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Common Gladiatorial Misconceptions

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For many, the only exposure to gladiators comes from what they’ve seen in the movies. Unfortunately, films like Gladiator, Spartacus, Barabbas, and Demetrius and the Gladiators don’t present a very accurate depiction of life in the arena and ludus (training camp). Here are five of the most common misconceptions about the ancient superstars called gladiators.

1). All arena bouts ended with the death of a gladiator.

Actually, relatively few arena bouts ended in death for one of the combatants. Roman scholar Georges Ville recently conducted a study of ancient writings which recorded arena deaths during a short period of the 1st Century AD. He discovered that, of the 200 gladiators involved in the documented fights, only 19 of them died. The number of arena deaths did increase in the later part of the Empire, but even then, battles ending in death were outnumber 3-to-1 by those ending with both fighters still alive. Even if a gladiator fell due to a severe wound or somehow found himself unarmed at the end of his opponent’s sword, spear, or trident, he was usually spared by the games editor (sponsor) if he fought bravely. The gladiators sentenced to death were the cowards and the fighters who put on a poor performance. Keep in mind that the lanista—the owner of the gladiator school—had a sizeable investment in these professional fighters. If he were to lose half his fighting force in each arena show, he would be out of business very quickly. In fact, in most cases, the editor had to pay an additional fee to the lanista for every gladiator killed during his games. As a result, the majority of the bouts would end in missio, which meant that both gladiators were allowed to leave the arena living. But on occasion, a special bout would be presented sine missione, which meant that one of the gladiators had to die. Again, the lanistas would be compensated for this, allowing them to replace the dead gladiator.

2). All gladiators were criminals or prisoners of war.

While most fell into these categories, there were quite a few fighters who volunteered for gladiator duty. Some did it for the fame and glory, other sought a life of adventure and danger, and others did it for the money. If you fought well, it could be a job that paid handsomely. Victorious gladiators were usually rewarded with a victory palm and a coin purse tossed into the arena by the sponsor or Emperor. Their fame and celebrity was not unlike that enjoyed by today’s top sports heroes. And the top primus palus gladiators who survived for years and consistently put on a good show for the crowd were often rewarded with grants of land, livestock, and even large villas upon their retirement.

3). Thumbs down meant death in the arena.

This may or may not be true. It has been the subject of debate by scholars and historians for many years. The only reference to this practice in ancient writings mentions that fighters were sentenced to death "with a turn of the thumb." Some historians have interpreted this to mean a thumbs down motion, others feel it could be a sideways motion, and still others feel it was actually a thumbs up motion. The thumbs down motion became popular in the sword and sandal gladiator movies of the 1950s and 1960s and it has endured ever since. One practice that does seem to be accepted by many scholars is the waving of white cloths, tunic hems, or handkerchiefs to signify missio, or "let him live".

4). Gladiators fought both men and wild animals.

Gladiators were rarely, if ever, pitted against wild beasts. That job was left to a specialized group of arena fighters called venatores. These fighters were well trained in the hunting and killing of the largest and most ferocious wild animals. They were considered of lower rank than the gladiators, although the crowds also had their favorite venatores. They were assisted by bestiarii who poked, prodded, and burned the animals to enrage them and make them attack. Using primarily spears, and sometimes bow & arrow, the venatores faced a wide range of beasts. The first venatio, or hunts, of the day usually pitted the hunters against harmless prey such as deer, antelope, and ostriches, designed to showcase their extraordinary skills and tactics. But the main events had them—usually with a single hunting spear in hand—facing lions, boars, tigers, leopards, bears, crocodiles, bulls, and aurochs (large wild oxen, now extinct due in part to their use in Roman arenas).

5). All gladiators were men.

This is undeniably false. Ancient writings and stone relief evidence tells us that women also fought as gladiators. Most gladiatrix bouts were considered a novelty act, since—as with many of today’s sports leagues—the arena was considered the domain of the male contestant. Some of the ancient writings categorize the female bouts as "disgraceful", not so much in their performance as in the fact that women would be fighting in the arena at all. In September of 2000, the remains of what some believe to be a female gladiator were unearthed in London’s Dover Street. While the unusual find stirred up historical controversy, it also generated interest in this little-known side-bar in the epic story of Roman gladiatorial games. 

Info used by permission of James Duffy, www.jamesDuffy.info Author of Sand of the Arena, Hyper-realistic look at the gladiators of ancient Rome

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