Hollywood likes to cast them as heroic freedom fighters, but what was life really like for Rome’s arena-warriors? Tony Wilmott brings you the facts.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
In 1993 Austrian archaeologists working at the Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey made a spectacular discovery – a cemetery marked by the tombstones of gladiators. The stones gave the names of the men and showed their equipment – helmets, shields, the palm fronds of victory.
With the tombstones were the skeletal remains of the fighters themselves, many of which bore the marks of healed wounds as well as the injuries that caused their deaths. Perhaps the most spectacular find was a skull pierced with three neat, evenly spaced holes. This man had been slain with the barbed trident wielded by a type of gladiator called a retiarius, who also fought with a weighted net.
The gladiator has long been an iconic symbol of ancient Rome, and a popular element in any Roman epic movie, but what do we really know about the lives and deaths of these men?
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.
It is difficult now to quite comprehend the impact that the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum (both in the 18th century) had on the classically educated of Europe, who suddenly saw the reality of Roman lives in a bewildering array of objects, graffiti and paintings.
The reality could be spectacular, and in some cases seemed to confirm the more lurid stories in the sources. In 1764 the temple of Isis at Pompeii confirmed the practise of mysterious and esoteric eastern religions. Two years later, in rooms around the courtyard of the theatre, a number of skeletons were found together with a large quantity of gladiatorial armour, identifying the rooms as a gladiator barracks. Among the dead was a woman adorned with bracelets, rings and an emerald necklace.
Ever since, this discovery has become part of the mythology not only of Pompeii, but of the arena. At the time, it seemed to confirm scandalous stories in ancient sources of wealthy and aristocratic women having sexual adventures with brawny gladiators – though we now see the 18 skeletons in this room as a group of frightened fugitives sheltering from the disaster of the volcanic eruption.
Reliefs showing gladiators in the arena. The most successful could earn fame, if not fortune, but few would survive more than a dozen fights. (Bridgeman Art Library)
From the point of view of reconstructing the gladiator, the most important discovery was the bronze gladiatorial armour and weaponry. This included 15 helmets richly ornamented with mythological scenes, and six of the curious shoulder guards known as galerus.
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. Each different type of equipment provided varying levels of protection to the body, deliberately giving the opponent the opportunity to aim for specific points of vulnerability.
All gladiator categories wore a basic subligaculm and balteus (a loincloth and broad belt). Among the most heavily armed gladiators were the thraex (Thracian) and the hoplomachus (inspired by Greek hoplite soldiers). Both wore padded leg-guards with bronze greaves (a form of armour) strapped over them on their legs (14 of such greaves were found in Pompeii).
Each carried a small shield: rectangular for the thraex, who was armed with a short, curved sword; round for the hoplomachus, who carried a spear and short sword. Both wore a padded arm-guard or manica, but only on the sword/spear arm. The shield arm was unprotected, as was the torso.
The thraex and hoplomachus wore heavy bronze helmets of the type found in Pompeii. These had broad brims, high crests and face guards. Visibility was limited to what he could see through a pair of bronze grilles.
As gladiatorial re-enactors have discovered, breathing in these helmets isn’t easy, as the wearer is forced to inhale the air trapped in the face guard. Factor in fear and exertion – which would inevitably shorten the breath anyway – and you’ve got the makings of a lung-busting experience.
A gladiator’s helmet found in Pompeii. Breathing in these helmets wouldn’t have been easy, as the wearer was forced to inhale the air trapped in the face guard. (AKG Images)
Another type of gladiator to wear a large helmet and carry a short sword was the murmillo. He was also armed with a large rectangular shield, which he used to defend his legs. He only wore armour on one leg – though the leg on the shield side was protected with padding and greave.
Two other gladiators – the provocator and secutor – also fought with one vulnerable leg, and only carried a manica on the weapon arm. While they also carried a short sword and large shield, they wore lighter helmets than the thraex, hoplomachus and murmillo.
The secutor’s helmet fitted close to his head. Visibility was restricted to two small eye-holes, and there was no decoration. The helmet was shaped like the head of a fish – for the simple reason that the secutor’s opponent, the retiarius, was equipped as a fisherman.
