Gladiators entertained the Roman crowds 2,000 years ago and they entertain us today in movies and TV shows. They are some of the most famous fighters of ancient times, but we know shockingly little about them. There are very few detailed descriptions of an actual fight and the ones we do have come to us from unreliable sources like poets. We’re not even sure what the exact rules of a gladiator match were.
But today we are focusing on what we do know, not what we don’t, and we are bringing you 10 noteworthy stories of gladiators who earned everlasting renown or infamy.
For the majority of gladiators, the most cherished weapon was a simple wooden sword or staff called a rudis. This is what they used in training, but it held great significance for a different reason. If a fighter made a great impression on the crowd and, more importantly, the officiator of the games, he could have been awarded a rudis which meant that he won his freedom.
Obviously, this was the goal for many gladiators, but not for Flamma. We know little of him and most of it comes from the inscription on his gravestone in Sicily. He was a Syrian by nationality and fought 34 times as a gladiator. He was a secutor, a fortified class of gladiator who employed armor, a heavy shield, and a short sword called a gladius.
Flamma won 21 battles. Nine of his fights ended in draws and four were losses, although he was spared death in three of them. His final defeat cost him his life and Flamma died aged 30.
We don’t have many detailed gladiatorial records, but this is one of the most impressive so far. What makes Flamma truly stand out as a gladiator is that he could have walked away from this life if he wanted to. He was awarded a rudis no less than four times, but chose to keep on fighting each time.
Technically, the term “gladiator” only refers to fighters who were pitted against other men. However, it is often used in a broader sense and, therefore, also includes bestiarii, meaning men who fought beasts. This group was also generally divided into two categories. There were criminals who were sentenced to damnatio ad bestias, meaning they were condemned to be executed by wild animals. There were also venatores, skilled fighters who chose to take on beasts for money and glory.
Of the latter, perhaps none were greater than Carpophorus. He rose to fame during the games of 80 AD ordered by Emperor Titus to celebrate the finished construction of the Colosseum. Carpophorus so impressed Martial that the latter wrote three epigrams telling us about his exploits.
He claimed that Carpophorus bested a boar, a bear, a lion, and a leopard in the arena and that afterwards he was still in condition to keep on fighting. He could have taken on the Marathon bull and the Nemean lion with ease and a single strike from Carpophorus would have slain the deadly hydra. He deserved all the glory bestowed on Hercules because Carpophorus managed to defeat twenty animals on one occasion.
It is at this point we should consider that Martial was a poet, not a historian, so his artistic side might have flared up a bit too much when describing the exploits of the bestiarius.
8. Amazonia and Achillea
Gladiator fighting was, undoubtedly, a male-dominated sport, but it was not entirely restricted only to men. We do have historical evidence and records which show that female gladiators did exist. These fights were, certainly, rarer and emperors had differing feelings on the practice as they imposed various restrictions, culminating with Septimius Severus who banned female gladiators altogether in 200 AD.
The evidence for the existence of these women fighters, or ludia, as they were called, is incredibly scarce. Unfortunately, we can only name a few of them. Juvenal, another Roman poet, mentions a beast-hunter named Mevia.
A 2nd century AD marble relief uncovered in modern-day Turkey revealed the tale of two fighters called Amazonia and Achillea. They fought to a draw and, clearly, their battle was popular enough that it warranted commemoration in sculpture form. Given their stage names, scholars believed the two gladiators reenacted the mythological fight between Achilles and the Amazonian queen Penthesilea during the battle of Troy.
In recent years, historians have also reconsidered a different statuette as depicting a female gladiator celebrating her victory. She is naked apart from a loincloth and knee guards and holding a scythe-like tool above her head. Scholars used to think that she was cleaning herself, but now they believe that she was, in fact, a ludia raising her hand in triumph.
The most exciting discovery came in 2000 when excavations in London yielded the first and, so far, only remains believed to belong to a female gladiator, known informally as the Great Dover Street Woman.
