The image of the gladiator is one that continually sparks the imagination, but does it match history’s real-life warrior?
Are You Not Entertained?
Fictional movies, books, legends, and TV shows depict towering swordsmen in a blood-crazed amphitheater. Most narratives portray them as renegade slaves, or captured individuals fighting for their lives against beasts and foes.
While it’s true that Roman victories sent prisoners to battle in arenas such as the Coliseum, not all combatants fought against their will.
Free men seeking fame and riches would voluntarily enlist to become gladiators. The risk was great, but the glory was greater. Prize money, adoration, and a robust love life were enough temptation to prove their fighting prowess in deadly circumstances.
Even members of the nobility couldn’t resist tempting fate, and became freelance warriors for the thrill of adoration from a baying crowd.
On Screen vs Behind the Scene
The statistics of ancient gladiators differ from those of their modern acting counterparts.
While the performers cast for these roles boast rippling abs and bulging pectorals, antiquity’s OGs (original gladiators-couldn’t resist) sported a rich layer of fat across their bodies.
This added weight was cultivated as an extra level of protection against minor injury. To this end, gladiators would eat diets rich in vegetables and carbohydrates. Sometimes, they’d even drink tonics of ash and vinegar as they believed it gave them extra energy.
While modern day provides a different selection of sports drinks, gladiators followed a strict diet to ensure their value as entertainers and assets.
The extra padding was also important because full armor wasn’t provided for their skirmishes.
The Talls and the Smalls
Height in the ancient world also differed from height standards today.
Gauged from bodily remains discovered in the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, men were considered tall at about 5’5”.
That means that the average gladiator could have resembled Danny Devito instead of Russell Crowe.
Although their stature was shorter than that of contemporary times, they still struck striking figures in the eyes of their spectators.
Till Death Do Us Part
Gladiatore loyalty also extended beyond the grave.
Some of the warriors organized themselves into groups similar to trade unions. When a member died, his brothers in arms organized his funeral. They would even pool together resources to compensate any family that their comrade left behind.
Man! I Feel Like A Woman!
Not all gladiators were male. Even women fought in the arena, and by the 1st century AD they were a common sight.
Unfortunately, female gladiators were sometimes ridiculed in the patriarchal world of ancient Rome, and the emperor Septimius Severus banned them in 200 AD.
However, legends still exist today of famous battles between women . Reliefs from the 2nd century AD feature Achillia and Amazon, whose fight was so epic that a victor couldn’t be decided; it ended in an honorable and just draw.
Learn More About Gladiators
Whether enslaved against their choice, celebrated for their skill, or some of the fiercest women history has ever seen, gladiators represent rich, tragic and epic, tales.
Luckily, the story doesn’t end here. Discover more about these legendary warriors and the world they lived in by exploring Joy of Rome’s series of ‘Ancient Rome’ tours.