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Gladiators at the Colosseum

The Colosseum is one of the world’s must-see sites and part of its enduring fascination lies in the famous Roman gladiators at the Colosseum. The recent opening of the underground part of the Colosseum means you can now see where the gladiators waited. So here’s everything you need to know about these iconic cultural figures to ensure that your visit to the Colosseum will really come alive for you once you know what really happened at the Colosseum!

Introduction

In the 2007 film Bucket List, one of Morgan Freeman’s lifelong wishes is to see the Roman Colosseum, and many of us share the same sentiment. It’s a must-see.

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Inside the Roman Colosseum, Italy

Even without knowing anything of its history, you are naturally drawn to this site when you visit Rome. The Eternal City might boast many wonders, but the Colosseum is a unique window to the ancient world.

The fact that many of us do have an inkling about its past – even though we might know more of Crowe than Claudius or more of Heston than Hadrian – means that any visit to the Colosseum is enhanced by the iconic images that pop into your mind’s eye as you gaze around the largest amphitheater in the world.

If you want to upgrade your gladiatorial knowledge – and impress your travel companions – read on to find out more about this fascinating relic of the Roman Empire.

The 6 best Colosseum Tickets + Experiences

In a nutshell, here’s my list of the 6 best-value and quality tickets for the different kinds of Colosseum experiences. They are all express, skip-the-line electronic tickets, cancellable with full refund up to 24 hours before the entry or tour date:

Working like a slave?

In Gladiator (2000), Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) was a Roman general whose fortunes went south so dramatically that he ended up as a slave who was thrust into deadly combat in the Colosseum.

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The Gladiator Movie

Such cases were certainly not exceptional. Especially in the early years of the bloodsport – thought to be in the first century BC – gladiator battles were indeed largely fought between slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals.

Young gladiators and Gladiatorial Schools

However, this is not the full story. By the 1st century A.D. there is already evidence of an entirely different kind of profile of gladiator: young free men seeking visceral thrills and unimaginable glory at the throbbing center of the Roman Empire.

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Gladiator carving at the Colosseum, Rome

We even know that gladiator schools existed, in which would-be combatants trained and honed their skills. Some of these, like our old friend Maximus, might have been former Roman soldiers or brawlers in desperate need of a payday, but others were from the higher classes, as knights and wealthy nobles joined the ranks of professional fighters in the pursuit of fame – and prize money.

A fight at a funeral

Many contemporary accounts from Ancient Rome suggest that gladiatorial combats were actually imported to Rome from Etruria – the region that neighbors Rome to the west.

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Gladiator Barracks at Pompeii, Italy

However, most modern-day historians believe that the first gladiators fought at the funerals of Roman nobles, where the battle between condemned prisoners was a kind of rite that formed part of the ceremony.

It’s naturally hard to imagine such a spectacle at a modern-day funeral, but back then the gladiator games would have been akin to the way a military victory was reenacted as part of an Emperor’s triumphant return to Rome.

Bloodsport

As well as paying tribute to the deceased’s qualities – be they bravery, nobility, or whatever – these gladiatorial contests also had an element of human sacrifice to them, as the bloodshed during the gladiator fights would have been deemed to be purifying for the late person’s soul.

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Gladiator Mosaic in Paphos, Cyprus

This rather chilling custom grew in popularity to the extent that Julius Caesar honored his deceased father and daughter by having hundreds of Roman gladiators fight after their deaths.

As the events grew in scale and spectacle, the appetite for the sport grew among the public, and by the end of the 1st century B.C., they were a fully-fledged part of the Roman Empire’s efforts to placate the masses: bread and circuses with a side of blood.

Mortal combat?

Have you ever wondered why a military superpower like Rome would happily sit by and watch its best fighters slaughter each other?

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Mosaic at National Archaeological Museum in Madrid showing a retiarius named Kalendio (shown surrendering in the upper section) fighting a secutor named Astyanax.

