or, in many cases, civil court, led to infamia. Reprehensible actions such as bankruptcy, personally harming someone else (iniuria), and dishonorable discharge from the army produced the same result. Certain occupations did as well, specifically being a pimp or prostitute and, what is of interest here, being a ‘gladiator pimp’ (lanista) or an actual gladiator.

From elite literature one could be forgiven for thinking that the infamy of gladiators was a terrible thing to experience. Tertullian, carrying here both the animus of the elite and of the Christian, writes:

The [elite] sponsors and managers of the spectacles bring out the charioteers, actors, athletes, and gladiators – men arousing the greatest passion to whom men give their souls and women their bodies as well. On account of such men the organizers commit themselves to the very things they criticize [in their salons] and the very skills they glorify; they then take as an excuse to denigrate and put down the men who exhibit them. Indeed, even more – these elites openly condemn them through social stigma and restricting their civil rights, keeping them from the senate, the public speakers’ platform, the senatorial and equestrian orders, from all other positions and from certain other distinctions as well. What perversity! They adore whom they punish, they despise whom they approve, they praise the talent to the skies, but harshly criticize the talented. (On Spectacles 22)

Gladiators are sentenced ‘to some rocky outcrop of infamy, with all vestiges of decent dignity stripped away’ (On Spectacles 23).

But both legally and practically any stigma widely shared by the elite mentality is virtually meaningless in the lives of ordinary people; in truth for the gladiator the practical result of being labeled ‘infamous’ by action or occupation is small indeed. First of all, there is no conviction on a charge of ‘infamy.’ ‘Infamy’ accompanies a legally punished or socially disapproved action, but no one is brought up on the charge. Once ‘infamy’ adheres, however, there are legal repercussions. For example, a person could not represent someone else in a legal action, or be a witness in a prosecution, or have someone else represent him – he had to defend on his own behalf. Nor could he bring charges in court – but then, neither could minors, women, wards, freedmen (if their patron was involved), or sitting magistrates. Of course, as Tertullian notes, a gladiator could not be a senator or an equestrian or a local magistrate – but what gladiator would have dreamed, or cared, or even thought about that? The common people watching wouldn’t care at all, either – after all, the social structure meant that in practice they were not eligible for such things, and they were not even infamous! ‘Infamy’ might get a gladiator excluded from a cemetery, but that would depend on the feelings of the owner, and how he felt about burials of tainted persons in his graveyard. If a gladiator were so careless or luckless as to be caught in flagrante, the abused husband could treat him like a slave, i.e. he could kill him on the spot – but this perhaps comes more from the assimilation to slavery that the gladiator’s oath has wrought. Finally, a gladiator could not become a soldier (‘infamous men don’t serve in the army’), but a person would choose between going into the army and becoming a gladiator, so the issue of joining the army after becoming a gladiator was not a common problem; the few examples all appear in elite rhetorical exercises and are clearly created for effect. In sum, the practical ramifications of being declared ‘infamous’ because of being a gladiator touched no important part of most gladiators’ lives – and certainly would not have lessened the pleasure of the audience, or their enthusiastic adoration of the stars of the arena.

These disparities between a supposed infamy and little evidence of it in the reaction of ordinary people come across most clearly in gladiatorial epitaphs. These are numerous, and provide much information. But what is most striking is that almost alone of those citizens supposedly infamous – morticians, slave dealers, whores, pimps, and gladiatorial managers – the gladiators’ epitaphs are indistinguishable from those of other ordinary people in content and sentiments expressed; only the epitaphs of actors, another entertainer dear to the hearts of the crowd and again labeled ‘infamous’ by the elite, replicate this. In other words, gladiators made no effort to hide their profession, but rather foregrounded it. This is because they were proud of it, and its impres-siveness overwhelmed any supposed stigma it might theoretically have carried.

That the stigma was fundamentally an elite concoction is revealed by a telltale notice in the legal material. The jurist Ulpian says that arena fighters who do not take pay do not gain infamia: ‘… those who fight in the arena for the sake of demonstrating their manly courage (virtus), doing this without pay, men of old held not to acquire infamia’ (Digest So the fundamental concern was not the pollution of blood, but the pollution of dependence – doing something for hire. It perhaps hardly needs to be pointed out that ordinary people worked for money all the time; their lives depended on it. There is no reason they should have shared the narrow vision of the elite when it came to stigmatizing the fighters on that ground.

