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.