Gladiators were the rock stars of the Roman Empire. But what was gladiator combat like? How did the slaves of the arena fight and survive over centuries worth of matches? Gladiator combat was a little different than movies would have you believe. Since myth is often more entertaining than reality, it can be hard to differentiate between fact and fiction, especially with history as distant as that of Ancient Rome. Lucky for you, here's a list explaining the real deal with what went on in the arena. It's pretty crazy.
Gladiators weren't just slaves who fought one another other. They were financial investments, religious instruments, and a way for rich Roman nobles to gain favor with the masses. So ingrained in Roman culture were the ways of the arena, several Roman emperors infamously took to the sands themselves. Nero even competed in a chariot race. Even today, thousands of years later, we romanticize the events that took place in the Colosseum. Read on if you've ever asked, "what were gladiator fights really like?" or "how did gladiators fight?"
Gladiators weren't always used for sport. In fact, they were a cultural luxury afforded only to the wealthiest Romans. In a rite appropriated from the Etruscans, gladiator fights were a mandatory part of funerals for wealthy aristocrats. Romans believed the blood spilled during combat purified the soul of the deceased and prepared them for the afterlife. As Roman civilization evolved, gladiator fights became a spectacle accessible to everyone, through state funded games.
The death of entertainment is repetition. So, in the endless quest to find new gimmicks to excite the crowd, someone decided it was a good idea to blindfold gladiators. Called andabatae, sight-restricted gladiators wore helmets without eye holes. They also fought without armor, wearing only in sandals and loincloths. These guys weren't gladiators who went through normal training, but were instead criminals sentenced to death for the amusement of the audience.
While animals were used in the arena, it usually wasn't against gladiators. Instead, animals were used in special hunt events with warriors known as venatores and bestiarii. The former were properly trained hunters who used spears and archery to kill animals from a distance, to the delight of audiences. The latter were criminals guilty of heinous offenses, with no combat training; they were put in the arena as punishment, and often slaughtered by predators, to the delight of audiences.
Animals used in the arena include lions, crocodiles, and elephants. These matches were usually the opening event of gladiator games. In some cases, the animals were pitted against one another.
While male gladiators were standard, it wasn't uncommon to see women fighting in the arena. These women were known as gladiatrices, and by the first century, were regularly seen at the games, though they weren't taken as seriously as their male counterparts. They were sometimes put in parody matches, such as when Emperor Domitian staged fights between women and dwarves. However, there were honorable matches between women, and many joined in animal hunts. In 200 CE, Emperor Septimius Severus banned women from the games.