10 Gladiators

Luc Babin and Jake McGrail


A Victorian imagines Nero entering the arena

Learning Objectives

This chapter will teach you about:

  • The social and legal status of gladiators;
  • The presentation of gladiators from a range of (nearly all) elite source;
  • How gladiators could be seen both as unRoman and as symbolizing Roman values of courage and unflinching bravery.


While not possessing the same popularity as charioteers or mime, gladiators were an essential part both of Roman spectacles and of how Romans articulated and celebrated their own identity and power (it takes a lot of power to have the ability to command two men to fight to the death as part of mass entertainment). Gladiators were complex symbols to the Romans, showing both degradation and honour at the same time: they might be slaves, freed, or disgraced citizens, but at the same time it took courage and bravery to look death in the face and accept it without flinching and that quality the Romans valued. Thus gladiators could be used as a mirror for Roman manhood, and as an example of how to behave, even as at the same time the Romans passed laws against elites and ‘respectable’ men and women fighting as gladiators.[1]

Gladiators were not always part of the fabric of Roman life: the first fights we have record of took place in 264 BCE, when three pairs of gladiators fought at a funeral for the father of a former consul (see below). Originally held as part of munera (private games to mark the death of a relative), these fights quickly became widespread and grew in size, eventually becoming spectacles in their own right. Most gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals, and like actors, prostitutes and all others who were considered to “sell their bodies” for entertainment, gladiators were infamis – if freed or free, they were Roman citizens, but stripped of most of their civic rights. But while gladiators were, in the words of Roman historian Lucius Annaeus Florus, as “the worst sort of men”,[2] they could have a disproportionally large impact on Rome. Gladiator games and the fighters themselves could be wildly popular, and multiple Roman writers critiqued their fellow citizens for loving the games too much – letting them incite unRoman-like passion. As said above, women – and women of high status – also fought as gladiators, further upsetting more traditional members of the Roman public.

Outside of the arena, a group of gladiators started the Third Servile War (also known as the War of Spartacus), a rebellion in the south of Italy from 73-71 BCE that took the proud, powerful Roman military nearly three years to put down. And perhaps most damning of all were the number of senators, equestrians [3]and other elites who wanted to fight as gladiators in the arena. Despite opposition from some quarters (there were multiple laws passed that attempted to restrict elites from “disgracing themselves” in arenas), the allure of gladiators evidently outshone the general concepts of Romanness for many. In fact, it is ironic to note that in some ways, gladiators were very Roman: the ideal Roman man had virtus, a Latin word that contained connotations of strength, courage and general manliness (vir is the Latin word for man). Gladiators held – or were at least expected to hold – those values, putting the Romans in an odd position of both disparaging certain people for being a lower social class, while at the same time admiring them for representing what it meant to be a great Roman.

While we are uncertain of their true beginnings, we do know that our first records of gladiators in Rome show that gladiatorial fights were given as part of munera, games vowed by private individuals, usually to mark the death of a close male relative. As private games, the expense was borne entirely by the person holding them: unlike chariot racing or theatre you could not access public funds (you also did not need to have a current position as an elected magistrate). In the text below Tertullian, a Christian author from the late 2nd/early 3rd century CE, explains the origins of munera, though given his vehement disgust of the practice (including the fact that he equated the exhibitions to the invocation of demons), the reliability of his history can be questioned.

We still have to examine the most famed and popular spectacle: it is called munus [singular form of munera] from being an officium, for munus and officium are synonyms[4]. People in the past thought they were performing a duty to the dead with this form of spectacle after they moderated its nature with a more refined form of cruelty. Long ago, since they believed that the souls of the dead are appeased by human blood, they purchased captives or slaves of poor quality and sacrificed them at funerals. Afterwards, they preferred to disguise this unholy practice by making it something to enjoy. Thus, after they trained the people they had obtained these ways to wield the weapons they had as best they could (training them to learn how to die!), they then exposed them to death at the tombs on the day appointed for sacrifices in honour of the dead. And so it was that they consoled themselves with murder. That is the origin of the gladiatorial munus. But gradually their refinement developed along with their cruelty; these inhuman people could not rest satisfied or gain pleasure unless wild animals tore humans to pieces. What was then a sacrifice offered for the appeasement of the dead was no doubt considered a rite in honour of the dead. This sort of thing is, therefore, idolatry[5], because idolatry, too, is a kind of rite in honour of the dead: both are services rendered to the dead.

