Skip to main content
Original Issue

Sudden Death Gladiators were sport's first superstars, providing thrills, chills and occasional kills

The ruins of Carthage, that great city-state crushed by the
Romans in 146 B.C., rise from the Tunisian steppes like a
mouthful of bad teeth. It was from here that North Africa's
Three-H Club--Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal--invaded Europe
and challenged the Roman Empire in the Punic Wars. Hulking over
the few bleak tombs that still stand is El Djem, a coliseum
almost as massive as the one in Rome. Few monuments better
embody humanity's inhumanity. Over two centuries, El Djem
provided an enormous venue for satisfying the Roman appetite for
gory spectacle. From dawn until after nightfall, fatal
encounters between men and men, men and beasts, and beasts and
beasts were staged in this arena, whose wooden floor was covered
with sand that soaked up the blood spilled in combat.

That floor is now collapsed, exposing the narrow corridors below,
where an intricate rope-and-pulley system hoisted gladiators,
condemned prisoners and wild animals to the surface. You can
stand down there and gaze upward, much like the poor souls
funneled through there once did, awaiting their fate. The
extravagant butchery that was the gladiatorial games--snuff
theater, if you will--seems like something out of Monty Python, a
point not lost on Flying Circus alumnus Terry Jones, an Oxford
don in history who cowrote and narrated a four-part series on the
Crusades for the BBC and also did a documentary for the network
on gladiators. While scouting locations for Monty Python's Life
of Brian in 1978, Jones padded though El Djem's underground
passageways in awed silence. "I shuddered with gleeful disgust,"
he recalls, "and tried to imagine how the fighters must have felt
sprinting into the sunlight, surrounded by mobs baying for

For seven centuries the Romans celebrated murder as public sport.
"A gladiator fight was something between a modern bullfight and a
prizefight," says Jones. "It was like bullfighting in that the
spectators appreciated the competitors' technique and applauded
their skill and courage. It was like boxing in that you went to
see people mashing each other into the ground. The games weren't
decadent; they were an antidote to decadence. The Romans believed
it was beneficial to watch people being slain--you learned how to
meet death bravely. In the ancient city, where compassion was
regarded as a moral defect, the savage killings weren't just good
entertainment, but morally valuable."

The origins of the sport may lie in Etruscan slave fights, which
were fought to the death to please the gods and to enhance the
reputations of the slaves' owners. The Romans incorporated the
tradition into their funeral ceremonies, beginning in 264 B.C.
with that of Junius Brutus Pera's. Gradually, the spectacles
became more lurid and more frequent--and more necessary for each
ruler to provide in order to retain power and sustain the
goodwill of a mostly unemployed populace. Before long, just about
every Roman city had its own amphitheater. The most majestic, the
Colosseum, held 50,000 spectators and offered every sort of
diversion from circus acts to reenactments of historic naval
battles on the flooded arena floor. Roman emperors spent vast
sums on bread and circuses, entertaining the urban masses. Much
like the dictators of today, emperors well understood the
benefits of athletic triumphs, in propaganda and as a distraction
from misery at home. The games that commemorated the emperor
Trajan's victories on the Dacian frontier in 107 A.D. featured
10,000 gladiators and lasted 123 days.

Being a gladiator was a job first thought fit only for slaves,
convicts or prisoners of war. But under the Republic, many
freeborn citizens became gladiators, seeking a kind of macabre
glamour. Under the Empire, noblemen, emperors and even women
fought. As the games became more popular, criminals were
sometimes remanded to gladiator schools. "In general, a sentence
to the schools meant three years of training and combat in the
arena followed by two years teaching in the schools," wrote
Richard Watkins in Gladiator. Among the earliest training schools
was the one near Capua from which Spartacus and 78 other
gladiators made their historic escape in 73 B.C. Eluding the
Roman garrison, they stole weapons, pillaged estates and freed
thousands of slaves. Within a year, the bandit and his guerrilla
band of 90,000 engaged the Roman legions in the Revolt of
Spartacus, one of history's more forlorn campaigns. Emboldened by
victories all over Southern Italy, the gladiators took on the
main body of the Roman army. Its commander, Marcus Licinius
Crassus, routed the rebels and cut Spartacus to pieces,
celebrating his triumphal return by crucifying 6,000 of his
captives along the Appian Way.