For the gladiator slave who was freed by a Roman citizen in the course of his service, there was a more severe and very practical penalty than a supposed ‘infamy’ – he was denied the Roman citizenship that should accompany his freedom. Here the elite decree of stigma could be enforced, for freeing a slave could be a legal procedure. But the slave did not enter the profession of his own volition, as the auctoratus did. For the volunteer, any social penalty he might incur from fellow men who might either be taken up into the elite mentality or be genuinely disgusted at the blood and gore was light indeed, especially compared to the notoriety, even fame, he automatically possessed as a result of his chosen profession.

While in the service, a gladiator was associated with a familia unless he was a freelance operator. The familia (literally, ‘household’) was an organized living and training arrangement, sometimes housed, as at Pompeii, in a specially constructed building, sometimes with gladiators housed in a town and training and eating together. While it is not possible to confirm that the gladiator graveyard uncovered in Ephesus in 1997 was the property of a single familia, the fact that sixty-seven gladiators and probably a veteran fighter turned trainer – perhaps even manager as well – were buried together suggests that this might be the case.

The familia resembled, as gladiators did in so many other ways, military conditions. There were ‘ranks.’ A newcomer, having just sworn his oath and joined the establishment, was a novicius. As he trained, he gained the sobriquet of tiro – the word for a raw army recruit as well. This ‘rank’ remained until after the first fight, when normally one tiro was pitted against another. Not that this was always the case. An inscription from Pompeii tells of a tiro who went up against an experienced fighter – and won, not once, but twice in the same games:

Marcus Attilius tiro won. Hilarus of the Neronian familia who had fought 14 times with 12 victories was the loser. Marcus Attilius having fought once and won, won again. This time Lucius Raecius Felix, who before had fought 12 times and won 12 times, lost. (CIL 4.10236)

And another example of early success is:

Spiculus of the Neronian familia, a tiro, killed Aptonetus, a free volunteer, who had won 14 times previously. (CIL 4.1474, Pompeii)

Once spurs had, so to speak, been won as a successful tiro, a career was assured. The gladiator could fight as long as he was alive and marketable, whether with a manager or, if released, self-leased, on his own. But at least sometimes retired gladiators went on to be trainers, perhaps even managers; the old gladiator buried among the young ones at Ephesus seems to be an example of this.

Living conditions might or might not live up to high expectations. Some accommodations were cramped; men slept on cots or on the floor on mattresses. In other situations, conditions were probably better. The two gladiatorial training residences (ludi) extant now, both at Pompeii, are relatively airy, not enclosed – and weapons seem to have been unguarded. In other words, gladiators living there could come and go as they pleased, and the manager evidently was not concerned about the men seizing arms and leading a revolt à la Spartacus. Food was supplied abundantly, if rather boringly: the favored meal was a very carbohydrate-heavy gruel called sagina. Galen says that this was made of beans and barley – gladiators were sometimes nicknamed hordearii – ‘barleymen.’ Rabbinic sources also mention that beans were a staple of the gladiator’s diet. This combination of grain and beans developed a strong frame and lots of musculature. Forensic study of gladiator bones found in Ephesus confirms the diet that the ancient sources describe; the intention was to ‘bulk up’ the men, and to provide fat as protection to the bones.

Trainers were on hand, likely veteran fighters themselves, to coach the specialized fighting modes such as the thrax or the secutor. And there were medical personnel. The most famous was the doctor/researcher Galen, who used his experience in treating gladiators’ wounds to learn about human anatomy. In sum, the arrangements resembled very much those of a military camp – although the gladiators’ food was reputed to be better.

Besides a context for training, the familia provided bonding. An inscription from southern Spain tells of how a familia took care to bury one of its own:

A gladiator-fighting-from-a-chariot named Ingenuus, of the Gallician training camp, 25 years old, victor in 12 matches, a German by birth, lies here. His entire gladiatorial household (familia) set this up at their own expense. May the earth rest lightly upon you! (CIL 22–7.362, Córdoba)

Another from Smyrna notes that the familia pooled resources and helped a fellow gladiator pay for the funeral honors of his little son. Yet another from Telmessos has one gladiator setting up a gravestone for the fellow he shared living quarters with in the gladiatorial school (ludus).