Additionally, demons live in the images of the dead. And now consider the titles also: although this type of exhibition has moved from being an act to honor the dead to one which honours the living (for example, those who hold quaestorships, magistracies, flaminates[6], and priesthoods) still, since the guilt of idolatry taints the dignity of the title, whatever is carried out in the name of this dignity shares necessarily in the taint of its origin. We must also consider the paraphernalia which are considered as belonging to the ceremonies of the actual offices as also being idolatrous. For the purple robes, the fasces[7], the fillets[8], and crowns–finally, also, the announcements made in meetings and on advertisements and the final dinners[9] given the evening before games—have the Devil’s pageantry and the invocation of demons. In conclusion, what shall I say about that horrible place which not even perjurers can bear? For the amphitheatre is consecrated to more numerous and more terrible names than the Capitol, although the Capitol is the temple of all demons[10]. There as many unclean spirits live as there are seats. And to say a final word about the arts concerned, we know that Mars and Diana are the patrons of both types of ludi.

Tertullian`, On Spectacles 12

The low status of gladiators was marked by the fact that laws were even put in place that would restrict the sales of slaves to both pimps and lanistae:

7 He stopped masters from killing their slaves, and ordered that any who deserved it should be sentenced by the courts. 8 He forbid anyone to sell a slave or a female slave to a pimp or lanista without giving a reason for it. 9 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

Being sold to a gladiator school or traveling lanista was considered a severe punishment, one serious enough for the Romans to place restrictions on where the enslavved could be sold – and the Romans placed great importance on not restricting masters’ rights in this way, so this was a truly exceptional circumstance. Stories like the following showed, however, that slaves could still fall victim to their master’s whim:

12 1 After starting this way Vitellius[11] 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.  When Vitellius came upon him selling posca[12] at Puteoli,[13] 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, 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


It is in the Mid-Republic that gladiatorial munera appear, and they were quickly embraced. The first we know of took place in 264 BCE at games Decimus Junius Brutus held for his father: three pairs of gladiators fought in the Thracian[14] style.

To honor his father, Decimus Junius Brutus was the first one to organize a gladiatorial munus.

Livy, Periochae Book 16[15]

The three first gladiator fights were Thracians matched in three pairs as an offering made by the sons of Junius at their father’s grave.

Ausonius, Griphus 36-7

The numbers soon increased: in 216 BCE, 22 pairs of gladiators fought at the funeral of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus:

    After the death of M. Aemilius Lepidus, who had been an augur[16] and also consul twice, his three sons, Lucius, Marcus, and Quintus, celebrated funeral games in his honour for three days and exhibited twenty-two pairs of gladiators in the Forum.

    Livy, From the Founding of the City 23.30.15

In the Late Republic the games grew increasingly spectacular. Politicians like Julius Caesar put on larger and larger munera, using all sorts of excuses, and Caesar was so excessive in how many gladiators he wanted to bring in that laws were passed to limit numbers.[17]

    When he was aedile Julius Caesar decorated not only the Comitium and the Forum[18] with its adjacent basilicas, but the Capitoline Hill as well, and built temporary colonnades[19] to display a part of his material. He provided venationes[20] and stage-plays too, both with his colleague and independently. The result was that Caesar alone took all the credit even for what they spent in common, and his colleague Marcus Bibulus openly said that his was the fate of Pollux:[21] “For,” said he, “just as the temple erected in the Forum to the twin brothers bears only Castor’s name, so the joint generosity of Caesar and myself is credited to Caesar alone .” Caesar also gave a gladiatorial show in addition to this, but with somewhat fewer pairs of fighters than he had planned; for the huge number he gathered from everywhere possible terrified his opponents so much that they passed a law a limiting the number of gladiators which anyone was allowed to keep in Rome.