Gladiators in Britain
Compared with most other provinces of the Roman empire, Britain has surprisingly little evidence for gladiators. The differences between Britain’s amphitheatres may help to explain this. Those sited at the legionary fortresses of Chester and Caerleon were built in the AD 70s to serve legionaries – the citizen-soldiers of Rome. Drawn from all over the empire, they would have expected to be provided with an amphitheatre – both for entertainment and to enact games on festivals associated with the imperial cult.
The legionary amphitheatres were stone-built like many across the empire. However, at the British tribal capitals the Romans built earthwork amphitheatres. There is evidence to show that these were infrequently used, and it appears that the native population didn’t wholly embrace the Mediterranean concept of the Roman games.
Despite this, there is evidence for the presence of gladiators. In 1738, a stone relief was found near Chester amphitheatre showing a left-handed retiarius – the only such depiction from the empire. And at Caerleon, a graffito on a stone shows the trident and galerus of a retiarius flanked by victory palms. These are the only references to gladiators from any British amphitheatre, and both are from the legionary sites.
In Britain there is but a single gladiator wall painting. Of the three gladiator mosaics left to us, the best is a frieze of cupid-gladiators at the villa of Bignor in Sussex. This features a secutor, a retiarius, and the summa rudis (referee) in a comic strip of an arena event.
Knife handles in bone and bronze are also found in the form of gladiators. An evocative piece is a potsherd discovered in Leicester in 1851, on which was scratched the words “VERECVNDA LVDIA : LVCIVS GLADIATOR”, or “Verecunda the actress, Lucius the gladiator”. This love token may relate to a couple in Britain but there is ambiguity. The pottery is of a type imported from Italy, and the graffito may have been made there as well.
The retiarius is perhaps the most extraordinary of all the gladiator classes, and his equipment shows most clearly the carefully choreographed balance between strength and vulnerability that ensured a degree of fairness and balance in gladiatorial combat.
The retiarius was almost wholly unprotected. If he was right-handed, his left arm would be protected by a padded manica, and on his left shoulder would be strapped a high shoulder-guard, the galerus. An example of a galerus was found in the Pompeii barracks, decorated with a dolphin and a trident, a crab and the anchor and rudder of a ship.
Bronze greaves (leg protectors) discovered at Pompeii’s gladiator barracks. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum transformed our knowledge of ancient Rome, and the lives of its arena-warriors. (AKG Images)
The retiarius wore no helmet, but he was armed with a long-handled trident, a short knife and a lead-weighted net or rete, after which he was named. The net could be used as a flail, but it is clear that the job of the retiarius was to throw the net over his opponent, catching the fish-like secutor, and then dispatching him with the trident.
Once he’d thrown the net the retiarius could use the trident as a pole arm. This is when the galerus comes into play: when using the trident two-handed, the left shoulder would be forward, and the galerus would prove an effective head-guard.
One tomb relief of a retiarius from Romania shows him holding what seems to be a four-bladed knife. The identity of this weapon remained a mystery until archaeologists discovered a femur at the Ephesus cemetery. This showed a healed wound just above the knee consisting of four punctures in the pattern of a four on dice.
The effectiveness of the retiarius is gruesomely revealed by the punctured skull discovered in Ephesus, but he did not always get his own way. A mosaic from Rome, now in Madrid, shows two scenes from a fight between a secutor named Astanax and the retiarius Kalendio. Kalendio threw his net over Astanax, but when he caught his trident in the folds of the net, Astanax could cut his way out and defeat Kalendio, who was then killed.
The skull of one of the 68 gladiators’ skeletons found in Ephesus in 1993. The bones suggest that the fighters usually died from large, single wounds, rather than numerous smaller ones – the kind delivered in a coup de grâce. (Medical University of Vienna)
The same mosaic features another figure – an unarmed man in a tunic carrying a light wand. He is the summa rudis, the referee, reminding us that this was not a free-for-all, but a fight that must be carried out within a framework of rules and rituals. These rules would clearly be understood by the audience, who would have been at least as appreciative of the fighters’ skills as excited by pure blood-lust.
The audience would also have been fully aware who was putting on such entertainment for them. Gladiatorial shows were almost always staged by leading citizens – often to enhance their political careers by currying favour with the electorate. Thus the walls of Pompeii are daubed with painted election notices, alongside advertisements for gladiatorial spectacles.
One of many examples, found near the forum, reads: “The gladiatorial troupe of Aulus Suettius Certus will fight at Pompeii on 31 May. There will be a hunt and awnings. Good fortune to all Neronian games.”
