The Real Lives of Roman Gladiators

The Real Lives of Roman Gladiators

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Roman gladiators are some of the most iconic characters in history and have defined how we think of entertainment in ancient Rome. Their portrayal in films and stories has turned them into archetypal legends – facing death on a daily basis is certainly not something to be taken lightly! The Roman gladiators’ tales are incomparable to anything we see or do today, making them fascinating and yet incomprehensible.

Origins of the Gladiator Games

We tend to associate gladiators with blood, gore and brutality , but is that the real history behind these characters? We wanted to explore more to learn what ‘being a gladiator’ was really like.

The term gladiator is derived from the Latin gladiatores, in reference to their weapon the gladius – the short sword. Many historians believe the tradition of gladiator fighting dates back to the Etruscans, who hosted the contests as part of their religious rites of death. However, it’s been argued that the contests were also used to commemorate the deaths of distinguished aristocrats and wealthy nobles, forcing condemned prisoners to fight. The gladiators’ combat and bravery were said to represent the virtues of those who had died.

Roman gladiators fighting. ( Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock)

Roman Gladiators were both Slaves and Free Men

The tradition of gladiator fighting lasted for over 650 years – a proof of its popularity! Present throughout the Roman Empire, it was a fixture in the Roman entertainment calendar from 105 BC to 404 AD and the games remained largely unaltered bar a few small rule changes. Early on, most gladiators were condemned prisoners and slaves, who were sacrificed by their Emperors.

Later, when the Coliseum opened in 80 AD, being a gladiator proved a lucrative career move and thanks to this change, gladiator schools were set up to train volunteer fighters. The schools enticed free men with the hope of winning a stake of the prize money , and ultimately, glory. These new fighters included retired soldiers, warriors, and men desperate to make a living. Some were even knights and nobles who wanted to prove their pedigree and show off their fighting skills.

The Colosseum in Rome. Source: BigStockPhotos

Gladiators had their Own Training Schools

Rome had three notable training schools , including Capua, which was known for the caliber of gladiators it produced. Agents would scout for potential gladiators to try and persuade them to come and fight for their honor. These gladiator schools offered both safety and incarceration.

Comparable to a prison regime, they offered the comfort and security of three hearty meals a day and the best possible medical attention. However, the recruits, who were free men, had to live in shackles and were not allowed to speak at mealtimes.

They were allowed to keep any rewards and money if they won a fight. Their diet consisted of protein and carbohydrates, like barley porridge and cereals – with no option of wine, only water. Although the gladiators were fighting fit, most of them were a little on the round side. Extra ‘padding’ around the midsection was desirable, as it offered some protection against superficial sword wounds.

This mosaic depicts some of the entertainments that would have been offered at the games. Tripoli, Libya, first century.

The Lifespan of a Roman Gladiator

Gladiators were an expensive investment for those who ran the gladiator schools, so it was preferable that the fighters did not die on the field – meaning they had to be strong enough to last more than one fight. Contrary to popular belief, not many gladiators actually fought to the death. Some historians say one in five died in battle, others one in ten, yet most only lived to their mid-twenties anyway – shocking when compared to today’s average!

However, it was also commonplace at fights held at the Coliseum for the Emperor to have the final say as to whether the combatants lived or died – often invoking the opinions of the audience to help decide the matter. So whether you fought well or not, your fate could lie ultimately in the hands of your ruler.

Female Gladiators also Existed

When we think of ancient Roman gladiators we tend to stereotype and think of men – warriors or slaves. But interestingly female slaves were also forced into the pit to fight alongside their male counterparts, or as Emperor Domitian preferred, to pit them against dwarves for his particular entertainment. Women fought in gladiator fights for 200 years, until Emperor Septimius Severus banned their participation from these bloodthirsty games.

Relief of two female gladiators (gladiatrices) found at Halicarnassus.

Gladiator Weapons were Not ‘One Size Fits All’

The brave, strong Roman gladiators not only had their strength to bring into the pit but also their swords. The type of armor and weapons they fought with depended on their social ranking as a gladiator. There were four main classes of gladiator: the Samnite, Thracian, Myrmillo, and Retiarius.

The Samnites were equipped with a short sword (gladius), rectangular shield (scutum), greaves (ocrea), and a helmet . The Thracians fought with a curved short sword (sica) and a very small square or round shield (parma). The Myrmillo gladiators were nicknamed ‘fishmen’ as they wore a fish-shaped crest on their helmets and also carried a short sword and shield, like the Samnites, but their armor consisted only of padding on arm and leg. Finally, the Retiarius were the most exposed of all, with no helmet or armor other than a padded shoulder piece, and whose defense included a weighted net used to entangle the opponent, and a trident.

