Fierce fighters, enslaved and forced into a world of violence and brutality, Roman gladiators provided gruesome entertainment to the Roman public, training for months in specialized schools managed by wealthy investors who profited from their fighter’s success. Most fighters only fought 2-3 times a year, and only about 10-20% of them died during matches, despite popular belief that they fought to the death. Although they didn’t fight often, some gladiators managed to gain extraordinary renown from their performances, personalities or personal backgrounds. So let’s take a look at the most famous gladiators of all time.
Spiculus was a gladiator who was popular not just with the masses, but with the emperor of Rome himself, Nero. He attended gladiator school at Capua, and in his first match, he faced off against a veteran gladiator who had won 16 fights, called Aptonetus. Somehow, Spiculus emerged victorious, and his victory caught the attention of the emperor Nero.
Nero took a liking to Spiculus and lavished the young gladiator with gifts. He awarded Spiculus with palaces and riches and had servants attending to him. This left the gladiator in an unusual position: he remained enslaved, but yet, as a famous gladiator, he was living in luxury and was attended to by servants who were enslaved themselves.
When Nero was overthrown in 68 AD, he asked Spiculus to execute him. Spiculus refused, and Nero took his own life. Afterwards, the mob began overturning and destroying statues of Nero, and according to historian Plutarch, used them to crush his friend Spiculus to death.
Pompeiian graffiti – two thraeces, M. Attilius and L. Raecius Felix ( Public domain )
2. Marcus Attilius
Marcus Attilius was an unusual gladiator. He was a free-born Roman who decided to sign up for a gladiator school of his own volition. This made him part of a small but elite pool of Roman gladiators who volunteered to fight. It is likely that he did this as a way of freeing himself from debt. As a novice or a ‘tiro’, most gladiators fought people at a similar skill level to them. Marcus, however, was paired up with Hilarus, a veteran fighter who had won 12 of his 14 fights and belonged to the emperor Nero.
Against all odds, Marcus won by forcing Hilarus to surrender, marking the beginning of what was to be a glittering career, as well as the beginning of the legend of Marcus Attilius. He went on to defeat another volunteer gladiator and veteran of 12 fights, Lucius Raecius Felix. The fight is memorialized through a piece of graffiti discovered outside the Nocerian gate at Pompeii where Marcus is depicted with his gladius, long shield shin protectors.
Flamma rose to fame during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD). Flamma, meaning ‘flame’ was just his battle name. His real name is unknown, but we do know he was a Syrian soldier who was captured and thrown into the arena to face a quick death. But Flamma, against all odds, survived not just his first fight, but 34 battles over the course of his career before his death at the age of 30.
Flamma gained fame and fortune thanks to his feats in the amphitheatre and was even offered his freedom on four different occasions, but chose instead to continue his career as a gladiator. Of the 34 battles he entered, he won 21, drew 9 and lost 4. It was an impressive record, but it does show how much he owed his long career to the mercy of the umpires, who could choose to either save a gladiator’s life or allow their opponent to land a death blow.
Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic, c. AD 200 ( Public Domain )
Commodus may not be the most famous person on this list, but he may be the most influential, given that he is better known as Rome’s ‘mad emperor’, facilitating the downfall of Rome’s golden era, than as a Roman gladiator. Commodus was the son of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius , and became co-emperor alongside his father at the age of 16. Aurelius ruled well, but when he died in 180 AD, Commodus became sole ruler.
It is fair to say Commodus was not exactly the most popular of emperors. He was believed to be insane, imagining that he was the god Hercules and entering the arena to fight as a gladiator or kill lions with a bow and arrow. He reportedly entered the ring 735 times, and although he wasn’t particularly skilled, no rival fighter had the nerve to hurt or kill a reigning emperor. Commodus was assassinated on 31 December 192 AD when his advisors had him strangled by a champion wrestler when he announced, dressed as a gladiator, that he would assume the consulship (this was the senior administrative office under emperors that was often assumed by the emperors themselves).
Bronze of Spartacus (David Eugene Henry / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The most famous gladiator in all of ancient Rome, Spartacus was a Thracian who was likely born in the Balkans. At one point he served in the Roman army before being sold into slavery to train at a gladiator school in Capua. In 73 BC, Spartacus grew tired of the abuses he faced at the school, so together with around 70 of his fellow gladiators, he escaped and took refuge on Mount Vesuvius where other runaway slaves joined them. There, the band of gladiators defeated two Roman forces in succession before completely overrunning southern Italy. Their forces grew in numbers, and before long they had over 90,000 enslaved people in what was now an army.
His escape attempt had turned into an uprising known as the Third Servile War. In 72 BC, the year after Spartacus fled, he fought alongside his new armies against the Romans in Gaul and defeated two Roman consuls (chairmen of the Senate who commanded the Roman army). Unfortunately for him, he was defeated a year later by the new Roman commander sent against him, Marcus Licinius Crassus at Lucania. Spartacus died in the battle along with the majority of his army.
Roman Gladiators Were War Prisoners and Criminals, Not Sporting Heroes
For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.
The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.
Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum . The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.
Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.
This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.
The Colosseum in Rome. Source: BigStockPhotos
Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern day sport and sporting culture”.
At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary videogame culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed ( secutor). A videogame spinoff from the exhibition is easy to imagine.
This mosaic depicts some of the entertainments that would have been offered at the games. Tripoli, Libya, first century. (Public Domain)
Rogues not heroes
Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.
These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.
These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, the execution of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.
The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, it is an analogy that causes more problems than it solves.
The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly-behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.
Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).
Were they really the heroes they are made out to be? Dramatic painting portraying gladiators in the arena. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872. Public Domain.
The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.
At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.
Gods and monsters
Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works that deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.
Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.
The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the execution of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.
Relief of two female gladiators (gladiatrices) found at Halicarnassus. (Public Domain)
The execution of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.
Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seem far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles .
For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.
One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?
She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.