Most of the schools were run by "stable masters" who either
bought and maintained gladiators for rental, or trained them for
other owners. These overseers were called lanistae, which derives
from the Etruscan word for butcher. Ranked and housed on the
basis of experience, the four grades of trainees honed their
swordmanship on straw men or fencing posts. Instructors taught
them conditioning, toughness and the proper postures to assume
when falling and dying. They were well-fed (barley porridge was
the andro of its day) and pampered with massages and baths. In
Rome, however, gladiator schools were in imperial hands.
Gladiators owned by Caligula, the Empire's quintessential mad
despot, supposedly trained themselves not to blink. The emperor
sometimes sparred with them. "To be his partner might prove a
dubious honour," wrote Anthony Barrett in Caligula. "It is said
that when practising with a gladiator from the training school
[who was armed] with [a] wooden sword, Caligula ran his partner
through with a real one." (Caligula lived out every modern team
owner's dream: He once ordered an entire section of gladiator
fans thrown to the beasts for laughing at him.)

Every gladiator was a specialist: Spartacus was a Thracian, a
class named for and outfitted in the equipment of one of Rome's
vanquished enemies. Armored in shin guards and a crested helmet,
and armed with a small, round shield and a dagger curved like a
scythe, Thracians were generally matched against the mirmillones,
who protected themselves with short Gallic swords, large oblong
shields and fish-crowned helmets. The heavily armored secutor was
often pitted against the practically bare-skinned retiarius,
whose strategy was to entangle his opponent in a net and spear
his legs with a trident. Then there were the lance-brandishing
andabatae, believed to have fought on horseback in closed visors
that left them more or less blind; the two-knife wielding
dimachaeri; the lasso-twirling laqueari; the chariot-riding
essedarii; and the befeathered Samnites, who lugged large,
rectangular shields and a straight sword called a gladius, from
which the word gladiator comes.

Not all gladiators were eager participants. "In Caligula's day,"
says Jones, "a dozen gladiators decided not to fight. They laid
down their arms, figuring the emperor wouldn't want to waste 12
gladiators. It didn't work. Caligula was so infuriated by this
early trade union thing that he ordered them all to be killed.
Whereupon one of them jumped up, grabbed a weapon and slew all
his unarmed ex-colleagues. Then Caligula stood up and said a very
strange thing: 'I've never seen anything so cruel.'"

Cruelty, of course, was the sine qua non of the gladiatorial
games. During a typical day out at the amphitheater, you could
expect men stalking and killing beasts in the morning, execution
of convicts at midday, gladiator bouts in the afternoon. The
brutal truths: Mankind trumps the wild, law punishes criminality,
valor vanquishes death. "The arena was...a symbol of the
ordered world, the cosmos," Thomas Wiedemann wrote in Emperors
and Gladiators. "It was a place where the civilized world
confronted lawless nature."

Morning sessions at the Colosseum were devoted to anti-social
Darwinism. In venationes, wild game was hunted amid elaborate
scenery depicting, say, mountains or glades; in bestiarii,
ferocious predators faced off in bizarre combinations: bears
against lions, lions against leopards, leopards against
crocodiles. The scale of the slaughter could be staggering. A
venatio put on by Pompey in 55 B.C. included the slaughter of 20
elephants, 600 lions, 410 leopards, numerous apes and Rome's
first rhinoceros. At a hunt held by Augustus, the score was 420
leopards, dozens of elephants, and as many as 400 bears and 300
lions--a total later matched by Nero. Roughly nine thousand animal
carcasses were dragged out of the Colosseum during the opening
ceremonies in 80 A.D.; 11,000 more over Trajan's four-month
shindig. The Romans were so efficient at keeping their arenas
stocked that entire animal populations were wiped out: Elephants
disappeared from Libya, lions from Mesopotamia and hippos from
Nubia. "All sorts of exotic animals were trapped in African
deserts and the forests of India," Jones says. "Fans must have
sat in the stands thinking, 'Ooh, what's that? I've never seen
one of them before.' A lot of ostriches would come out and the
hunters would chase them around a bit, and then you'd get some
tigers. 'Ooh, tigers! They're interesting!' Then the tigers would
be set on the ostriches. It was kind of a zoo in action."

