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Roman Gladiators

Roman gladiators usually consisted of prisoners of war, condemned criminals, and purchased slaves who were kept for the sole purpose of fighting. However, some professional gladiators were free men who wanted to participate in the games. These men volunteered while some Roman citizens, who were in none of the above classes, sold themselves to gladiator owners.

Roman Gladiators

Where Did Gladiator Combat Originate?

It's hard to pinpoint the exact inspiration of gladiatorial combat, but it is commonly believed the games started as religious events. At first, many of the early games were re-enactments of famous battles or to endow esteem on an individual — the players would not die physically, just symbolically.

One of the first games that included Roman gladiators was held around 250 BCE and had three pairs of slaves fighting to the death in a marketplace. Over time, gladiator games became very popular and are one of the defining Roman symbols.

Roman Gladiators

When Caligula and Nero became emperors, they made citizens of the knight class and members of the Roman senate participate in the games (previously, Augustus forbade this).

Essentially, gladiators could be trained as a regal fighter in a private school, if they were not a criminal. Condemned criminals, however, were not trained at all and were forced to enter the arena without a weapon. A non-condemned criminal was allowed to earn their freedom, if they made it 3-5 years of fighting (this length of timed depended on the owner). Contrary to popular belief, Roman gladiators didn't fight weekly or monthly: the most any gladiator had to fight was three times per year.


There were many types of gladiators wielding all kinds of skills in the arena, and wildly different skills were usually pitted against each other. For example:

  • Cestus fighters resembled boxers and use spiked, leather gauntlets strapped to their fists.
  • Dimachaerii are two-sword specialists, using a sword in each hand.
  • Galli fighters used a lance and Gallic shield with a helmet to protect their head.
  • Laquearii specialized in nets to ensnare an opponent and daggers for close range combat.
  • Samnites were powerful fighters skilled in heavy swords and protected with heavy armor.

Daily Life

A majority of the gladiators trained like modern-day athletes at schools supported by private citizens. Doctors were always on hand in case someone was injured and the trainees got three meals a day.

Training was a daily affair. For weapons, gladiators learned to use daggers, tridents, various-sized swords, nets, war chains, and lassos. They wore armor that best fit the gladiator's style and movement. The only armor not allowed to be worn was official Roman military armor.

The gladiator was paid each time they fought. The more successful the fighter, the more the fighter was paid because private citizens sometimes endowed popular gladiators with money to help improve their performance.

For the gladiator who became wounded or unable to fight, mercy was requested. The gladiator who thought they couldn't go on would raise the left hand with their index finger extended and request mercy. The decision for life or death typically went to the highest-ranking member at the games, but is believed to be influenced by the audience. If death was chosen, the fighter would grab onto the legs of his opponent so he could stab the wounded in the neck.

Code of Honor

With a strict code of honor and many ways to die, gladiators didn't have an easy life. They were bound to their owners and only free when they fulfilled their contract, provided they made it that far.