“There is no meaner condition among the people than that of gladiator”
Calpurnius Flaccus, 2nd century CE
While gladiators were sexy, popular, and exciting to watch, they were also infamis: that is they lost their civic rights for the time they served as gladiators, even if they were free men before they took the gladiatorial oath. That oath, according to a 1st century CE novel, was that they would “allow themselves to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword” (uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari, Petronius Satyricon 117).
Of course, many gladiators did not chose to be gladiators: they were slaves, prisoners-of-war, condemned criminals, all trained for the purpose of entertaining the Roman people with their fighting. Although we think of gladiatorial combat as mere butchery, it wasn’t. There were rules. There were even referees, with the chief referee being called the summa rudis (a rudis was a wooden sword, used in training).
This image shows a gladiatorial combat along with the referees:
Found on the Via Appia (one of the main Roman roads) outside Rome, it dates from the 4th century CE. You can see what is probably one referee in the top left hand corner: he’s dressed in a tunic and carrying a stick, presumably to hit fighters whenever they break a rule. As his stick is bigger than that of the other referee in the bottom half of the picture, he is presumably the summa rudis, the chief referee. (If you object to the stick size rule of status here, then sadly I fear you need to learn more about human nature, and especially human nature in a highly stratified society like Rome’s.)
Gladiators fought each other in pairs and – with a few exceptions that we know of – one by one. Audiences wanted to see skill, not butchery, because if they wanted pure butchery they’d have gone to the executions, which happened earlier in the day. In its most developed form a day of gladiatorial games involved a morning of beast hunts (the venatio), a midday show of executions by being thrown to the beasts (damnatio ad bestias), and an afternoon of gladiatorial bouts. There might also be athletic competitions or mock fights as well. Gladiators came on in a grand parade and had mock fights with wooden weapons – something which also functioned as a decent warm up. Then they came back on and fought in pairs as music played and (one hopes) the crowd roared. They fought for no more than 15-20 minutes and then the bout was over either; bouts did not end necessarily in death: gladiators often walked off the arena floor even though they had lost their bout.
Some other places to go to learn more about gladiators in general:
Vroma has a nice, but short, page on gladiators: it has links to a wide range of pictures.
This is a nice, but (alas) very brief page on gladiators by Kathleen Coleman for the BBC;