Around noon, in an Empirical version of a halftime show, it was
mankind's turn to be massacred. While spectators snacked on fried
chickpeas and were misted with perfume to mask the stench of
carnage, pairs of meridiani--arsonists, murderers, Christians--were
sometimes subjected to what the philosopher Seneca called "sheer
murder...a round-robin of death." One prisoner was handed a
sword and ordered to kill the other. His job complete, he was
disarmed and killed by the next armed captive. This went on until
the last prisoner was whacked by an arena guard. Chariots were
then wheeled out bearing men and women chained to posts. At a
signal, trapdoors opened and leopards sprang out. In Rome,
Christians really were fed to the lions. And leopards.

Still, the lowlight of most games was professional gladiatorial
combat. The show opened with a procession heralded by trumpets.
Dressed in purple and gold cloaks, gladiators circled the arena
on foot, shadowed by slaves bearing their weapons. When the
combatants reached the royal box, they supposedly thrust their
right arms forward and shouted, "Ave, Imperator, morituri te
salutant!" (Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute

Supposedly, because much of what we think we know about the games
is in dispute, or evolved from Hollywood sword 'n' sandal sagas.
No one is quite sure if "thumbs down" meant death and "thumbs up"
a reprieve. Some scholars believe spectators would turn their
thumbs toward their chests as a sign for the winner to stab the
loser and that those in favor of mercy turned their thumbs down
as a sign for the winner to drop his sword. Which would mean the
best review a fallen fighter could hope for was "one enthusiastic
thumb down."

After the procession and their salutation to the emperor, weapons
were tested for sharpness and combatants paired off by lot. A
typical show featured between 10 and 20 bouts, each lasting about
15 minutes. A horn was blown and timid fighters were prodded into
the arena with whips and red-hot brands. Each fight was
supervised by two referees. Coaches stood nearby, lashing
reluctant fighters with leather straps. Just like at the
ballpark, the house organist would rally the betting crowd. Cries
of "Verbera!" (Strike!), "Iugula!" (Slay!) and "Habet!" (That's
got him!) swept the stadium. If a Roman fan yelled "Kill the
umpire!" he really meant it. The first gladiator to draw blood or
knock his opponent down was the victor. A beaten gladiator could
appeal for clemency by casting aside his weapon and raising his
left hand. His fate was left to the spectators, those early Roger
Eberts. The prevailing notion that most gladiators dueled to the
death is no more likely than the idea that most died in the
arena. Only about one in 10 bouts were lethal, and many of those
fatalities can be blamed on overzealousness. "Gladiators were
very, very expensive characters," says Jones. "It cost a great
deal to keep them fed and exercised and comfortable. Unless you
were Caesar and wanted to impress somebody, you tended not to
squander them."

When a gladiator was mortally wounded, an attendant costumed as
Charon, the mythical ferryman of the River Styx, finished the job
(in a pure Pythonian moment) by smashing his skull with a mallet.
After the body was carried off on a stretcher, sand was raked
over the bloodstained ground to ready it for the next bout. The
festivities ended at sunset, although sometimes, as under Emperor
Domitian (81-96 A.D.), contests were held by torchlight--night

Victors became instant heroes. They were crowned with a laurel
wreath and given gold. Those who survived their term of service
were awarded a rudis, the wooden sword signifying honorable
discharge. Some so liked the gladiator life that they signed on
for another tour. The Pompeiian fighter Flamma had four rudii in
his trophy case.

Gladiator sweat was considered such an aphrodisiac that it was
used in the facial creams of Roman women, and top gladiators were
folk heroes with nicknames, fan clubs and adoring groupies. "We
think they were sex symbols," says Jones. "A piece of ancient
graffito was found at the gladiatorial barracks in Rome that read
SO-AND-SO MAKES THE GIRLS PANT." Gladiators were making Roman
girls weak-kneed until the early fourth century A.D. Christian
emperor Constantine abolished the games in 325, but without much
conviction, or success. In 404, the emperor Honorius banned them
again after a Christian monk tried to separate two gladiators and
was torn limb from limb by the angry crowd. Despite Honorius'
decree, the combat may have continued for another 100 years. "The
sad truth is that the Christians of Rome became good Romans and
staged their own gladiatorial contests," says Jones. "Popes even
hired gladiators as bodyguards. The Christians are given far too
much credit--they have a lot to answer for, like being responsible
for the Dark Ages."

It was the barbarian invaders who shut down the sport for good.
"Whenever Goths and Vandals moved into a Roman city, the games
stopped," Jones says. "The barbarians disapproved of them and
found them too disgusting."

And, we assume, too barbaric.


