For many, many years I've been intrigued by the concept of the 'Gladiators' of ancient Rome (not to mention that one of my all time favorite movies is Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator' with Russel Crowe) .
Were they slaves who were forced to fight, were they free men who were the glamor athletes of their time? Francesca Bezzone of L'Italo-Americano magazine researched Gladiators and found that before Pompeii and Hercolaneum were rediscovered by archaeologists in the 18th century, we knew relatively little about them and the way they lived, but today, thanks to the findings coming from these two cities, we can reconstruct fairly well the way these entertainment-warriors were selected, and perceived by the public.
So who were they?
Gladiators were not a right or privilege of the Romans: sources tell us long before the Romans that the Etruscans, too, had a penchant for arena fights, not only a way to entertain, but also a window for the rich and famous of the time to show off their wealth and power. The Etruscans were not much different from our forefathers, the Romans, who used gladiatorial games as a way for the Emperor to display power, riches and, often, his right of life and death upon other human beings. Mind you, in Roman times gladiators also had a pretty strong political role: rulers used them and their combats to sweeten up the common people to draw their attention from more pressing issues such as high taxes, lack of food, poverty, another war to fight and pay for.
Thanks to archeological research, we know that Roman gladiators were usually aged between 20 and 35 years of age and had an average height of 1.68 meters (around 5ft 5in): do you think they were short? Well, not for those times, when the average height for a man was just that.
But the first question to ask ourselves is: who were the gladiators and where did they come from? Well, there is a fairly widespread misconception they were exclusively war prisoners and slaves forced into fighting for the sake of Roman pleasure, but sources tell us a fairly different story. If, indeed, a great part of them had been captured during combat and forced into becoming an arena hero (a bit like the way you see in the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe, where his best fighter friend was a captured enemy warrior), there is proof a number of free, Roman men decided to take up this dangerous career. Dangerous, because you risked your life every time you went to work, but the rewards could be incredible, if you were good and lucky.
Free gladiators came usually from Rome’s poorer social strata, and saw the arena as a way to gain prestige, popularity and, first and foremost, wealth: the best gladiators were protected by noble families, received lavish gifts and could in fact lead a pretty glamorous lifestyle. Many of them, it seems, were also favorites in the bedrooms of Rome’s most powerful Matrons: it is even said that Eppia, wife of a Roman senator, abandoned her husband to be with a gladiator.
Living as a gladiator
In many ways, gladiators in Rome were like modern day athletes. They bonded during training and fighting and often shared profound friendships, to the point official unions called 'collegia' were formed. Collegia took care of many aspects of the life of gladiators, including the expenses related to their funeral and burial, should they die during a combat, and financial compensation for their family.
If you wanted — or were selected — to become a gladiator, you had to attend one of the Empire’s gladiatorial schools, the most important of which was in Capua. And, just as it happens today with footballers or other athletes, there were bonafide talent scouts cruising the Empire, looking for fresh talent to add to their “teams.” If you were a free man, they’d entice you to become a fighter with tales of wealth and status; if you were a slave or a prisoner, you had no choice but go with them.
Life in the gladiatorial school was very strict: all men had to train daily and it was not all about fighting. Indeed, the first months were dedicated to become “gladiator fit,” which means physical exercise and strain could become rather excruciating. They all followed a healthy, three-meal-per-day diet, which is thought to have included fruit, vegetables, cheese, grains and meat, although recent archaeological findings appear to prove many gladiators were, in fact, vegetarians (to my great chagrin).
But the comparison with modern athletes ends pretty much here: all gladiators attending school had to sleep and spend all of their free time in 'cells' and were only freed from them while training and eating. They would fight four to five times a year, and most of them specialized in specific types of combat. A harsh life, for sure, but the rewards were worthy in the eye of a vast majority of them, because gladiators were the Empire’s stars: they endorsed products, their portraits were placed in public places, children had toys — often clay figurines — modeled after them. And, they were, as we said, considered great lovers and Roman women thought their sweat was an aphrodisiac.
Little curiosities about our fighting heroes
Gladiators have always been very popular characters of Roman history: they embody strength, courage and as we mentioned have a good deal of sex appeal. But, there are many things we believe about them that are not as true as we think.
For instance, not all gladiators were men: women liked their fighting, too. Contrary to men, though, the vast majority of women chose to become fighters freely, attracted by the lifestyle and by the allure of the arena. There is also new research about the gladiators and death: while the risk of not ending up alive at the end of a combat was certainly high, death in the gladiatorial arena was not as common as many of us may have learned from history books and tv; indeed, gladiators were only part of the arena entertainment offered during the games, which usually also involved animal fights and, alas, executions.
This meant that people got their need for blood and gore out of the way by the time gladiators came “on stage,” which often allowed them to end their fights alive, even if they lost. And, gladiators had their own energy drinks, too: apparently, they would mix together water, vinegar and wood ashes to create an reinvigorating concoction, the chemical traces of which were found in the bones of gladiators analyzed a few years ago by the Medical University of Vienna.
"My name is Gladiator . . ."
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