In the same way that most gladiators (but not all) were slaves, the truth here is somewhat more complex. Gladiator battles did not follow Marquis of Queensbury rules, but nor did they totally resemble the pitiless fight to the death that we often see on the silver screen.

For one thing, we can forget the Hollywood image of the reluctant slave being thrust into a baying arena, begging his opponent not to kill him. In the real world, the authorities carefully matched the Colosseum gladiators so that they were of similar size and experience.

There was even a kind of referee (summa rudis) overseeing the battles, although it is unclear what rules would have been enforced. One theory is that refs would have stopped the fights when one combatant was wounded.

This makes sense when one considers that famous Colosseum gladiators were worth their weight in gold as the prize fighters of their day. Promoters would give gladiators a home, food, and training and thus would surely have wanted to protect their best assets if they sold tickets.

Some historians even believe that gladiators may have been trained to wound each other, rather than kill. However, gladiator combat was still not exactly the WWE: estimates suggest between 5% and 10% of fights resulted in the death of the losing gladiator. In the mosaic above, the Ø above the gladiator’s name means that he was killed after surrendering.

A less bloody outcome was possible. If the crowd had become bored by a less-than-eventful fight, both combatants would be led off, although their fate is uncertain. More happily, both combatants were allowed to leave the arena with their honor intact if they had been deemed to have fought valiantly – and entertained the crowd.

Thumbs down for authenticity

Another enduring image of Gladiator is a pre-Joker Joaquin Phoenix giving the old thumbs-down to consign a gladiator’s to death.

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3D rendering of ‘Thumbs Down’ verdict of Gladiator fight at the Colosseum, Rome (based on Pollice Verso (“With a Turned Thumb”), an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme)

Outside of the Colosseum, such decisions were generally made by the crowd. At the Flavian amphitheater, the final say did go to Emperor, but the will of the masses was still likely to be the deciding influence.

So where does the image of the thumbs down come from? It is something that began in paintings of famous gladiators and was picked up in films. Historians actually debate about both which gestures were used and what they meant – with some arguing that a thumbs-up actually meant death.

Whichever way the digit pointed, if death was what the crowd wanted, death was what they got. It was usually administered quickly; a blade was driven through the neck or – bullfighter style – between the shoulder blades.

Which type of gladiator are you?

By 80 A.D., when the Roman Colosseum opened, gladiatorial combat had gone from a grisly abuse of the most vulnerable in Ancient Rome to a lucrative part of the Roman games.

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Roman gladiator helmet from Herculaneum Iron 1st century CE

As well as the care taken to match fighters against each other according to their level of skill, the Colosseum gladiators were also divided up according to their fighting styles and choice of weapons.

The Roman gladiators in our mind’s eye might typically wield a sword and shield. These were known as Thraeces and Murmillones.

Thraex typically held a short sword and a Captain America-sized shield, oval or rectangular in shape. A Murmillo, meanwhile, favored the large rectangular style of shield which today calls to mind a member of the anti-riot police.

These two types of gladiators were often pitted against each other, presumably because the different styles of fighting made for a good spectacle – but there were others.

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Heart-shaped spear-head found in the gladiator barracks in Pompeii 1st century CE

Dimachaerus was a gladiator who forewent his shield and instead fought with two swords. Because of the lack of protection, this offered and the difficulty in wielding a sword with one’s weaker hand, these gladiators are generally thought to have been more skillful fighters.

An essedarius was a gladiator who fought from a chariot. He would typically have a driver to control the horses, allowing him to focus on the important business of killing. Intriguingly, these chariot fighters were not from the dregs of society, with some historians even believing Roman citizens were among their number, and that – contrary to what you might suppose – it was the chariot driver who was the slave or convict.

Finally, of all the types of gladiator, the retiarius is arguably the most surprising: he fought with a trident and a net, and so must have looked like a cross between Neptune and a fisherman!

Their mode of killing was to entangle their opponent in their net before striking at them with their trident – something which would have taken nerves of skill without a shield in sight.

Never work with animals

Another classic trope in Hollywood depictions of gladiator games is the presence of wild animals.

