Why were Roman gladiators “expensive”?

For a long time I knew that gladiators were slaves and they were killed in the arena all the time. But since we got Internet and History channel I learnt that gladiators did not die all the time and that they were actually expensive entertainers.

So what was expensive about them?

According to Paul McCabe of Boston College

As mentioned earlier, gladiators were trained at special schools originally owned by private citizens, but later taken over by the imperial state to prevent the build up of a private army. Gladiators trained like true athletes, much like professional athletes do today. They received medical attention and three meals a day.

Understand that the gladiators received training, by soldiers, other gladiators, etc, and this took time. Time is money, in that all the while the gladiators were being trained they were being housed and fed, and a gladiator, even if slave, could not "work the field" or anything else a slave might do, because their lives were taken up by the training needed to allow them to "fake combat" realistically. I believe that gladiators were the WWE Entertainment wrestlers of their day. While their matches inside the amphitheaters were scripted to an extent, they still needed to be able to make the crowd believe the combat, and two men (and women, believe it or not) swinging implements of destruction are going to cause wounds, large and small.

Their training included learning how to use various weapons, including the war chain, net, trident, dagger, and lasso. Each gladiator was allowed to fight in the armor and with the weapons that best suited him.

They weren't trained how to just stand there and look good, but were given training in multiple weapons and armor. While each was allowed to fight in the armor of choice, if today's exhibition required one 'side' of the match to use daggers and tridents, with the other using swords and spears, then that's what they used. If you had never even picked up a spear before, you'd fail miserably in the entertainment, be booed, and perhaps get the 'thumbs down'.

They wore armor, though not Roman military armor as this would send the wrong political signal to the populous. Instead gladiators wore the armor and used the weaponry of non-Roman people, playing the role of Rome's enemies.

Later on, gladiators were not only slaves, but ex-soldiers and free men as well. An ex-soldier would be intimately familiar with the (Roman) arms and armor he had worn during his service, but the gladiators rarely appeared as Roman troops, in the current garb of the day, so even the soldiers, those with the most training already, might need other training on how to properly use weapons and armor used by the barbarians, or perhaps Roman legions of by-gone eras. (The whole gladiatorial period lasted several centuries, and times change.)

For instance, a gladiator might dress as a Samnite in Samnite garb that included a large oblong shield (scutum), a metal or boiled leather grieve (ocrea) on the left leg, a visored helmet (galea) with a large crest and plume, and a sword (gladius).

The gladiators lived in barracks built especially for them, which were usually located near their home amphitheater. Because they were such expensive investments, gladiators were well fed and received the very best medical care of the day.

Much as the entertainment wrestlers of today, wounds and injuries were common. Just because the gladiator you face today is a colleague, perhaps even friend, doesn't mean that gladius he (or she) is swinging won't slice open your skin if you stumble the wrong way. So the gladiators were provided the best of medical care, at least as was known then. Plus, while pure slaves might have to live on scraps and be lucky to count one good meal a day, the physical exertions of gladiators meant they had to be fed not only with more regularity, but better quality as well.

Also, a gladiator usually did not fight on more than two or three matches each year. The gladiators from their certain ludi traveled together as a group, known as a familia, along with their lanista (trainer), from town to town throughout the Empire for gladiatorial games.

This was well shown in several movies, including Gladiator (2000). A familia would travel the countryside performing for the towns. This meant that there would need to be (in addition to the gladiators and the lanista) support staff as well, the owner, his slaves, perhaps his family, plus people to buy food and procure housing, etc.

All of this added up to the best gladiators costing a minor fortune, and even the not so great ones being more expensive than a normal person, slave or not, to care for, train, feed, and tend to.

Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes

Alastair Blanshard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


University of Queensland provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations

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.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE. Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

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.

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 video-game 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 video-game spin-off from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Barbarians Rising

Gladiators were celebrities of the Roman working classes. Audacious and highly trained warriors, they were beloved and watched by the masses for more than 650 years.

Discover more about Ancient Rome's most infamous and popular form of popular entertainment:

1. Gladiators Didn't Just Fight to the Death

The best gladiators were prized local celebrities of their day. Therefore, most didn't fight 'til the death as quite simply their managers will have wanted to make as much profit out of them as possible. They were trained to wound, not to kill. Most matches would end with one seriously injured, but a survivor none the less.

Despite this, the life of a gladiator was a short one. Most only lived to their mid-twenties (many only until their late teen years) and historians estimate that the average gladiator would likely only fight around ten matches until he met his demise.

2. The Thumbs Down Wasn't What You Think

Who can forget the infamous thumbs down scenes in the 2000 epic movie Gladiator? While in this movie it was interpreted as permission from the emperor for the gladiator to be killed, in Ancient Roman times, a thumbs down probably meant to give mercy. A thumbs up likely meant to kill the gladiator off. If this was the case, the other gladiator would usually kill him by slashing him in between the shoulders or straight through the heart.

