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What is a Gladiator?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gladiators were professional fighters in Ancient Rome who participated in organized fights for the purpose of public entertainment. These fights were typically staged in large arenas with a huge audience, and in the modern sense, people sometimes use the term “gladiator” to describe someone who fights tenaciously and overwhelmingly for something in front of an audience. Thanks to a number of popular films featuring gladiators, there is some public interest in this ancient practice, along with a number of misconceptions about gladiators.

A gladiator in Rome could come from a number of sources. Many were slaves, convicted criminals, or prisoners of war, all of whom were purchased by people who specialized in training and managing gladiators. Others were freed men who fought as professionals, and in some cases, someone would sell himself or herself to a lanista, or manager of gladiators, out of a lack of alternatives. And yes, there were indeed female gladiators, although they existed in smaller numbers than men.

The day of a schedule gladiator fight was a big event. Typically the audience would be entertained in the arena first with animal fights and public executions, before the main event, in which two highly trained fighters would go up against each other or confront exotic animals with an assortment of weapons. Although the nature of gladiatorial combat was vicious, death was actually comparatively rare; gladiators were too expensive to train and maintain for them to be thrown away on the ring. Only when a gladiator showed cowardice or poor form would death be recommend.

Historical evidence suggests that the earliest gladiator fights occurred around the third century BCE, and the origins of these fights is somewhat unclear. By the second century, gladiator matches had become a major event in Rome and beyond, with a variety of exotic events accompanying the main fight to keep the audience interested. By the fourth century CE, the gladiator had largely vanished from Roman culture.

The position of the gladiator in Roman society was rather interesting. While Romans looked down on gladiators as slaves, they were also respected as talented and skilled fighters. Gladiators were paid for their fights, and some eventually bought their way to freedom. Many gladiators became celebrities, and worked as bodyguards after their term in the arena was over. Roman women in particular seemed to adulate gladiators, despite social taboos.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon334920 — On May 16, 2013

Just watch the movie and you will get the basic idea.

By Leonidas226 — On Jan 23, 2011


Strange to see how hollywood has distorted history and makes heroes out to be utterly invincible godlike figures who simply defy all statistics and dangers.

By SilentBlue — On Jan 21, 2011

The so-called "heroes" who withstood so many enemies and bought their freedom were often simply good at avoiding the heat of the battle, and also had a good dose of luck. The Romans found it honorable to not merely charge fearlessly into battle and overwhelm the enemy, but also to use tact and cunning to make a strong blow from behind and fell your enemy. This is what won the smart gladiators respect and freedom.

By JavaGhoul — On Jan 20, 2011

I recall being beaten up as a young child in kindergarten, while all the onlookers cheered on the bully who pummeled me. I can imagine how much worse it would be to meet your death at the hands of your adversary while crowds of Romans looked on with delight. Sounds hellish.

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 19, 2011

The Romans were renowned for their voracious appetite for blood, gore, and orgies. They were above and beyond our standards of permissible societal fringe elements, although we seem to be slowly drifting their way in terms of ethics. Even Christian people in the later Roman Empire struggled with strong temptations to go watch a gladiatorial show and exult in the violent death of criminals, alongside crowds of romping onlookers. The spectacle would have been a strong form of adrenaline overdose and exhilarating family fun.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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