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Roman Gladiators

By Emily Johnston

When you think of Roman entertainment, one of the first things you may think of is the Gladiators. There are lots of TV shows and films about gladiators fighting one another in big arenas, so you may already be familiar with them. Gladiators could be very famous - almost like our celebrities, and Romans would support some gladiators just like we support our favourite sports team! Gladiators were not always slaves, although the first gladiator fights were between conquered people and criminals. The fights became so popular that free men would also train to become gladiators, and attended gladiator schools, so that they could win the prize money. 


The Roman games involved more than just gladiator fights. The games could last from a whole day, to several days - when the Colosseum was opened, the games lasted 100 days!. The games would have many different events. Animal hunts would be the first event - where exotic animals would fight against one another, or gladiators called Venatores and Bestiarii. There would also be live executions where criminals would be executed in different ways. 


Those who study the ancient Roman texts believe that the first gladiator fights were part of funeral celebrations for the wealthy. The games were so popular that they became part of the entertainment, and the government would organise them.


The gladiator who won the fight would win money and a palm frond, with some awarded a laurel crown for particularly good fights. If a gladiator had performed well over his career, he could be awarded with a wooden sword - a symbol to show he would no longer fight as a gladiator. 

Thumbs up or down?

If a gladiator surrendered, or was injured, the crowd would shout whether they wanted him to live or die. The emperor would lift his hand to signal the fate of the gladiator. Lots of people think that ‘thumbs down’ would show that the crowd wanted the gladiator to be killed. However, the signal may have meant ‘let him go’ - some historians think thumbs down signalled putting away the weapon in its sheath.

An Artefact

A Gladiator's Helmet

Images of the helmet in preparation for an exhibition at Melbourne Museum.


There were many different types of gladiators, based on what weapons they used and what skills they had: 

The Thrax had a curved sword and small shield

The Murmillo used swords and shields and had a fish like helmet

The Essedarii fought from a chariot

The Equites would enter the fight on a horse

The Dimachaerus used two swords

The Secutos had a shield and sword, he wore a helmet and armour on one arm

The Retiarius used a net and trident

The Sagitarius had a bow and arrow


We know about these weapons from paintings of gladiatorial fights, however, some of the weapons have been found by archaeologists. This helmet was found in Pompeii, and is 2000 years old. It is made from bronze. When Vesuvius erupted, it preserved Pompeii under layers of volcanic debris and ash. A gladiatorial storeroom was found in a gymnasium area of the city. In this storeroom were some of the armour that would have been used by the gladiators. 


This helmet would have been worn by a Murmillo - as it looks like a fish with the broad rim and high crest.

A Site

The Colosseum 

The Colosseum is an amphitheatre, in the centre of Rome. Building work first started in 72AD and it wasn’t completed until 80AD. The Colosseum could hold up to 80,000 people, and was the arena for gladiatorial games, as well as large public events. For example, the public could watch plays, or animal hunts here, and the arena could be filled with water for mock sea battles! 


The Colosseum was built in a circular shape, with seating around the arena floor. The poorer people would sit at the top levels, while the seats closer to the arena were for the upper class. Some wealthy people even had box seats for the best view. 


Beneath the floor of the arena, there were cages where the animals and gladiators were kept before their event.


The exterior and interior of the Colosseum © Britannica


A Person

Marcus Attilius 

We know of some gladiators who fought because of the stories written about them in texts. One of the most famous gladiators is Spartacus, and there have been many films and tv shows about him. 


Marcus Attilius was a free man who volunteered to be a gladiator. We know he was a free man because his name has a praenomen (first name) and gens, whilst most slaves would only have one name. We do not know the reasons why Marcus Attilius became a gladiator, but perhaps he was in need of the money that came from winning contests.  


Marcus Attilius is written on graffiti at the Nucerian gate in Pompeii, which lists many of the Pompeian gladiators. The graffiti shows Marcus Attilius as a murmillo, with a gladius and long shield. The graffiti also notes the number of fights and won by each gladiator and tells us that Marcus Attilius won his first fight against Hilarius at Nola.

Graffiti in Pompeii, © Military History Matters 

Emily Johnston is a PhD candidate in Archaeology - and founder of this website! She has an undergraduate and masters degree in Archaeology, which she focussed on the Romans.  

She can be found on her personal twitter at @emilyrjohnston and instagram @emilyrebeccajohnston or on any of the archaeo-logic social medias & email! 

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