  • Gladiator Helmets: Fit for Purpose, Not Just Protection
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A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident in this mosaic from the villa at Nennig, Germany, c. 2nd–3rd century AD.

The End of the Gladiator Games

Although Roman gladiators may have seemed well-equipped, the strength and courage it must have taken to step into battle and face death on a regular occurrence is unfathomable. We can be grateful that this brutal form of entertainment came to an end in 404 AD, thanks to the Emperor Honorius who closed down the gladiator schools. Who knows when this diversion might have ended had he not stepped in?

Learning that the majority of gladiators weren’t actually slaves, but free men who had volunteered for a slice of glory and winnings, makes gladiator fighting seem all the more bizarre and barbaric. Why choose a blood battle over traditional forms of trade and commerce?

However, it didn’t stop those who survived being venerated as heroes and legends of their time. But in the context of the 21st century, it’s safe to say that this is one sporting event we’re glad hasn’t come around again!

The Truth About Female Gladiators In Ancient Rome

Gladiators are a pretty famous part of ancient Rome nowadays, thanks to a series of exciting features, documentaries, and at least one or two Hollywood blockbusters following the exploits of these ancient sports heroes. Surely, it's easy enough to imagine one right now. You're probably thinking of a brawny, muscular man, perhaps wearing a helmet and wielding a sword as he faces off against his opponent in the ring. A potentate watches from the ancient Roman equivalent of a box seat, while the rest of the crowd clamors all around the gladiators. Perhaps there's a dramatic defeat, wherein everyone waits with bated breath as the game's sponsor decides whether or not the downed gladiator should be allowed to live.

Now, there's quite a lot about this scene that's historically accurate, from the eager crowd to the one-on-one gladiatorial matches that entertained them. Yet, there are some significant changes that can still be made in the interest of historical accuracy. For starters, let's take that hyper masculine brawler out of the picture and replace him with a woman.

Yes, a woman. As it turns out, female gladiators were a documented thing in ancient Rome. While they may not have been as ubiquitous as their male counterparts, female gladiators clearly made an impression on Romans, from awed spectators to panicked conservative commentators. In the millennia between them and us, however, plenty of myths have arisen. Here's the truth about female gladiators in ancient Rome and beyond.

10 Through A Special Gate

Gladiators fought their battles inside the arenas. They often fought in pairs, and other times, it was simply man against man. Sometimes, the fight carried on until someone tapped out and begged for mercy. When this happened, the crowd and the head of the show, called the editor, would decide whether the gladiator deserved mercy or should submit to the blade of his opponent.

When a gladiator won an event, he did so to the cheers and jeers of the crowd. He would then be paid for his bravery while standing inside the arena so that the crowd could see his earnings.

A gladiator who was slain in the arena was placed on a stretcher and carried out through a special gate. The exit Romans used to carry out the dead was called the Porta Libitinensis. Porta meant &ldquogate,&rdquo and Libitinensis referred to the burial goddess, Libitina. [1]

After passing through the gate, the body was taken to a room, where it was stripped of all its armor.

Rules and regulations

Mosaic of fighting gladiators © Regardless of their status, gladiators might command an extensive following, as shown by graffiti in Pompeii, where walls are marked with comments such as Celadus, suspirium puellarum ('Celadus makes the girls swoon').

Indeed, apart from the tombstones of the gladiators, the informal cartoons with accompanying headings, scratched on plastered walls and giving a tally of individual gladiators' records, are the most detailed sources that modern historians have for the careers of these ancient fighters.

The minutiae of the rules governing gladiatorial combat are lost to modern historians .

Sometimes these graffiti even form a sequence. One instance records the spectacular start to the career of a certain Marcus Attilius (evidently, from his name, a free-born volunteer). As a mere rookie (tiro) he defeated an old hand, Hilarus, from the troupe owned by the emperor Nero, even though Hilarus had won the special distinction of a wreath no fewer than 13 times.

Attilius then capped this stunning initial engagement (for which he himself won a wreath) by going on to defeat a fellow-volunteer, Lucius Raecius Felix, who had 12 wreaths to his name. Both Hilarus and Raecius must have fought admirably against Attilius, since each of them was granted a reprieve (missio).

It was the prerogative of the sponsor, acting upon the wishes of the spectators, to decide whether to reprieve the defeated gladiator or consign him to the victor to be polished off. Mosaics from around the Roman empire depict the critical moment when the victor is standing over his floored opponent, poised to inflict the fatal blow, his hand stayed (at least temporarily) by the umpire.

The figure of the umpire is frequently depicted in the background of an engagement, sometimes accompanied by an assistant. The minutiae of the rules governing gladiatorial combat are lost to modern historians, but the presence of these arbiters suggests that the regulations were complex, and their enforcement potentially contentious.