B/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS HE WAS SPARTACUS Kirk Douglas was the buff, angry slave who lead a rebellion in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film.

TWO B/W PHOTOS: EVERETT COLLECTION X-TREME GAMES In "Barabbas" (1962), Anthony Quinn (top) bests Jack Palance, while Vittorio Gassman gets the run-around.

B/W PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION BIBLE STUDIES Two men, one stick of trident, in "Demetrius and the Gladiators," a 1954 sequel to "The Robe."


COLOR PHOTO: GARY PRIOR/ALLSPORT ANTI-THRUST SUIT The swords are wood, but the intent is lethal.


Fight School
Today's homework assignment: Chop off his head!

"If I catch you, I will make your face like an old saint!"

It's Day One of gladiator school, and my teacher, Vates, is
trying to get me to fight, egging me on with some choice Latin
insults, but his taunts are lost in English translations looser
than togas and syntax as mangled as felled legionnaires. "Your
armpits ride to 100 miles!" he yells. "Screw you and three
quarters of your building!"

Here, in an open field behind a bus station on the outskirts of
Rome, under a murky December sky, a half-dozen novices and I
stand shivering in sandals and short white tunics. We are
simulating savagery and trying to get in touch with our inner
warrior, which, in my case, has been hibernating since a
fourth-grade snowball fight.

Gladiator classes are offered two nights a week by the Gruppo
Storico Romano, a fledgling historical society whose 200 or so
members love to dress up like Animal House frat boys and reenact
Roman revels for pageants and town fairs. The society has been
inundated with applicants since Gladiator splattered the silver
screen with its gore last year. Classes are held in a makeshift
arena just off the Appian Way, where Spartacus and his rebel army
were hung out to dry. The Roman physician Galen described
gladiators as massive and overfed. Not much has changed in two
millennia. The assembled irregulars--bank clerks, sales managers,
traffic cops--tend to be weightier than Umberto Eco novels. We all
work at drills designed to teach us agility, tactics and
swordplay, thrusting and parrying with wooden practice swords
that resemble outsized tongue depressors. Never swing your
gladius in an arc, Vates tells us, lead with your stronger leg,
present as small a target as possible.

The intricate etiquette that prevents our hacking from
degenerating into mayhem is vigorously enforced by Vates, a
23-year-old history major known outside the ring as Alessandro
Rizzo. He moves through the six-blow sequence of sword thrusts
with the sure economy of a veteran dancer. The first maneuver, an
overhand thwack to the skull, looks something like a Pete Sampras
smash. The second, a low sweep at the legs, suggests an Andre
Agassi backhand. The sixth, a swift thrust to the navel, is not
unlike John McEnroe spearing a line judge with his racquet.

By the second session I am ready for what Vates calls "virtual
killing." Points are awarded for whacking various parts of your
opponent's body. The first gladiator to rack up 10 points wins.
(Decapitation is worth only three). Swaggering into the armory, I
spy dozens of pikes, brooms and blunt-edged metal swords stacked
against the walls. What are the brooms for? I ask Vates. "Blood
and severed limbs," he says.

He and I pair off for combat. Vates enters the arena bareheaded,
armed with a net and a trident; I wear scaly iron armor and a
helmet. The claustrophobic headgear tunnels my vision and pinches
my cheeks. Already, I have the face of an old saint. We recite
the frightful gladiator oath and touch swords. Then the sound of
metal clanging against metal echoes in the air as sword meets
trident, trident meets shield. While circling each other like
gunfighters in a spaghetti western, Vates hisses, "I give you a
kick on your bottom that it goes to your shoulders." Ouch! "I cut
your ass in four halves." Yow!

Quickly, I launch my own Roman riposte: "At whom it touches, it
does not grunt." I'm not sure what that means, but Vates seems to
know--his eyes narrow and his fingers tighten on the trident as he
heaves his fishnet, snags the fin on my helmet and fillets me. I
flop in the cords, nicking my shield hand with my sword. I
untangle myself. I lick the blood from my wound with gladiatorial
gusto. I lunge forward and take a wild swipe at Vates, leaving
myself wide open. He charges. I freeze...and become an
exceedingly dead gladiator. "Good gladiators try not to die,"
Vates says with a pained sigh. "Die, and your career is over."

Gruppo Storico Romano offers a three-day package ($150 per
person). A three-month course of biweekly classes begins in
March ($200). For more information, e-mail: