AskDefine | Define gladiator

Dictionary Definition



1 (ancient Rome) a professional combatant or a captive who entertained the public by engaging in mortal combat
2 a professional boxer [syn: prizefighter]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Gladiator



From gladiātor, from gladius "sword" + agent suffix -or


  1. (in ancient Rome) a person (professional or slave) who entertained the public by engaging in mortal combat with another, or with a wild animal
  2. In the context of "by extension": a disputant in a public controversy or debate
  3. a professional boxer


(in ancient Rome) a person (professional or slave) who entertained the public by engaging in mortal combat with another, or with a wild animal
(by extension) a disputant in a public controversy or debate
a professional boxer See boxer



From gladiātor < gladius "sword" + agentive suffix -or


  1. gladiator; entertainer who engaged in mortal combat



From gladius "sword" + agentive suffix -or


  1. a gladiator





  1. gladiator; entertainer who engaged in mortal combat

Extensive Definition

Gladiators (Latin: gladiatōrēs, "swordsmen" or "one who uses a sword," from gladius, "sword") were professional fighters in ancient Rome who fought against each other, wild animals, and condemned criminals, sometimes to the death, for the entertainment of spectators. These fights took place in arenas in many cities from the Roman Republic period through the Roman Empire.

History of gladiatorial combats


The origin of the gladiatorial games is not known for certain. There are two theories: that the Romans adopted gladiatorial fights from the Etruscans, and that the games came from Campania and Lucania. The evidence for the theory of Etruscan origin is a passage by the Greek writer Nicolaus of Damascus in the second half of the first century BCE describing the origins as Etruscan, an account by Isidore of Seville during the 600s relating the Latin word for gladiator manager, lanista, to the Etruscan word for 'executioner', and also likeness of the Roman god of hell, Charon, who accompanied the executed bodies as they exited the arena, to the Etruscan god of death, also named Charon. The theory that the games developed from a Campanian and Lucanian tradition is supported by frescoes dating to the fourth century BCE depicting funeral games in which pair of gladiators fought to the death to commemorate the death of an important individual. However, the Campanians could also have adapted this tradition from the Greeks who could have introduced funeral games with human sacrifices to the area in the eighth century BCE. Regardless of the origin, the Romans adopted the tradition of funeral games to display important people's status and power.
The earliest known gladiatorial games were held in 310 BC by the Campanians (Livy 9.40.17). These games re-enacted the Campanians' military success over the Samnites.
The first recorded Roman gladiatorial combats took place in Rome in 264 BC, at the start of the First Punic War against Carthage. Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus staged it in honour of his dead father Brutus Pera. It was held between three pairs of slaves chosen from among 22 prisoners of war, and held in the cattle market (Forum Boarium). The ceremony was called a munus or “duty paid to a dead ancestor by his descendants, with the intention of keeping alive his memory” (Baker, Gladiator 10). Roman aristocrats soon took up the practice as an alternative to the earlier custom of sacrificing prisoners on the graves of warriors, with events being held for notable people and repeated every one to five years after the person’s death.
These games became popular throughout the Empire and were especially popular in Greece. So popular that there are many records of people in towns where prominent citizens died virtually extorting promises of gladiatorial games from the survivors. The aristocracy also began to compete in having the best games so that whereas the sons of Brutus Pera offered three matches, a century later, Titus Flamininus offered 74 matches lasting three days for his fathers funeral and by the passing of yet another century Julius Caesar promised 320 matches for his daughter, Julia. As a result the emperors eventually had to regulate how much could be spent on gladiatorial performances to prevent members of the elite from bankrupting themselves.
Gradually, as the connection to funerals faded in the late second century BC, the funeral games gradually transformed into public performances. Julius Caesar eventually owned so many Gladiators that the Senate, fearing the use such a "private army" could be put to, passed a law limiting private citizens to owning no more than 640 Gladiators. The moment when a true split from the funeral backdrop occurred was after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Bad omens plagued the city and the games were seen as a method to please the gods and save Rome. During the first century A.D., giving games even became a requirement of some public offices.
Over time the games had became integrated ever more into the Imperial cult through games financed by the state or by the Emperors as a means to get public approval, and especially so in the provincial towns. After Caesars' death a clear distinction between games organized by public officials (ludi) and those held by private citizens (munera) was set. Although it was still possible for private citizens to organise their own gladiatorial games, Augustus decreed that they could use no more than 120 Gladiators and the days on which such private games could be organised were limited. From December 2 to December 8. During the Saturnalia from December 17 to the 23 (the Winter solstice) and between March 19 and 23 for the Spring celebration of Quinquatria.