    Suetonius, Julius Caesar 10

As a collective, gladiators were seen as powerful erotic symbols and as intensely desirable. In the city of Pompeii in the South of Italy we have these graffiti preserved for us by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.[22]. In the following someone wrote of a gladiator belonging to the Thracian type.[23] and apparent power he had over hearts:

Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls’ heart-throb

CIL 4.4342

Crescens, a retiarius, or someone who fought with a net[24] was also apparently able to get the girls:

Crescens the Netter of young girls by night

CIL 4.4353

Crescens, the master of girls

CIL 4.8916

No matter how they famous they were, however, gladiators were still infamis. They were either slaves or free/freed men with limited rights, and were – at least in theory – on the same social level as criminals and members of other “shameful” professions. At the same time, Romans definitely had a soft spot for gladiators, which put them in a bit of an odd position, as Tertullian was only too happy to rage about.

    Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection….The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace.

    Tertullian, On Spectacles 22



Until the 1st century BCE, amphitheatres were built using wood. The first stone amphitheatre was not the Colosseum, but rather the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, built in 70 BCE. It could have seated up to 24,000 spectators, or around the entire population of the city. An inscription from the amphitheatre tells who first built it.

    Gaius Quinctius Valgus, son of Gaius, and Marcus Porcius, son of Marcus, quinquennial duumvirs[25], for the honour of the colony [of Pompeii], saw to the construction of the amphitheatre at their own expense and gave the area to the colonists in perpetuity.

    CIL[26] 10 852

The Colosseum, the most famous and iconic Roman amphitheatre, was built on the grounds of Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) by the Flavians, who succeeded the Julio-Claudians as emperors. It was begun by Vespasian, inaugurated under his son Titus, and finally finished under his other son Domitian. It was originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre; it ended up with the name “the Colosseum” because it stood by a colossal statue of Nero depicted as the sun god. The poet Martial wrote a book of poems on the opening of the Colosseum, which gives some idea of its impact on the Roman people. In his first poem he claims that the Colosseum has surpassed all the wonders of the ancient world.

    Let not barbarian Memphis speak of the wonder of her pyramids, nor Assyrian toil boast of its Babylon; let us not praise the soft lonians for Diana’s temple[27]; let the altar made of many horns keep hid its Delos;[28] nor the Carians boost to the heavens the Mausoleum[29] poised on empty air with excessive praise. All labour yields to Caesar’s amphitheatre: Fame will speak of one work instead of all others.

    Martial, Book of Spectacles 1 

File:Colosseum in Rome, Italy - April 2007.jpg - Wikipedia

The inauguration of the Colosseum was marked with an incredibly lavish period of games, held under Emperor Titus in 80 CE. Titus ruled for only two years, and according to Roman historian Cassius Dio, he was unable to accomplish too much besides the wonderful spectacle that was the opening of the Colosseum.

    During his reign Titus did little that was exceptional, apart from the incredible shows he gave for the dedication ceremonies of the hunting theater [the Colosseum] and the baths that are named after him. One contest pitted whooping cranes against each other; in another four elephants fought. Animals both tame and wild were slaughtered, to the number of 9,000. Women (though none of any standing) took part in the killing; many men fought in single combat, but many others fought in squads, on both foot and in boats, since Titus had this same theater quickly flooded … Others also fought on boats in the basin in the Gardens of Gaius and Lucius [the Naumachia], which Augustus had excavated for just such battles.… Such spectacles lasted for one hundred days. Titus supplemented them with some more useful entertainment: he threw little wooden balls down on the audience of the amphitheater, each inscribed with a little picture of the prize that those who caught the balls could pick up from the appropriate officials: the prizes included food, clothing, vessels of silver and gold, horses, mules, cattle, and slaves. On the last day of his games, Titus was seen to weep. When they were over, he accomplished nothing great, dying the following year.