A Brief History of Gladiatorial Combat

The first recorded gladiator games were organized by two Etruscan sons in 264 BC to commemorate the death of their father. However, the first ‘official&rsquo games didn&rsquot begin until 105 BC. Gladiatorial combat was a way for the aristocracy (and later, Emperors) to display their wealth, celebrate military victories and birthdays, mark visits from prominent officials, or to distract the people from the various social and economic problems they faced.

Emperor Vespasian ordered the construction of the Colosseum in Rome which began in 72 AD, but he died before its completion. Titus opened the Colosseum in 80 AD with a spectacular 100-day festival of gladiator games. Construction was finally completed in around 96 AD during the reign of Domitian, and events regularly attracted crowds of up to 50,000 people. Notably, women were allowed compete until Septimius Severus banned them in 200 AD. Honorius outlawed the games in 404 AD, some five years after closing gladiator schools. Apparently, the final straw came when a monk, who jumped between two fighters in combat, was stoned to death by the outraged crowd.

Inside the Colosseum. Get Your Guide

Leg coverings and a shield for protection

Thraex fighters wore long metal coverings on both legs because they were only equipped with a small shield. The Murmillo, meanwhile, had a long shield and only a short leg covering. The "ocrea," the official name of this leg protection, were made of metal and attached to the shin with straps. They were usually decorated elaborately, like this "ocrea" from Pompeii (pictured).

A new exhibition examines the lives of ancient Roman gladiators

Spartacus Was a Real Gladiator and the Baddest Rebel Leader in Rome

While Roman leaders cavorted and gulped wine, impoverished commoners seethed with resentment and rage. Then, one man became a symbol of an uprising against political corruption and moral callousness, and to this very day he's regarded as a hero.

Spartacus, a Thracian man, wasn't born to wealth or power. Instead, he was considered part of the dregs of society. Born in roughly 109 B.C.E., his life's mostly a mystery to history until he became a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire.

But we do know that he was sent to a gladiator school in Capua where he was trained to fight others with various weapons, as entertainment for massive crowds in arenas. Discipline in these schools was harsh.

"Gladiators were a longstanding tradition in Rome, one that was originally related to funerals. Fundamentally though, gladiators were slaves, and generally they were considered the lowest of the low, the most worthless and useless of slaves," says Aaron Irvin, a history professor at Murray State University in Kentucky. Irvin is a well-regarded historian who's also consulted on many TV series, including "Spartacus" (2010), "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" (2011), and "Roman Empire" (2016).

"A slave was made a gladiator as a last resort, because the owner saw no other feasible way of making money off of the slave, so he might as well make the slave's death entertaining," he says in an email interview.

Not all gladiator fights were to the death, notes Irvin. Some ended when a fighter drew first blood or drove his opponent into submission. But in an age where basic hygiene like handwashing was rare and antibiotics didn't exist, even superficial wounds could prove fatal for one or both fighters. And many fights only ended when one gladiator had killed another.

A few fortunate gladiators found fame through bloodshed. They won fight after fight, making names for themselves and becoming something akin to Roman rock stars. They had slaves to look after them and in very rare cases became the most popular figures in their cities.

"Gladiator helmets were crafted to specifically hide the face of the gladiators, making the fighters recognizable in their gear, but otherwise faceless automata to the crowd," says Irvin. "No longer debased slaves, the gladiators became something extraordinary, something beyond mere humans."

Escape from Brutality

However, the vast numbers of gladiators faced short, desperate lives. That's why Spartacus and 70 other gladiators made a daring escape from a gladiator school in 73 B.C.E. Then, they hijacked a caravan carrying a load of gladiator weapons and armor – and suddenly, they were the equivalent of a heavily armed gang, with Spartacus as their initial leader.

The men continued to train themselves for combat at a location on Mount Vesuvius, occasionally raiding the countryside below. Eventually, Spartacus and his men caught the attention of Rome.

A praetor (a high-ranking government official) by the name of Claudius Glaber was sent to put down Spartacus, says Irvin. "Glaber perhaps brought a small force of professional soldiers, but relied primarily on a local militia, and was soundly defeated by Spartacus and the escaped gladiators."

This victory proved monumental in Roman – and human – history. Before that, slaves in Rome felt so hopeless in their lives that they rarely tried to escape. There was nowhere to escape to, Irvin points out, no equivalent of the northern states during the U.S.'s slavery period. People were so resigned to their sorry fates that they didn't even require supervision.

But Spartacus and his men provided the spark of hope that became a wildfire of armed rage. "When Spartacus beat a Roman praetor though, all of a sudden there was another option there was a group you could flee to that had managed to not just stand against Rome, but had actually managed to defeat a Roman officer on the battlefield," he says.

