You hear roars all around you. They are coming not only from the crowd, but also from animals and humans breathing their last breath, before darkness overcomes them with an eternal sleep. Your mouth is dry as if you have chewed on a piece of chalk, due to the huge streams of dust in the air. You can feel beads of sweat around your forehead, building up as the blistering sun rises higher and higher as the day goes on. Where are you? Why at the Amphitheater Flavius of course, better known to us today as “The Colosseum”. Here are 6 facts you may not already know about the iconic Roman Gladiators.
1. The Gladiators
There is no other word that conjures up an instant image of Ancient Rome faster than- Gladiator-. Movies and t.v. shows have been created over the past century to extend and glorify the life of trained killers who were synonymous with the Eternal City and its empire 2,000 years ago.
The actual word- Gladiator- comes from latin and simply means a person holding the –Gladius– or sword.
2. What did these guys wear for battle?
From the many movies, we understand that gladiator matches were not some primitive battle of 2 guys with no shirts on fighting with a sword. They could actually be quite complex battles with numerous different individual or group fights happening at one time. There were many “types” of gladiators. The type of gladiator you were, would then determine the kind of outfit you would wear. Below are a few of the more popular types of Gladiators:
- Samnite (named after an enemy of Rome called the Samnites) was characteristic of a man wearing a protective armor on his left leg, holding a square shield, a gladius and a Helmut.
- Myrmillo – While the exact meaning of where the word comes from is up to debate, the main characteristics of these gladiators were that of having a gladius, rectangular shield, big leather belt, a Large helmet with grating in front of the face, protective coverings over the shins and right arm.
- Retiarius – Like Gladius for Gladiator, Rete meant net so Retiarius meant literally Man with a net. Stlyed after warrior fishermen, they wore no helmet or shield, but went into battle holding a huge net and a trident. Their goal was to throw the net and trap their opponent and then drive the trident through them.
Your next question might be how do we know what they all looked like? We have hundreds of Ancient mosaics to look at that have remained in pristine condition all these years!
3. Pass me the Barley please
Today, many people are shocked to learn that most Romans subsisted on a mostly vegetarian diet. This included Roman soldiers and even gladiators. The reasoning behind this was simple – meat was expensive. Gladiators had the nickname of Hordearii, which basically means – The Barley Eaters. Their diet consisted of various grains and beans usually made into a type of porridge. The Gladiators also had an Ancient version of our modern day ‘gatorade‘ that athletes drink. It was a potion concocted mainly of charred word and various ashes which contained a high content of calcium. It was known for its restorative qualities although must have tasted horrible.
4. Where and how did they train?
Gladiators were housed in a Ludus. The most famous is the Ludus Magnus in Rome, which is located right next to the Colosseum. It was essentially an enclosed fortress with only one gate that served as an entrance and exit. Gladiators were slaves and therefore had zero rights. A gladiator was trained for 2 years, before actually being allowed to step into the Arena for his first fight.
Training consisted of holding both a wooden sword and shield which would be twice the weight of the real weapons to allow them to become used to the burden of these Essentials tools in their battles. They would then practice on a – Palus– which was a wooden pole up to 6 feet high. They would master the blows and parries that would be re-enacted in a real fight until they became second nature. After two years of training, this novicius or novice was a trained killer.
5. Where did they fight?
Once they had finished their required training, they were ready to battle in the Arena. The word arena comes from the latin word- Harena– which simply meant sand and was the preferred medium to use to absorb blood. In the early days, an arena would consist of an ad-hoc structure made of wood that would be dismantled after the games. During the Imperial period, great structures in stone were built throughout the empire to house these games so loved by the people, with the biggest one being the Colosseum. We can attest to the immense popularity due to the amount of Amphitheaters that existed throughout the Ancient Roman Empire- Approximately 230!
6. Thumbs up or Thumbs down?
Contrary to popular belief, gladiators were not slaughtered en masse during a games. While it’s true that a gladiator was a slave, they were valued slaves due to the time invested in them. As a gladiator school owner, you had to invest in their training and their food. Having them slaughtered at the first opportunity would not have made any sense economically.
When a gladiator was defeated he could hold up 2 fingers as a symbol of mercy at which point the opposing gladiator would lower his weapon and turn to the Emperor or sponsor of the games to see if he would live or die. As far as the thumbs up and thumbs down go, unfortunately we have no evidence of this being the case.
- If you’re visiting Rome, learn more about the Roman Gladiators with our expert guides on one of our Colosseum Tours
- For some more cool facts, check out our post 5 Cool Colosseum Facts for Kids
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