    Cassius Dio, History 66.25


When it comes to the gladiators themselves, we know incredibly little about how they were trained, as no source talks about it and we have no training manuals. This is likely due to the fact that while owning a gladiator school was socially acceptable for a well-off Roman, it was not deemed acceptable to participate in any of the day-to-day operations of that school. The following text talks a little about athletic training in general and mentions gladiators in passing.

    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;[30] 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

When it came time to spread the word about an upcoming gladiator show, the Romans advertised in much the same ways that we do today. The image below is graffiti from Pompeii: an ad for a munus in the nearby town of Nola. The gladiator on the right with a small shield is a Thracian, standing opposite to a secutor; this was a common pairing for these gladiators.

Below is the text from this image. Note the wins and overall fight totals; proof that the loser of a gladiatorial battle – condemned criminals notwithstanding – could often live to see another fight.

    At Nola there will be a munus of Marcus Cominius Heres for four days. Princeps of the Neronian ludus fought 13, 10 wins; Hilarius of the Neronian ludus fought 14, 12 victories, Creunus fought 7, 5 wins.

    CIL 4.10237


This following inscription lists the members of a gladiatorial familia and was found in Venusia, a town in Southern Italy. Six of the twenty men listed were not slaves; they could have been freed slaves, or free men who chose to be gladiators (auctorati).

Oceanus, slave of Avilius, novice.

Saggitarius: Dorus, slave of Pisius, 6 wins, 4 crowns[23]

Veles: Mycter, slave of Ofilius, 2 wins

Hoplomachus: Phaeder, slave of Avilius, novice.

Thracians: Donatus, slave of Nerius, 12 wins, 8 crowns; Hilario, Arrius’ slave, 7 wins, 5 crowns; Aquilia, slave of Pisius, 12 wins, 6 crowns; Quartio, slave of Munilius, 1 win; Gaius Perpenius, novice

Murmillones: Amicus, slave of Munilius, 1 win; Quintus Fabius, 5 wins, 3 crowns; Eleuther, slave of Munilius, 1 win; Gaius Memmius, 3 wins, 2 crowns; Anteros, slave of Munilius, 2 wins; Atlans, slave of Donius, 4 wins, 1 crown;

Essedarius: Inclutus, Arrius’ slave, 5 wins, 2 crowns

Samnite: Strabo, slave of Donius, 3 wins, 2 crowns

Retiarius: Gaius Clodius, 2 wins

Scissor: Marius Caecilius, novice

Gallus: Quintus Granius, novice


Not everyone in Rome was a fan of gladiator games. Seneca the Younger, a famous Roman intellectual from the time of the Emperor Nero, was a very outspoken critic of the spectacles. In particular, he despised the public executions of criminals and Christians, which were guaranteed to end in death for those forced into the arena.

    I turned in to the games one mid-day hoping for a little wit and humour there. I was bitterly disappointed. It was really mere butchery. The morning’s show was merciful compared to it. Then men were thrown to lions and to bears: but at midday to the audience. There was no escape for them. The slayer kept fighting until he could be slain. “Kill him! flog him! burn him alive” was the cry: “Why is he such a coward? Why won’t he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won’t he die willingly?” Unhappy that I am, how have I deserved that I must look on such a scene as this? Do not, my Lucilius,[31] attend the games, I pray you. Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them. So stay away.

    The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain…There is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death…The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.

    Seneca the Younger, Epistles 7

Seneca attacked the games for taking peoples’ minds off more serious things.

    And so they strive for something else to occupy them, and all the intervening time is irksome; exactly as they do when a gladiatorial exhibition is announced, or when they are waiting for the appointed time of some other show or amusement, they want to skip over the days that lie between.

    Seneca the Younger, On the Shortness of Life 16.3

The historian Tacitus also disparaged the games (and other infamis-led endeavors), seeing them as lowbrow entertainment that distracted the Roman populace from more important pursuits.