7. Marcus Attilius
Now we look at Marcus Attilius, a young combatant who might be responsible for the greatest upset in gladiator history.
Attilius was a tiro, meaning that he was a rookie at the start of his career. Despite this, in his first fight he was matched up against Hilarus, an imperial gladiator from Emperor Nero’s personal troupe who had accumulated 13 victories in the arena.
Normally, most gladiator matches try to pit fighters of equal skill and experience against each other. In this case, though, the organizers of the games put a veteran against a novice. This was most likely done as a showcase for Hilarus who, as one of Nero’s gladiators, was probably very popular. However, the unthinkable happened – Attilius won. Not only that, but he continued his victory streak with a win over another experienced fighter named Raecius Felix.
We only learned of Marcus Attilius’s impressive start to his gladiatorial career from some ancient graffiti. Unfortunately, we don’t know how it ended, although we do know that both Hilarus and Raecius fought bravely enough against him to earn missio, meaning they were spared death.
6. The German
For this next fighter, we don’t even know his name, we just know that he was a German who worked in a training school for “wild beast gladiators.” But it’s not who he was that made him remarkable, but rather what he did and how he did it.
Besides proper gladiators, the arenas featured many wretched men whose sole purpose was to have a violent, gruesome death to satiate the bloodlust of the crowds. These showcases typically took place around midday which, more or less, made them the Roman version of a halftime show.
As you might imagine, many of these condemned men would have preferred a quick suicide instead of being mauled or butchered for the benefit of an audience. However, such a death would be a waste of money for the organizers, which is why they kept these doomed men under strict guard and made sure they had no access to weapons of any kind prior to entering the arena.
Seneca was one of the few Roman statesmen who spoke out against this practice. He said he was disgusted by this cruel slaughter put on to distract the plebs while the aristocrats left for lunch. He also told us of the German who went to extreme lengths in order to go out on his own terms.
In Letter 70 of his collection of Moral Epistles, titled “On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable,” Seneca talks of suicide as being a positive thing used to break “the bonds of human servitude.” He brings up the German who went to relieve himself before his fight, as it was the only time he was left unguarded. He grabbed the only thing he could find – a stick with a sponge “devoted to the vilest uses.” In other words, Romans used it to wipe their butts. As it was, the German, a “brave fellow” as described by Seneca, shoved it down his own throat and choked himself to death with it.
5. Priscus and Verus
Not a lot of information has survived about specific matches, but there is one which withstood the test of time – the fight between Priscus and Verus. We know of it courtesy of the poet Martial again, as this match took place during the same inaugural games where Carpophorus was slaying every beast in sight.
The fight between the two men was described as the highlight of the opening ceremonies and remains the only known detailed account of a gladiator match. Priscus and Verus fought well and hard for a long time and appeared to be evenly matched. The bout went on so long that people from the crowd started shouting for the two combatants to be discharged. Emperor Titus, however, stuck to his rule that the fight stopped only when one of the gladiators raised a finger which meant that he yielded and pleaded for mercy.
Eventually, both Priscus and Verus raised their fingers at the same time. As reward for their valiant efforts, Titus awarded both men a rudis and the prize of the match. Martial made use of his poetic license again, and ended the epigram with a tribute to the emperor’s benevolence: “Under no prince but thee, Caesar, has this chanced: while two fought, each was victor.”
Is it possible that a blown call from a referee could cost a gladiator not only the match, but his life? It would appear that that was the case for one unfortunate fighter named Diodorus.
All we know of him comes from the epitaph on his marble tombstone found in Samsun on the northern coast of Turkey. It reads: “Here I lie victorious, Diodorus the wretched. After breaking my opponent Demetrius, I did not kill him immediately. But murderous Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me…”
Usually, the inscriptions on gladiator tombstones only provide modest information such as their names, win/loss records, and, perhaps, how they died in the arena. That, alone, makes this grave marker unique and invaluable. It also provides us with significant proof that, maybe, gladiator fights were not all brutal melees with no regards for rules. They even appeared to have referees called summa rudis who were there to make sure the fighters adhered to the guidelines.