Other slaves – and prisoners of war – ran away to join the uprising. Both men and women, of very different backgrounds, saw Spartacus as a way to fight back against their oppressors. Although records from the time are unreliable, they may have swelled the rebel army's ranks to tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Spartacus won at least three more military engagements. As gladiators, these men had nothing to lose, so they fought with little fear. Some probably believed that ultimately, they must bring down the pillars of Roman political power or risk being captured and forced back into bondage. That's exactly why Rome's leaders knew they needed to find a way to kill Spartacus once and for all.

Spartacus' Last Stand

"It wasn't so much that Spartacus rallied these men and women to his 'cause,' or that he even saw himself as leading a cause in the first place," says Irvin. "If anything, it tells us how desperate and how awful things were in Italy in the period, where someone, anyone, even a lowly gladiator, could attract such a massive following after the slightest victory against Rome."

He says that it also helped that Spartacus kept winning, defeating a number of praetors sent against him. The rebel leader even triumphed over armies of the Roman consuls, the heads of the entire Roman government, and commanders-in-chief of the armies.

But how did a lowly slave uprising gain so much momentum, so quickly?

"What the Roman elite didn't anticipate was the existing anger and resentment among the people of Italy that would attach itself to Spartacus' band," explains Irvin.

They also didn't understand that their slim grasp on power relied almost totally on the perception of Roman military might. One chink in that mental armor – a few Spartacus victories – and the revolt became real.

Rome was rattled. Its veteran armies were deployed elsewhere, and the city had only a ragtag force left to oppose any attackers.

So frightening had Spartacus become that, eventually no leaders could be found to take the reins of a force against him. Finally, a wealthy praetor named Marcus Crassus agreed to finance and lead an army against the rebels. A vicious general, he led his men with a sense of brutality, randomly killing soldiers in his units that ran from battle.

He pursued Spartacus across Italy, slowly but surely weakening the gladiators and their legions. Infighting amongst the rebels weakened their resolve and their ability to fight as one.

In 71 B.C.E., at a final battle, Spartacus and his men made a desperate lunge toward Crassus himself, hoping that perhaps Crassus's death might save the rebellion. However, Spartacus was cut down and the rebel army was crushed. Some 6,000 survivors were hunted down and crucified as a warning to other would-be rebels. But Spartacus' body was never found.

Still his death and those of his allies weren't in vain, says Irvin. "In the immediate aftermath of the war against Spartacus, Crassus and Pompey, the two generals who had brought an end to Spartacus' army, passed a number of reforms that strengthened the voice of the Roman people in the government, and forced the elite to pay closer attention to the desires and circumstances of Rome's lower classes."

He adds that you could make the argument that these reforms came about precisely because of Spartacus' revolt, which violently drew attention to the desperate plight of the lower classes in Rome and Italy.

"These same reforms also paved the way for a new populist politician by the name of Julius Caesar, who would combine his own popularity with military success some 25 years later to bring down the entirety of the Roman Republic."

Spartacus' contemporaries had a mixed view of him, says Irvin. Some admired his bravery and military tactics others feared he could have started the collapse of civilized society. And now?

"Ultimately Spartacus means to us today largely what he meant in his own period: a cry of rage and anger and frustration at an unfair, uncaring, unfeeling world a people who have finally reached a breaking point, and will follow someone, anyone, who will give them a chance," he says.

When Spartacus escaped from gladiator school, he took along his wife, whose name is not known. We do know she was also from Thrace (an area in Europe that is now mostly Bulgaria) and that she was a prophetess "who was possessed by ecstatic frenzies that were part of the worship of the god Dionysus," according to the second-century historian Plutarch – who's responsible for much of what we know about Spartacus.

Gladiator School Discovery Reveals Hard Lives of Ancient Warriors

Archaeologists have mapped an ancient gladiator school, where the famed warriors lived, trained, and fought.

Ancient Rome's gladiators lived and trained in fortress prisons, according to an international team of archaeologists who mapped a school for the famed fighters.

Discovered at the site of Carnuntum outside Vienna, Austria, the gladiatorial school, or ludus gladiatorius, is the first one discovered outside the city of Rome. Now hidden beneath a pasture, the gladiator school was entirely mapped with noninvasive earth-sensing technologies. (See "Gladiator Training Camp.")

The discovery, reported Tuesday evening by the journal Antiquity, makes clear what sort of lives these famous ancient warriors led during the second century A.D. in the Roman Empire.

"It was a prison they were prisoners," says Wolfgang Neubauer, an archaeologist at Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology who led the study team. "They lived in cells, in a fortress with only one gate out."

