Gladiator reenactors pose amid Roman-era ruins in Arles, France.

How Roman gladiators got ready to rumble

Before they could lay the smackdown in the arena, gladiators were professionally trained, combining a physical regimen with an education in the rules of the ring.

Gladiator reenactors pose amid Roman-era ruins in Arles, France. The equipment they use is based on archaeological finds.
Photograph by Remi Benali

More than 2,000 years after gladiators were squaring off in Roman arenas, the world remains obsessed. Thanks to modern-day literature and films—and the fact that ancient amphitheaters remain standing throughout the former Roman Empire, notably the Colosseum in Rome—warring gladiators are one of the most familiar aspects of Roman culture. 

But new archaeological studies have determined gladiator spectacles were not bloody free-for-alls among men who fought to kill. Instead, they were highly regimented and systematized performances executed by expertly trained athletes, choreographed to create maximum suspense for audiences. Here’s what the ancient gladiators really faced.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, gladiators were enslaved peoples, criminals, or prisoners of war brought to the arena in chains. But by the first century A.D., being a gladiator had become a lucrative position, and literary sources suggest for some it was even a career choice. Some aspiring freeborn fighters signed away their rights and became enslaved as a high-risk way to pay off debts or escape a life of poverty. Others were criminals sentenced to serve as gladiators—a lighter punishment than execution, because there was a chance of being free someday. Most were professional fighters; some even had families waiting for them outside the ring.

Read This Next

Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.
Why monkeypox cases are still rising at such an alarming rate
Thunderstorms are moving East with climate change

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet