Making of Gladiators and Humongous Preparations for the Big Game

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

In ancient Rome, there was lots going on behind the scenes in the making of fight-ready gladiators who, for the sake of public entertainment, were then able to confront, not only their counterparts but also dangerous beasts. The preparations for the setting of big fights were immense. But there was also a dark side to the exciting game where gladiators preferred killing themselves rather than fighting others.

Image of an amphitheatre
The arena was witness to many innocent deaths as a part of the games which the spectators were fascinated to watch. (Image: Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock)

Doomed Non-fighter Gladiators

Some gladiators, particularly foreign soldiers captured in wars against Rome, chose to commit suicide rather than fight each other. One man thrust his head between the wheel spokes of the wagon in which he was being transported. Twenty-nine Germans, supposed to fight the next day, strangled one another. An even more horrible method of suicide was employed by a German. Romans did not have toilet paper; in its place, each bathroom was equipped with a sponge on a stick. The German took one of those sponges and crammed it down his throat, to suffocate himself.

The Big Day

On the show day, festivities began with a parade of the participants. At the head of the procession was the person providing the funding, accompanied by lictors. During the parade, and throughout the day’s activities, a band played. Such bands included flutes, horns, and often a water-powered organ. In the morning, there were exhibitions of wild beasts and beast hunts, continuing until noon.  During the break, the spectators went to get some lunch or stayed watching executions.

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Obsession for Prosecution

Criminals known as noxii, were led into the arena, lined up and their throats cut. Christians persecuted during the later empire were put to death during those intermissions. Once, the emperor Caligula was bored because there were no criminals to be slain during the intermission, so he ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the crowd into the arena to be eaten by animals.

Rooting for Favorite Gladiator

During the main event, the gladiator fight, the gladiators came out, raising their weapons in salute to the giver of the games while shouting the phrase, “Morituri te salutant,” “They who are about to die salute you.” Fans had a favorite gladiator that they rooted for, and enjoyed arguing with each other over the merits and drawbacks of the different varieties of fighters. Whenever a gladiator received a wound, the crowd would shout out “habet,” meaning ‘a hit’.

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Meaning of the Gestures

A gladiator asked for mercy by dropping his shield and raising a finger of his left hand. The crowd then either called for him to be killed, or, if he fought well, asked that he be spared. They did this using both shouts and gestures. In Latin, the passage from a poem, described the custom saying that the gesture involved the turning of the thumb, but not specifying the direction.

Image depicting the gesture signs by the audience in the fighting arena with thumbs down.
During the gladiator games, it is believed that a thumbs-down gesture by the audience meant sparing the enemy by the winner. Thumbs up was a sign of stabbing the enemy in the throat. (Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme/Public domain)

Based on evidence from sculpture and mosaics, it was believed that the thumbs-down sign was a way of calling for the victorious gladiator to drop the weapon and spare his enemy, whereas the thumbs-up meant, stabbing him in the throat.  If the crowd demanded death, then the winner plunged his sword into his enemy’s throat. The victor received a palm of victory, a crown, and prize money.

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Facts about Gladiator Deaths

In some games, nearly every contest resulted in the death of the loser, while in others, almost everyone was spared. From the 1st century A.D., details of about 100 fights were preserved on tombstones or inscriptions, and out of the 200 gladiators involved, 19 were recorded as killed. Analysis of the bones from a gladiator cemetery at Ephesus revealed that many suffered serious injuries to leave scars on the bones, but most of them healed. 

Status of Champion Gladiators

For a gladiator, winning more than 10 combats was exceptional. The record was held by a gladiator who was victorious in almost 88 matches over the course of his career. If a gladiator fought extraordinarily well, he was freed, although many continued to compete even though they no longer had to. When freed, they received a wooden sword called the rudis, the symbol of their liberty.

Champion gladiators were celebrities with status similar to that of rock stars. Images of gladiators were found in graffiti and mosaics, used as decorations on lamps, plates, bowls, and even a baby’s bottle. There were many stories of rich aristocratic women having affairs with them. The gladiator functioned as a symbol of virility in Roman society; at the same time, they were also one of the most despised groups in society. It was interesting that the Romans, both glorified and looked down on the same figure.

Venues for Gladiator Games

The earliest gladiatorial games were held in the Forum, which continued throughout the entire Republic. For the larger, more elaborate games, temporary wooden amphitheaters were constructed towards the end of the Republic. The basic amphitheater form, was inspired by attaching two theaters back-to-back, creating a central space where the combats took place, surrounded by stepped seating for the audience. The sandy oval at the center was termed arena, meaning ‘sand,’ and the seating zone was called the cavea. The oldest stone amphitheater was located in the city of Pompeii on the Bay of Naples. The first permanent stone amphitheater at Rome was not built until 30 B.C, when one was erected in the Campus Martius by Statilius Taurus.

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Flavian Amphitheater

The largest and most famous amphitheater was the one today known as the Colosseum. Its actual name was the Flavian Amphitheater, after the family of emperors who built it in the late 1st century A.D. To support the great weight of the structure, 39 feet deep concrete foundations were poured. The footprint of the building was 620 feet on the long axis by 513 feet wide. The actual space occupied by the arena where the gladiators fought was 287 feet by 180 feet. In its final form, the exterior consisted of four levels of arched colonnades. The bottom tier consisted of a continuous ring of 80 arches of the Tuscan order.

Ongoing Construction of Flavian Amphitheater

The second layer of the Flavian Amphitheater comprised a colonnade of Ionic arches, and the third level consisted of the Corinthian order. That was the construction which had progressed by the time of the founder of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian’s death.

Image by Norbert Nagel, of the ruins of the Flavian Amphitheatre which was the largest Roman Amphitheatre.
After the death of Flavian dynasty founder, Vespasian, construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre was completed by his son, Titus, who added a fourth level to the building. (Image: Norbert Nagel/CC BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

His son, Titus, finished the building by adding a fourth level, in A.D. 80. The total height of the four layers of the exterior was 159 feet. The edifice was composed of a concrete and brick core, faced with tufa and travertine stone. It was estimated that over 100,000 tons of fine travertine were used on the exterior of the amphitheater, covering of which was attached to the structure with iron clamps, weighing around a total of 300 tons.

Common Questions about Gladiator Games in Ancient Rome

Q: Did Gladiators get paid?

The winning gladiator received a palm of victory, a crown, and prize money. Champion gladiators were celebrities with star like status.

Q: What was the Flavian Amphitheater used for?

The largest and most famous Flavian amphitheater was the one today known as the Colosseum. The space occupied by the arena where the gladiators fought was 287 feet by 180 feet and was used to hold a huge population witnessing the spectacle of the fight.

Q: What is the Flavian Amphitheater made of?

The total height of the four layers of the exterior in the Flavian Amphitheater was 159 feet. The edifice was composed of a concrete and brick core, faced with tufa and travertine stone. Over 100,000 tons of fine travertine were used on the exterior of the amphitheater, covering of which was attached to the structure with iron clamps, weighing around a total of 300 tons.

Q: Why was the Roman forum built?

The Roman forum was built to hold the earliest gladiatorial games, which continued throughout the entire Republic.

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