Coliseum; amphitheatre

  • Invented architecture primarily for these combats
  • Amphi- going all the way around; the theatre in the round
  • Coliseum- colossal
  • Performance space with people sitting all around is a Roman invention
  • Arena= sand (that’s what you needed to soak up the blood)
  • 45m x 20m (performance space)
  • 200x 150m
  • 9 storeys tall
  • Equipped with actual retractable roofs (rolled down curtains)- took a team of a thousand sailors  (each strip was a different colour)- first retractable roof
  • Coliseum could sit 45,000 people

o   Incredibly easy to get in and out- can evacuate within 5 minutes- so many exits

o   Senators didn’t trust large groups of people so when they built things they wanted to be able to get people out of there- get in and get out (didn’t want them trapped together for any amount of time)

  • No one ever paid to go in; you got a token and it had printed on it your section, row, seat number and then you would find it and at the end of the show you had to dump your token
  • Trick was finding someone well connected to get you a token
  • Trickles down to the masses- I give my friend some, he gives his clients some etc
  • At the top it used to be standing seats but wooden seats were put in (the rest was marble)
  • Seating wasn’t according to how much you paid, but your rank in society
  • Senators up front, then the aristocrats, lower classes, women and female slaves, and then later it became mixed up there (bottom top- top seats were the worst)
  • Seating was hierarchical
  • Nets at the front to protect them from animals
  • Underneath had an underground tunnels throughout the entire structure


  • Passageways, cells for holding gladiators, scenery
  • Main corridor that runs along the main axis and it runs outside (hypogeum)- connected to the training ground where the gladiators worked out and lived
  • On the day of the performance, no one would see them- travel underground through the hypogeum
  • Trapdoors
  • Cranks to open the doors
  • Engineering cranks that could lift up a catapult

Editor: pays for everything; rents the armour, gladiator, pays for the animals; it was a competition with other aristocrats to have this opportunity; you were competing against the guy who ran the last games as well as against others who wanted to host the games
Games were funded by wealthy people and then eventually the emperor

Advertising: bring back animals from wars; the evening before the gladiatorial combat kicks off, you have a banquet for the gladiators so everyone can go and see them

  • People observed them
  • Gladiators and the editor
  • Morning: hunts- wild animals; animal tricks (as a way of mastering these animals- humans are superior)- tie foxes tails together and set them on fire, hunt rabbits, deer, majority of animals hunted were not elephants or tigers but herbivores
  • Noon: executions
  • Afternoon: munera (games) Funeral or funeral duties; last rites
  • Originally started to honour a relative that passed away; pair up slaves to fight to the death to honour the dead man (blood was meant to ease his passage into the next world)

Wild beast events and hunts

  • animal displays and tricks
  • people would be on foot or horseback
  • want to see the skill
  • humans are in control dominating nature
  • can’t trust mosaics (exotic animals- not normally)- you are going to put the most exotic animal on your mosaics- they are over represented, actually rare
  • deer are the most commonly used
  • ever grander combats- Pompey in 55 BC he had 20 elephants, 600 lions, 410 leopards, apes, and the first rhino
  • Augustus 420 leopards, dozens of lions, bears etc- GREATER than Pompey (9,000 animals)

Retributive vs. Reformative Justice

  • Maximum pain and maximum humiliation
  • Reason you have justice is to get retribution; you have to put them in their place; everyone has to see it happen (like the stocks)
  • The demands of justice must be satisfied
  • ad ludos (fight as a gladiator) ad bestias (eaten alive by the beasts), ad flammas (burned alive)
  • torture/ crucifixion- in full viewed; mixed and matched (crucified and burned)
  • crimes are murder, arsonists (fire was so terrifying), traitors, runaway slaves, robbers of temples (offend the god, you threaten all of Rome), dissident political religious groups (Christians)- groups that threatened the Roman order
  • counterfeiters were punished almost as badly (ruin economic framework)
  • crucifixion along the roadside (thirty or so lined up along the road)
  • people who couldn’t look at this then you shouldn’t be Roman
  • To the Beasts: ride on the back of an animal and then ripped apart
  • Christians: executed- crucified, animals; dangerous group to the Romans

Gladiatorial origins

  • Etruscan tomb Paintings: 370-340 BC

o   Looks like gladiators fighting

o   Rome got the idea from the Etruscans

  • In Rome: 264 BC: 3 pairs of slaves (6 slaves) had a combat for a funeral
  • By the year 183 there are 30 pairs of slaves

Gladiatorial Schools; Familia Gladiatoria

  • Increasing demand for gladiators- you go to see the skilful fighting; you don’t want clumsy fighters- enjoyed skill
  • Ends in death 20% of the time
  • Looked on it as an art form like we look at race cars as an art form (test the limits)
  • Recruited:

o   POWs: best

o   Criminals: would be forced to if his crime was horrendous enough

o   Slaves: proper physique

o   Free men: there was so much money to be made; if you let me keep the prize money, I’m willing to fight

  • Can retire, become managers themselves and train others
  • Family in the ancient sense of an extended group of people linked together (training ground, people, staff, manager)

Ludus Magnus: Big Training Ground; attached to the Coliseum by the underground tunnel

  • Categories- train for months before their first battle in a certain area (other gladiators, animals etc)
  • Training:

o   Quality of Life better than most Romans because you don’t want them to die

o   Free gladiators could leave, they have families but the others were locked up

o   Could buy their freedom if they win a certain number of fights

o   Criminal could earn his way out of his death sentence- like salvation for them


  • Crouch behind your shield, jab around the side or up top
  • Went on for 20-25 minutes
  • Short sword with a point at the end
  • Didn’t have big meat cleavers
  • Like fencing except they had lots of protection, shield, helmets
  • Won’t die by chance
  • Real science- certain way to kill someone- have to get past armour, feinting, etc.

