The tunnel under the Roman amphitheater in Arles, France, is dark and cool. The shade is a welcome relief from the blazing Mediterranean sun beating down on the amphitheater’s sand-strewn arena and stone bleachers.
The gladiator helmet I’ve just put on, though, is stifling. A replica of the head protection worn by a Roman gladiator almost 2,000 years ago, the dented, scratched helmet weighs more than 13 pounds—three times as heavy as a football helmet, and far less comfortable. It has a tangy metallic smell, as though I’ve put my head inside a sweaty penny.
Through the bronze grate covering my eyes, I can make out a pair of men in loincloths warming up for a fight. Metal armguards jingle as one bounces on the balls of his feet, his stubby, hooked sword clutched in a leather-gloved hand. As I shift uncomfortably, his partner lifts his sword and offers to hit me in the head, just to demonstrate how solid the helmet is.
I shrug. Anything for a story, right? Then their trainer, a deeply tanned, wiry Frenchman named Brice Lopez, intervenes. “He’s not trained for it,” Lopez says sharply. “He doesn’t have the muscles. You’d snap his neck.”
A former French police officer and combat trainer with a black belt in jujitsu, Lopez knows what a real fight looks like. Twenty-seven years ago he took a detour into ancient fighting styles. After commissioning working replicas of gladiator weapons and armor, he spent years thinking about how they’d be used in a fight to the death like the ones portrayed in countless movies and books about gladiators.
But the more he studied gladiator weaponry and armor, the less sense it made. Loaded down with shields, metal leg guards and armguards, and hefty, full-coverage bronze helmets, many gladiators carried almost as much protective gear into the arena as Roman soldiers wore into battle. Yet their swords were typically about a foot long, barely bigger than a chef’s knife. “Why,” Lopez asks, “would you bring 20 kilos [45 pounds] of protective gear to a knife fight?”
His conclusion: Gladiators weren’t trying to kill each other; they were trying to keep each other alive. They spent years training in order to stage showy fights, most of which did not end in death. “It’s a real competition, but not a real fight,” says Lopez, who now runs a gladiator research and reenactment troupe called ACTA. “There’s no choreography, but there is good intent—you’re not my adversary; you’re my partner. Together we have to make the best show possible.”
Over the past two decades, researchers have unearthed evidence that backs up some of Lopez’s take on gladiator combat and challenges the popular perception of these ancient spectacles. A few gladiators were criminals or prisoners of war condemned to punishment by combat, but most were professional fighters—the boxers, mixed martial arts fighters, or football players of their day. Some had families waiting for them outside the ring.
Being a gladiator could be lucrative, and was sometimes a career choice, literary sources suggest. Brave performances in the arena could transform gladiators into popular heroes, and even earn prisoners their freedom. Gladiators probably spent most of their time training or in exhibition contests.
Perhaps most surprising, the majority of fights did not end in death. For every 10 gladiators who entered the ring, nine probably lived to fight another day.
For nearly 600 years, Romans thrilled to gladiatorial fights. They were a favorite subject of Roman artists, re-created in mosaics, frescoes, marble reliefs, glassware, clay trinkets, and bronze ornaments found across the Roman world. Nearly every sizable city and town had an arena of its own, with about 300 documented from Britain to the deserts of Jordan.
These ancient contests also exert an irresistible pull on the modern imagination. Thanks to countless, often erroneous portrayals in film and literature, gladiators are one of the most familiar—and misunderstood—aspects of Roman culture.
That’s because Roman writers spent surprisingly little time discussing the details of gladiator games, probably because the games were so familiar. (How often do you write to your friends about what a hit is in baseball, or how many players there are on a football team?) To reconstruct the real story of the ring, archaeologists and historians have to find clues in art, at excavations, and by reading between the lines of ancient texts.
Like many things about ancient Rome, some of the best preserved evidence for gladiators comes from Pompeii, south of modern-day Naples, Italy. Once a thriving city, Pompeii was buried suddenly by a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79.
Walking the city’s eerily well preserved streets today, visitors see reminders of gladiator games everywhere. There’s the 22,000-seat amphitheater on the east side of town, the brooding bulk of Mount Vesuvius visible from the upper rows of seats. Faded advertisements in the city center plug upcoming fights. Mosaics and frescoes capture highlights of past matches. Just outside the city’s theater, I stoop to check out stick-figure fighters scratched into faded red plaster at a child’s eye level.
