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Gladiators in Media

 Gladiator Mosaic (4th cent. CE) via Wikimedia Commons 

Gladiator Mosaic (4th cent. CE) via Wikimedia Commons 

By Desiree Tan, Janice Lee & Vuong Dang Happy

What do you think of when you hear someone mentions ‘Roman Gladiator’?

Russell Crowe? Yup, that guy in Gladiator.

“Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Maximus in Gladiator (2000) remains one of the most popular depictions of a gladiator. His physique was definitely more muscular than the average Joe, yet by no means overly muscular to the point of Arnold Schwarzenegger nor ripped and shredded as modern day bodybuilders. In fact, I believe some of you would call him chubby, with a body fat percentage roughly over 15.

How about gladiators in games? True gamers would be familiar. But you do not need to be a true gamer to appreciate and access these depictions. Try searching for Gladiator A.D., and your screen will be flooded with incredibly buff CGI. Now compare these images with Russell Crowe. You will probably ask the inevitable question: “Crowe, do you even lift?” Without doubt, these CGI images are more impressive but they seem to cross over into the realm of steroid usage. And it is quite certain the Romans did not have steroids in their time.

What of Spartacus the TV series? The actors are ripped with six-packs and do not possess over-the-top muscle mass. Surely this must have been an accurate depiction right? Why would the media lie to us fans? Right? RIGHT? (female - and male - fans still scream til this day…)

Well… the oversimplified answer is both yes and no. After our three blog posts, you should have sufficient knowledge to determine what is accurate and what is not.

But before we begin to dig deeper into this topic, do you even know who the gladiators were? “SLAVES!” I telepathically hear some of you yell. You are not entirely wrong; some of them were indeed slaves. But not ALL, nor MOST, of them were.

In Invisible Romans, Robert Knapp mentions that the Romans of Ancient Rome were strong believers of savage capital punishment for their criminals and saw it as the most effective way to punish and deter deviant individuals from brutalising what the authorities of that time inscribed as social order. These brutal executions of criminals were practised through atrocious means including crucifixion, live burning and the tearing up of individuals by wild beasts. These may appear similar to that of the gladiators’ sport but they were distinctively set apart from each other. Executions were usually held in the early hours of the day while the gladiators performed and fought against each other in the afternoons. There were cases where criminals were thrown into the gladiator school to be trained as a gladiator as a form of punishment and if he or she played the sport for three years and survived, he or she would then be set free with no charges on his or her crime. However, these were rare cases and the gladiator sport was more often than not, considered a sport of totally different meanings to that of the public executions that happened in the mornings ("Fame and Death: Gladiators", loc. 265-266).

The ratio between those who were slaves and those who were not is simply unknown. Yep, we admit we do not have sufficient evidence to confirm anything, and yet we desperately want to know something. You know, typical history dilemma. 

On the other hand, gladiators were trained men who fought each other in the arena for the pleasure of the audience. According to Jerry Toner in The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino, they had usually been schooled in a specific style of fighting, and were armed accordingly - for example, the lightly-armoured netfighter, called a retiarius, would utilise net and trident to ensnare and eviscerate opponents, while the murmillo was a more traditionally armored swordsman, albeit one whose armour could turn quickly into a liability as fights dragged out and muscles tired (Click HERE for more weapons, armours and beyond!). This specialisation allowed for a great variety in entertainment for the crowd, who appreciated the skill and bravery involved. Gladiators usually fought for prize money, along with the right to slay their opponent if the games organiser - and the crowd - so commanded, instead of being the ones slayed. ("Commodus's Great Games", loc. 9-10)

“But then who actually became gladiators? I mean who on earth from 264 BCE to 681 CE would wanna be a gladiator, cutting each others' throats and get stabbed for lunch?” Excellent question, my friend.

The existence of the gladiators arose as a sport - a form of entertainment which rich men of the time used as leisure as well as a money-making avenue. Slaves were sent by their masters to be trained at gladiator schools where they went through intense physical training to be made fit for the fights. Not all gladiators were slaves of rich men. The gladiators comprised mainly two types of people – slaves and volunteers. Slaves were sent by their masters sometimes as punishment but usually as an investment to earn them prize money, while volunteers were individuals who chose the profession and accompanying inferior social status as a gladiator for various reasons. The concept is similar to that of our modern day wrestling. 

For the voluntary gladiators, they were often in debt or had some sort of condition that made them outcasts, unfit to join normal society. Sure, they were obsessed with glory - glory through battle and glory through death. But it was not all glory apparently… These guys got marked with the social label of infamia, depriving them from calling upon witnesses for support nor being a witness during legal prosecution and trials. This was due to people’s awareness of their background; of what got them into "selling and exploiting" their bodies like "prostitutes" in the first place, as seen in Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire (loc. 184). 

Being infamia, you assume they did not eat luxuriously right? 

WRONG! Gladiators were fed rich and scrumptious meals all the time. 

Just kidding - however, this is indeed a privilege that came to them as occasionally as once or twice a year, depending on the frequency of their fights. For the rest of the year, they survived on cheap vegetarian meals - beans and barley were common components. Since their masters were already investing a great fortune to get them trained, the majority of them were not valued enough to be fed more expensively. The gladiator sport was an intricate business that Roman society placed in high esteem. As much as the masters wanted their slaves to win the games for them, it simply was not economically feasible to provide a more varied diet for the fighters (Invisible Romans, "Fame and Death: Gladiators", loc. 272).

Even though these slaves and volunteers went through a great amount of training to achieve their physique, considering their cheap vegetarian diet, it is hard to believe that all gladiators were of large bulk. Since these battles and fights were a means of entertainment, it could be very likely that records and stories were dramatised. No one would want to hear stories of fights between weak men. Hence, we cannot be sure that the bulky, muscular men that we see in movies today are an accurate representation of the Roman gladiator. They could very well be overly dramatised versions of the truth (Plos One, Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) - Implications for Differences in Diet).


J. Toner. The Day Commodus Killed A Rhino. November 4, 2014. 

M. Barrow. The Romans. Accessed on September 24, 2016.

R. Knapp. Invisible Romans. 2011.

R. Laurence, J. Berry. Cultural Identity in the Roman Empire. September 1, 2002.

S. Lösch, N. Moghaddam, K. Grossschmidt, D. U. Risser, F. Kanz. Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) - Implications for Differences in Diet). October 15, 2014.