Getting and Training Gladiators

In this section you will learn

  • the sources for gladiators
  • what little we know about how they were trained

Where did gladiators come from? A variety of sources: prisoners-of-war; slaves; criminals; and even some free men who sold themselves into service. However, this story about the brother of Titus Flamininus, the man who had 74 gladiators fight at his father’s munera in 174 BCE, shows how some unfortunates might find themselves in the role of ‘gladiator’ at an aristocrat’s whim:

Titus had a brother, Lucius, who was unlike him in all other ways, and especially in his shameful addiction to pleasure and his utter contempt for decency. 3 This brother had as a companion a young boy whom he loved, and took him about and kept him always in his entourage, whether he was commanding an army or administering a province. At some drinking party, then, this boy was flirting with Lucius, and said he loved him so madly that he had come away from a show of gladiators in order to be with him, although he had never in all his life seen a man killed; and he had done so, he said, because he cared more for his lover’s pleasure than for his own. Lucius was delighted at this, and said: “Don’t worry about that! I will give what you want most of all.” 4 Then he ordered a man who had been condemned to death to be brought from his cell, and sending for a lictor, he commanded him to strike off the man’s head there in the banquet-hall. Valerius Antias, however, says it was not a male lover, but a mistress whom Lucius wanted to please in this way. And Livy says that in a speech of Cato himself it is written that a Gaulish deserter had come to the door with his wife and children, and that Lucius admitted him into the banquet-hall and killed him with his own hand to please his lover. 5 This feature, however, was probably introduced by Cato to strengthen the force of his denunciation; for that it was not a deserter, but a prisoner, who was put to death, and one who had been condemned to die, is the testimony of many others, and especially of Cicero the orator in his treatise “On Old Age,” where he puts the story in the mouth of Cato himself.

Plutarch, Titus Flaminius 18.2-5

Some slaves were sold or condemned to gladiatorial schools as a punishment or at the whim of their masters. The short-lived Emperor Vitellius once sold a favourite slave of his to a gladiatorial slave (obviously he wasn’t so favourite when he was being sold).

Portrait of Vitellius on a coin.

After starting this way he regulated the greater part of his rule wholly according to the advice and whims of the lowest actors and charioteers, and in particular of his freedman Asiaticus. When he was a youth Asiaticus had been willingly ravished by him but soon grew tired of him and ran away.[1] When Vitellius came upon him selling posca[2] at Puteoli, he had him put in chains but at once freed him again and again made him his favourite. Then annoyed once more by his excessive insolence and thievishness, and he sold him to a travelling lanista. When, however, he was once reserved for the end of a gladiatorial show, Vitellius suddenly snatched him away, and finally on getting his province, set him free. On the first day of his reign he presented him with the golden ring at a banquet,[3] although in the morning, when there was a general demand that Asiaticus be given that honour, he had deprecated in the strongest terms such a stain on the equestrian order.

Suetonius, Vitellius 12

The Emperor Hadrian put some restrictions on people selling their slaves to gladiatorial ludi as a punishment.

He stopped masters from killing their slaves, and ordered that any who deserved it should be sentenced by the courts. He forbid anyone to sell a slave or a female slave to a pimp or lanista without giving a reason for it. He ordered that those who had wasted their property, if legally responsible, should be flogged in the amphitheatre and then let go.

Historia Augusta, Hadrian 18

We know incredibly little about how gladiators were trained, as no source talks about it and we have no training manuals. The following text talks a little about training in general and mentions gladiators in passing.

Mosaic from the Roman villa at Nennig: “Two gladiators, a retiarius and a mirmillo, are fighting, while the lanista superintends.”

In every act consider what precedes and what follows, and then proceed to the act. If you do not consider, you will at first begin with spirit, since you have not thought at all of the things which follow; but afterward, when some consequences have shown themselves, you will stop which is shameful. “I wish to win at the Olympics.” “And I too, by the gods: for it is a fine thing.” But consider here what precedes and what follows; and then, if it is for your good, undertake the action. You must behave according to rules, follow a strict diet, abstain from delicacies, force yourself to exercise at fixed times, in heat, in cold; you can not drink cold water or wine. In a word, you must surrender yourself to the trainer as you do to a physician. Next in the contest, you must be covered with sand, sometimes dislocate a hand, sprain an ankle, swallow a quantity of dust, be struck with a whip;[4] and after undergoing all this, you will sometimes lose. After adding up all these things, if you have still an inclination, go to the athletic practice. If you do not add them up, you are behaving like children who at one time you will play as wrestlers, then as gladiators, then blow a trumpet, then act a tragedy, when they have seen and admired such things. So you also do: you are at one time a wrestler, then a gladiator, then a philosopher, then a rhetorician; but with your whole soul you are nothing: like the ape, you imitate all that you see; and always one thing after another pleases you, but that which becomes familiar displeases you.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.15