The popularity of the games resulted in the construction of proper venues and transformation of others (such as the Roman Forum) into spaces for the spectacles.
Gladiator fights took place in these amphitheatres during the afternoon of a full day event. The amphitheaters built were made of wood and were usually neither structurally sound, often being prone to collapse, nor did they survive the fires of Rome. The first permanent amphitheater in Rome dates to around 30 BC. Not until AD 70 and Vespasian's reign did plans for a purpose built stone venue for the games develop. The Colosseum (Amphitheatrum Flavium) was unveiled in AD 80.
The Stone Pine, a conifer native to the Iberian Peninsula was often planted near the local amphitheatre in foreign countries. The aromatic pinecones were traditionally burnt in bowls (tazze = cups) to mask the smell of the arena. The word “arena” means sand, a reference to the thick layer of sand on the floor for the purpose of soaking up the blood.
The spectator seating in amphitheatres was originally "disorderly and indiscriminate" until Augustus was upset at the insult to a senator, to whom no one offered a seat at a crowded games in Puteoli."In consequence of this the senate decreed that, whenever any public show was given anywhere, the first row of seats should be reserved for senators; and at Rome he would not allow the envoys of the free and allied nations to sit in the orchestra, since he was informed that even freedmen were sometimes appointed. He separated the soldiery from the people. He assigned special seats to the married men of the commons, to boys under age their own section and the adjoining one to their preceptors; and he decreed that no one wearing a dark cloak should sit in the middle of the house. He would not allow women to view even the gladiators except from the upper seats, though it had been the custom for men and women to sit together at such shows. Only the Vestal virgins were assigned a place to themselves, opposite the praetor's tribunal"(Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars Augustus, XLIV).