It is impossible to know how such bonding affected gladiators who were paired against their fellows of the same familia. When forty-nine pairings from a single familia fought, it is hard to believe that some contests did not pit friends against each other:

Forty-nine pairings! The Familia Capiniana will fight at Puteoli in the Augustan Games, May 12th, 14th, 16th, and 17th. There will be awnings [over the arena]! (CIL 4.7994, Pompeii)

Some epitaphs do, however, recognize the inherent possibility for inner conflict when men of the familia were pitted against each other in the arena. Louis Robert gives the examples of Olympos, whose gravestone notes that ‘he spared many in the arena’; Ajax ‘saved many souls.’ These sentiments mean that these men, and presumably others, fought with seriousness, but not with uncontrolled anger or blood-lust; they fought to win, not to kill, if it could be avoided. But even granted that the ‘rules of combat,’ if strictly adhered to, could produce both a good show and mutual survival of a pair, there was always the chance of a miscue. And, of course, just being in the same familia would not guarantee a friendly disposition toward all of one’s fellow gladiators. Competition, pride, jealousy – many emotions could turn one member of the familia against another. The intricacies of friendship and rivalry must have been great. Perhaps the best friend was at times a dog: Robert has identified canines on more than a half-dozen grave reliefs set up for gladiators.


31. A gladiator and his faithful canine. Many gravestones of gladiators feature a dog at the feet. With the stress of preparation and competition among fierce men, it was perhaps a gladiator’s most trusted friend.

I have already quoted the material from Plutarch in which he states that some gladiators on the eve of combat took the opportunity to recommend their women to the care of their friends and set free their slaves. Suetonius notes in his Life of Emperor Claudius that Claudius freed an essedarius (chariot fighter) who had four sons. There are also many inscriptions which indicate that gladiators, whether slaves or free, had families. Their epitaphs are sometimes written by fellow fighters or other males, but the most usual by far is for a woman to dedicate the monument, often with expressions of endearment. Although in other ways gladiators were assimilated to the ways of soldiers, in this they are very distinct: soldiers’ graves are almost always set up by a male, not surprisingly since soldiers, although they often formed liaisons, were long forbidden to marry. The dedications of gladiators thus clearly show that they belonged to the ‘normal’ world insofar as family was concerned. Indeed, a number of epitaphs give the names of children, so family life extended beyond just a wife. And it is worth noting that a term common for slave relationships (slaves could not legally marry), contubernalis, ‘tent mate,’ is almost entirely lacking from gladiators’ dedications. Rather coniunx or uxor are found, both terms for a legal wife. There is no reason not to accept this at face value: Free gladiators were married, and slave gladiators seemed comfortable using the terminology strictly appropriate only to the free. Despite the disparagement of elite authors there is no reason to see these women as ‘gladiatorial groupies’ handed from one gladiator to the next as each was killed off, the lowest of the low, hardly better than long-term prostitutes. Just by looking at the epitaphs, it is impossible to distinguish their form and sentiments from those of any other ordinary people who set up monuments. And when we consider that a gladiator had not only the ‘sex appeal’ so notoriously mentioned in the ancient sources, but steady employment which yielded prize money once or twice a year, possibly in considerable amount, it is not surprising that some would form permanent relationships and have children.

While a good deal of time was taken up on an ongoing basis with training, gladiators must still have had quite a bit of time on their hands as they normally fought only infrequently. An intelligent manager must have looked for ways to make his investment pay. Renting out gladiators as bodyguards was an obvious option. Unfortunately, there are only rare mentions of this, and then always in relation to the elite. As in so many other aspects of his life, a gladiator’s employment outside the arena remains something of a mystery.

Beyond the familia and family, gladiators found social contacts and relationships in professional associations. As with other such organizations, these collegia provided an opportunity to gather for a meal, discuss professional matters, gossip, and, perhaps, save up for the costs of a decent burial. We have a fine mosaic from North Africa that may show a club of beast fighters gathered at table. Inscriptions tell of associations of other beast fighters, as well as of a collegium of retired gladiators at Rome.