The discovery shows that even outside Rome gladiators were "big business," Neubauer says. At least 80 gladiators, likely more, lived in the large, two-story facility equipped with a practice arena in its central courtyard. The site also included heated floors for winter training, baths, infirmaries, plumbing, and a nearby graveyard.

The gladiators were clearly valued slaves, Neubauer says, kept apart and separate from the town of Carnuntum, which was founded on the Danube River by the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 124 and later became a Roman stronghold.

"The find at Carnuntum gives us a vivid impression of what it was like to live and train as a gladiator on the chilly northern border of the Roman Empire," says gladiator expert Kathleen Coleman of Harvard, who was not part of the study team.

Although more than 100 gladiator schools were built throughout the Roman Empire, the only known remnants are in Rome, Carnuntum, and Pompeii (which had small, private gladiatorial grounds). Within the 118,400-square-foot (11,000-square-meter) walled compound at the Austrian site, gladiators trained year-round for combat at a nearby public amphitheater.

"They weren't killed very often, they were too valuable," Neubauer says. "Lots of other people were likely killed at the amphitheater, people not trained to fight. And there was lots of bloodshed. But the combat between gladiators was the point of them performing, not them killing each other."

The gladiators slept in 32-square-foot (3-square-meter) cells, home to one or two people. Those cells were kept separate from a wing holding bigger rooms for their trainers, known as magistri, themselves retired survivors of gladiatorial combat who specialized in teaching one style of weaponry and fighting.

"The similarities show that gladiators were housed and trained in the provinces in the same way as in the metropolis [of Rome]," Coleman says. The one gate exiting the compound faced a road leading to the town's public amphitheater, reportedly the fourth largest in the empire.

The fortress prison also undermines the image of gladiators as traveling from town to town in a circus-like setting, as seen in the movie Gladiator released in 2000. (Another film set in the ancient Roman era, Pompeii, is opening this week.)

"They weren't a team," Neubauer says. "Each one was on his own, training to fight, and learning who they would combat at a central post we can see the remains of in our survey."

Neubauer expects to continue aboveground mapping efforts at Carnuntum, which is proving to have been a surprisingly large town.

Analysis of bones from a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey, suggests that gladiators ate a largely vegetarian diet, Neubauer notes. The team hopes to eventually perform a similar analysis on bones from the gladiator graveyard in Carnuntum, in a further attempt to explore the real lives of these ancient warriors.

GLADIATOR: The Real Story

This site provides historical insight into the actual characters and events portrayed in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator. It discusses the film’s plot and ending, so if you have not seen the movie yet, you may want to come back later! I would not want to spoil it for you!


While it is obvious that an impressive amount of historical and scholarly research was undertaken by the filmmakers, much of the plot is fiction. The fiction does however, appear to be inspired by actual historical events, as will be shown in the appropriate sections below. In this sense, the film is perhaps best seen as a collage, or artistic representation of ancient history, rather than an accurate, chronological, reconstruction of events. While highly original in its own right, the film’s plot does curiously resemble the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire directed by Anthony Mann.

It appears that Scott attempts to present not just a reconstruction of empirical facts, but also to boldly present to us his vision of the culture of ancient Rome, the spirit of its time, and the psychological outlook characteristic of its period. In one word, zeitgeist, and for the psychology of the characters, their mentalite.

This area of the film, while imperfect, is still stronger than its actual historical accuracy. Fellini attempted in his own way to do somethi ng similarly in his 1969 masterpiece The Satyricon, based on the ancient work by Petronius Arbiter, exploring the psychology of ancient time, in addition to its history. Scott, while historiographically imperfect, due to this creative effort in characterization, is to a certain extent avoiding the anachronisms of psychology present in such films as Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Ben Hur, where the characters appear to think and act solely like modern personages, while wearing unsoiled ancient costumes.

▼ Woodburytype, Jean-Léon Gérôme in his Studio with Large Model of The Gladiators,(1877), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Clearly it would seem, director Scott, and screenwriter David Franzoni, believe that history, at least as they present it, is not a regurgitation of empirical data, but instead an attempt to understand the psychology and culture of its characters, however, the greater purpose of the film is simply to tell a good story. Nevertheless, the film does emphasize Maximus’s worship of his family and ancestors, his obsessive compulsion for virtue and duty, and the stoical elements ever present in his character, which seem to be learned and informed, on the part of those who created this character. The film is inspired by real events, but should, and can not, be taken as an accurate historical source for true events, many of which are known to be different, and with certainty.


Marcus Aurelius was, as well as emperor from 161 to 180 CE, a stoic philosopher. He really did wage battles along the fr ontier as depicted in the film, and is remembered by historians of his time as a competent ruler, whom they favour. His name in full was Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, and these are the titles to which he would have been referred, not the anachronistic “sire” and “my lord” as in the film.