The Games

The games were carefully and precisely planned by an organizer (editor) on behalf of the emperor. The combinations of animals and gladiator types were meticulously planned, such that the show would be most appealing to the audience. Gladiators would be publicly displayed in the Roman forum to large crowds one to two days prior to the actual event. Programmes containing the gladiatorial and personal history of the fighters were passed out. Banquets for the gladiators were also held the evening before the games and many attended these as well. Even the criminals (noxii) listed to fight were at times permitted to attend.
When the day of the event came, gladiator fights were preceded by animal-on-animal fights, animal hunts (venationes), and public executions of condemned criminals (damnati) during lunchtime. As it was considered bad taste to watch the executions, the upper classes would usually leave and return after lunch. The Emperor Claudius was often criticised because he usually stayed in the stadium to watch the executions. The damnati were sometimes required to fight battle recreations or in paired Gladiatorial combats against each. The winner then fought a new opponent and so on until only one was left alive. Usually this "winner" was then himself put to death but he could be spared if he showed sufficient bravery. Under Nero, it became the practice to perform plays adapted from myths in which people died and assigning the role of a character who would die to a condemned man. The audience would then watch the play, and the actual killing of the condemned man in the same manner as the fictional character. Before the afternoon fights began, a procession (pompa) was led into the arena containing the organizer, his servants, blacksmiths to show that the weapons were in order, servants carrying weaponry and armour, and the gladiators themselves. Next came the checking of the weapons to make sure they were real (probatio armorum) by the editor of the games. In Rome this would be by the emperor himself, or he could bestow the honour upon a guest.
Like today, the games had ticket scalpers or Ticket touts(Locarii), people who buy up seats and sell them on at an inflated price. Martial in his Epigrams wrote "Hermes divitiae locariorum" or “Hermes means riches for the ticket scalpers” so scalping/touting seems to have been a common practice. The mentioned Hermes was a famous Gladiator, not the deity, who was called Mercury by the Romans.
During the fights musicians played accompaniments altering their tempo to match that of the combat in the style now familiar with music in action movies. Typical instruments were a long straight trumpet (tubicen), a large curved instrument (Cornu) similar to an exaggerated French horn and a water organ (hydraulis). The Romans loved burlesque and pantomime and these musicians were often dressed as animals with names such as "flute playing bear" (Ursus tibicen) and "horn-blowing chicken" (Pullus cornicen), names sometimes found displayed on contemporary mosaics.
Like today’s athletes, Gladiators did product endorsements. Particularly successful Gladiators would endorse goods in the arena before commencing a fight and have their names promoting products on the Roman equivalent of billboards.
During gladiatorial combat, it was preferable for gladiators not to kill each other; technically, they were slaves, but they also often had years of intensive training and therefore were quite valuable. Gladiators were instructed to inflict non-lethal wounds upon each other, and often lived long, rather successful lives able to purchase their freedom after three years. However, accidents did happen at times resulting in death, and gladiators who failed to display bravery in combat could be executed by order of the emperor. After fights, the bodies of the gladiators were buried in a manner depending on the status of the fighter.
As with modern sports, spectators liked to support “sides” (factiones) which they called the “great shields” (scutarii) and the “little shields” (parmularii). The “great shields” were lightly armoured defensive fighter types. Whereas the “little shields” were the more aggressive heavily armoured fighter types. Fighting without a shield would have been classed as a “great shield” due to fighting style. “Little shields” always had an advantage early in a match (as attested by the odds given by contemporary Bookmakers) but the longer the match lasted the greater the advantage for the “great shield” as his opponent tired much more quickly due to heavier armour and also as they usually had helmets with more restricted vision. Spectators also had local rivalries. During games at Pompeii, Pompeians and spectators from Nuceria traded insults which led to stone throwing and eventually a riot broke out with many being killed or wounded. Nero was furious and banned the games at Pompeii for ten years. The story is told in graffiti on the walls of Pompeii with much boasting of their "victory" over Nuceria.
Julius Caesar in 59 BC started a daily newspaper called the Acta Diurna (daily acts) that reported gladiator news. It carried news of gladiatorial contests, games, astrological omens, notable marriages, births and deaths, public appointments, and trials and executions. The Acta's content varied over time depending on the Emperor's whims and the tastes of the public.


Gladiator games were not loved by all emperors and people throughout Roman history. The enthusiasm for the spectacle by Augustus, Caligula, and Nero contrasted the apathy of Tiberius and the discontent of Cicero, Seneca, and Tertullian. As well, barbarian attack on the provinces during the third century AD led to an economic recession and decreased funds for such shows. Some emperors, such as Gordianus I, Gordianus III, and Probus did continue to organize costly performances, but privately funded shows, especially those in the provinces, declined. In the Eastern Empire invasion had much less of an effect on the economy and gladiator shows prevailed. The gradual downfall in the east has been attributed to the effect of Christians on the gore-filled games. Although Christians saw the combats as murder they had no objection to the killing and bloodshed in itself but rather objected to the moral harm done to the spectators and the immorality of murder. They also saw the arena as a place of martyrdom and both refused to participate as spectators and sought for an end to the Gladiator shows although they had no objection to the continuation of animal-on-animal fights and animal hunts (venationes). Constantine issued an edict in AD 325 which briefly ended the games."''in times in which peace and peace relating to domestic affairs prevail, bloody demonstrations displease us. Therefore we order that there may be no more Gladiator combats. Those, who were condemned to become gladiators for their crimes, are to work from now on in the mines. Thus they pay for their crimes, without having to pour their blood.''" Speculation that the edict was a permanent ban is refuted by the presence of unchallenged games only three years later.
An indication of the declining popularity is that in AD 354 of the 176 official holidays with games, the main event for 102 of these were theatre performances, 64 were chariot races and Gladiatorial combats were held on only 10 days. In AD 367 Valentinianus I placed a ban on sentencing Christians to the arena, but the sentencing of non-Christians remained unchanged. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 393 under the reign of Theodosius. The emperor himself sought to ban heathen festivals, but gladiator shows continued. Their programmes, however, were very limited due to financial reasons and the audience dwindled as many converted to Christianity. Honorius, Theodosius' son, finally decreed the end of gladiatorial contests in 399 AD. The last known gladiator competition in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404 AD. It is speculated that gladiator fights were no longer practiced by AD 440, as they were not mentioned by Bishop Salvianus in a pamphlet attacking public shows. It would seem only appropriate for the inclusion of gladiator games had they still occurred.

