The iconic figure of the gladiator dates back to Roman times, lasting through both the Roman Republic and Roman Empire periods. Gladiators would be bought out to entertain large crowds by combating against fellow gladiators, death row criminals and fierce animals in increasingly elaborate battle games.
Meaning ‘swordsman’, the term ‘gladiator’ stems from the Latin word for sword, ‘gladius’. Not all were professional fighters however – some volunteered to fight in the arena. And in return, depending on the outcome of the battles, they risked not only death, but also being segregated from society.
It is not known exactly how the gladiator tradition came about, but over time their battles served to prove the strength and capabilities of the Romans, whilst also allowing rulers to provide ‘fun’ entertainment to the population. This led to increasingly bloody and spectacular spectaculars in the arena as a show of mite and power, but also as distraction from the harsh living conditions of everyday life.
The battles took place privately at first, before gaining such popularity that they were held in public squares put on by the local government and then arenas overseen by the Emperor.
Initially the fights were to the death. If the losing gladiator did not die during the battle, it was up to a referee or even up the crowds themselves if the fighter should be spared. But over time the rules changed to allow for combatants to declare mercy on their competitor, although this was not popular with the spectators.
For over a century BC and throughout the first two centuries AD, women were able to participate in the gladiator games, not so much for feminist concerns but for the entertainment value. It is likely their inclusion was inspired by women taking part in the Antiochene Olympic Games. Still, these female gladiators were likely to have had to be some tough ladies to undergo the same training and adhere to the same rules of combat as the men.
The rules stipulated that gladiators be taken from the lowest social class. This regulation also applied to the women, who were often even imported from poorer nations.
Nonetheless, various emperors decided to use the gladiator arena as a chance to show off their muscle. Caligula, Tutus, Hadrian and a half-a-dozen others stepped out into likely highly-staged battles again gladiators or, more likely, animals.
After almost a millennium, gladiator games panned out early in the 400s, mere decades after Rome had declared itself to be Christian.