    And indeed there are characteristic and specific vices in this city, which I think are formed in the mother’s womb: a love of actors and madness for gladiators and horses. How can someone totally occupied by and obsessed with these have time for the noble arts?

    Tacitus, Dialogue on Oratory 29

Like many adults today, Tacitus believed that the minds of the youth were being corrupted by the popular forms of entertainment of the time. Here he is complaining about the obsession some held for chariot-races and gladiatorial fights:

How often will you find anyone who talks of anything else at home? And when you enter the lecture-halls, what else do you hear young men talk about?

Tacitus, Dialogue on Oratory 29

Gladiators after the fight, José Moreno Carbonero


Despite traditionally occupying one of the lowest spots on the hierarchy that made up Roman society, gladiators were not powerless. Probably the most famous example of this is the Third Servile War, or the War of Spartacus: an armed revolt led by gladiators from 73-71 BCE. Here is an account of the beginning of the revolt:

    The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiates trained a great many gladiators in Capua,[32] most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for the object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but their plot being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook’s shop chopping knives and spits, and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators’ arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness, superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.

    Plutarch, Life of Crassus 8-11

After a fairly drawn-out conflict, during which Spartacus’ force rapidly grew in size and defeated at least four small Roman armies in various battles, the rebellious forces were eventually put down by the Roman general Crassus. Here is Plutarch’s telling of the end of the war:

    Spartacus, after this discomfiture,[33] retired to the mountains of Petelia, but Quintius, one of Crassus’s officers, and Scrofula, the quaestor, pursued and overtook him. But when Spartacus rallied and faced them, they were utterly routed and fled, and had much ado to carry off their quaestor, who was wounded. This success, however, ruined Spartacus, because it encouraged the slaves, who now disdained any longer to avoid fighting, or to obey their officers, but as they were upon their march, they came to them with their swords in their hand, and compelled them to lead them back again through Lucania, against the Romans, the very thing which Crassus was eager for. For news was already brought that Pompey[34] was at hand; and people began to talk openly that the honour of this war was reserved for him, who would come and at once oblige the enemy to fight and put an end to the war. Crassus, therefore, eager to fight a decisive battle, encamped very near the enemy, and began to make lines of circumvallation; but the slaves made a sally, and attacked the pioneers. As fresh supplies came in on either side, Spartacus, seeing there was no avoiding it, set all his army in array, and when his horse was brought him, he drew out his sword and killed him, saying, if he got the day, he should have a great many better horses of the enemies, and if he lost it, he should have no need of this. And so making directly towards Crassus himself, through the midst of arms and wounds, he missed him, but slew two centurions that fell upon him together. At last, being deserted by those that were about him, he himself stood his ground, and, surrounded by the enemy, bravely defending himself, was cut to pieces.

    Plutarch, Life of Crassus 8-11 

It’s interesting to note that Spartacus’ end is described as brave and heroic by Plutarch, given that Spartacus was a slave who rebelled against the Roman state. In a different account of the same war, gladiators are called as a “second class of men” and “men of the worst character ”:

    We may, however, support the dishonour of a war with slaves, for though they are, by their circumstances, subjected to all kinds of treatment, they are yet, as it were, a second class of men, and may be admitted to the enjoyment of liberty with ourselves. But the war raised by the efforts of Spartacus I know not by what name to call, for the soldiers in it were slaves, and the commanders gladiators; the former being persons of the meanest condition, and the latter men of the worst character, and adding to the calamity of their profession by its contemptibleness.

    Florus, Epitome 2.8.20

Despite those insults, Florus, like Plutarch, described the deaths of Spartacus, as well as the revolt’s other notable leaders – Crixus and Oenomaus – as noble and brave.

    Here, being shut up in a corner of Bruttium,[35] and attempting to escape to Sicily, but having no ships, and having in vain tried, on the swift current of the strait, to sail on rafts made of hurdles and casks tied together with twigs, they at last sallied forth, and died a death worthy of men. As was fitting for a gladiator captain, they fought without sparing themselves. Spartacus himself, fighting with the utmost bravery in the front of the battle, fell as became their general.

