Top 10 Interesting Facts About Roman Gladiators

One of the most interesting things about ancient Rome is the love for bloody gladiator fights the people of the time had. The life of a gladiator must have been grueling and difficult, but it makes it all the more interesting for history lovers out there. Here are the most interesting facts about Roman gladiators.
The Top Ten
1 Gladiators didn’t always fight to the death

Aside from prisoners and criminals who were sentenced to death and forced to fight as gladiators, most gladiators didn't fight to the death. The best gladiators were essentially celebrities and earned their managers a lot of money, so they wanted to profit as much as possible. Gladiators were trained to wound, not to kill, and had a code to follow.

Of course, the life of most gladiators was short as many died from their injuries.

I always thought one of the two gladiators died. Good to know that's not always the case.

2 Gladiators weren’t always enslaved

Most gladiators at the time were, of course, either prisoners of war or slaves selected for their strong physiques. But as the spectacle of gladiator fights became increasingly popular, many free working-class men decided to join for fame and money. Some former soldiers in debt would also join in hopes of paying their debt and making money for the future.

3 Women also fought as gladiators

Female gladiators existed, but like their male counterparts, they were almost always slaves. These women were pitted against one another, as well as against male gladiators and even animals or dwarfs, the latter being more of a comedy act.

4 Gladiators often became celebrities and sex symbols

In ancient Rome, gladiators would appear in paintings, on walls, and in sculptures. They were also very popular with women and essentially were sex symbols. Products were even made from these alpha males' sweat and blood. Gladiator blood was believed to have magical powers, and some women dipped it into their hairpins.

Gladiator sweat, on the other hand, was mixed into perfume and was believed to be an aphrodisiac. To dream of a gladiator was said to foretell a fortunate marriage.

5 Gladiators occasionally fought in staged naval battles

Yes, I know, this sounds crazy, but it did happen. The word for these staged naval combats was "naumachia." The Colosseum in Rome was once flooded after Emperor Titus ordered the newly built Colosseum to be flooded.

Gladiators would come out on platforms that looked like ships to fight each other. The bottoms of the ships were made flat to ensure they wouldn't get stuck as the water was only around 5 feet deep.

6 Gladiators were divided in different classes and types

Gladiator fights became a well-organized blood sport. Think of today's combat sports like pro wrestling, MMA, or boxing, but with only one leaving the fight alive. There were four principal classes of Roman gladiators:

- Samnites: The Samnites were named after the great Samnite warriors that Rome defeated in the early years of the Republic. They were armed with a long rectangular shield (scutum), a plumed helmet, a short sword, and probably a greave on their left leg.

- Thraex: The Thraces were named after another enemy of Rome and usually fought in pairs against the Murmillones. These gladiators typically wore leg wrappings, a loincloth, a belt, long shin guards or greaves, and an arm guard. For weapons, they had a gladius and a very small, round shield. They also carried a spear, which they would cast at their opponent before closing for hand-to-hand combat.

- Murmillo: A murmillo wore a helmet with a stylized fish on the crest (which is why they were called "fish men") and were heavily armored. They fought with a gladius and a tall, oblong shield called a scutum.

- Retiarius: This gladiator type is perhaps the most well-known as they fought using a trident and a net.

7 Gladiatorial bouts were originally part of funeral ceremonies

During the funeral of a wealthy Roman, slaves and prisoners of war had to fight with each other in what was essentially a human sacrifice. This was done because it was thought that the blood calms the gods, and the show relaxed the dead man's mourning family.

This was one fact I didn't know before. It's definitely a very different concept from what we usually think of regarding gladiator fights.

8 Gladiators could win their freedom

A gladiator who won several fights, served an indefinite period, or paid for it was offered their freedom. Those who did win or buy their freedom, sometimes at the request of the crowd or Emperor, were given a wooden sword (rudis) as a memento and a symbol of their freedom.

In many cases, they would become gladiator trainers. Surprisingly, there were gladiators who refused their freedom and chose to continue fighting.

9 Gladiators fighting against animals was rare

Tangling with wild beasts was reserved for the "venatores" and "bestiarii," special classes of warrior who squared off against everything from deer and ostriches to lions, crocodiles, bears, and even elephants.

10 Gladiators were trained in gladiator schools

According to historical finds, these schools were probably run like prisons, although it's possible the best gladiators were treated better than the average gladiator. Gladiator schools were owned by wealthy men called "lanista" and they would rent their gladiators out for individual events.

The price of each fighter varied, with untested novices being the cheapest, while veterans who were loved by the public could fetch huge sums. According to sources from the time, if a lanista's gladiator was killed in the arena, the rental contract would be automatically upgraded to a sale agreement to compensate.

The Contenders
11 Some gladiators formed trade unions

These groups were established in training camps, and the members would ensure that if one died, the others would look after a fallen gladiator's wife or children financially. They would also ensure their deceased comrade received a proper burial.

Okay, this takes the cake in terms of interesting facts.

12 A gladiator's diet was mostly vegetarian

Archaeologists found many gladiator bones over the years, and studies on these bones have shown that a gladiator mostly ate wheat, barley, and beans. The likely reason why is that was the cheapest way to feed them.

13 The "thumbs down" hand sign did not mean death for the loser

During gladiator fights, if the Emperor was in attendance, he would decide the fate of the defeated gladiator, often by listening to the crowd. Many people believed the Emperor would show everyone his decision to have the gladiator killed by pointing his thumb towards the ground.

But historians believe it was actually the thumbs up that meant death.

14 Most gladiators only fought a few times a year

On average, a gladiator back then would have 4 to 5 fights a year, sometimes even less. Once they finished a fight, they would be given time to recuperate, heal their wounds, and train for their next fight.

15 Gladiators drank a tonic of water mixed with ashes

After their fights, gladiators drank a tonic made with plant ashes, which was believed to help their bodies recover faster.

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