When you think about gladiators, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of movies such as Spartacus, Ben-Hur, or Gladiator. Most of us have some awareness of the fact that gladiator games existed, but we tend to think of them as a more dangerous version of boxing. Sure, men armed with weapons fought it out in front of crowds, and it tended to result in the death of the loser, but how often could that have occurred?
Take a guess about the number of gladiator fatalities. Even in a society that relished the spectacle of ritual killing, what is the upper limit of what civilized people would tolerate in the name of entertainment?
Today’s culture sinks billions of dollars into professional sports. Massive stadiums lure huge crowds of spectators to cheer athletes who earn multi-million-dollar salaries. The 21st century did not invent this concept. Mega-earning athletes date back to the time of the gladiator games. The highest-paid athlete of all time was from the 2nd century. The Colosseum of Rome, built for gladiator games, could seat as many as 60,000 spectators and cost today’s equivalent of about $750 million to construct. This gives us a bit of a clue about the popularity of the sport.
Gladiator games did not originate with the Romans, but they certainly made it into their national pastime. Originally, they were held to honor the memory of an important person. The first recorded fight was in 264 BC. It involved three matches among six slaves and was held to honor Brutus Pera.
The games steadily grew in size and popularity and in the process became more about entertainment than ritual. Politicians often sponsored elaborate games, inviting the public to attend for free in hopes of winning political support. Julius Caesar was a master at this technique and held events where the fighters were dressed in outlandish costumes. He recreated the battle for Troy and created artificial lakes to reenact sea battles. The scenes may have been staged, but the battles — and deaths — were real.
The games became the center of Roman social life, with every major population center building its own arena for the sport. When the Colosseum was built in A.D. 80, it consisted of tunnels, underground chambers, and elaborate mechanisms for positioning animals, equipment, and scenery.
A day of gladiator games typically began with a parade of exotic animals. Elephants, hippos, ostriches, crocodiles, rhinos, and countless others appeared before delighted crowds and then released to fight each other. Once they ripped each other to shreds, hunters were dispatched to clear away the survivors. This not only got the crowd warmed up for the big show but it also provided vendors with meat to roast so the crowd would have something to eat over the next few hours.
When the Colosseum was opened, 5,000 wild animals and 4,000 domestic animals were killed. In A.D. 107, Trajan killed 11,000 animals to celebrate his Dacian triumph. This aspect of the gladiator games alone was responsible for the extinction of several species from the Roman Empire. The last European lion disappeared around A.D. 100. Shortly after, the North African elephant, Hycranian tigers, aurochs, Western wisents, and Barbary lions disappeared.
The first phase of the games took all morning. Around noon, humans started to take a more visible role. The games provided a convenient forum for the execution of criminals. Methods of execution included being burned alive or devoured by wild animals. Frequently, the criminals were thrown together with simple weapons and ordered to kill each other.
Under the guise of “education” and “culture,” some prisoners were executed by reenacting stories from history or mythology. One unfortunate prisoner might demonstrate what happened to Icarus when he flew too close to the sun, lost his wings, and plummeted to the earth. Another might be chosen to reenact Hippolytus’ fate when he was dragged to death by horses.
After lunch, the professional gladiators made their appearance. These were men who were criminals, prisoners of war, or slaves and had been trained in gladiator schools known as ludi. The purpose of the training was to put on the best show possible for the public.
Some of the gladiator combat was designed to train new soldiers on what to expect in combat. To that end, the fighting might simply be two teams of 100 gladiators each fighting a mock battle.
The prize events were those of one-on-one single combat. Spectators marveled at the athletic and fighting skills of the participants and cheered for their favorite fighter.
Gladiators wore armor, but it served the opposite purpose of what you might expect. The arms and face were protected while the chest and neck were exposed. This was intentional, to decrease the possibility of a combatant losing because of a minimal injury; lethal blows were encouraged.
If a gladiator was disabled but not killed, the audience frequently had the opportunity to vote on the loser’s fate. If the crowd thought he had fought valiantly, they might vote to spare his life. During the reign of Augustus, only 20 percent of combatants may have died in these matches. By the time of later emperors, however, that number rose to fifty percent.
Two thousand years before The Hunger Games, the Romans held special events called miners sine missione, “offerings without reprieve.” These were a series of playoffs where only one person would emerge alive.
As grisly and barbaric as the games sound to our ears, it is impossible to overstate their popular appeal at the time. The excitement and unmatched drama of life-or-death entertainment hooked people like an opiate. In his book Confessions, Augustine of Hippo describes the experience of one of his friends who became addicted to the blood sport:
[Alypius] held such spectacles in aversion and detestation; but some of his friends and fellow-pupils on their way back from a dinner happened to meet him in the street and, despite his energetic refusal and resistance, used friendly violence to take him into the amphitheatre during the days of the cruel and murderous games… When they arrived and had found seats where they could, the entire place seethed with the most monstrous delight in the cruelty. He kept his eyes shut and forbade his mind to think about such fearful evils. Would that he had blocked his ears as well! A man fell in combat. A great roar from the entire crowd struck him with such vehemence that he was overcome by curiosity. Supposing himself strong enough to despise whatever he saw and to conquer it, he opened his eyes. He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator in his body, whose fall had caused the roar. The shouting entered by his ears and forced open his eyes. Thereby it was the means of wounding and striking to the ground a mind still more bold than strong, and the weaker for the reason that he presumed on himself when he ought to have relied on [God]. As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in the murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure. He was not now the person who had come in, but just one of the crowd which he had joined, and a true member of the group which had brought him. What should I add? He looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him so that it urged him to return not only with those by whom he had originally been drawn there, but even more than them, taking others with him.
Part of the gladiator training was learning how to die with dignity. It was considered bad show for a vanquished combatant to grovel for his life. Instead, they were trained to offer their necks for a final whack of the sword.
After every fight, attendants dressed as beings from the underworld cleared the combat area for the next event. An attendant dressed like Mercury, wearing a winged hat and sandals, jabbed at the loser with a hot iron to see if he was faking his death. Another would tap the loser’s head with a mallet before hauling his body away. Oddly, this practice carried over into the Vatican where, traditionally, a recently-deceased pope would be tapped on the forehead with a silver hammer to confirm that he wasn’t just asleep.
Although gladiators wore visored helmets to keep their deaths impersonal, the lust for blood eroded that tradition over time. Emperors Caligula and Commodus enjoyed the final death blow so much that they often left the stands and participated in the fun. Claudius frequently ordered the helmet removed before the final death blow so he could delight in the agony on the dying man’s face.
With the spread of Christianity, the gladiator games took on a new flavor. Thousands of Christians were killed in the arenas in the first three hundred years in an effort to curtail the spread of the religion.
As the Roman Empire spiraled into decline, the cost of maintaining the games and the resources needed to keep the Empire alive gradually brought an end to the practice. The last recorded fight at the Colosseum took place around A.D. 435.
By the time the last of the gladiators died in the arena, the practice had been going on for about 700 years. In their book The Colosseum, Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard estimate 8,000 deaths per year in all of the amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire. In other words, somewhere between 3.2 million and 5.6 million people were killed for the purposes of entertainment.