Even though gladiators were officially scum of the earth, they often had female fans willing to swoon all over them. Or under them. Not just shady professional ladies or plebeian chicks, either, but women of exalted rank. Some of them hung around the barracks where the gladiators were billeted; a few even played make-believe viragos, practicing with the wooden swords that the fighters employed in training.
Other groupies expressed their feelings by posting impudent notes on walls, in public baths, and elsewhere. At Pompeii, Capua, and Ostia, graffiti such as these have been found: “Celadon the Thracian, three times victor and three times crowned, who makes the girls sigh,” and “Thrax is the heartthrob of all the girls.”
To get closer to the subject matter, matrons in higher tax brackets sometimes hired off-duty gladiators as muscle. As Philip Matyszak, author of The Gladiator Manual, notes with a twinkle, “Many a wealthy lady who hires gladiator bodyguards for the night does so in expectation of her body being guarded very closely indeed.”
Gladiators were first used in Etruscan times as warriors at the funeral games for bigshots. They came to form a professional cadre in centuries to come, and by the third century A.D. there were more than 230 permanent gladiatorial arenas around the Roman Empire, from Britain and Spain to Albania and Tunisia. Like champion boxers, gladiators didn’t fight that often; that kept the excitement level of the fans high, and the entry fees as well.
On the other hand, patrician sponsors of the games competed insanely, each trying to outdo the other in terms of flash and cash spent on the gladiatorial spectacles. Emperor Marcus Aurelius wasn’t a fan himself, and he passed legislation that restricted the amount anyone could spend on the games. A philosopher and writer in his spare time, Marcus was one of the most decent and hardworking emperors to ever don a diadem.
He loved his wife Faustina, perhaps to excess. Within a twenty-three-year period, she gave birth to fourteen children, including twins Antoninus and Commodus in A.D. 161.
According to accounts from authors Herodian and Dio Cassius, Faustina may not have returned Marcus’s devotion in equal measure. While watching gladiators on parade, Faustina got hit by Cupid’s arrow, becoming inflamed with passion for one of the burly fighters. This inappropriate love gnawed at her until she became ill. Finally, she confessed to Marcus; a calm and thoughtful guy, he refrained from strangling her and instead consulted Chaldean soothsayers for their advice. They suggested that his wife have sex with the gladiator in question, who should then be killed while still on top of her. She should then take an immediate bath in gladiator blood, tidy up a bit, and follow that with lovemaking to her husband Marcus. She and Marcus allegedly followed that routine, and it seemed to cool her passion—or so the story goes.
According to some sources, Empress Faustina got the hots for a gladiator. Instead of homicide, her understanding husband kept her busy, bearing fourteen imperial children.
The Scriptores Historiae Augustae, called an unreliable source by modern historians, also claims that Faustina regularly had gladiator paramours, and that son Commodus was the result of her adultery.
That boy, the sole surviving child of the fourteen she gave birth to, did grow into a monster. Commodus became emperor in A.D. 180 and for twelve years actually outdid Nero and Caligula in terms of shameful behavior, cruelty, and just plain weirdness—even by Roman imperial standards.
Although during his tenure the Roman army fought and won battles hither and yon, Commodus was never present on the battlefield. Instead, he served as the star in the lavish triumphs that were held after each victory. Dismissing imperial dignity and Roman gravitas as things of the past, Commodus enlivened the proceedings by bringing along his latest boy-toy in his parade chariot, kissing him ardently from time to time.
Sexually, however, Commodus was more often a voyeur than a doer; he kept “harems” of nubile young boys and girls and enjoyed watching as many as six hundred bodies copulate simultaneously. He also had a fascination for deformities and supersize genitalia. One of his favorites was a man he called “Ass,” whose male member closely resembled that of an animal in the equine family.
The Roman public, a bit blasé after nearly two hundred years of outrageous imperial antics, was stunned when Commodus announced that he was going to pursue his two true vocations: becoming the new Hercules; and becoming a gladiator.
To make time to accomplish his passions, Commodus blew off the circle of wise advisers his father had left him and assigned the running of the government to a flunky named Perennis. Commodus’s first priority was to focus on looking like his idol, Hercules. At nineteen when he began to reign, he already had a muscular body and a full head of curly blond hair. Before long, he grew a beard and put on Herculean regalia: a lion-skin headdress and flashy purple-and-gold robes. And he carried a club. A big club.
Because of his hands-off policies regarding actual governing, Commodus was regularly confronted with plots and conspiracies, which he managed to suppress by slaughtering his enemies, real and imagined. As the years passed, he became even more paranoid, trusting no one and hating almost everyone. Except gladiators, of course.
Misfortune dogged Emperor Marcus Aurelius, however. His sole surviving child with Empress Faustina was Commodus, one of Rome’s most notorious rulers—and a self-proclaimed gladiator.
A natural athlete, Commodus had talent as a swordsman and archer. After learning from the pros and practicing a great deal in his large private arena (in the year 2000, archaeologists excavating his villa in Rome found traces of it), Commodus declared himself ready for the big time. For the next two years, he appeared in public a number of times. He fought in front of sellout crowds, of course. No one could ever remember seeing an emperor perform in the arena, although everyone knew emperors who’d condemned people to the arena.
The sorry fact is, Emperor Commodus cheated. Although he was a terrific marksman at throwing the javelin and shooting arrows, he seldom got down and dirty in the actual arena. Instead, he had a terrace built that encircled the amphitheatre, from where he stood and fired away.
Still, if you were an average Roman, at first it might have been rather exciting to see him slaughter a hundred bears and a hundred lions in a row, along with herds of other animals, from bulls to flocks of ostriches. To make the emperor’s job even easier, the arena would be partitioned off into sections where various species were penned.
To vary the program a bit, Commodus had a group of leopards mixed in with a group of condemned criminals. When a leopard made a lightning move and grabbed a man, about to take his face off, the emperor saved the day with a javelin shot to the animal’s head. Thus rescued, the man was then obliged to die in some other stomach-turning fashion.
On a few exceptional occasions, Commodus did appear on the sands of the arena, barechested and bold, taking up arms like a real gladiator. His opponents, however, weren’t much of a match for him. Knowing that you’re obliged to fight the ruler of the entire known world does that to a guy. So does being handed a wooden sword. In one instance, Commodus’s “opponent” was a handicapped fellow, “armed” with a sponge!
Roman emperor Commodus had time to write out a few more death lists and rename all the months of the year after divine aspects of himself before general disgust resulted in his assassination on December 31 of the year 192.