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9 Surprising Facts about the Gladiators

Gladiators were celebrities of the Roman working classes. Audacious and highly trained warriors, they were beloved and watched by the masses for more than 650 years. 

Discover more about Ancient Rome's most infamous and popular form of popular entertainment:

1. Gladiators Didn't Just Fight to the Death

The best gladiators were prized local celebrities of their day. Therefore, most didn't fight 'til the death as quite simply their managers will have wanted to make as much profit out of them as possible. They were trained to wound, not to kill. Most matches would end with one seriously injured, but a survivor none the less.

Despite this, the life of a gladiator was a short one. Most only lived to their mid-twenties (many only until their late teen years) and historians estimate that the average gladiator would likely only fight around ten matches until he met his demise. 

2. The Thumbs Down Wasn't What You Think

Who can forget the infamous thumbs down scenes in the 2000 epic movie Gladiator? While in this movie it was interpreted as permission from the emperor for the gladiator to be killed, in Ancient Roman times, a thumbs down probably meant to give mercy. A thumbs up likely meant to kill the gladiator off. If this was the case, the other gladiator would usually kill him by slashing him in between the shoulders or straight through the heart. 

3. Fighting Against Animals Was Rare

While in popular culture we often see gladiators fighting tigers and lions, this was quite rare. It was only in the late Roman period when people began to grow bored of the Coliseum games and gladiators that it became more commonplace to use animals. Introduced as a new gimmick to bring in more crowds, gladiators were forced to fight wild cats and there's even some records that claim the area was deliberately flooded and crocodiles and sharks were let loose. 

4. Not all Gladiators Were Slaves

Traditionally, gladiators were selected slaves or conquered people. Typically chosen for their strong physiques, they would be hand selected and trained into gladiators. However, as the gladiator games gained steam, many gladiators were free working class men who willingly signed up. Lured by the fame, crowds and potential money and prizes to be won, there were even gladiator schools that accepted volunteers. 

5. There Were Female Gladiators

Female gladiators existed, but they were almost all slaves. A prominent fixture on the gladiator scene, female gladiators were pitted against one another as well as male gladiators and even against dwarfs. 

6. They Started Out as a Funeral Ritual

Historical records indicate that gladiator matches began as a crude form of human rituals at funerals. Nobleman or royalty would force slaves to fight to the death as part of a funeral service. Once this gained popularity, it transcended into public displays and matches. 

7. There Were Different Types of Gladiators

Gladiators were divided by type of skill and fighting style type. Placed in categories rated on their skill level, experience and weaponry specialty. The “thraeces” and “murmillones" were the most popular and remembered type of gladiator - fighting by sword and shield. There were also gladiators that fought on horse with a sword known as "equites" and the “dimachaerus" who fought with two swords at once. 

8. Roman Emperors Fought

A few Roman Emperors even got in on the action and fought amongst the gladiators. Caligula and Titus are just two of the known Emperors to enjoy a bit of gladiator fighting. Historians argue that these were likely highly styled, and the opposing gladiators would have more than certainly allowed the Emperor to easily win and win unwounded. Insane Emperor Commodus even shot down panthers and bears from the comfort of a protected platform and forced members of the crowd to fight him - who he almost certainly would have killed. 

9. They Were the Celebs of their Day

Gladiators were major celebrities of their day. Triumphant gladiators would appear on paintings, walls and sculptures. Women were particular fans, and saw them as sex symbols. Gladiator blood was believed to have magical powers and some women dipped it into their hair pins. Gladiator sweat was even mixed into perfume - believed to be an aphrodisiac.