3. Fighting Against Animals Was Rare

While in popular culture we often see gladiators fighting tigers and lions, this was quite rare. It was only in the late Roman period when people began to grow bored of the Coliseum games and gladiators that it became more commonplace to use animals. Introduced as a new gimmick to bring in more crowds, gladiators were forced to fight wild cats and there's even some records that claim the area was deliberately flooded and crocodiles and sharks were let loose.

4. Not all Gladiators Were Slaves

Traditionally, gladiators were selected slaves or conquered people. Typically chosen for their strong physiques, they would be hand selected and trained into gladiators. However, as the gladiator games gained steam, many gladiators were free working class men who willingly signed up. Lured by the fame, crowds and potential money and prizes to be won, there were even gladiator schools that accepted volunteers.

5. There Were Female Gladiators

Female gladiators existed, but they were almost all slaves. A prominent fixture on the gladiator scene, female gladiators were pitted against one another as well as male gladiators and even against dwarfs.

6. They Started Out as a Funeral Ritual

Historical records indicate that gladiator matches began as a crude form of human rituals at funerals. Nobleman or royalty would force slaves to fight to the death as part of a funeral service. Once this gained popularity, it transcended into public displays and matches.

7. There Were Different Types of Gladiators

Gladiators were divided by type of skill and fighting style type. Placed in categories rated on their skill level, experience and weaponry specialty. The “thraeces” and “murmillones" were the most popular and remembered type of gladiator - fighting by sword and shield. There were also gladiators that fought on horse with a sword known as "equites" and the “dimachaerus" who fought with two swords at once.

8. Roman Emperors Fought

A few Roman Emperors even got in on the action and fought amongst the gladiators. Caligula and Titus are just two of the known Emperors to enjoy a bit of gladiator fighting. Historians argue that these were likely highly styled, and the opposing gladiators would have more than certainly allowed the Emperor to easily win and win unwounded. Insane Emperor Commodus even shot down panthers and bears from the comfort of a protected platform and forced members of the crowd to fight him - who he almost certainly would have killed.

9. They Were the Celebs of their Day

Gladiators were major celebrities of their day. Triumphant gladiators would appear on paintings, walls and sculptures. Women were particular fans, and saw them as sex symbols. Gladiator blood was believed to have magical powers and some women dipped it into their hair pins. Gladiator sweat was even mixed into perfume - believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Shortcuts For Women To Became Independent

The gladiatorial participants were not only slaves and prisoners. Many men were from the middle class and above who deliberately became a gladiator participant to get high-value prizes. Gladiator tournament winners will also gain high popularity in a short time.

For the same reason, women from the middle class began to participate in gladiatorial tournaments of their own accord. The hope is that once she wins the prize from the gladiatorial tournament, she can live independently and no longer need to live under the confines of her husband, father, or caregiver.

Aulus Cornelius Celsus was an Ancient Roman medical expert who has written about female gladiators. In his writing, Celsus denounced the existence of female gladiators while warning men of the dangers of female gladiators who were no longer willing to be ruled by her husbands. The writings of Celsus also show that a female gladiator was a form of defiance of women against the social structure at that time, which considered that women must always obey men. Celsus also described the female gladiator as being wholly inept and even lewd.

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.

Gladiators Were Vegetarians

Professional fighters of Roman entertainment industry survived on barley and beans.

T he famous Roman author Pliny described gladiators as hordearii, which translates to “barley eaters.” Romans believed eating barley will strengthen your body. Beside barley and beans, they ate also oatmeal and dried fruit.

The entertainment industry was a big deal in Roman times. After all, more than 100 gladiator schools existed all over the empire. Most schools were clustered around Colosseum. The largest school, Ludus Magnus, was connected with Colosseum with a tunnel.

Gladiators were significant investments for their owners, therefore why lack of meat in their diet?

Having more fat, meant bigger chances of survival in the arena. An extra layer of fat created a protection layer for nerves and muscles. Consequently cut wounds were less deadly.

Some ancient authors such as Galen wrote gladiators were a bit soft in some areas due to their diet.

Modern studies suggest that increased subcutaneous fat may be protective against injuries by cushioning the abdominal region against injurious forces.

One added value of being fat was that gladiators were able to continue fighting even while blood was gushing out of their bodies since the layer of fat meant wounds were likely more shallow. What a sight for the spectators!

Trainers wanted gladiators to fatten up.

Gladiators wore little or almost no body armor while fighting with very sharp weapons. Trainers didn’t like their gladiators would be rapidly killed after months of training, therefore they provided them protection which fighter could wear regardless of armor — fat.

It seems that diet which consisted of high carbo intake and low protein intake was intentional and not a consequence of low social status or cost-cutting measures.

Consequently, gladiators didn’t look like muscular men, with abs of steel, as they were portrayed in ancient times or today.

Entertainment in Ancient Rome

Roman entertainment was a bustling, busy atmosphere for people of all wealth and statuses. The most well known pastimes for the Ancient Romans included gladiator battles, chariot racing, and more.

One of the most famous and recognisable buildings in Rome is the Colosseum - now a major tourist attraction. The Ancient Romans also saw it as an attraction for viewing various events. The building could hold over 50,000 people, all who were well looked after by the authorities. During summer when the temperature rose, the audience were protected from the sun’s heat by a huge canopy that covered the top of the stadium.

