What Life Was Really Like For Roman Gladiators

Ancient sports were the very definition of intensity, and very close to the modern definitions of attempted and full-blown murder. However, nothing screamed bloody murder quite like actual blood-soaked screaming at the Roman Colosseum during antiquity's equivalent of the Super Bowl half-time show. As recounted by Author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, it kicked off with dozens of naked criminals sitting on massive seesaws with their hands tied behind their backs. They took turns teeter-tottering fifteen feet into the air, but quickly found themselves teetering on the precipice of death. An army of starved lions, leopards, bears, and boars abruptly rushed through trapdoors in the amphitheater floor. The beasts feasted their eyes and their bellies on the defenseless flesh frantically swinging before them.

You might think the tens of thousands of onlookers in attendance would have wanted to un-see what they saw, but the masses laughed and placed bets on which slab of dead meat would get eaten alive first. 

The crowd's main course, of course, were the Roman games. Extravagant spectacles of peril and violence, they included lethal chariot races, the mass slaughter of exotic animals, and the glorified human cockfights known as gladiator battles. Originally intended as blood offerings to curry favor with the souls of dead aristocrats, according to the University of Chicago, gladiators later became fodder for a hungry public that lived on steady diet of bread and circuses.

Some people gladly became gladiators

Rooted in Etruscan tradition, gladiator games made their big debut in the Roman Empire around 264 BC, per the University of Chicago. The very first gladiators were slaves forced to fight each other at a funeral, and in general, gladiators were slaves, inmates, or POWs. However, toward the tail end of the Roman Republic, half of gladiators fought by choice. The free men usually had few avenues to advance in life. They were former slaves, ex-gladiators who returned to the arena, and generally outcasts. These men essentially signed their freedom away, swearing total subservience to their manager, known as a lanista. Gladiators were obligated "to be burned, flogged, beaten, or killed if so ordered." Regular citizens and women also participated occasionally.

Gladiators honed their craft at schools, and managers could sell or rent them as property. Politicians enlisted gladiators as bodyguards and ancient riot police. One top politician, in particular, preferred to be a gladiator. Emperor Commodus also engaged in gladiator combat and behaved the way you might expect of a walking commode. The historian Cassius Dio claimed that Commodus bragged about winning 1,000 gladiator fights and liked slicing off the noses, ears, and other body parts of opponents. To ensure victory, via Live Science, Commodus battled amputees and injured soldiers armed with wooden swords. There was no Maximus Decimus around to make the emperor eat crow. He peacocked in the arena with fancy pelts, slayed exotic animals, and was later slain by human assassins.