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.