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Marble Mosaic Hunting Scene on display in the Coloseum, Rome

They were certainly there. Recently, the lift system that was used in the Colosseum to hoist animals up to arena level was reconstructed.

However, gladiators were not normally pitted against animals, though certain kinds of fighters were.

These battles fulfilled different purposes. In some cases, crowds of naked condemned prisoners were thrown into the path of various kinds of wild beasts as a sadistic form of execution – and were allowed no reprieve. If any men killed or outlasted their adversaries, more animals were unleashed until every last man was dead.

Elsewhere, however, animals were brought into the Colosseum for a kind of artificial hunt. These animal hunts included exotic animals from the far reaches of the Roman Empire, such as lions and tigers.

These bloody events were called Venationes. For the 100-day inauguration of the Colosseum, around 9,000 animals were slaughtered in such events.

Gladiators of the world, unite!

Another fascinating element to the sport’s growing sophistication is that gladiators formed “collegia”, a kind of guild or union which elected leaders and chose their own protective Roman deities.

This didn’t do much to alleviate the terrifying fatality rates, but it did mean that when a member of a collegia bit the dust, his brethren would ensure he received a dignified funeral and that his family would receive some financial compensation.

Not just a man’s game

If you thought all these grisly gladiatorial fights reeked of a boys’ club – think again.

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Marble relief with female gladiators,1st-2nd century AD, from Halicarnassus

Female gladiators existed! Ancient Rome was patriarchal, so it’s not entirely clear if female gladiators were treated as serious combatants, but by the 1st century A.D. there are numerous mentions of their participation at Roman games.

There is some suggestion of respected female fighters (they were called gladiatrix). A marble relief (above) from the 2nd century portrays a battle between two female fighters which ended in an honorable draw.

Elsewhere, women were certainly participants in the animal hunts – at least until 200 A.D, when Emperor Septimius Severus decreed that women were no longer able to take part in the games.

The Emperor strikes back

While gladiators were typically men from the lower or underclass risking their lives, and Emperors generally did little more than occupy the best seat in the house and take in the cheers of their thrilled citizens, some of Ancient Rome’s most famous emperors stepped into the fray themselves.

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Emperor Commodus kills and animal with an arrow (Hunting Series), Venationes

There are records of Emperor Titus, Caligula and Hadrian all taking part in events, although it has to be assumed the odds would have been heavily tipped in their favor, or the conditions at least controlled.

While (spoiler alert!) Joaquin Phoenix is killed in battle in Gladiator, the Emperor he played, Emperor Commodus, was altogether more successful as a participant in the Colosseum.

He was famed for his aim, and accounts exist of his prowess at taking out wild animals with a spear, albeit one thrown from the safety of a wooden platform.

He is also known to have participated in gladiatorial bouts, although his opponent was likely to be a novice or an audience member rather than a famous gladiator.

Fame and fortune

While much of gladiatorial culture is almost unimaginable, the celebrity enjoyed by Roman gladiators is immediately recognizable.

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Statues of Gladiators, National Museum of Arachology, Naples, Italy

Upper-class Roman historians are often sneering in their accounts of these men and their brutal lives, but the lower classes adored and idolized them.

We know that there portraits of gladiators were found in many public spaces, for example, and that children had clay action figures representing the most famous Colosseum gladiators of the day.

Even more amusingly, the most renowned gladiators are thought to have earned a little extra money by endorsing products in promotional brochures given out before events.

And the lure of their exploits didn’t end there. Gladiators enjoyed the status of hyper-masculine sex symbols, and gladiator sweat and blood were often sold as souvenirs or even aphrodisiacs. When excavating the gladiator School in Pompeii, the remains of an upper-class woman were found in the male gladiators’ private area!

Visiting the Colosseum Today

The elevator to bring animals to the surface of the arena has been reconstructed and the network of rooms, corridors, and pens under the floor of the Colosseum is now open for visitors to tour.

Exploring below the surface of the Colosseum’s Arena gives a much better understanding of how gladiators and animals lived and died in this amazing world-historical monument.