In 1766 early excavators uncovered a trove of gladiator armor at a site on the edge of town that had been turned into a training facility and residence for fighters after an earthquake damaged the local gladiator school. It’s safe to assume that even their practice sessions drew crowds.
“They were like sexy rock stars,” says Katherine Welch, an art historian at New York University. Take Celadus the Thracian, a promising newcomer to Pompeii with three wins under his helmet who was “the sigh of the girls,” according to an admiring graffito—or his trident-wielding compatriot Crescens, “netter of young girls by night.”
Inscriptions found at Pompeii suggest gladiator troupes traveled from town to town, often followed by loyal fans, as part of a sword-wielding road show. One advertisement discovered just outside the city walls encouraged locals to head to Nola, a 20-mile hike due north, to catch 20 pairs of gladiators facing off over the course of three days.
Even after three centuries of excavations, archaeologists continue to uncover fresh evidence at Pompeii. In 2019 archaeologists working in a narrow alley on the north side of town came upon a fresco of two gladiators with what look like ostrich plumes adorning their bronze helmets painted on the wall of a small tavern. Alain Genot, an archaeologist at the museum of antiquity in Arles, says it includes unprecedented detail: One of the fighters is wearing pants under his leg protectors. And after my close escape in Arles, I’m pleased to learn that cords hanging below his chin may represent straps used to keep his heavy helmet firmly in place.
Bloody wounds on the bodies of both men show the fight has taken a toll. But there is a clear loser: One of the fighters, who is bleeding from a gash on his exposed chest and seems to be doubled over in pain, has dropped his shield and raised his forefinger. The gesture, repeated in many gladiator depictions, is the ancient equivalent of “tapping out” of a fight.
Other artwork from around the Roman world suggests that a colorful cast of helpers and hangers-on waited in the wings, or even shared the arena floor. Musicians warmed up the crowd as the gladiators took their places, and perhaps added dramatic flourishes during the fights. Helmets and weapons were carried into the ring during a prefight parade led by the editor, or sponsor of the games.
Key figures were the referees, who were responsible for enforcing a strict sense of fair play. In one depiction, captured on a small pot found in the Netherlands, a referee holds up his staff to halt a fight as an assistant runs in with a replacement sword.
“You don’t lose the fight because you lose your weapon,” Genot says. “When you imagine gladiator fights as a sporting event, you cannot imagine there are no rules.”
Most important, inscriptions promising “fights without reprieve”—in other words, to the death—and “fights with sharp weapons” suggest life-threatening clashes were unusual enough to be worthy of special mention.
And like any good sporting event, there were stats aplenty for fans to obsess over. Across the Roman world, gladiator wins, losses, and draws are scratched on walls and chiseled onto tombstones. The results of many matchups will never be known. But imagine the knot in the stomach of Valerius—who a scratched graffito at Pompeii reports survived 25 combats—as he faced off against Viriotas, a veteran of 150.
Gladiators were more than mere entertainment. Literary accounts make it clear that by fighting—and sometimes dying—bravely, gladiators reinforced Roman concepts of manliness and virtue. (Except, that is, for the net-wielding retiarius, whose tricky tactics and long-distance trident attacks made him the arena’s designated baddie.) “Gladiators, whether ruined men or barbarians, what wounds they endure!” the Roman orator Cicero wrote around 50 B.C. “When condemned men fight with swords, there could be no sturdier training for the eye against pain and death.” (How Cicero’s brutal beheading ushered in the Roman Empire)
Even as they were adored by many fans, gladiators ranked at the bottom of ancient Rome’s rigidly hierarchical society, along with prostitutes, pimps, and actors. By law, gladiators were considered property, not people. They could be killed at the whim of whoever was paying for their fight. “That’s fundamental to understanding how the Romans could sit in the stands and watch this happening,” says Harvard University classicist Kathleen Coleman.
