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Gladiators are something that every kid learns about in school. However, most of the general knowledge seems to end at Russel Crowe. Below are 11 facts about the real deal: the gladiatorial games.
There were female gladiators
When people picture gladiators, they probably picture a big, sweaty, fierce-looking man holding a sword. However, there are Latin inscriptions which tell us that some gladiators were women (although this certainly was not the norm).
Gladiators were sex symbols
Gladiators were widely seen as hot hunks of (usually) man-meat. Seating was structured so that women were as far back from the action as possible so that they would not be unduly riled by the mostly-naked men in the arena. Merchants would sell bottles of gladiator’s sweat as aphrodisiacs and perfumes. People would follow their favorite gladiators’ matches, and, if the graffiti (“Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls”) in the Julio-Claudian gladiator barracks in Pompeii is any indication, some of them followed them home.
There were volunteer gladiators
Many gladiators were prisoners forced to fight. However, that is not true of all of them. Inscriptions have been found recording gladiators with full Roman citizenship. This means that at some point, full Roman citizens decided to enter the arena, even though this took away many of their rights, in order to gain glory and fame through combat.
Gladiators only fought other gladiators
There seems to be a public image of a gladiator fighting in the arena against an angry lion. In reality, the animal fighters were a special kind of warrior that never fought other people – just animals. The beast-fighter was called a bestiarius.
There are specific types of gladiator
Gladiator movies tend to show gladiators picking up random weapons to fight in the arena. However, in reality gladiators chose to be certain types of fighters.
One example was the retiarius, or net fighter. This gladiator was lightly armored, with no helmet and only one piece of armor – a sort of face shield at the top of the left shoulder. He would be equipped with a weighted net, a dagger, and a trident. His style of fighting was be very mobile, then to ensnare his opponent in the net so that he could finish them off with his trident.
Another interesting fighter was the dimachaerus – the two-sword fighter. This gladiator wore light armor, with a tight-fitting helmet and leather arm and leg bracers. This warrior would rely on his mobility and skill with a weapon in either hand (a difficult feat) to achieve victory.
Only certain types of gladiators fought each other
Certain matchups would have been over really quickly. A heavily armored gladiator would be easily run down by a mounted fighter. A gladiator with a pointy helmet would have been easy prey for a retiarius‘ net. As a result, matches were carefully chosen to provide interesting challenges for the combatants – gladiators would often fight opponents with a similar style to their own (some, like the mounted fighters, might fight their own style exclusively). However, many times certain gladiators would fight certain other types – the retiarius would often fight a heavily-armored opponent with a smooth helmet called a secutor, which means “pursuer.”
There were gladiator schools
In ancient Rome, they, of course, had the Colosseum, Rome’s first permanent amphitheater. However, nearby were four smaller arenas. Were they used for smaller gladiatorial events?
No, these were the gladiator schools of ancient Rome, the most esteemed of all the Roman gladiator schools. Each dealt with different fighting styles – The Ludus Matutinus was for beast-fighters; The Ludus Gallicus was for training gladiators from Gaul; the Ludus Dacicus was for training gladiators from Dacia; and all other gladiators trained in the Ludus Magnus, the Great Gladiatorial Training School. In order to provide interesting fights (or to simply not die as easily), gladiators trained in these schools before going to the Colosseum’s arena. The Ludus Magnus even had a tunnel leading to the Colosseum so that gladiators could simply walk to the Gate of Life, where they would enter the arena.
Gladiators had a clear “I give up” symbol
Gladiators often did not want to die or be crippled. Often, then, when a combatant was in serious danger of death or serious injury, the combatant would raise their first finger in surrender.
There was no “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”
Oh, Hollywood, is there anything historical you can’t mess up? The popular “thumbs up, thumbs down” method of voting for the gladiator’s survival is a myth. There were hand motions to urge for or against the gladiator’s death, but we don’t know what they looked like, since the were described as “turning the thumb,” which meant “kill him” or “compressing the thumb,” which meant “spare him.”
Animal fights were big business
Since gladiatorial games were so popular, there was large demand for interesting and exotic creatures to be sold to fight in the arena. We have very detailed accounts (written and in mosaic form) of how trappers would catch certain animals. Some, like ostriches, they would simply herd into standing nets. Others got more elaborate.
To catch a leopard, the trappers would dig a deep pit, then put a pole in the center. They would put a puppy on top (with its foot tied or something similar to make it make noise), then put a wall around the whole enclosure. The leopard, intrigued by the sound of prey inside the wall, would jump over and fall into the pit.
Tigers, though, were risky business. Trappers often went to capture cubs, so would sneak into the mothers’ den while she was away and take all of the cubs. They would then jump onto their fastest horse and take off, because momma would be coming soon, and it would not be with a polite letter. If the mother got too close (which she often did), the trapper would drop one of the cubs as a distraction. Eventually, the trapper on the horse would bolt up onto his ship and the sailors on board would quickly pull up the gangplank, leaving the furious mother on shore.
Due to high demand and difficult capture, animal trappers made a lot of money. One lion sold for 150,000 denarii. For comparison, the Bible refers to the denarius as a day’s pay for a common laborer.
There were executions in the Colosseum
The shows at the Colosseum were broken into three parts. In the morning would be the beast hunts. In the afternoon would be the big-time gladiatorial fights. However, during lunchtime were the executions. These would be horrifying and humiliating deaths, meant to deter crime by sheer horror. One common kind of execution was called a damnatio ad bestias, or damnation to the beasts. Sometimes, criminals would be tied down to be torn apart by wild animals. Other times, elaborate shows would be put on. For example, a prisoner might be forced to pretend to be Orpheus, a legendary musician whose music could calm wild beasts and charm stones. The theater would be transformed into an elaborate set, and then the prisoner would be put in the middle with a lyre. He would be told to play. Finally, they would release dangerous animals into the arena, who would kill and dismember “Orpheus.”
It seems that the Romans had a very grim sense of irony.