Gladiators, The World’s First Superstar Athletes.

Gladiators from the Zliten Mosaic


Gladiators from the Zliten Mosaic


People often have the wrong idea about gladiators. The movies for most people are the only open window on the past that we will go through willingly. Thank you History Channel.  So the gladiator as a captured slave, made to fight to the death, is a meme that still reigns supreme. Perhaps because the Spartacus story is the best-known gladiatorial tale, this is what is left with most people. The facts of Gladitorial combat resemble more today’s highly paid, elite athletes than it does Spartacus.


Half of all gladiators were voluntary.


As crazy as that sounds, it is the truth. A citizen could give up what he owned or put his possessions in someone else’s purview and spend five years living and training and fighting like a professional athlete, all in the hopes of being picked up and given combat. You see gladiators were professional athletes, the superstars of their day. People knew their names, followed their fights, and packed amphitheaters and coliseums to see them. I remember growing up in DeKalb County, Georgia. My brother and I took karate and it was not long before we had a picture of Bruce Lee on our wall. It’s easy to imagine how Verus, a Moesian slave, captured the hearts of Roman inamorata who followed him around and attended parties hoping to be honored with a night of love with the hero.


The better context to put this all in would be to look at the role of the coliseum. Romans had the tools to build an empire and to create robust economies. However,  Rome was subject to some of the same vicissitudes that the rest of all nations are. Droughts for example plagued Rome. Endless wars drained the Roman treasuries. Invasions often meant huge armies threatened to breech the walls. Inflation, debt, empty coffers, all these things put the Roman citizens in the same tenuous life many people around the world are in today. When there was massive unemployment, when the people could not fill dinner tables, Romans were known to riot.


Imagine the distraction of featured entertainment provided for free to up to 50,000 a day in Vespasian’s new Coliseum. Imagine how your humdrum life could be transformed when a few times a month, you get to see something you have never seen only heard or read about. I went back and watched Star Wars five times. Imagine the thrill of seeing live criminals eaten by live hungry lions from North Africa. Imagine seeing a coliseum filled with water and then with ships and then a live sea battle.


The wonder of it all. The characters who fought and survived the coliseum were the role models of Roman children for generations.


Prior to Christianity, the coliseum was the opiate of the masses. Emperors often engaged their subjects at the coliseum, where people saw the emperor as the master of ceremonies directing the action, and often the emperor, such as Claudius and Commodus used the theater of the coliseum to make themselves seem heroic as well.

Caligula began his reign with celebrations that lasted for three months and as many as 160,000 animals, many from foreign lands, died in these bloody brutal games. Nero led a large chariot himself around an amphitheater. Commodus was actually in the kind of physical shape to be a gladiator. He would often battle other gladiators who knew it was best to allow him to win, and then they would be granted pardons.


Gladiators were owned by someone. Either by the Lanista, the trainer, or a patrician who bought and traded them like football players on a team. There was an entire economy around gambling on gladiators and often the Lanista took parts of those profits. That said, once a gladiator was trained and in shape and winning, he meant money. Gladiatorial games were sponsored by someone who often had to pay the Lanista for dead gladiators. That made gladiatorial combat for winners a way to be pardoned after losing. Lose too often and the pardons will disappear.


Perhaps not so surprisingly, a gladiator could be paid as much for a single victory as a Roman legionnaire was paid to campaign for a year. Many gladiators made enough money to move out of the training barracks and had their own haimish apartments. Gladiators were often invited to lavish parties by Roman patricians trying to impress each other. Sometimes they had to fight. Other times they were there to be preyed upon by rich Roman divorcees or widows. Gladiators often had families who travelled with them.  


Lanistas and gladiators had their own farm teams, as people volunteered and tried out at amphitheaters all around Rome. Fighters with reputations were often bought and sold like today’s quarterbacks and pitchers. One could make good money also as a referee or a handler, just like today’s fighters. 



Gladiators were so valuable that after 50 AD, 90% of gladiators were not killed in combat. There were exceptions when a blood-thirsty emperors like Titus demanded they be finished off. That said, a gladiator would make a good living and have a good long career and retire a hero and a rich man. Once an emperor issued them a wooden sword, they could retire.


Rome needed about 30,000 to 50,000 slaves a year to keep their economy strong. Slaves were often worked to death. So it is not surprisingly that sometime around the time of Vespasian, the father of brutal Titus, sent legions out to find slaves.


Verus was a Moesian man who was taken by the Romans and with his brethren, walked 50 days until they made it to Rome. There he was made to break rocks to build the very coliseum he would later win fame in. It was a miserable hot place. Slaves were worked sunrise to sunset without rest. After ten months they were all rounded up so a Lanista could review them. He watched as the Lanistas chose the first two men he saw and loaded them into a cart to take to training school.


Verus was passed over.


There is nothing that attracts attention quite like a public bobbery.  So without further ado, Verus started a fight with a Gallic slave named Priscus. They were both added to the cart and in short order they were training in fighting school. Over the next decade Priscus and Verus became best friends. This must have been difficult knowing that they might be called on to kill each other one day. They both became superstar gladiators, and both had huge followings.


So it came to pass that Vespasian died in 79 AD, a year before the 50,000 seat massive coliseum was finished. Titus took the throne and began his reign with 100 consecutive days of celebrations and games in coliseum.


The first morning did not go well. Criminals were rounded up in the center of the arena. When the lions were released they crowd went wild. The noise so scared the lions they refused to attack anyone, and looked for escape into the dugouts they emerged from.


The trainer was executed in public for that.


In the afternoon, multiple battles were fought simultaneously. And the crowd was ecstatic. The climax was a battle between Priscus and Verus. They fought to a stalement and were both issued palms and wooden swords. it was one of the greatest events of Roman sports history. Everyone was pleased.


Martial, the Roman poet wrote about the epic battle:


Cum traheret Priscus, traheret certamina Verus,

esset et aequalis Mars utriusque diu,

missio saepe uiris magno clamore petita est;

sed Caesar legi paruit ipse suae; —

lex erat, ad digitum posita concurrere parma: —

quod licuit, lances donaque saepe dedit.

Inuentus tamen est finis discriminis aequi:

pugnauere pares, subcubuere pares.

Misit utrique rudes et palmas Caesar utrique:

hoc pretium uirtus ingeniosa tulit.

Contigit hoc nullo nisi te sub principe, Caesar:

cum duo pugnarent, uictor uterque fuit.


Emperor Titus

Emperor Titus

Source: Wikipedia, History Chennl, Martial, Liber de Spectaculis, XXIX, Livy, Polybius


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