Many wealthy Romans owned gladiators, and seem to have often bought them as troops more than individuals. In the following letter from 56 BCE to his friend Atticus, Cicero talks about Atticus’ gladiatorial troop.

My word! You have purchased a fine troop! Your gladiators, I am told, fight superbly. If you had chosen to hire them out you would have cleared your expenses by the last two spectacles. But we will talk about this later on. Be sure to come, and, as you love me, see about the library slaves.[5]

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 4.4b.

In another letter from 56 BCE Cicero refers to another troop owned by a politician, Gaius Cato, tribune of the plebs for that year (not to be confused to the more famous Cato the Younger, also a politician of the same period; this Cato was an ally of Clodius, one of Cicero’s enemies.)

In this way the passing of most mischievous laws is prevented, especially that of Cato [the Younger], on whom, however, our friend Milo played a very funny trick. For that defender of the employment of gladiators and venatores had bought some venatores, Cosconius and Pomponius, and had never appeared in public without them in their full armour. He could not afford to maintain them, and accordingly had great difficulty in keeping them together. Milo found this out. He commissioned an individual, with whom he was not close, to buy this troop from Cato without making him suspicious. As soon as it had been removed, Racilius—at this time quite the only real tribune-revealed the truth, acknowledged that the men had been purchased for himself—for this is what they had agreed—and put up a notice that he intended to sell “Cato’s troop.” This notice caused much laughter.

Cicero, Letters to his Brother Quintus 2.4

Many of these troops and schools were located in Capua, where you can still see the remains of a theatre built during the reign of the Emperor Augustus.

Therewere some in Rome itself, including one of an Aemilius mentioned in passing by the poet Horace (Art of Poetry 32) and there were several imperial schools. Ravenna, a town in northern Italy, was also a popular location for ludi, especially under the emperors:

Map of Italy at 500AD (
Map of Italy at 500AD. Ravenna is along the north-eastern coast.

The largest city in the marshes, however, is Ravenna, a city built entirely of wood and crisscrossed by rivers, and it is provided with streets by means of bridges and ferries. The city experiences very high sea tides, so that, since the filth is all washed out by these as well as the rivers, the city is cleared of foul air. At any rate, the place has been found to be so healthy that the emperors have given orders to feed and train the gladiators there.

Strabo, Geography 4.1.7

Under the emperors there was a procurator for gladiators; we hear about this person being punished under the Emperor Claudius, but little else about them:

The same penalty was inflicted also on Decrius Calpurnianus, prefect of the city-watch; on Sulpicius Rufus, procurator of the school of gladiators; and on the senator Juncus Vergilianus.

Tacitus, Annales 11.35

Why do we know so little about gladiatorial training?

Give the importance of gladiators to Roman society, why do you think we do not know more about how they trained? You may want to think about the following as you try to answer this question:

  • Not everything survives from Roman antiquity; many important writings that the Romans valued have been lost thanks to time. We have lost even more that the Romans, and the people that came after, them did not value or understand
  • Gladiatorial schools were to a certain degree in competition with each other and so may not have wanted to share trade secrets
  • Romans may have visited gladiatorial training schools in their communities often

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Curry, A. (2008). The Gladiator Diet. Archaeology 61: 28-30
  • Kanz, Fabian, and Karl Grossschmidt. (2006). Head injuries of Roman gladiators. Forensic Science International 160: 207–216

  1. Slaves had little choice but to accede to their masters’ demands, whatever they were; it is very likely that the relationship was not consensual on the part of the Asiaticus, who had no say in the matter.
  2. A popular drink of sour wine mixed with herbs and water.
  3. The awarding of the gold ring was to show that Asiaticus had been elevated to the rank of equestrian.
  4. In the Olympics those who broke the rules or committed fouls could be whipped by the judges.
  5. Cicero wanted to borrow some slaves to help with gluing items in his library and to make title pages.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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