Q&A: The Roman Gladiator

Hello!!!! I’m writing a story about a gladiator and i was wondering… How do they fight? And which weapons do they use? Can they still fight well when they get out of arena?

How they fought is somewhat intrinsically linked to the weapons they used, so it’s kind of important to step and get some context.

The Roman gladiator was the sports celebrity of their day. A lot of the things we associate with modern athletes, including endorsement deals, were actually a thing. There were dedicated schools which would train prospective gladiators. They were overseen by a manager, and in some cases, there was even a separate sponsor funding them.

It’s something of a misconception to think of Roman gladiators as slaves, because, while many were, there were also many free gladiators who were career combatants. It’s a little less clear how well slaves fared against free gladiators, but the free gladiators were probably better educated and cared for (though, as stated, it’s not entirely clear.

Slave gladiators could be drawn from captured enemy combatants, and criminals. It’s worth noting that an Imperial Citizen could not be sentenced to the arena, however, certain crimes did allow their citizenship to be stripped, at which point they could be sent to the games.

Female gladiators existed, (though, the term “Gladiatrix” is modern.) We don’t really know much about them. The Romans appeared to view female gladiators as a novelty, and as a result, they were poorly documented. Ironically, we know more about them from Romans who mocked their existence, rather than about the women themselves.

The arena was a bloodsport, not a deathsport. The way gladiators were equipped when they faced each other were designed to ensure that combat would be drawn out and messy, but not lethal. (This was not true when gladiators were paired against wild animals or, later on, when they were used as executioners.) Gladiators, particularly successful ones, represented a significant financial investment, and were not simply thrown to their death on a whim.

One other bit of trivia worth revisiting is the thumbs up, thumbs down, gesture. In the modern day we have this, somewhat, switched. Thumbs up meant that the victorious gladiator was allowed to kill their defeated foe; thumbs down meant they were not.

The gladiator was, primarily, an entertainer, in a highly militaristic society. Just like modern prize fighters, most saw extended careers, deaths were relatively rare (with specific exceptions), and while a few were popular and successful, many more were not.

Gladiators had specific, “loadouts,” of weapons and armor. These would change over time, and it’s not entirely clear how standardized these loadouts were, because there are a lot of gladiator variants that are mentioned very sporadically.

Many of the loadouts were designed to resemble foes that Rome had conquered, though as the empire expanse slowed, and older conquered holdings were fully integrated, some of the earlier designs were adapted to be more culturally sensitive. Gladiator types would only be matched against specific circumstances. Many gladiators would fight other gladiators, but, gladiators that fought beasts did not use the same gear or fighting styles and would not be paired against other gladiators. (You certainly wouldn’t see wild animals dumped into the middle of an existing arena fight.) (Technically, venatores might not count as gladiators at all, because they didn’t face human foes in the arena.)

There was one variant, the provocator, designed to epitomize the Roman Legionary, however they would only face other provocators. Similarly, the eques (mounted gladiators) usually fought each other.

This gets back into the question of, “fighting style.” A gladiator would have their fighting style dictated by their gear. For example, a Cestus (a gladiator with heavy gauntlets on their fists, but no other arms or armor) would fight very differently from a retiarius (who fought with a trident and net.)

It’s worth checking specific combinations, to see if they faced one another. The example above, while accurate, probably wouldn’t happen in the arena, because the retiarius had a limited number of loadouts it was allowed to be paired against. These pairings were designed to prolong the fight, leading to a longer, bloodier, but less lethal spectacle. Again, this was entertainment, and much like a modern prize fight, you’re not there to see a 17 second bout.

It’s also worth knowing there were a number of non-gladiators who performed and entertained the audience between bouts. Some of these would be analogous to modern animal handlers (the venator) and stunt fighters who would engage in mock duels (the paegniarius.)

As a quick aside, there were at least three different, animal related, performers. The venator, mentioned above, the bestarius, and the lorarius. The venator would perform, or hunt them in the arena, and one of the few Gladiatrix we know by name was a venator (“Mevia “). The bestarius was condemned to die against wild animals. The lorarius was tasked with whipping reluctant fighters, be that human or animal.

While the gladiators get a lot of attention today, the Romans did have other forms of athletics entertainment, including things like horse and chariot races. These were distinct from gladiatorial exhibitions. The collective term you’re looking for is, “ludi.” This would refer to a wide range of Roman entertainment and festivals, of which the gladiatorial games were a small part. (The term “ludi is a little tricky to manage, because that was also the name for the gladiator schools.)

So, how would a gladiator fight outside the arena? That depends on their training. Some gladiators were drawn from foreign warriors who’d been enslaved after capture, and you can assume they’d have some combat training and experience. Some may have been trained in multiple roles (I’m not entirely certain how, or if this happened, so take this with a grain of salt), meaning they’d have a somewhat more diverse combat background. Some would have only been trained to fight in very specific ways, and those methods wouldn’t, necessarily, support quick, or clean, kills.

If you’re wanting to dig further into the idea of gladiators outside the arena, you might want to look into the history of Spartacus. (Specifically the history, rather than the dramatizations.) He was a gladiator slave who lead a revolt in the heart of the empire. The formal name is the, “Third Servile War,” which ran from 73 to 71 BCE. So, while I might have sounded pessimistic in the previous paragraph, the truth is that escaped gladiatorial slaves were remarkably effective against Roman forces.

More than most posts, this is barely scratching the surface, and you may want to do some more digging on your own, but I hope it helps.

-Starke

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