In the early days of gladiator fights—likely staged as part of funeral rituals as long ago as 300 B.C.—the combatants probably were prisoners of war or condemned criminals. But as the games evolved into a central feature of life across the empire in the first century B.C., they became more organized, and audience expectations rose. Dozens of gladiator schools popped up to meet the demand for well-trained volunteer fighters.
Because Roman citizens couldn’t be executed without a trial, some aspiring fighters signed away their citizenship and became enslaved as a high-risk way to pay off debts or escape poverty. Others were criminals sentenced to serve as gladiators—a lighter punishment than execution, because there was a chance of being set free someday.
Still, slavery meant something different in Rome than it did centuries later in the American South. For one, it had nothing to do with race, and some experts believe gladiators were rarely chained or shackled. And despite their lowly status in society, successful fighters could earn a lot of money. Some may even have moonlighted as bodyguards for rich patrons. “Do your time,” says French historian Méryl Ducros, “and when it’s over, you can take your money and your wife and your kids and go back to your life.”
Tombstones—often commissioned by fellow fighters or loved ones left behind—suggest that many gladiators were family men. “Pompeius the retiarius, winner of nine crowns, born in Vienna, 25 years of age,” reads one such monument excavated in France. “His wife put this up with her own money for her wonderful spouse.”
Such memorials also are evidence that gladiators were proud of their work. Grave markers often included their records in the ring and depictions of weapons and armor, the tools of their trade. “It’s just the same as being a baker or shoemaker—you say what you did, and you’re proud of it,” Coleman says. “It doesn’t sound like they’re treated like criminals. Gladiators saw themselves as professionals.”
Professional fighters needed professional training. A discovery made a few years ago at an ancient Roman site in Austria known as Carnuntum shows where they got it.
On a blustery day in early spring, Eduard Pollhammer, the scientific director of Carnuntum, leads me into the middle of a freshly sown farm field on the banks of the Danube River, 25 miles east of Vienna. The heavy gray clouds begin to spit cold rain, reminding me just how far we are from the sun-soaked ruins of Pompeii and Arles.
In the winter, temperatures here plunge below freezing, and the wheat fields are covered with snow. But even here, on what was the edge of the empire, the Roman appetite for gladiator spectacles was such that Carnuntum boasted two amphitheaters: one for its thousands of active-duty soldiers, and another to entertain civilians from the bustling town next door.
Around A.D. 200, the rolling hills here were home to one of the Roman frontier’s biggest military bases, Pollhammer explains. More than 7,000 soldiers stationed here patrolled the empire’s northern reaches. Carnuntum is so big that more than 150 years of excavations have uncovered only 15 percent of its four-square-mile area.
Twenty years ago, concerned that intensive plowing would destroy undiscovered parts of the site, archaeologists turned to ground-penetrating radar to try to map the buried remains of buildings. Between the town walls and the municipal amphitheater’s earthen foundations, researchers found the outlines of a whole neighborhood built to serve fans, including taverns, souvenir shops, even a bakery where spectators could grab a bite before taking their seats.
In 2010 archaeologists reported something special: a gladiator school, or ludus, a short walk from the crumbling ruins of Carnuntum’s amphitheater. From Roman accounts, Pollhammer says, we know there must have been dozens like it across the empire. They were bankrolled by emperors and local dignitaries and often run by trainers called lanistae, some of whom were former gladiators. There were at least four gladiator schools in the center of Rome, part of a gladiator training complex in the shadow of the Colosseum. But the dirt under our feet hides the first complete example ever found.
Without lifting a shovel, researchers identified a large room with a raised floor that could be heated with warm air from below. It may have been used as a training gym in the cold Austrian winters. Along the edge of an open yard is an L-shaped section of the building with rooms or cells. Thick walls are a sign that parts of the facility had two stories. There were even baths, with water pipes, basins, and hot and cold pools. At the center of it all was a circular training arena, 62 feet across. “We think about 70 or 75 gladiators lived here,” Pollhammer says. “There’s a whole infrastructure for big spectacles.”
What drove the Romans to devote such resources to gladiators? What kept fans coming back, year after year, for nearly six centuries? Recent excavations at the Colosseum in Rome offer clues. Under the floor of the arena, there’s a huge space extending about 20 feet below ground level. Today visitors can tour part of the labyrinth of columns, crumbled brick staircases, and shadowy chambers.