Life as a gladiator


Gladiators could have been either prisoners of war, slaves or criminals condemned to gladiator schools (ad ludum gladiatorium). There were also a number of volunteer gladiators (auctoratus). By the end of the republic as many as half of the Gladiators were auctoratii. These were either sons of prominent men perhaps looking for a radical change, poor men attracted by the potential for fame or relinquishing themselves from poverty, or even men with a monetary purpose, such as Sisinnes who sought to earn money to buy a friend's freedom. All gladiators kept the monetary prizes that they won in the arena and Titus is on record for paying a freed slave 1,000 gold aurei to return for a single match. These men came from all different backgrounds but were soon united as they entered the training schools. By the end of the Republic, about half of the gladiators were volunteers (auctorati), who took on the status of a slave for an agreed-upon period of time, similar to the indentured servitude that was common in the late second millennium. Sometimes people were forced to fight in one off events. Caligula was known for forcing anyone he did not like to fight, including spectators who annoyed him at the games (Cassius Dio 59.10, 13-14).One of the benefits of becoming a Gladiator for slaves and criminals is that they were then allowed to have relationships with women and although they themselves could never become Roman citizens, if they gained their freedom, their marriages then were legally recognised and their children could then become citizens.
Gladiators were very proud of their ethnic origins and made sure their true origin was known to the public if they fought under a title suggesting another ethnic group. Even in death they made sure their race was inscribed on their headstone. After Judea was “pacified” there was a large increase in the number of Jewish Gladiators as it was common practice under Titus and Vespasian to sentence Jewish rebels and criminals to Gladiatorial schools.
Left-handed Gladiators were popular and a rare novelty, their fights were always advertised as a special event. As with modern-day "lefty" fencers, tennis players and other sportsman, these left-handers had a large advantage as they were trained to fight right-handers who were themselves not trained to defend against a left-hander. Mentions of left handedness on gravestones have been found.
Research on the remains of 70 Murmillos and Retiariae gladiators found at an ancient site in Ephesus has shown that, contrary to popular belief, Gladiators were probably overweight and also ate a high energy vegetarian diet consisting of mainly barley, beans and dried fruit. Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute said he believed gladiators "cultivated layers of fat to protect their vital organs from the cutting blows of their opponents". Gladiators were sometimes known as hordearii, which means "eaters of barley." Although considered an inferior grain to Wheat (a punishment for Legionaries was to replace their wheat ration with barley), gladiators probably preferred it as Romans believed that barley contributed to strength and covered the arteries with a layer of fat which helped to reduce bleeding. Other findings from the research indicate Gladiators fought barefoot in sand.


