Who were the Gladiators? Definitely the celebrities of ancient Rome. If you haven’t seen Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” yet, you are invited to do so. Apart from historical inaccuracies, its success lies in the possibility of identifying with the Roman spectator of 2000 years ago.

Gladiators were athletes, initially chosen among prisoners of war. Generally, they fought with the gladius, a short-bladed sword. While in the Republican age, they could use the armament they preferred, Augustus, fixing the gladiatorial classes, also established the different equipment. From “Tiro”, recruit, the bravest could rise up to the highest rank, the “Primus Palo”. The classes were very numerous.

Where did the gladiators perform?

We all know it! At the Colosseum, as in all the other Roman amphitheaters, built for gladiator shows. Before that, they performed in the Forum. The first amphitheater arose in Pompeii in 80 B.C. Many others followed with different characteristics, materials, and sizes depending on the city that hosted them. The elliptical arena was strewn with sand (arena) to absorb the blood of the gladiators. As at the Colosseum, some amphitheaters had basements, which served as “behind the scenes”. Gladiators and ferocious beasts climbed into the arena through large freight elevators. The Flavian amphitheater is a model of engineering still used for modern stadiums. In the following years, gladiators were recruited even among convicts or slaves, with the possibility of obtaining freedom.

Were there women gladiators?

Yes! Writings by Suetonius and Juvenal speak of it as a scandalous spectacle. Two other testimonies of the Gladiatrix’s existence have come down to us: a small bronze statue preserved in the Museum of the Arts in Hamburg, and the bas-relief discovered in Halicarnassus and preserved in the British Museum in London. The bas-relief portrays the struggle between Achillea and Amazzone, probably two pseudonyms. Both were pardoned, at least in that duel, obtaining the “missio”, that is the suspension of command, for being bold and brave.

How much was the ticket to the gladiators’ shows?

“Panem et circenses” is the famous quotation taken from the Latin poet Juvenal, which summarizes a Roman society’s aspect; the free distribution of wheat and tickets for the shows served as political propaganda.

Gladiator shows were almost always free, such as venationes (hunting simulations culminating in the killing of wild animals) and naumachias (simulations of naval battles in the water-filled arena). From the writings of the historian Cassius, we know that Titus organized 100 days of free shows for the Colosseum’s memorable inauguration!

The gladiatorial schools

Gladiators were enrolled in schools called Ludus, under the guidance of an instructor called lanista. Sometimes he even owned the gym. At the Colosseum, we can still see the most important gymnasium’s open-air remains in Rome, the Ludus Magnus.

Why were these terrible shows so popular?

Evidently, not everyone liked them. Here are some excerpts from one of Seneca’s writings: Around noon, I happened by chance to a show; I expected some comic skit, some witty jokes, a moment of relaxation that would give peace to the eyes after so much blood. On the contrary… real murders. Gladiators have nothing to protect themselves with; the whole body is exposed to blows, and these never go empty… People mostly prefer such shows to normal gladiator couples or to those at the request of the people… In the morning, men are thrown to the lions and bears…in the afternoon to their spectators… the ultimate result for those who fight is death… “But he stole, he killed”. So? He killed and therefore deserves to suffer this punishment: but you, poor devil, what are you guilty of to deserve to attend this spectacle? “Kill, whip, burn! Why is he so afraid to rush against the sword? Why does he strike with little boldness? Why is he unwilling to face death? Let him fight with lashes…” There is the interval: “Kill someone, in the meantime, to pass the time.” You don’t even understand that bad examples backfire on those who give them?

Explore the ruins of the Colosseum and enjoy the suggestions it gives you! Visiting the Colosseum with a private and experienced guide who makes us “imagine” is a perfect experience!