For those who have seen Starz’s Spartacus or the more recent Pompeii, the assumption is that gladiators not only lived short and violent lives, but were considered expendable and cheap entertainment who battled always to the death with no rules and very little clothing. The little clothing is accurate, but we need to remember that although many gladiators were slaves and looked down upon, they were very expensive investments: killing one eventually required imperial permission and even if that were granted, represented a huge cost above and beyond the cost of hiring them to fight. It was expensive enough to hire a ludus of gladiators, without having to pay their replacement costs.
Gladiators trained together in a ludus, a school, overseen by a lanista. While the owner of a gladiatorial school might be of high status (for example, Julius Caesar owned a ludus), the lanista shared the lowly status of the gladiator and was considered infamis. (This was also the same status shared by actors, pimps, and prostitutes.) The members of a ludus were hired together as a package and fought each other: the following inscription gives some names of gladiators from a familia in Venusia gives a view of some of the gladiators that might be included in a ludus:
Oceanus, slave of Avilius, novice.
Saggitarius: Dorus, slave of Pisius, 6 wins, 4 crowns
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
CIL 9.466 = ILS 5083a
Gladiators lived on a diet high in carbohydrates – eating a lot of barley and beans. The barley was eaten in a sort of porridge; presumably the gladiators also ate other foodstuffs, but their diet was mainly vegetarian, unlike that of many Greek athletes. (It was significantly better than that of the average person in the Roman empire – necessary for men and women engaged in heavy training and exhausting performance.)
Unfortunately we know little of the details of how Gladiators were trained and fought. We know they might be brought in to help train soldiers, but beyond that basically nothing. As for the fighting, although we have numerous depictions of fights, they almost always show the denouement of a bout, as this was the most exciting part. Bouts lasted only around 20 minutes or – the maximum you could fight under the hot sun, while wearing armour.
One of our few descriptions of the fighting style of a particular type of gladiator is this of how a Thracian fought, from an ancient guide to dream interpretation:
I have often observed that this dream [of fighting gladiators] indicates that a man will marry a woman whose character matches the weapons that he dreams he is using or the type of opponent he is fighting…For example, if a man fights a Thracian he will marry a rich, cunning wife, fond of being first. She will be rich because the Thracian’sbody is covered all over by his armour; cunning because his sword is curved, and fond of being first because the Thracian advances when he fights.
Artemidorus, Dream Book 2.32
Curry, A. 2008. “The Gladiator Diet.” Archaeology 61: 28-30.
Requires Jstor access:
Carter, M.J. 2007. “Gladiatorial Combat: the Rules of Engagement”, Classical Journal 102: 97-114.