Estimations are that there were more 100 Gladiator schools (ludi) throughout the empire. Two of the more famous are the school in Capua where Spartacus was trained and the school in Pompeii that was buried in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. One of the largest schools was based in Ravenna. There were four schools in Rome: Ludus Magnus (the most important), Ludus Dacus, Ludus Gallicus, and Ludus Matutinus (school for gladiators dealing with animals). The schools had barracks for the gladiators with small cells and a large training ground. The most impressive had seating for spectators to watch the men train and some even had boxes for the emperor.
Prospective gladiators (novicius) upon entering a gladiator school swore an oath (sacramentum) giving their lives to the gods of the underworld and vowing to accept, without protest, humiliation by any means. Volunteers also signed a contract (auctoramentum) with a gladiator manager (lanista) stating how often they were to perform, which weapons they would use, and how much they would earn. Prospectives also went under a physical examination by a doctor to determine if they were both physically capable of the rigorous training and aesthetically pleasing. Once accepted the novicius usually had his debts forgiven and was given a sign up fee. For as long as he was a Gladiator he was well fed and received high quality medical care. Overall, gladiators were united as members of a familia gladiatoria and became second to the prestige of the school. They also joined unions (collegia) formed to ensure proper burials for fallen members and compensation for their families.
As a rule gladiators, slaves and criminals had tattoo's (stigma) applied as an identifying mark on the face, legs and hands (legionnaires were also tattooed but only on their hands). This practice continued until the emperor Constantine banned them on the face by decree in AD 325.
Training was under teachers called “Doctores” and involved the learning of a series of “numbers”, which were broken down into various phases much as a play is a series of acts broken down into scenes. Sometimes fans complained that a gladiator fought too “mechanically” when he followed the “numbers” too closely. Gladiators would even be taught how to die correctly. Each type of gladiator had its own teacher; doctore secutorum, doctore thracicum, etc. Although gladiators in times of need helped train legionaries, they were not usually good soldiers themselves as a result of this choreographed style of training. Within a training-school there was a competitive hierarchy of grades (paloi) through which individuals were promoted. They trained using two meter poles (palus) buried in the ground. The levels were named for the training pole and were primus palus, secundus palus, and so on. It was also rare for a novicius to train in more than one gladiatorial style. Once a gladiator had finished training but had not yet fought in an arena he was called a “Tiro”.


It is thought that, contrary to popular belief, Gladiators were mostly vegetarian which ensured a greater intake of strontium leading to stronger bones and therefore more resistance to the otherwise bone-breaking and crushing attacks of other gladiators.