    Florus, Epitome 2.8.20

The fact that it took Rome almost three years to put down a revolt led by gladiators would have challenged the perceived superiority of the Roman army and Roman-ness in general, and was evidently galling in the eyes of at least one elite Roman:

    This war, so formidable to the Romans (although ridiculous and contemptible in the beginning, considered as the work of gladiators), had now lasted three years. When the election of new praetors came on, fear fell upon all, and nobody offered himself as a candidate until Licinius Crassus, a man distinguished among the Romans for birth and wealth, assumed the praetorship and marched against Spartacus with six new legions.

    Appian, The Civil Wars 1.111.118

That same sentiment is echoed again later in his account:

    When the Romans in the city heard of the siege, they thought it would be disgraceful if this war against gladiators should be prolonged. Believing also that the work still to be done against Spartacus was great and severe they ordered up the army of Pompey which had just arrived from Spain, as a reinforcement.

    Appian, The Civil Wars 1.111.119



Despite all that (and the low social status of the profession), Roman elites were still attracted to the idea of gladiators, and sometimes entered the arena themselves. As part of the celebration of his return to Rome in 46 BCE, Julius Caesar sponsored gladiatorial games that saw two elites – including a former senator – fight as gladiators.

    In the conflict of gladiators presented in the Forum, Furius Leptinus, a man of praetorian family, fought as a combatant, as did also Quintus Calpenus, formerly a senator, and a lawyer.

    Suetonius, Julius Caesar 39.1

A current senator wanted to fight in full armour at the same games, but was denied permission.

    In all the contests the captives and those condemned to death took part; yet some of the equestrians, and, not to mention others, the son of one who had been praetor fought in single combat. Indeed a senator named Fulvius Sepinus desired to contend in full armour, but was prevented; for Caesar deprecated that spectacle at any time, though he did permit the equestrians to contend.

    Cassius Dio, Roman History 43.23

There was evidently some pushback from the powers-that-be against elites performing as gladiators, as it was banned in 38 BCE.

    One person was chosen to be quaestor while still considered a boy, and did not obtain the standing of a teen until the next day; and another, who had been enrolled in the senate, desired to fight as a gladiator. Not only was he prevented, however, from doing this, but an act was also passed prohibiting any senator from fighting as a gladiator, any slave from serving as a lictor, and any burning of dead bodies from being carried on within two miles of the city.

   Cassius Dio, 48 43

This did not work, and in 22 BCE another law was passed, forbidding elite men and women and even the sons and grandsons of senators from appearing on stage and fighting as gladiators.

    And since knights and women of rank had given exhibitions on the stage even then, he forbade not only the sons of senators, who had even before this been excluded, but also their grandsons, so far, at least, as these belonged to the equestrian order, to do anything of the sort again.

    Cassius Dio, 54 2

That did not work either, and soon after the “ban” was lifted, showing that nothing was going to stop those so inclined from performing in the arena. These contests of elites playing gladiators were also very popular.

    Three senators, as before, transacted business with embassies, and the equestrians — a fact which may cause surprise — were allowed to fight as gladiators. The reason for this was that some were making light of the disfranchisement imposed as the penalty for such conduct. For inasmuch as there proved to be no use in forbidding it, and the guilty seemed to require a greater punishment, or else because it seemed possible that they might even be turned aside from this course, they were granted permission to take part in such contests. In this way they incurred death instead of disfranchisement; for they fought just as much as ever, especially since their contests were eagerly witnessed, so that even Augustus[36] used to watch them in company with the praetors who superintended the contests.

