The 2000 film starred by Russel Crowe entitled ‘Gladiator may have only given us a glimpse into Roman gladiators and how they usually came to be. We may have formed misconceptions about them and have them mythicized. True to The Colosseum’s article, ‘perhaps no figure from ancient Rome is as famous as the gladiator — a warrior of the arena that fought to the death against beasts, criminals, and other gladiators, for the entertainment of Roman society.”

Brotherhood

We already know that gladiators fight mercilessly, and the entertainment part of it, frowned upon, even today.

Tim Kirkpatrick from We Are Mighty wrote, “although gladiators battled and killed one another, they commonly viewed each other as brothers. Many developed and organized themselves into unions, called “collegia.” They had their own leaders and would pay respects to warriors who fell in battle. Commonly, a fund was collected from gladiators that would then go to a fallen’ s family as compensation.”

Gladiator scene from Kibyra in Gölhisar, Burdur (Turkey) province. Dosseman / Wikimedia Commons

Now this gives us the chance to see them in a different light, contrary to the “crude, loathsome, doomed, and lost” men altogether, without worth or dignity,’ description of the gladiators in an article from ThoughtCo. Many gladiators enjoyed long careers in the arena and were widely loved by their fans.

Men as investments

‘Most gladiators were slaves. They were subjected to rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Hence, they were an expensive investment, not to be dispatched lightly.

For a gladiator who died in combat, the trainer (lanista) might charge the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who survived. Hence, it was more costly for sponsors to supply the bloodshed that audiences often demanded. Although, if they did allow a gladiator to be slain, it was seen as an indication of their generosity,’ wrote Kathleen Coleman, a Harvard College Professor, and consultant to the movie cited above in an article published by BBC UK. So while we imagine that every gladiatorial contest resulted in death, this probably wasn’t the case because it was very expensive to kill one in the arena and ticket sales might not be enough to cover the costs.  It is probably that quite a few gladiatorial contests were elaborately staged fights for entertainment purposes rather than a sheer blood-lust demanding dead bodies. Gladiatorial fights often ended with “first blood” being drawn by an opponent and the audience applauding the combatants on their skill in fighting rather than their ability to send their opponent to Hades Ferryman.  In some ways, the gladiatorial battles of ancient Rome may have functioned like professional wrestling does today, theatrical violence as entertainment. 

Gladiator Fight During Meal At Pompeii by Francesco Netti 1880.

Although belonging to the infame class (infamous), gladiatorial schools were incredibly strict. The training they provided was harsh, with some archaeological evidence suggesting that gladiators could be killed as punishment for misbehavior, writes The Colosseum. Life was pretty cheap in those days.

They also fought under strict rules in the arena enforced by referees and regulations existed about how different gladiators could be matched up.  Spectators were there to see a good fight and wanted opponents to be of similar experience in the arena.   There were about twenty-five different types of gladiators armed in various ways. Some fought on horseback and some even fought naked with nothing but a set of brass knuckles as weapons.

Now, that’s some serious business, folks—no time for jokes or dilly-dallying.

Beauty and the beasts

What we know of gladiators is that they are male-dominated. This isn’t a shocker at all because of the nature of the entertainment the ancient Romans used to enjoy. It could be your modern-day mixed martial arts minus, of course, the chariots, shields, and swords involved. The love of gladiatorial games by the Romans was a function of their affluent, privileged status in the world.  In a world as violent as the one they lived in, they thought Romans shouldn’t get too comfortable with all the wealth and ease they enjoyed and that bloodshed served the purpose of maintaining a martial spirit among its citizens.

Surprisingly, there were female gladiators, although they were a very small minority. According to writings from the times, they were apparently viewed as oddities and peculiar entertainment, more than simply a regular type of gladiator.

‘On the other hand, gladiators fighting against beasts is a common misconception. Gladiator combat was highly regimented and organized, and gladiators only fought against other human combatants. Wild beasts did appear in the arena, but they usually did so as part of the damnatio ad bestias, which means literally condemnation to beasts, in which criminals and prisoners of war would be publicly executed with the claws and fangs of wild beasts doing the dirty work, or as part of mock hunts by professional hunters, still from The Colosseum.

Good thing Netflix and the internet does the trick in keeping us entertained nowadays. The gladiatorial games of the arena were passed down to our modern civilization too.  Americans enjoy violent games like football and hockey in arenas that a Roman would recognize and the chariot races of 2,000 years ago continue today in the form of NASCAR events.  So if you’ve ever wondered what the Romans contributed to our own modern civilization, turn on the TV and watch modern gladiators fight, bleed and suffer on a football field. You owe it to the Romans.

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