The Colosseum provided many popular sports and activities like re-enactments of famous battles, mythological dramas, mock sea battles, and much more brutal events including the feeding of Christians to lions and animal fights. Wild cats, buffaloes, bears and elephants would all be kept in cages and made to fight each other - some animals even died out because they were so in demand by entertainment organisers.


More exciting to the Romans than animals were the gladiator fights that regularly took place in the Colosseum. Many gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war and were seen as entertainment made to be killed, and at least 50% were not expected to survive. However gladiators who had survived a fight and fought well, could be given the choice of life or death by the audience whilst the emperor was also present. Thumbs up meant life, and thumbs down meant death. The Roman writer Seneca wrote that “the only exit (for a gladiator) is death.”

Shows were usually free to the public as the emperors believed it was a good way to keep people happy with the city’s governing. Free entertainment and free bread was a combination used to keep the unemployed content.

Gladiator fights may have also occurred in smaller amphitheatres. Chariot racing took place at the Circus Maximus which was a popular family event within Ancient Rome.

Gladiator in the form of Jean-Léon Gérôme

To today’s society, Rome’s entertainment seems very cruel. However it did not all involve violence - many Romans who were well educated felt appalled at the cruel events, and went to the theatre instead for comedies and poetry readings.

"Don't forget, there's a big gladiator show coming up the day after tomorrow. Not the same old fighters either. They've got a fresh shipment in. There's not a slave in that batch. Just wait. There'll be cold steel for the crowd, no quarter and the amphitheatre will end up looking like a slaughterhouse. There's even a girl who fights from a chariot."

"The wild beast hunts, two a day for five days, are magnificent. There is no denying it. But what pleasure is there in seeing a puny human mangled by a powerful beast or a splendid animal killed with a hunting spear."

4 Rather Than Fight

Not all men were convinced that fighting in the arena was a good idea. There are many instances in the history of ancient Rome where prisoners of war chose to end their own lives rather than put on a bloody display for a Roman audience.

In one account, Symmachus, a fourth-century politician, obtained 20 gladiators for an event. When the time came for the men to fight within the arena, they killed each other, the last man killing himself, in a collective suicide that left the audience bewildered.

There was also the case of a prisoner of war who, while being transported to the arena, stuck his head into the moving wheel of the cart. His neck was broken, effectively removing him from the torture within the arena.

In yet another account, a German gladiator, while awaiting his turn to enter the arena, went into the lavatory, grabbed the stick used for wiping bottoms, and jammed it down his throat. The filthy sponge at the end of the stick blocked his airway, and he died of suffocation. [7]

Origins of Roman Gladiators

The first gladiatorial games were held in 246 BC by Marcus and Decimus Brutus as a funeral gift for their dead father, where the slaves fought each other to death. The earliest gladiators were either slaves or prisoners of war, who fought other men or animals for the entertainment of spectators. With time even convicts were sentenced to death by fighting in the arena. With the increasing popularity of this blood sport, free men volunteered to fight in such matches, as the rewards for winners were very rich. Let us now look at the names of famous Roman gladiators, who were considered the best of their time.

Who Became Gladiators ?

Initially, only slaves and prisoners of war were made to become gladiators and fight in the arena using their traditional weapons and equipments. Slaves were bought by lanistas, owners of the gladiators, for the sole rationale of making them fight in the bloody gladiatorial combats.

At times, even the convicts or the condemned criminals were sentenced to die while fighting in the arena. Besides, there were professionals who became gladiators voluntarily. Successful gladiators received huge rewards and riches. It was the lavish lifestyle of successful Roman gladiators that inspired men to risk their lives in the arena.

In the later years, even the Roman Emperors fought gladiatorial combats in the Colosseum to prove their worth. However, the knights and the Senate members were forbidden to take part in combats. This restriction was imposed by the Roman Emperor Augustus to preserve their virtues and pietas. The ban was later lifted by Nero and Caligula, allowing both the classes to become gladiators.

According to Petronius, the Roman spectators preferred gladiatorial combats between free men or the Emperors over those that involved slaves. Condemned criminals, who were sentenced to death for a capital crime, were made to enter the combats without any weapons. Other criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war were trained in gladiatorial schools called Ludi. Some infamous Roman citizens who voluntarily sold themselves to the gladiator owners, lanistas, were called autocrati.

The gladiators were trained in special combat techniques in the gladiatorial training schools. They were allowed to fight with weapons and equipment of their choice and they had to fight 2 to 3 times a year. Some gladiators even survived these combats annually and were awarded freedom thereafter.

The history of ancient Rome is well known for its interesting stories of famous Roman gladiators, who fought in the infamous, blood-spattered arenas, including the Roman Colosseum, throughout their lives. Some of the most famous Roman gladiators, who fought great gladiatorial combats, include Spartacus, Emperor Commodus, Flamma, Thrimpus, Spiculus, Rutuba, Tetraides, Priscus, and Verus. More..