   Cassius Dio, 56 25

One readon why elites may have wanted to fight as gladiators is because gladiators represented a lot of the qualities that defined “Romanness” in the eyes of teh Romans themselves. As Meghan MacDonald, a  Roman historian, puts it: gladiaters were — in some sense — among the most manly “Romans” there were:

    Here, where men fought and died for the pleasure of the audience, Roman virtus – masculine virtue, courage and civic and social perfection – was enacted. It was performed with such exquisite vitality in fact that the Roman audience experienced a transcendent sublimity that reinforced the nature of their social world as they watched “non-persons” (forgive the modern term) represent Roman excellence. (MacDonald 2019)



Emperors as Gladiators

Emperors as gladiators should have been – if you read all the above – the most unRoman thing possible, and certiainly emperors who played at being gladiator, like Caligula and Commodus, were roundly attacked by the sources.


Citations and Further Reading:

There has been a lot written on gladiators, as you might imagine. Because of the glamour some people attach to gladiators and their symbolic value for many people still (whether as a symbol of bravery or cruelty or something else), this is one area where we suggest being very careful using information on the internet, and to check out if the author has some very particular axe to grind about Roman or our society or is just overcome with enthusiasm for it all.

Badian, Ernst. 2015 “Roscius Otho, Lucius.” Oxford Classical Dictionary. 8 Apr. 2019.             http://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-      9780199381135-e-5615.

Barton, Carlin. 1993. The Sorrows of the ancient Romans: the gladiator and the monster. Princeton.

A classic work that deals with the ambigiuous nature of the gladiator in Roman society well. It may not be that accessible to those without any knowledge of Rome, but it does have amazing sources that show just how self-contradictory Roman society could be.

Brunet, Stephen. 2004. “Female and dwarf gladiators.” Mouseion 48: 145.

Carter, Michael. 2018. “armorum studium: Gladiatorial training and the gladiatorial ludus.”   Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 61: 119-31.

Coleman, Kathleen. 2000. “missio” at Halicarnassus. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100 : 487.

Everything written by Coleman is worth reading. This article deals with the subject of female gladiators and our evidence for them in an accessible and uncomplicated way.  If you are only going to read one article on female gladiators I suggest this one.

Dunkle, Roger,  2008. Gladiators: Violence and spectacle in  ancient Rome. New York

Accessible and scholarly at the same time.

Ewigleben, Cornelia. 2000. ‘‘‘What these Women Love is the Sword’’: The Performers and their Audiences’. In Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, ed. Ko¨hne, E. and Ewigleben, C. 125–39. Berkeley: University of California

Fagan, Garrett. 2011. The Lure of the Arena: social psychology and the crowd at the Roman games. Cambridge.

Highly recommended, and for its title quite accessible. If you are interested in the crowd at these events, an essential read. Also has an appendix with many inscriptions.

Mayor, Adrienne. 2014. The Amazons: Lives and  legends of warrior women across the ancient world. Princeton.

MacDonald, Meghan. “The Noble Gladiator: Addressing the elusive “VIRTUS” in Gladiatorial

Combat at Rome.” Academia. https://www.academia.edu/12562016/The_Noble_Gladiator_Addressing_the_Elusive_VIRTUS_in_Gladiatorial_Combat_at_Rome.

A nice paper by an MA candidate at York; accessible and informative.

McCullough, Anna. 2008. “Female gladiators in imperial Rome: Literary context and historical fact.” The Classical World 101 (2): 197-209.

Morcillo, Marta García. 2008. “Staging power and authority at roman auctions.” Ancient Society  38 : 153-81.


Many more sources on gladiators can be found in this related anthology of ancient sources on spectacles in Rome

“Female Gladiators.” Encyclopaedia Romana.


“Seneca (b.4 BC/1 CE-d. 65 CE): Epistles 7: The Gladiatorial Games.” Internet Ancient History

Sourcebook. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/seneca-letters7.asp.

“Slavery in the Roman Republic.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.


“Sources for the Three Slave Revolts.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.


“The Roman Gladiator.” Encyclopaedia Romana.


(The Encyclopaedia Romana is a great resource. The “Notae” section has a series of essays on the history and culture of Rome, and provides a great deal of background information as well as useful primary sources. The writing is clear and easy to understand, and the website includes sections on gladiators in general, female gladiators specifically, and the Circus Maximus.)







