Roman Gladiators Didn’t Die In The Arena As Often As You Think

“Brothers, what we do in life, echoes in eternity.” —Gladiator (2000)

In A Nutshell

“Those about to die, salute you.” The ancient gladiator’s famous greeting to the emperor is likely anachronistic, but its widespread acceptance as fact reflects modern ideas about the arena: Two men enter, and only one man leaves (alive). However, thanks to factors like cost, training, and even fan interest, modern research indicates gladiators actually had an 80–90 percent chance of surviving a trip to the arena.

The Whole Bushel

Gladiatorial combat originated as an elaborate form of human sacrifice, but by Rome’s imperial age, the “games” were mostly divorced from the Roman funerary tradition and primarily about entertainment. Best estimates peg the mortality rate for gladiators during that time period at about 1 in 10. Neither gladiator had to die for a bout to end. Gladiators often satisfied the arena crowd with feats of showmanship or courage. Still not fantastic odds for the more longevity-minded Roman, but it was a far cry from a coin flip.

So why the gulf between perception and reality? Simple: money. Owning a team of gladiators was like sending octuplets to a small liberal arts college in New England: crazy expensive and with almost no guarantee of long and productive careers.

Given the upkeep costs of a school of gladiators (room and board, training, etc.) and the Roman audience’s desire to see skilled combat rather than two human meat sticks dice each other up, it made sense to keep combatants alive, especially the entertaining ones. It’s kind of like pro wrestling. Do you really want to kill off a fan-favorite and major draw right away? And ancient fans did have favorites. Archaeologists have unearthed mosaics and wall hangings in domestic dwellings depicting and celebrating specific fighters. Even emperors were known to hang “posters” depicting popular gladiators.

Gladiatorial combats were elaborate theatrical affairs replete with story lines, costumes, and varying weapons (like the trident). And despite the reoccurring image of combat in a sandy ring, which ancient spectators would have found boring, fights occurred in staged environments replete with trees or buildings depending on the “set designer” and story line that day. Gladiators were a breed apart—martial showmen—and treated as such. That’s not to say the life of a gladiator was grand. Although some did become famous and wealthy, the gladiator was still scarcely removed from slavery. But, if you wanted to see purely senseless slaughter, you got to the arena early: That’s what political prisoners and common criminals were for.

Show Me The Proof

The Roman Gladiator
Gladiators at Pompeii, Luciana Jacobelli
The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster, Carlin A. Barton

  • Hillyard

    So Vince McMahon ancestors were in charge of the whole thing.

    • lbatfish

      Also in the same family tree are most of the NFL team owners.

      • Bill S. Preston (esquire)

        I think I get your general meaning and if I do understand you correctly then you’d have to add all owners of all professional teams.

        • lbatfish

          General meaning = “Having people destroy their bodies for the pleasure of strangers”. I’d tend to exempt a number of sports, but many others would definitely qualify. Starting with hockey, I suppose.

          • Bill S. Preston (esquire)

            Ah, I didn’t take that exactly right. But I whole heartedly agree with your assessment of players destroying their bodies for the entertainment of others. I was a pretty good American football player as a youngster with NFL ambitions, but as an adult, truly understanding the toll the sport takes on one’s health, you couldn’t pay me enough to play professionally.

    • Hadeskabir

      But I bet it wasn’t as terribly bad as the WWE.

  • Scott

    Most people don’t understand this because all they know about gladiators comes from watching Russel Crowe play one. Personally, I don’t see any good reason not to have gladiator games today. And even if somebody dies in the arena, his death is honorable and his name will be remembered. All in all, it beats the shit out of basketball.

  • Stefan

    Man come a long way since, haven’t we? I wonder what cultural and social norms around the world will be like in the future.

  • Stle Mkhr

    a better quote choice would’ve been ‘Ave Imperator, morituri te salutamus’

  • P5ychoRaz

    Didn’t I read here or LV that the biggest money-maker in the history of sports was a gladiator? Or was he a wrestler?

    • Dandroid

      He was a chariot racer 🙂

      • P5ychoRaz

        I wonder what the mortality rate for chariot racers was.

        • Dandroid

          Haha I imagine it was pretty high…especially for the horses

  • Nick Mulgrave

    I am Spartacus!

  • Shaniqua

    ware da black list riter