His work The Meditations, although more a compilation of existing stoical thought than a work of great originality, remains a highly readable classic in philosophy.

▼ Title pages from The Emperor Marcus Antoninus : his conversation with himself (The Meditations), Marcus Aurelius, London: (1701), Duke University Libraries.

An interesting fact omitted in the film, was that his adoptive brother and husband to daughter Lucilla, Lucius Verus, was made co- emperor with Marcus. In the time of the Republic, Rome was not ruled by emperors, but rather by two consuls. These consuls, with equal power, were to guard against dictatorship. So, perhaps Marcus really did have Republican inclinations, as attested to in the film, or perhaps this was a Machiavellian maneuver undertaken in an attempt to avoid the fate of the perceived dictator Julius Caesar. This was the first time in history that the Roman Empire had two joint emperors of formally equal constitutional status and powers, although in reality, Marcus was clearly the ruler of Rome.

▼ Bronze bust of Lucius Verus, Roman, (Ca. 170 – 180 CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.


If the ancient sources can be trusted, Commodus was even more bizarre in real life than he was in the film.

Commodus, whose full name was Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, was proclaimed Caesar at age 5 and joint emperor (co-Augustus) at the age of 17, in 177 CE, by his father, Marcus Aurelius. Reality was very different than the film in this instance. Commodus was, as depicted in Gladiator, present with his father during the Danubian wars, and yes, this is where Marcus Aurelius died. As for the actual circumstances of his father’s death, see below.

Historians from the time of Commodus have not been kind to him. As aristocratic intellectuals, they were not amused by his crude antics. Hence, our present day historiography still reflects, rightly or wrongly, this ancient bias. His father, possessing the virtues seen as noble by the literate aristocracy, was, and often still is, regarded as a great man, while his son was hated by the Senate and ridiculed by historians. Yet it is said that the army and the lower classes loved him. Cassius Dio, a senator and historian who lived during the reign of both Commodus and his father wrote, in regards to the accession of Commodus, that “our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”

▼ Coin of Commodus Ca. 180 CE, Obverse: Laureate Bust of Commodus, facing right, COMMODVS ANT AVG TR P II, Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins.

Indeed, some historians even question his sanity. Commodus, in his own time, was accused of being a megalomaniac. He renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana, the “Colony of Commodus”, and renamed the months of the year after titles held in his honour, namely, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius. The Senate was renamed the Commodian Fortunate Senate, and the Roman people were given the name Commodianus.

Historian Aelius Lampridius tells us that “Commodus lived, rioting in the palace amid banquets and in baths along with 300 concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots… By his orders concubines were debauched before his own eyes, and he was not free from the disgrace of intimacy with young men, defiling every part of his body in dealings with persons of either sex.”

Commodus went so far as to declare himself the new founder of Rome, a “new Romulus”. In attempting to boast a new “Golden Age” of Rome, he was clearly emulating his father. But the effect was to make him the laughing stock of the aristocratic class.


Some sources suspect that he did. The fact that he was present at the time, made a hasty peace with the enemy, and a quick retreat back to Rome in a victory triumph, has fueled speculation. The official story is that Marcus Aurelius died of plague.


In this case, the truth is even stranger than the fiction. Commodus claimed to be descended from the God Hercules, and even began to dress like him, wearing lion skins and carrying a club.

The historian Herodian wrote that “in his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator.”

▼ Oil on Canvas, Pollice Verso, Jean-Léon Gérôme, (1872), Phoenix Art Museum.

He also fought wild beasts. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus killed five hippopotami at one time. He also killed two elephants, several rhinoceroses, and a giraffe “with the greatest of ease”. Herodian tells us further that Commodus had a special platform constructed which encircled the arena, from which he would display his skills as a hunter. He is recorded to have kil led one hundred leopards with one hundred javelins. As a theatrical treat, he would slice the heads off of ostriches with crescent-headed arrows, which would then run around the amphitheater headless.

Dio Cassius reveals that Senators were m ade to attend these spectacles, and that on one occasion Commodus killed an ostrich and displayed the severed head in one hand, his sword dripping with blood in the other, thus implying that he could treat them the same way.

▼ Ippolito Caffi (Italian, 1809 – 1866 ), Interior of the Colosseum, , watercolor and gouache over graphite on wove paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


However he was assassinated, and, by an athlete. There were numerous plots and attempts upon his life, but the one which finally succeeded was carried out by a wrestler named Narcissus, while Commodus was in his b ath. The plot was orchestrated by his closest advisors, and apparently even included his mistress, Marcia.