There is little doubt about the popularity of the combats. Even tombs are covered with scratched graffiti showing the results of particular fights. A cartoon of two gladiators fighting in neighbouring Nola is captioned “Marcus Attius, novice, victor; Hilarius, Neronian, fought 14, 12 victories, reprieved.”
The tombstone of a murmillo gladiator, holding the palm of victory. His helmet lies beside him on the ground. (Alamy)
This says a lot. Attius unexpectedly beat a veteran, but, like most of the combats recorded at Pompeii, the loser was spared. Being a gladiator was not an automatic sentence of violent death. The person funding the games (the editor) would commission a troupe (familia) of gladiators run by a proprietor/trainer (lanista). One such lanista, recorded in Pompeian graffiti,was Marcus Mesonius. He would acquire gladiators from the slave market. Legally, gladiators were the lowest of the low in Roman society, but a trained gladiator was a valuable commodity to a lanista, representing a considerable investment of time and money, and it would be in his interest to keep his stable well and to minimise the death rate.
A graffito now in Naples Museum gives the results of a show put on by Mesonius. Of 18 gladiators who fought, we know of eight victors, five defeated and reprieved, and three killed. This kind of ratio may be typical given the records in graffiti and on tombstones. There were veterans; an unnamed retiarius on a tombstone in Rome boasted 14 victories, but few survived more than a dozen fights.
The painstaking forensic work on the Ephesus gladiator skeletons has provided startling and intimate insights into the way these men lived and died. Of the 68 bodies found, 66 were of adult males in their 20s. A rigorous training programme was attested by the enlarged muscle attachments of arms and legs. These were strong, athletic men, whose diet was dominated by grains and pulses, exactly as reported in classical texts. Yet as well as muscle and stamina, gladiators needed a good layer of fat to protect them from cuts.
The emperor who loved to fight
The relationship between the emperor and the arena was complex. Emperors could get a bad reputation for showing too much enthusiasm for spectacles of death. Claudius, for example, was reputed to have keenly watched the faces of gladiators as they died, favouring the killing of the helmetless retiarii. For a member of the elite to fight in the arena was shameful – which was why Caligula, Nero and Commodus forced well-born Romans to do so.
Special contempt was reserved for those emperors who chose to fight as gladiators in the arena. Caligula liked to appear as a thraex. Commodus, however, was the most notorious for his arena appearances. He fought as a secutor, and was a scaeva – a left hander. According to Cassius Dio he substituted the head of the Colossus by the Colosseum with his own, gave it a club and bronze lion to make it look like Hercules (with whom he identified himself). He inscribed his own titles upon it, ending “champion of secutores – the only left-handed gladiator to conquer 12 times one thousand men”.
Interestingly, Aurelius Victor relates a story of Commodus refusing to fight a gladiator in the arena. The gladiator’s name was Scaeva. Perhaps Commodus was afraid to lose his usual natural advantage in fighting a fellow southpaw.
In AD 192, intending to assume the consulship of Rome in gladiatorial guise, he was strangled by an athlete. Thus he died in shame without the opportunity to take the coup de grâce with dignity like a true gladiator.
The Ephesus skeletons also provided evidence for good medical treatment. Many well-healed wounds were found on the bodies, including 11 head wounds, a well-set broken arm and a professional leg amputation. On the other hand, 39 individuals exhibited single wounds sustained at or around the time of death. This suggests that these men did not die from multiple injuries but a lone wound. This provides further evidence for the enforcement of strict rules in the arena, and the delivery of a coup de grâce.
Though this mosaic from Terranova in Italy (left) shows gladiators dispatching their opponents, evidence suggests that defeated fighters were often given a reprieve. (Bridgeman Art Library)
At the end of a bout a defeated gladiator was required to wait for the life or death decision of the editor of the games. If the vote was for death, he was expected to accept it unflinchingly and calmly. It would be delivered as swiftly and effectively as possible. Cicero speaks of this: “What even mediocre gladiator ever groans, ever alters the expression on his face. And which of them, even when he does succumb, ever contracts his neck when ordered to receive the blow?”
As we have seen, 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.
Tony Wilmott is a senior archaeologist and Roman specialist with English Heritage. He was joint director of the Chester Amphitheatre excavations, and is the author of The Roman Amphitheatre in Britain.