12-13 pairs of gladiators per day during a five-day ludi

  • 5 days
  • 60 pairs
  • Always one on one- to do otherwise would change the nature of the combat
  • Travesty to have more than that

Pompa: Parade and Music

  • Procession with statues, editor at the end, went all the way around the arena
  • Musicians
  • Gladiators
  • Placards: records of the gladiators
  • Palm branches: symbol of victory
  • Editor
  • Horses
  • Statues of the gods

Prolusio (opening bout) and then the matches

  • Fight between two long time, probably retired, gladiators fighting with wooden swords so they can show off their craft; outrageous sword work
  • Never just threw together two gladiators- certain categories- wanted to see certain tactics vs. other tactics.

Referees: 2

  • Supervised; often intercede
  • At any point the gladiator could stop; wasn’t a fight to the death
  • Can give up when ever and the match is over
  • Sticks to hit the other guy if he doesn’t listen
  • Fought until one person had had enough
  • If the sand was getting messy, regrain the sand, could give them breaks (water, treatment)- had powers to make sure the fight was what the people wanted to see
  • Could even say it’s a draw- fought a really long time

Stoppage; Surrender

  • Symbol to give up was to raise your index finger
  • At any point you can surrender
  • Thumbs up= loser killed
  • Thumbs down=missio (let go, released)
  • Didn’t have to end in death
  • Emperors made a law that they could insist that it would be a fight to the death

o   Became increasingly rare

o   Needed emperor’s permission

  • If one of the gladiators die, the editor has to pay extra to the manager because he’s renting the gladiators from him
  • Weapons were always inspected to see if they were sharp
  • Gladiators were not out to kill one another- they went to school together, trained together
  • Worked together to put on a good show; work out certain moves together to make the crowd happy


  • palm branch: symbol of victory
  • laurel wreath
  • Money: keep money to buy your way out of slavery (8-10 successful matches; 2 matches per year)
  • Rudis: if you fought exceptionally well, they could vote that he be given a rudis (a wooden sword which is a symbol for freedom); same sword you started out with during your training
  • Editor had to approve it because he had to pay

Mortality Rates

  • 1st C AD: 19 out of 200 gladiators due to injuries suffered in the arena
  • 3rd C AD: 100 out of 200: ceases to be an art; half the time one of them dies
  • Most gladiators: 18-25 years old; slave- bought when you were 15, trained, and had a career lasting roughly 7 years
  • Fought at least twice per year
  • You stood a very high risk of dying in your first matches; novices often die
  • By your third or fourth match you get more skilled, more experience, crowd knows you (track statistics), less likely audience is going to boo you; developed a fondness for you
  • Overemphasize the danger to please the audience

Gladiators as sexual objects: women would follow these gladiators

  • Graffiti at Pompeii: so and so is the heartthrob; “nets girls by night”
  • Gladius: short sword which was a slang for penis

Armor & Equipment

  • Loincloth: piece of linen around your waist
  • Belt
  • Leather and linen: padding on different parts of the body
  • Manica: Arm Protectors: big piece of metal to cover your arm
  • Greaves: Leg Protectors: same thing as manica but for your legs; shins, over your knees and part of your thighs
  • Armour and equipment differs slightly for every competitors
  • Helmets: big, somewhat clumsy, very heavy; too thick; no soldier would use this; it masks the face of the gladiator so you see him as the “pursuer”- less personal, more sinister
  • Bare Chests: it’s exciting but when your head, arms, and legs are well protected it’s easy to draw blood across the chest; chance of a wound is less
  • Gladius: short, little, 18 inches long; designed to strike; like a switchblade; plunge in and pull out; reduce opponent to submitting rather than dying

Gladiatorial categories

Equites: (horsemen): would ride in on horseback

  • Always fought each other; equites vs. equites
  • colorful tunic
  • no greaves: just wraps
  • Manica: always on your sword arm
  • helmet w/ 2 feathers
  • round shield/ spear


  • Opponents: Thraex, hoplomachus: always fights against a Thracian or a  hoplite
  • You become a master at that particular kind of fight
  • Biggest shield
  • Tall oblong shield (scutum); gladius
  • Manica/ greaves: full armour
  • Weight of armor: 16-18 kg (40 pounds)
  • ‘fish’ on helmet
  • Offensive weapon is just that sword but he is heavily protected

Thraex (Thracian)

  • leg wrappings
  • high greaves: compensates for his short shield
  • helmet w/ griffin on top
  • small shield: square
  • gladius
  • spear- this is his advantage
  • Griffin: animal associated with the goddess Nemesis: just deserves


  • Very similar to the Thracian
  • small round shield
  • Spear
  • Gladius
  • No griffin on helmet; crested (looks a lot like the Marmillo)

Retiarius: ‘net-fighter’

  • Popular
  • No helmet, greaves, or shield
  • Manica with metal guard; net and trident; dagger
  • 7-8 kg weight: quicker, can move around
  • Opponent: secutor: gives us our word “prosecutor”- the pursuer; bob, weave, move, hunt him down; only ever fights against the retiarius
  • Weighted Net: 3 m in diameter: weighted lead pieces on the end

Secutor: “The Pursuer”

  • Opponent: retiarius
  • Equipped like a murmillo, but with a completely closed helmet
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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