Gladiators (gladiatores) were professional and amateur fighters who fought for the entertainment of spectators. The fights took place throughout the empire, and for a large part of its history. The gladiators fought other gladiators or animals, often to the death.

The origin of these “games” was likely from the Etruscan custom of ritual sacrifice to honor the dead. The first gladiator fight took place in Rome in 253 B.C. as part of a funeral right (munus). The concept of the munus was to keep alive the memory of a deceased individual. They were sometimes held after the funeral and were often repeated at five-year intervals. Marcus and Demicus Junius Brutus staged gladiatorial combat in the Forum Boarium with 3 pairs of slaves in honor of their dead father. Gladiatorial games (munera) were not a regular part of entertainment until the early 1st century.

The 2nd century scholar Festus suggests that gladiatorial combat was a substitute for the sacrificing of prisoners on the tombs of great warriors. The Christian writer Tertullian claimed that gladiatorial combat was sacrificing to manes, or dead spirits.

Gladiator matches took place in amphitheaters and were staged after animal fights (venationes) and public executions (noxii). In its earliest forms, people from the patrician/equestrian status organized these games to gain public favor. The organizer of these games was called the editor, munerator, or dominus, and was honored with the signs of magistrate. In the imperial period, the emperor was almost always responsible for games, except in cases with special permission for public games (ludi circenses).

Gladiators were typically criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war. There was no choice but to comply if “recruited”. If someone had the desired physical appearance or abilities, the arena was a likely destination. Some free-born men chose this profession and pledged themselves to the owner (lanists) of a gladiatorial troupe (familia). It was estimated at the end of the empire that ½ of all the gladiators were volunteers (auctorati) who took upon the status of a slave for a time.

Gladiators only fought 2 or 3 times a year, and could purchase their freedom with enough fame and fortune. Also, gladiators could earn their freedom after 3 years.

Types of Gladiators

  • Andabatae- Clad in chainmail and helmets with visors and without eye holes. Charged blindly at one another on horseback.
  • Bestiarii- Armed with spear or knife. Had high probability of death. Later expertly trained to fight many exotic beasts.
  • Dimachaeri- Fought with two swords, one in each hand.
  • Equites- Fought on horseback with a spear or gladius. Had a tunic and an arm-guard (manica). Usually only fought other equites.
  • Essedari- Charioteers. Likely first brought from Britian to Rome by Ceasar.
  • Hoplomachi/Samnite- Fully armored. Based on Greek hoplites. Wore a helmet with a griffin on crest, woolen quilted leg wrappings, and shin guards. Had a spear and a small round shield. Paired with mirmillones or Thraces.
  • Laquerii- Fought with a rope and a noose.
  • Mirmillones- Wore a helmet with a fish on the crest, as well as an arm guard (manica). Had a gladius and an oblong shield. Were paired with homplomachi or Thraces.
  • Provocatores- Paired against Samnites. Weapons were unknown and may have been variable.
  • Retiarii- Carried a trident, a dagger, and a net. Had a large manica that extended to shoulder and left side of chest. Sometimes a metal shoulder shield (galerus) was added to protect the neck and lower face. Commony fought secutores or mirmillones.
  • Saggitarii- Mounted bowmen with reflex bows capable of shooting great distances.
  • Samnites-See Hoplomachi.
  • Secutores- Had the same armor as a mirmillo, including an oblong shield and a gladius. Usually were opponents of retiarii.
  • Thraces- The Thracian had a broad-rimmed helmet that went over the entire head, a small round/square shield, and two thigh-lengthed greaves. Armed with Thracian curved sword (sica). Commonly fought mirmillones or hoplomachi.
  • Velites- Had a spear with a cord attached for throwning. Fought on foot.
  • Venatores- Specialized in wild animal hunts. Technically not gladiators but still part of the games.
  • Praegenarii- Opening act to get the crowd in the mood. Fought with a wooden sword (rudis) and wore wrappings around their body. Accompanied by music.