During a major restoration effort that began in 2000, German Archaeological Institute researcher Heinz Beste spent four years documenting the stonework under the arena. He revealed traces of an ingenious system of platforms, elevators, winches, and ramps, manned by hundreds of stage technicians and animal handlers. Through dozens of trapdoors in the arena floor, handlers could release animals directly into the ring for staged hunts, called venationes, that typically served as the appetizer for gladiator fights. Elaborate, painted sets would lift straight out of the arena floor, and elevators might have popped gladiators directly into the ring. “Spectators didn’t know what would open when, or where,” Beste says.
The system, found on a simpler scale at dozens of provincial amphitheaters across the empire, epitomized the draw of the games. From animal hunts to gladiator fights, everything about the events was calculated to keep fans on the edge of their stone seats. Suspense, not brutality, was the lifeblood of the games.
To ensure exciting contests, fighting styles were carefully balanced. A nimble, near-naked fighter armed with only a net, trident, and small knife might face off against a lumbering warrior wearing 45 pounds of protective gear. The rare appearance of sword-wielding women, recorded in historical accounts and a stone relief, would have been a thrill for Romans, who thought women belonged at home.
Experienced gladiators were matched against other veterans, leaving new recruits to fight each other. The longer your career, the better your chances of survival, as each experienced gladiator represented years of investment. “There are hours and man-years going through all the fencing moves, building up the musculature, training for speed, strength, and endurance,” says Jon Coulston, an archaeologist at the University of St. Andrews. “Like modern football, it becomes a hugely capital-intensive enterprise.”
Renting gladiators was a “you break it, you buy it” type of arrangement. If a fighter was killed, whether intentionally or not, the sponsor of the fight paid full price to the gladiator’s owner. “These people were so valuable because they were so highly trained. You don’t want to squander that,” says NYU’s Welch. “Out of 10 pairs, there would be one death, possibly two.”
As amphitheaters proliferated across the empire and political hopefuls spent lavishly on spectacles, the costs of gladiatorial games spiraled out of control. By the second century A.D., the pressure to put on ever more impressive events made the games prohibitively expensive, threatening their existence. A massive bronze tablet discovered more than a century ago in the ruins of Italica, a Roman town on the outskirts of modern-day Seville, Spain, reveals how Romans tried to get things back under control.
Known as the Tabula Gladiatoria, it’s inscribed with a decree issued in A.D. 177 that limited what sponsors could spend on games. It even includes a detailed table of fees. A gladiator “of the highest and best-looking grade” could earn up to 15,000 sesterces, more than enough to pay the annual wages of a typical Roman soldier. Up to a quarter of that sum went to the gladiator—and was payable in advance.
Death was uncommon, but it was still an ever present risk, either in the ring or as a result of infections afterward. Audiences appreciated and rewarded the extra expense a dead gladiator represented. One Roman writer describes a particularly expensive show thrown by a young noble who recently had inherited a fortune. A staggering 400,000 sesterces bought him “the best steel, no running away, with the butchery done in the middle so the whole amphitheater can see.”
It’s easy to dismiss such sentiments as a thing of the distant past, and the Romans as fundamentally different from us. This was, after all, a civilization that built one of the largest empires the world had ever known using relentless military force to subdue all its neighbors.
But that would be letting ourselves off the hook too easily. When it comes to a taste for violent spectacle, we’re closer to the Romans than we like to imagine. The most popular sport in the United States is football, which regularly leaves players too seriously injured to walk off the field.
Meanwhile, athletes who engage in violent sports—from football to boxing to mixed martial arts—are idolized as exemplars of discipline, toughness, and grit. Their bouts attract millions of spectators, even as the long-lasting damage to athletes has become widely known.
“Life isn’t Candy Land and puppies. Life is hard. We need to yell, to cry, to scream about something,” Ducros says. “We need to see a little bit of violence to externalize the violence we feel inside. We can’t judge the Romans for organizing that.”
Berlin-based Andrew Curry wrote about the first Europeans for the August 2019 issue. Rémi Bénali lives near Arles, France, where he photographed a Roman boat for the April 2014 magazine. National Geographic senior artist Fernando G. Baptista specializes in reconstructing the past.
This story appears in the August 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.