These Roman slaves and prisoners provided bloody combative entertainment to Roman masses for three hundred years. First appearing in 400 BC, gladiatorial combat was a hit from the moment the Romans started it. Given that the Romans were considered the most civilized culture of their time, it is also proper to note that they were brutal conquerors who had little compunction about invading a village and killing every man woman and child in it. They also meted out torturous death to enemies of the state or battlefield enemies. Look at the Cross. It is a torture device providing a long slow death. By the end of the 1st century there were 186 amphitheatres around Rome providing gladiator combat. Bloody entertainment was part of the Roman DNA.
Gladiators had to be able to fight. If they weren’t soldiers, they had to train and learn to fight. One of the centers of Gladitorial training, was Ephesus in modern day Turkey. Evidence reveals that the gladiators not only received training, they received medical help for wounds. Given the perfect setting for some breaks, archeologists believed that the fighters were taken care of the same way a football player is, or any other monetary investment. Some even received amorous attention from slaves chosen by the trainers.
The Lanistae were the entrepreneurs who bought, sold, enslaved and trained gladiators. These men were wheeler dealers and they had a lot more influence in the outcome of a fight than the movies tell us. Watching Spartacus or Gladiator, one might think that a wounded Gladiator might just be left to rot. Not so. He was cared for. Not only that, but many gladiators were such good showmen that when they got into trouble in the arena, the Lanistae could make the referees stop the fight. So Spartacus likely had his own Don King so to speak.
Referees? Yes. Contrary to popular belief, gladiatorial combat was attended and managed by referees. When matches went too long, referees could impose a rest interval. When it looked like a draw, the referee could call the winner. Referees could try and stop devastating injuries as well. Or they could tilt the matches one way or another.
Most Gladiators were criminals, slaves, captured prisoners, and in some cases, volunteers called auctorati. Many of them were treated as rock stars, or at the very least, as pampered investments that bettors and bookers looked to draw a crowd. Suetonius, the historian noted that often the more famous gladiators would win, ascend to the Emperor’s chair and receive a bag of gold, or other gifts. Many Gladiators had their own property and were awarded audiences with nobility.
It is also not true that the Nobility determined lived or died. Mostly that was a result of the answer from the audience. If they liked the performance and a gladiator was on the ground they might yell “missio”, or mercy. If they didn’t, they yelled “iugula”, or cut. Noblemen who brought in the fighters had to pay the Lanistae for each gladiator killed or wounded. Most of the fights were pairs of gladiators, 12 to 15 fights per show typically was put on in succession. Rarely were the fights free for all affairs with many fights at the same time. Yes, they did introduce tigers and lions but they too were spared as they were hard to replace. Often they were preceded by mock battles with wooden swords to warm up the crowd and show their strength and skill.
Graffiti around ancient Rome often revealed the public’s feelings for the Gladiators. One such inscription read : Crescens, the net fighter, healer of the girls at night.”
Show managers spiced up the fights by matching up the weapons as well. The Gladius was the most common, often very short, just a foot long, to guarantee close range fighting. The Sica, or scimitar was a short curved sword, probably adapted from Arabs and Thracians. Fascina were three pronged spars or tridents. The pugnum was a small shield that didn’t provide a ton of protection but doubled as a blunt end instrument. There were hastas or throwing spears, and lancae or stabbing spears and contus or pikes and iaculum, or fighting nets, and of course pilum, or javelins.
Some fighting was brutal. The Romans could literally flood the coliseum with water and stage naval battles that included death by drowning and Greek Fire. Yes, it was brutal, but Gladitorial combat was also quite a way to make a living
Source: The Truth About History. Barnes & Nobles. 2007.