Film and television have shown numerous times the story of wild, blood-thirsty, cruel men, always ready to tear their opponent in half. This ancient kind of sport is shrouded in both the admiration from the public and the horrific depictions of what occurred in the coliseum.
In reality, gladiators were never like Russell Crowe’s character, fighting men and beasts for his honor. Nor were they celebrities worshipped by thousands. The men who faced death on the arena were members of the lowest social strata. Rome inherited this tradition from the Etruscans, and it would not be until centuries later that it would be morphed into a spectacle. But regardless of the many myths created about this Roman tradition, there are plenty of interesting facts. Here are eight:
Gladiator schools existed
The name given to wealthy businessmen who profited off of gladiators was lanistae. As the ritual was transformed into a show, first for the upper classes and eventually by all of the public, the rules changed to incite morbid enthusiasm. This is when the merchants would buy slaves for their “schools,” where they’d be taught weapons management and fighting skills.
Gladiators were slaves
This is perhaps the most important yet ignored fact about the modern idealization of the Roman circus. Gladiators did not fight for pleasure. They were not blood-thirsty psychopaths who lived for violence and gore. These men were slaves brought from all over the known world. The only difference between them and those who endured hard labor in the mines, fields, or other places was their strength. Instead of using their stamina for those kinds of jobs, they were bought by a lanista for this showcase.
A bloody entertainment
Despite several modern interpretations claiming there were referees and rules during the fights, the truth is that as long as there were slaves on the arena, the torture would continue. The rules only made combat last longer for the public’s delight. The patricians would pay high sums to watch a spectacle they believed was worthy.
They were well fed
This is a logical principle: a gladiator could not provide the best fight if he wasn't eating well or being taken care of. The lanistae would worry about keeping their slaves healthy, forcing them to exercise and eat well. Those particularly favored, who were even allowed a small percentage of earnings, could receive a slave woman to satisfy their sexual needs.
The War of Spartacus
The most blatant proof that most of the gladiators were no more than slaves producing profit for their masters were the servile wars that hit Rome. The third one particularly was a rebellion started in the Capua gladiator school, which at one point had over 70 thousand students who defeated several Roman legions.
There were female gladiators
Their fights were not as common and celebrated as those of their male counterparts, but there is plenty of historical evidence of sculptures of armed women lined in a triumphant position. This happened in the later stages of the Roman circus, when most professional gladiators would often be entertainers at massive events.
Opponents would not have equal conditions
To keep up the expectation, several kinds of gladiators would have an arsenal of weapons to fight with, such as nets, daggers, whips, and shields. These accessories would be given to them depending on their race. Thracians would carry a short sword called sica, while the Samnites would have a large shield and a sword known as gladius.
Professional gladiators were a thing
As fights gained popularity in all of Rome’s territories, a new kind of gladiator came into existence. The autoracti were free men who chose to dedicate their lives to this practice. Combat between volunteer gladiators became a very popular show. This brought the level of cruelty, as well as the mortality rates, down. Unlike slaves, they would fight only a few times a year and never to the death.
Looking to read more about ancient Rome? There's the Spring festival that was hosted by prostitutes as well as the Winter Solstice celebration that became Christmas.
Translated by María Suárez