It occurred on the very last day of the year 192 CE, and indeed, exactly when the rest of Rome was preparing festivities for the New Year, 193 CE. However, it was feared and believed by insiders that Commodus planned to kill the consuls-elect, who by both tradition and jurisprudence were to begin their terms upon New Year’s Day, and be sworn in as consul himself, instead. This he reportedly was going to do even outfitted as a gladiator, in his lion skins, with appropriate weapons. This was the final outrage, according to our ancient sources, and thus, his fate was sealed.

▼ Terracotta lamp illustrating gladiators in combat, North Africa, (late 1st – early 2nd century CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Commodus ruled for 12 years, a much longer period than alluded to in the film. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus was “a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.”


The film is very wrong on this count. A republic is a system of government which does not have a hereditary monarch. An emperor is a monarch. The United States for instance is a republic, and England is not.

Rome was not founded as a republic, as was stated erroneously by a senator, who would have known better, as all educated Romans would hold this as basic knowledge, in the film. Legend has it that Rome was originally ruled by Etruscan kings. The first king was Romulus. The kings were overthrown in a revolution, which was sparked by the rape of Lucretia, in 509 BCE, by Sextus Tarquin, the son of the seventh and last king, Tarquinius Superbus.

Dictators and kings were thereafter despised by Romans, hence, the ideological adulation of a republican system of government, which was a central theme of Roman history, and thus correctly emphasized in the movie, and unlikely by accident, it should be noted.

After Commodus was murdered, the Senate met before daybreak, and declared sixty-six year old Pertinax, who was the son of a former slave, emperor. Pertinax thus became emperor on January 1st, but he was murdered by a group of soldiers the following March, after less than three months in power.

▼ Etching, Rome Ancienne, Jean Daullé, (1759), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.


Maximus Decimus Meridius (his full name is stated only once in the film) is a fictitious character!

Although he did not exist, he seems as if he could be be a composite of actual historical figures. In the film, Maximus was Marcus Aurelius’ general. There was in fact a general by the name of Avidius Cassius, who was involved in the military campaign shown in the film, and, upon hearing a rumor of Marcus Aurelius’ death, declared himself emperor. He however, was assassinated by his own soldiers. It is true that there was, in the later Empire, a General by the name of Maximus who appears to have had revolutionary intentions. He is most likely an inspiration as well.

Maximus also reminds one of the emperor Diocletian. Remember that in the film, Marcus Aurelius names Maximus as his heir. Diocletian, who ruled Rome from 284 to 305 CE, was born in the lower cl asses, like Maximus. He eventu ally became his emperor’s trusted favourite and bodyguard, and later became a general. Finally he was named heir, and thus became emperor.

▼ Marble Sculpture, Bust of Emperor Commodus, (Ca. 180 – 185 CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Commodus, in reality, was not murdered in the arena by Maximus. He was however murdered by a wrestler. So the character Maximus, whil e fictitious, is not that far-fetched. He appears credibly, as if he could perhaps be inspired by a collage of other, real, historical figures that have been researched, even if not one himself.

As for his personality, he was definitely a stoic, as evidenced by his sense of obligation to the state, and concern for duty and virtue. This makes sense, given his admiration for Marcus Aurelius, who was a stoic philosopher. One difficulty is, even though many Romans (and not just Christians) believed in an afterlife, stoics usually did not. So this is problematic pertaining to his mentalite in the film, as it is a glaring inconsistency with his other somewhat more correctly presented stoical beliefs .


The ideology which he represents is however, somewhat authentic. Senator Gracchus appears to be based upon Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. During the Republic, these two brothers, were, one after the other, plebeian tribunes (not senators). They were champions of the common people, and paid the cost with their lives.

Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people in 133 BCE, and fought for reforms of benefit to the plebeians. He was murdered by opponents. His brother Gaius was elected tribune of the people in 123 BCE, and attempted the continuation of popular reforms. He was also murdered. It is problematic that in the film Gracchus was a senator, in the sense that it was the senatorial class which opposed Gauis and Tiberius, and even participated in their murder.

The political infrastructure of ancient Rome evolved over time, and was actually more complex than portrayed in the film. Other important political entities, along with the Senate, were the Plebeian Tribunate, as well as the Comitia Centuriata. These, along with two Consuls who would rule jointly, are the basic Republican institutions so cherished by Romans, and which emperors would claim to restore.


Commodus really did have a sister Lucilla, and she hated her brother. Lucilla was at one time married to Lucius Verus, as her son tells Maximus in the film. What is not said is that Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. Lucilla conspired against Commodus, and attempted to have him assassinated in 182 CE. Commodus banished Lucilla to the island of Capreae as punishment, and ordered her execution shortly after. So then, the film portrayal is actually entirely backwards, as Commodus not only outlived Lucilla, he was responsible for her death, and not the other way around, as Hollywood would have it.