Media Attributions

  • Detail_of_The_Emperor_Commodus_Leaving_the_Arena_at_the_Head_of_the_Gladiators_by_American_muralist_Edwin_Howland_Blashfield_(1848-1936)_02
  • Gladiadores_después_del_combate,_por_José_Moreno_Carbonero

  1. If you have to pass a range of laws against this activity, it suggests that many were in fact at least flirting with appearing as gladiators in some form.
  2. This is in the context of the war with Spartacus; you can find his account of that war here.
  3. Roman knights; powerful members of Roman society, and representing its second rank. These often became senators, especially as all children of senators were ranked as equestrians until (or if) they entered the senate by winning certain political offices.
  4. No, they’re not. Both mean duty, but munus also means gift, especially a gift given to the dead.
  5. Idolatry is described in the Bible as divine honour conferred onto any created object. This includes nature worship (worship of the sun, moon, trees, rivers, etc.) and hero worship (worship of heroes or deceased ancestors).
  6. A type of priesthood.
  7. Certain Roman magistrates (consuls, praetors, curule aediles, quaestors) were entitled to be accompanied by lictors (civil servants) who carried fasces, a bundle of rods with an axe sticking out. These symbolized their power to punish as part of their duties.
  8. The bands of wool priests and priestesses wore on their heads when performing ceremonies.
  9. The cena libera, a public feast given the night before ludi to gladiators and those who were due to be executed in the arena.
  10. The Capitoline Hill held many temples for various deities and in particular the temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
  11. Vitellius was a friend of Nero, and also emperor for 8 months in 69 CE before he was brutally deposed.
  12. [2] A drink loved by the lower classes and soldiers.
  13. A formerly Greek town in the south of Italy; it was a popular resort town for the wealthy.
  14. At this time Thracia was an independent neighbor of Rome. The Romans liked to have gladiators representing enemy outsiders fight gladiators armed like Roman soldiers.
  15. Livy’s history is not extant for this period; what we have are summaries of the content called the Periochae.
  16. The augurs were priests whose role was to advise on bird omens; it was a prestigious college of priests (one of 4 in Rome) and membership was by nomination and election.
  17. Some of the limiting of numbers had a great deal to do with the risk of having large groups of trained fighters loyal to various indidivuals in the city of Rome.
  18. The Comitium and the Forum were (in simple terms), large open spaces in Rome that had similarly large social, political and (at least in the case of the former) religious significance.
  19. Long sequences of columns.
  20. Arena games that involved the hunting and killing of animals.
  21. Castor and Pollux were mythical brothers, of whom Castor was far more famous, having given up his chance at living as a god to share his immortality with his brother.
  22. New discoveries are made all the time at Pompeii, including this fresco of gladiators uncovered in 2018, so it always worth looking to see what new information has been added from that location.
  23. See the next section for this type of 'ethnic' gladiator type.
  24. These wore especially little, so you got to see quite a lot as they had no breastplate to obscure the view.
  25. The highest position in the Pompeii local government.
  26. Corpus Inscriptorum Latinorum, a record of Latin inscriptions, including graffiti.
  27. The Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
  28. This altar, made of the horns of sacrificed goats, was one of the attractions on the island of Delos, an island dedicated to the god Apollo.
  29. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in Southwest Caria) was a massive tomb built for Mausolus by his wife Artemisia in the mid-4th century BCE; it was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
  30. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in Southwest Caria) was a massive tomb built for Mausolus by his wife Artemisia in the mid-4th century BCE; it was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
  31. Lucilius was a procurator (magistrate in charge of financial affairs) in Sicily. We only know of him through letters addressed to him from Seneca.
  32. Capua was a town south of Rome.
  33. A decent chunk of Spartacus’ army mutinied and abandoned him shortly before the final battles. The group of mutineers was quickly destroyed by Crassus.
  34. Crassus’ main political rival.
  35. An ancient city in southern Italy, just to the north of Sicily.
  36. Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire.


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