Typical combat

The announcement for the coming shows were often made by painting the program (libellus) on the walls of the city which also often included depictions of the featured fighters. Sometimes the results of combats were added to the advertisement after the matches. A "v" over the fighters image stood for "vicit" meaning he won. A "p" stood for "periit" meaning he was killed. A "m" stood for "missus", meaning he lost but was spared. Games were often commemorated with a representation of the fights with an inscription (i.e. Astyanax defeated Kalendio). If one was killed a circle with a diagonal line through it (usually Ø but sometimes excluding the line within the circle) was inscribed over the defeated man's head.
An average game had between ten and thirteen pairs (Ordinarii) of gladiators, with a single bout lasting around ten to fifteen minutes. They were usually of differing types. However, sponsor or audience could request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii) or specific gladiators against each other. As a rule Gladiators only fought others from within the same school or troupe (ad ludum gladiatorium) but sometimes specific Gladiators would be requested to fight one from another troupe (Postulaticii). Sometimes a lanista had to rely on substitutes (supposititii) if the requested gladiator was already dead or incapacitated. The Emperor could have his own gladiators (Fiscales). The largest contest of gladiators ever given was by the emperor Trajan in Dacia as part of a victory celebration in 107 AD and included 5,000 pairs of fighters.
Some matches were advertised as “sine missione” (without release) meaning “to the death”. The referees allowed these fights to continue as long as it took to get a result. Although already a rare event, Augustus outlawed “sine missiones” due to the expense of compensating the “Lanistas” but they were later reintroduced.
When one gladiator was wounded the spectators would yell out one of several traditional cheers such as "habet, hoc habet” (he’s had it) or "habet, peractum est” (he's had it, it's all over), the referee would then end the fight by separating the combatants with his staff. A gladiator could also acknowledge defeat by raising a finger (ad digitum), The referee would then step in, stopping the combat, and refer the decision of the defeated gladiator’s fate to the games sponsor (munerarius) who would decide whether he should live or die after taking the audiences wishes into account or considering how well he had fought. If a gladiator was killed it was normal practice for the games sponsor to pay compensation to the owner (Lanista) of up to 100 times the gladiator's value. For the death of a popular gladiator this could be very expensive.
Fights were generally not to the death during the Republic, but gladiators were still killed or maimed accidentally. Claudius was infamous for rarely sparing the life of a defeated Retiarius. He liked to watch his face as he died, as the Retiarius was the only gladiator that never wore a helmet. Suetonius recounts a combat where the death of an opponent was called a murder. "''Once a band of five retiarii in tunics (retiarius tunicatus), matched against the same number of secutores, yielded without a struggle; but when their death was ordered, one of them caught up his trident and slew all the victors. Caligula bewailed this in a public proclamation as a most cruel murder''." (Lives of the Twelve Caesars XXX.3)
The figure of a referee is frequently depicted on mosaics as standing in the background, sometimes accompanied by an assistant and carrying a staff with which to hold back a Gladiator after his opponent signified submission. This implies contests were fought with fixed rules. We know from mosaics, and from surviving skeletons that Gladiators primarily aimed for the head and the major arteries under the arm and behind the knee.
The now famous gladiatorial salute “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant” or “Hail Caesar, they who are about to die salute you” is another product of movies. This salute was only mentioned by Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius, XXI, 12­14) as happening once, spoken by condemned men (damnati) to Claudius at a naumachia (a staged naval battle) and they used the word “imperator” (Emperor) not Caesar. Tacitus also wrote of this event:“although they were criminals, they fought with the spirit of brave men. Their (the survivors') reward was exemption from the penalty of wholesale execution”.
The cutting up of the bodies to feed the animals is another common misconception and is mentioned only by Suetonius as an extraordinary and unheard of action that Caligula ordered to be done only once. The bodies of noxii and damnati were either buried or thrown into rivers, this being the traditional Roman disposal method for the bodies of executed criminals while other Gladiators were often buried with honours by their "union" (collegia) or friends. Animal carcasses were either disposed of or distributed to the poor for sustenance.
Although ancient Romans did not normally wear hats (went heads bare capite aperto) and this is seen in today's movie depictions of games, it was actually customary for free men to wear white woolen conical hats when attending games and festivals (Martial xi.7. xiv.1 Suetonius Ner.57. Seneca Epist.18). The hats were a symbol of liberty.

Gladiators in films and television

Gladiators feature frequently in many epic films and television series set in this period. These include films such as four versions of Ben-Hur, Spartacus (1960), Gladiator (2000) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Quo Vadis, as well as the television series A.D. (1985) (which features a female gladiator), and Rome.


Further reading

gladiator in Bosnian: Gladijator (borac)
gladiator in Bulgarian: Гладиатор
gladiator in Catalan: Gladiador
gladiator in Czech: Gladiátor
gladiator in Danish: Gladiator
gladiator in German: Gladiator
gladiator in Estonian: Gladiaator
gladiator in Spanish: Gladiador
gladiator in Esperanto: Gladiatoro
gladiator in Persian: گلادیاتور
gladiator in French: Gladiateur
gladiator in Korean: 검투사
gladiator in Croatian: Gladijatori
gladiator in Indonesian: Gladiator
gladiator in Italian: Gladiatore
gladiator in Hebrew: גלדיאטור
gladiator in Kurdish: Gladiyator
gladiator in Latin: Gladiator
gladiator in Lithuanian: Gladiatorius
gladiator in Dutch: Gladiator
gladiator in Japanese: 剣闘士
gladiator in Norwegian: Gladiator
gladiator in Polish: Gladiator
gladiator in Portuguese: Gladiador
gladiator in Russian: Гладиатор
gladiator in Simple English: Gladiator
gladiator in Slovak: Gladiátor
gladiator in Serbian: Гладијатор
gladiator in Finnish: Gladiaattori
gladiator in Swedish: Gladiator
gladiator in Chinese: 角鬥士

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