32. Nemesis. Gladiators and beast fighters (shown here) were under the protection of the goddess of vengeful fate – remorseless and fierce.

Very little is known about the religious outlook of gladiators. This is surprising, since in such a deadly profession one might expect an interest in divinities that could provide protection. One gladiator makes a dedication to Venus, but this can hardly be related to the activity of the arena. Another dedicates to Mars, something that we might expect, as Mars was the god of war. A few others make dedications to Nemesis. This deity was closely associated with Fortune in the Romano-Greek mind, and as such was a power to be called on in parlous professions such as in military service and the arena. Nevertheless, it is striking that of almost 250 Latin inscriptions that mention Nemesis, only three, two by beast fighters and one by a gladiator, come from the arena professionals; the heaviest concentration by far is from soldiers of one rank or another. The Greek evidence concurs: Nemesis figures in only four or five of the documents.

While gladiators made bloody sacrifices to gain the protection of the supernatural, their mortal contemporaries in turn valued gladiators’ own blood as a magical philter. The Roman antiquarian Festus (55.3L) states that ‘the bride’s hair used to be parted with the “celibate” spear which had been fixed in a gladiator’s body that had been killed and thrown aside.’ The blood on the spear was evidently thought to be a fertility potion. How else was the blood obtained? Evidently by rushing to the scene of death and collecting it. Tertullian tells that people caught the blood in cups and carried it off:

Likewise what of those who, after a fight in the arena, carry off in their avid thirst the blood of the guilty slain – blood just then caught gushing from the neck. And this they use as a cure for epilepsy. (Apology 9.10)

Given Tertullian’s animus against the games, I might suspect exaggeration. But years earlier the medical writer Celsus wrote, ‘Some have freed themselves from epilepsy by deep drafts of the warm blood spilled from a gladiator’s throat’ (On Medicine 3.23.7). Pliny the Elder recommends the blood as a cure for epilepsy as well:

Epileptics drink the blood of gladiators as though it were the cup of life … They believe it is by far the most effective to gulp down the blood hot from the very man still gasping out his last breath, putting their lips to the wound, drawing out the essence of life itself. (Natural History 28.4–5)

And Aretaeus of Cappadocia describes exactly what Tertullian does: ‘I have seen persons holding a cup below the wound of a man recently slaughtered, and drinking a draft of the blood! (Treatment of Chronic Disease 7.4.7–8). Besides insuring fertility and curing epilepsy, a gladiator’s blood was useful in a potion to attract a lover:

Love spell of attraction performed with the help of heroes or gladiators or those who have died a violent death. Leave a little of the bread which you eat; break it up and form it into seven bite-sized pieces. And go to where heroes and gladiators and those who have died a violent death were slain. Say the spell to the pieces of bread and throw them. And pick up some polluted dirt from the place where you perform the ritual and throw it inside the house of the woman whom you desire, go on home and go to sleep. (PGM 4.1390–98/Betz)

The gladiator’s cultivated mystique of valor and violence made not only his life’s essence coveted after death. It is an added curiosity to note that some people also, apparently, didn’t stop with the gladiator’s blood but cut out his liver as well: The Roman physician-pharmacologist Scribonius Largus reported that ‘some people take a nine-times dosage of a small quantity of liver cut from a fallen gladiator’ (Compositions 17). As Largus had earlier recommended as a cure for epilepsy the liver of a stag killed by a weapon that, in turn, had been used to kill a gladiator, it is safe to assume that the dose of gladiator’s liver was for epilepsy as well.

Gladiators represent only one type of spectacle favored by ordinary Romans. Stage performances, chariot racing, athletic contests: All were a part of their lives. But the combination of fabulous popularity, bloody danger, and relatively extensive evidence for their lives makes those idols of the arena especially interesting. The lives of free, voluntary fighters were exceedingly dangerous, but that danger was part of the allure – that and the fame and, possibly, fortune. As a slave, of course, the gladiator had little choice, but even here the chance for freedom could be some motivation. In the midst of all the uncertainties and risks, men (and some women) carved out a life with friends and family even as they prepared for the duels on the sand. They were, in a way, just like other ordinary Romano-Greeks, doing their best to succeed in a world that was stacked against them.

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