Public Entertainment in Ancient Rome and the Origin of Gladiator Games

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

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

One of the famous figures associated with ancient Rome was the gladiator. The image of brawny warriors battling to death in gigantic marble amphitheaters for the amusement of a rabidly cheering crowd was indeed powerful. Learn more about the origin and varieties of gladiators and the various forms they took.

Image an armored gladiator.
Desire to become a gladiator involved a great deal of regress training, starting with a general one and graduating to the toughest one where practice weapons were twice as heavy as the real ones. (Image: BrunoGarridoMacias/Shutterstock)

Roman Tradition and Entertainment

Romans were fond of spectacular public entertainments, and gladiator games were one of those. However, they were not the only violent public spectacle. In ancient Rome, it was a tradition for the state, to provide entertainment, with two broad categories of ludi, meaning games, including theatrical performances, dances, and chariot races and munera, or spectacle, such as gladiator combats, wild animal shows, and other unusual exhibitions. The Romans’ concept of entertainment was that, most of those events had a religious component, held on religious holidays, accompanied by prayers and sacrifices, a way of paying homage to the gods.

Origin of Gladiator Games

The notion of gladiators originated with the Etruscans, who preceded the Romans in central Italy. Among the Etruscans, when a leader died, as part of the funeral ceremony, a pair of warriors sometimes fought to the death to honor his warlike spirit. Over time, the practice became institutionalized, and the Romans subsequently imitated it. Throughout the next 800 years of the Roman Republic, gladiator games remained infrequent, on a small scale, held as part of a funeral service.

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Rare Gladiator Events

That practice began to change in the late Republic. Julius Caesar put on a gladiatorial show that featured 320 pairs of gladiators in honor of his father, despite the fact that the elder Caesar was dead for over 20 years. Those games made the younger Caesar popular with the people of Rome. During the empire, by law, the senate could sponsor no more than two gladiator shows per year. But there was no limit to the quantity that the emperor could hold. Despite that, they always remained rare and unusual events. For example, over the course of his 60-plus-year reign, the emperor Augustus put on gladiator shows only eight times.

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Spike in Gladiator Games

There was a steady increase in both the number of games days held at Rome and regularly scheduled gladiator games. By 354 A.D., spectacular games were held for half of the year, including 102 days with theatrical entertainments, 64 with chariot racing, 10 with gladiator shows and beast hunts.

Image shows two gladiators relaxing, probably after a fight.
There were different types of people chosen to become gladiators, which included the ones who themselves volunteered to participate in the game. (Image: José Moreno Carbonero/Public domain)

There were three typical sources for gladiators, including the slaves who were assigned to be gladiators because they seemed to be good fighters. That category incorporated prisoners of war seized in Rome’s campaigns. Criminals were sometimes condemned to be gladiators. The rarest type, were free people, volunteering to become gladiators for fame and money.

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Making of a Gladiator

Someone wanting to be a gladiator, was sent to the training school, where many adopted stage names because those sounded menacing or implied something about the martial skills of the gladiator; for instance, one renowned gladiator was called Flamma, or ‘the Flame’. During the Republic, most schools were privately owned businesses, but under control of emperor and the state. The staff included weapon-makers, guards, masseurs, doctors, and, most importantly, the trainer, called a lanista.

A prospective gladiator first underwent general training with wooden weapons until he became familiar with basic fighting techniques. The lanista evaluated and assigned him to a program of specialized instruction depending on his abilities. There were at least 14 varieties of gladiator, divided up according to their weapons and tactics. Their practice weapons were twice as heavy as the real ones in order to increase muscle mass and endurance.

‘Barley Boys’

Gladiators ate a carbohydrate-rich diet to bulk up, due to which, nickname for gladiators was ‘barley boys’. The reason for building up layers of fat and muscle was to provide extra protection from stab wounds that might prove fatal if they penetrated vital organs or internal cavities.

Battle of Contrast

Image of a relief by Kleuske - Museo Nazionale showing, Secutor, one of the heavily armed gladiators, fighting his counterpart.
There was a fascination of contrast battles where heavily armored were matched with lightly equipped ones. Secutor was one of the heavily armored gladiators. (Image: Kleuske/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Romans liked a battle of contrasts, and often matched a heavily armed and armored man against a lightly equipped and more mobile opponent. The heavily armored varieties of gladiators included, Gauls, Hoplites, Samnites, and a popular type called the Secutor.

All of them carried a sword and wore a helmet that completely covered the face. Some were sheathed in armor, while others wore lighter armor but carried huge, five-foot-tall shields. In all those cases, the gladiators were well-protected but slow-moving.

Light-Armed Thracian

Among the best known lighter-armed, more agile gladiator was the Thracian. He wore little or no armor, held a small shield made of wood or wicker in one hand, and a short, curved sword in the other. The Thracian darted back and forth, looking for a gap in his enemy’s defenses. His heavily armed enemy pursued, trying to trap him against a wall, where he was not able to use his greater quickness to escape.

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Different Variety of Gladiators

Another famous, less armed was the Retiarius, who was naked, except for a loincloth, holding a net with weights at the corners in one hand, and a trident in another. His strategy was to dance around an opponent and try entangling him in the net, to be skewered by the trident. More exotic varieties of gladiators included men fighting with lassos, others careened around the arena in light chariots, and a fighter called a scissor, had one arm encased in a metal tube tipped with a semicircular cutting blade.

Female Gladiators

In the final stages of his training, the gladiator switched from wooden weapons to real, steel ones. The vast majority of gladiators were men, although there were instances of some female gladiators. One of those apparently dressed up as the goddess Venus, and others fought under the guise of renowned martial women from myth such as the Amazons. One woman creatively called herself Achillia, a female version of the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles.

Renting Variety of Gladiators

Someone wishing to put on a gladiatorial show, rented the desired gladiator from one of the schools. The prices ranged from 1,000 sesterces for a first-time or not very talented gladiator to around 15,000 for an experienced combat veteran. The most famous gladiators commanded gigantic fees, believed to have been 100,000 sesterces per appearance. An odd part of the rituals was that, on the night before the fight, all the opponent gladiators ate dinner together. Curious or morbid fans paid to come and watch those meals.

Common Questions about Gladiators in Ancient Rome

Q: What did the Romans do for fun and entertainment?

In ancient Rome, the state provided games for fun and entertainment, with two broad categories of ludi, meaning games, including theatrical performances, dances, and chariot races and munera, or spectacles, such as gladiator combats, wild animal shows, and other unusual exhibitions.

Q: What was the purpose of the gladiator games?

The purpose of gladiator games originated with the Etruscans, where a leader was, as part of the funeral ceremony, a pair of warriors fighting to the death to honor his warlike spirit. Over time, the practice became institutionalized, which Romans imitated. For the next 800 years of the Roman Republic, those games were always held as part of a funeral service.

Q: What are the common types of gladiators?

There were three common types of gladiators. Most commonly, slaves because they seemed to be good fighters. That category incorporated prisoners of war seized in Rome’s campaigns. Secondly, criminals were sometimes condemned to be gladiators. The third, and probably rarest type, was free people who volunteered to become one in a quest for fame and money.

Q: How did one become a gladiator in ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, someone wanting to be a gladiator, was sent to the training school, where many adopted a stage name. They underwent general training with wooden weapons until he became familiar with basic fighting techniques. After being evaluated, the gladiator was assigned to a program of specialized instruction depending on his abilities. Their practice weapons were twice as heavy as the real ones in order to increase muscle mass and endurance.

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