At the same time, though, it is also worth mentioning that Diodorus’s tombstone was dated to the 2nd to 3rd century AD. Gladiator fights had existed for almost 500 years, by that point, so it is also likely that rules had changed and evolved over time.
During Diodorus’s time, at least, scholars believe there was a rule in place which allowed a gladiator to get up if he fell accidentally, but not if he was knocked over by his opponent. According to the epitaph, Diodorus fell Demetrius and had victory well in hand, but the referee intervened. The summa rudis mistakenly believed Demetrius had fallen down by accident and had allowed him to get up and retrieve his weapon. He subsequently ended up killing Diodorus.
In the case of Spiculus, it wasn’t what he did in the arena that earned him fame, but his life afterwards. We don’t know much about his gladiatorial prowess, but we know that he performed well enough to earn the favor of Emperor Nero. In fact, Nero not only awarded Spiculus his freedom, but he made him a Roman citizen of high social rank and gave him vast lands and fortunes.
Nero appointed Spiculus commander of his personal horse guard, a unit which he held in very high esteem. His trust was well-placed as the emperor truly earned the former gladiator’s undying loyalty. When the plot to overthrow Nero was enacted, his praetorians betrayed him but the horse guard led by Spiculus did not. Eventually, the rest of the guardsmen abandoned the emperor, but Spiculus remained loyal and was lynched by an angry mob as one of “Nero’s men.” It was later reported that, in his final hour, Nero was looking for Spiculus as he wanted the gladiator to be the one to deliver the killing blow.
The emperor always experienced the gladiator fights from a special luxurious box, not from the arena floor in the middle of all the action. That is, unless the emperor in question was Commodus.
Let’s make this clear from the start: Commodus was insanely cruel and egomaniacal. He saw himself as the reincarnation of Hercules and looked for any opportunity to show off his physical prowess. Of course, he could not resist the allure of the arena.
All his fights were fixed, obviously. His opponents always submitted and he was never in any physical danger. When he slew animals, he did it from an elevated platform that kept him out of harm’s way. According to Cassius Dio, he killed a hundred bears in one day this way.
Shockingly, Commodus restrained himself and used a wooden sword when fighting against gladiators. He wasn’t so merciful when he was training at home as there he wielded a steel blade. He enjoyed slicing off the occasional nose or ear and, as Dio put it, he also “managed to kill a man now and then.”
The most shocking moment occurred when Commodus had all the crippled men in Rome rounded up and fastened them together at the knees in the middle of the arena. He armed them with sponges instead of rocks and proceeded to club them to death, pretending he was Hercules killing giants.
His gladiatorial appearances were poorly attended. Although Dio never said that Commodus actually did this, he specified that there was a belief amongst Romans that the emperor enjoyed firing off random arrows into the crowds in imitation of Hercules hunting the Stymphalian birds. Despite his lack of popularity in the arena, Commodus was, without a doubt, the best paid gladiator in history. He charged a million sesterces for each appearance, causing a steep decline in Rome’s economy.
Of course, the most notorious gladiator of all time is Spartacus. The slave who led one of the greatest uprisings in ancient history which you can learn about, in detail, in our video about Spartacus on our other YouTube channel, Biographics.
In 73 BC, almost 80 slaves escaped from the gladiator school of Batiatus in Capua. Over the course of two years, they roamed the Roman Empire led by Spartacus, amassing an army which, at its peak, contained around 100,000 men.
The Spartacan army won victory after victory against the Roman forces as the Senate kept underestimating the power and determination of the rebels. It was just beyond their comprehension that a group of slaves, peasants, and shepherds could prove to be such a challenge to all-mighty Rome.
It wasn’t until Marcus Crassus, possibly the richest man in Roman history, interfered that the tide started turning. Indeed, Crassus’s forces eventually bested the slave army and Spartacus himself was killed in combat.