▼ Coin of Lucilla Ca. 180 CE, Obverse: Bust of Lucilla, facing right, LVCILLA AVGVSTA, Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins.

▼ Coin of Lucilla Ca. 180 CE, Reverse: Juno standing left, raising hand and holding baby, IVNONI LVCINAE, Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins.

Incidentally, ancient historians are not too shy to reveal details, such as it was his other sisters, not Lucilla, that Commodus reputedly enjoyed having degrading sexual relations with.


Some criticism by film reviewers has been levied towards Scott for having a female gladiator. However, the ancient sources are clear they did in fact exist. Tacitus, for instance, wrote that Nero staged “a number of gladiatorial shows, equal in magnificence to their predecessors, though more women of rank and senators disgraced themselves in the arena”. Petronius, in The Satyricon, wrote of female charioteers. Dio Cassius explained how some women performed as venatores, that is gladiators who fought wild beasts. The Emperor Domitian staged games in which women battled pygmies.

▼ Image of the Roman Colosseum, The Continent by Queenboro’ via Flushing, A handbook for English and American tourists, (1894), The British Library, HMNTS 10097.c.31.

Women were forbidden from gladiatorial performances shortly after the time of Commodus, by the emperor Alexander Severus, in 200 CE.


S.P.Q.R., the letters of the tattoo worn by Maximus, was an abbreviation for an oft used Latin phrase whose English translation is “the Senate and People of Rome”.

The Latin word for “tattoo” was stigma, and our modern meaning of stigmatize, as a pejorative, has clearly evolved from the Latin. It was slaves, gladiators, criminals, and later, soldiers, who were tattooed, as an identifying mark.

Upper class Romans did not partake in tattooing, which they associated with either marginal groups, or foreigners, such as Thracians, who were known to tattoo extensively. The emperor Caligula is said to have forced individuals of rank to become tattooed as an embarrassment.

▼ Image of a Roman Legion’s Standard with SPQR, L’ Algérie Ouvrage Illustré (1885), The British Library, HMNTS 10097.c.31.

In late antiquity, the Roman army consisted largely of mercenaries, they were tattooed in order that deserters could be identified.

The sixth century Roman physician, Aetius, wrote that:

“Stigmates are the marks which are made on the face and other parts of the body. We see such marks on the hands of soldiers. To perform the operation they use ink made according to this formula: Egyptian pine wood (acacia) and especially the bark, one pound corroded bronze, two ounces gall, two ounces vitriol, one ounce. Mix well and sift… First wash the place to be tattooed with leek juice and then prick in the design with pointed needles until blood is drawn. Then rub in the ink.”

The Christian emperor Constantine, ca. 325 CE, decreed that individuals condemned to fight as gladiators or to work in the mines could be tattooed on the legs or the hands, but not on the face, because “the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, should be defiled as little as possible.”

▼ Engraved Gem, Warrior or Gladiator, European, (Ca. 1750 – 1850 CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

In 787, Pope Hadrian the First prohibited tattooing altogether, due to its association with superstition, paganism, and the marginal classes.

Gladiators were spectacular but had a longer life expectancy than shown in the film

Aside from the empire and politics, the movie focuses heavily on gladiators, it’s in the name after all. Gladiator operates in a logically improbable world. Though there are only a handful of gladiator bouts they seem to be fought to the death with the exception of the single combat with the tigers. No system of gladiatorial combat could be successful if half of the gladiators were killed off in every bout. It would make gladiators prohibitively expensive and even good fighters can slip up at any time. Surrendering or yielding was far more common.

Historians have known this for a long time, but more and more evidence points to the idea that yielding in combat was by far the norm. combats became exhausted, wounded, or knew that they were outmatched and held up a hand to stop the fight. Surely people died in the fighting, animal bouts were unpredictable and group battles were likely more deadly, but your average fight likely ended with everyone still alive. The thumbs up or down (which was likely the reverse of what was shown in the movie) was intended for those fighters who yielded after a terrible or cowardly fight, of both men fought well they could expect to live on.

Some of the spectacles one could expect to see at the games

Other than that, the spectacle of gladiatorial combat was well represented. Entire scenes of battle were set up, trees were brought in to create forests for animal hunts and, at one point, naval battles were fought in the arena.

The true history of the events of The Gladiator is still quite interesting, but longer and less spectacular in general than the film. Showing Commodus as a gladiator more could have been interesting, but presents the character as more of a crazy villain instead of an emotional but terrifying and calculating enemy

Watch the video: Οι θεές του Ολύμπου - Ιστορία Γ Δημοτικού Κεφάλαιο 3- Ενότητα 1 - Μυθολογία - Με υπότιτλους (August 2022).