Daily Life of Gladiators When Not in Mortal Combat

While the life of a gladiator was brutal and often short, most fought in the arena before screaming, bloodthirsty crowds only one to three times a year. Have you ever wondered what they did the rest of the time?

I learned many things that surprised me while writing my latest novel with a main character who is kidnapped and sold into the arena. I always include a 2-3 page historical note about some aspect of Roman society that was especially important for the novel. Soon I will be posting a long article on the lives of gladiators, but for now, here’s the Historical Note from Faithful featuring a few fascinating facts gleaned from the full article that will appear in 2021. Other novels where historically accurate gladiators play important roles are True Freedom, Hope Unchained, Honor Bound, and Hope’s Reward.

Cover of Faithful
Is the price of true friendship ever too high?

The Daily Life of Gladiators: Celebrities Yet Social Outcasts in the Roman World

Perhaps the most widely recognized symbol of ancient Rome is the Colosseum, started by the first Flavian emperor, Vespasian, in AD 72 and finished by his son and successor, Titus, in AD 80. During the Imperial era, Romans called it the Flavian Amphitheater after the dynasty that built it. Nothing epitomizes the Roman attitude toward the value of human life better than this marvel of Roman architecture that let up to 85,000 people watch as men fought and died, urged on by the roar of the blood-thirsty crowd. Perhaps as many as four hundred amphitheaters were spread across the Empire, ranging from wooden structures, which might seat one to ten thousand, to stone or concrete marvels that are still in use today for bull fights, concerts, and film festivals in Arles and Nimes in France and Pula in Croatia.

The typical schedule for the Roman games involved more than gladiatorial contests. The morning was filled with animal events, ranging from hunts to damnatio ad bestias, the feeding of condemned criminals to beasts. Irenaeus (AD 130-202, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul) reported that Ignatius of Antioch was fed to the lions in Rome in AD 107 for the crime of refusing to worship the Roman gods. Condemned criminals or prisoners of war might be forced to fight each other until only one remained to be killed by a gladiator. But the real excitement came in the afternoon, when professional gladiators met in one-on-one combat, fighting until one was dead or so badly injured he was forced to admit defeat.

A loser who fought well enough was often spared to fight again, so the odds of surviving a single fight were about five to one. The typical gladiator fought only two or three times a year. Half died during their first year in the arena, but for those who survived their “rookie year,” life after the arena was a real possibility. That life might even be long; a memorial stone in a gladiator cemetery in Ephesus was erected by the family of a retired gladiator who died at age 99.

But how did someone become a gladiator, and what was life like during the 360-plus days of the year when a gladiator wasn’t entertaining the masses in mortal combat?

While gladiators were admired for their courage and fighting skills, they were social outcasts. Like a prostitute, a gladiator was an infamis, a person of low repute. He couldn’t vote or hold public office, and many burial grounds refused to accept a gladiator’s remains.

Many became gladiators through no choice of their own. Over half of the fighters in a gladiatorial school (ludus) were slaves. Many were taken as prisoners of war and sold into the arena with some fighting skills. Some were slaves who had proven too hard to handle. Some were condemned criminals. These came in two categories: condemned to the sword (damnatio ad gladium) and condemned to the games (damnatio ad ludos). While those condemned to the sword would be killed during their first appearance in the arena, men condemned to the games could survive as long as they fought well enough and might even hope to be freed someday. If the sponsor hosting the games decided to free a gladiator, he could pay the purchase price to the owner and award a wooden sword (rudis) to the fighter as the symbol of his freedom.

Some gladiators were free men who were paid a sizable sum of money to sign a contract with a ludus for a fixed period of time, typically four or five years. During the term of the contract, they belonged to the ludus as if they were slaves, swearing the gladiator oath to submit to anything the ludus owner wanted, including having them killed. These voluntary gladiators were called auctoratii.

Some auctoratii needed the money to pay debts before they were sold into permanent slavery to pay them. Sometimes former soldiers, especially those who had been dishonorably discharged and were already infames, chose to become gladiators if they had no other job prospects. Some were gladiator slaves who had been freed and chose to continue in their profession after receiving their freedom.

While the vast majority of gladiators were men, women gladiators have been pictured in mosaics and listed as special attractions. Whether these were slaves or auctoratii isn’t known.

The head trainer of a ludus was the lanista, a man who had been a successful gladiator himself. While the lanista was an infamis at the bottom of society, the wealthy Roman who owned the ludus was usually a well-respected member of Roman society. A large ludus might have several hundred fighters, and the money to be made feeding the Roman lust for bloodshed was attractive to many businessmen in the equestrian order. A sponsor of the games hired the gladiators through the schools. For every fighter who died, the sponsor payed a fixed fee based on the ranking of the gladiator, so win or lose, the owner of a ludus made money on every match.

The training regimen for a gladiator was vigorous. Many hours were spent daily practicing with wooden swords weighted to be twice as heavy as real metal ones and shields heavier than those used in combat. Muscles were built up to a level that bones were deformed. Attack and counter-attack were practiced until responses were reflexive and instantaneous. Stamina, strength, and intimate knowledge of how an opponent would fight could make the difference between life and death. Bouts seldom lasted 30 minutes and might be over in a minute, but a longer, fiercer fight might impress the crowd enough that the loser might be spared to fight again. A new gladiator (tiro) usually trained for a year or more before his first appearance in a professional bout.

The intense training burned many calories, so gladiators were fed large quantities of a mostly vegetarian diet. The gladiator diet differed from the civilian diet in several ways. While wheat bread was a staple for most Romans, gladiators ate mostly barley. Some fruit and vegetables were combined with ample servings of barley porridge (polenta). The goal was to have a layer of fat overlying vulnerable blood vessels and nerves so a shallow cut wouldn’t prove disastrous. Fat tissue can bleed impressively, making spectators marvel at the fighter’s ability to continue the battle, while not being a crippling injury. To build strong bones, a drink made from the ashes of bones and charred wood was served.

Gladiators and former gladiators worked outside the arena as bodyguards, debt collectors, and enforcers to settle disputes. They also served as sparring partners and personal trainers for men and for women who wanted to fight privately.

Memorial stones in gladiator cemeteries provide ample evidence that many gladiators married and raised families. The stones usually list the names of the relatives erecting the stones and the number of fights, the number of wins, and the age at death. Many died in battle in their twenties or early thirties, but others lived to die a natural death.

In Faithful, Marcus Brutus is a wealthy equestrian who includes three gladiator schools among his business enterprises. He’s an honest businessman in a brutal business, callous but not cruel, a man who treats his gladiator slaves like the men they are but is perfectly comfortable making money off them when they kill or are killed in the arena. But Brutus is a man of his times and culture. The popularity of the games didn’t wane until Christianity became the dominant religion. In AD 326, Emperor Constantine replaced sentences that condemned a criminal to die in the arena with condemnation to work in the mines, and Emperor Honorius banned gladiatorial contests in AD 404.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby