Gladiators were the rock stars of their day, but there was also a social stigma attached to their existence. They were slaves who embodied some of the greatest virtues held by Roman society, but their status didn't stop women in Rome from desiring gladiator sex or from gladiator sweat as an aphrodisiac as they tried to satisfy their lust for the fierce, manly fighters.
Needless to say, when it came to sex in ancient Rome, gladiators were in an interesting position - literally and figuratively. Our knowledge of sexuality throughout history is based on archaeological evidence - such as sexual graffiti - as well as the works of contemporary writers; fortunately, there's plenty of evidence to show us what it was like both for the gladiators and those looking to find a way into their tunics.
In Roman society, gladiators had very little standing. Not all gladiators were slaves or prisoners - just most of them, especially when the gladiatorial tradition began - but the freemen who sold themselves into gladiatorial combat were also in the lower social strata.
Gladiators were on the same level as other men and women who sold their services, namely actors and those in the sex industry, putting them in a unique position. Gladiators were considered brave, achieved fame for their victories, and were lusted after by women, while simultaneously shunted off to the outskirts of propriety. Crowds admired gladiators for facing their mortality, but, at the most basic level, gladiators were regarded by polite Roman society as little more than laborers, paid and revered for their willingness to risk their lives.
The fluids that came from gladiators were hot commodities in Rome. Gladiator sweat was used as perfume and as a beauty treatment; it was even collected into pots and sold as souvenirs.
The blood of gladiators was also used as an aphrodisiac. On her wedding night, a young woman might have her hair parted using a sword dipped in the blood of a deceased gladiator to make sure that her married life was long and fruitful.
At Pompeii, archaeologists discovered graffiti that offers insight into how Romans felt about their favorite gladiators. In the gladiator barracks, one inscription reads, "Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion." Another says, "Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera," indicating that gladiators, in fact, had girlfriends.
Two inscriptions - "Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls" and "Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan" - also seem to make it very clear that Celadus was quite the fighter and the lady pleaser. It's unclear who wrote these lines, though - perhaps Celadus just wanted to leave a good reputation behind.
According to two Roman historians, Herodian and Dio Cassius, the wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), known as Faustina the Younger, was so attracted to a gladiator she saw during a parade of combatants that she actually fell ill. She told her husband about the man, and Aurelius consulted soothsayers to see what he should do to ease his wife's passion. They told him that the gladiator should be executed while Faustina was underneath him, covering her with his blood. It seems as though the gladiator was supposed to be engaging in intercourse with Faustina at the time. After he perished, she was then to immediately have relations with her husband. Whether or not the story is true, it highlights the almost magical powers attributed to gladiator blood as well as the intense sexuality they embodied.
Their son Commodus - who went on to become emperor - may have, in fact, had gladiator blood in his veins: He preferred participating in gladiatorial combat to being emperor, often fighting physically disabled people or animals while on a raised platform.