Before ancient Roman gladiators fought grisly battles in rowdy public arenas like the Colosseum, they squared off in much more solemn venues: funerals.
Early gladiator fights began in the 3rd century B.C.E. as ritual blood offerings to the spirits of recently departed nobles. That changed around 27 B.C.E., when Augustus took power in Rome, says Michael J. Carter, a classics professor at Brock University in Ontario: “He detaches gladiatorial combat from its purely funerary context and makes it into a regular part of the entertainment cycle in Rome.” The shift gave rise to some of the most famous gladiators today: Spartacus, Spiculus, Marcus Attilius and more.
Most gladiators were enslaved people forced to fight. But a small contingent were free-born citizens who volunteered in hopes of earning money and fame. Before they could enter combat, gladiators trained for months in specialized schools managed by wealthy investors who profited from their fighters’ success.
Contrary to popular perception, gladiators didn’t necessarily battle to the death. Instead, fighting progressed until one of them surrendered, usually by holding up a single finger. All told, only between 10 and 20 percent of gladiators died during matches—a reflection, in part, of their high financial value to investors.
It wasn’t easy for gladiators to stand out. Each warrior fought only two to three times per year, usually in events featuring 10 to 13 gladiator fights, according to Murray—with each individual match lasting about 10 to 15 minutes. But some, owing to their extravagant personalities, personal backgrounds or memorable performances, gained lasting renown via ancient artists or historians. Here are five gladiators still remembered centuries later:
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A free-born Roman, Attilius enrolled in gladiator school seemingly of his own volition—making him part of a small but elite pool of gladiators who volunteered to fight.
To make matches as equal as possible, Roman overseers generally assigned gladiators to compete against people of roughly similar experience level: novices against novices, experts against experts. But when Marcus Attilius first stepped into an amphitheater in Pompeii, as a “tiro”—a term for a new gladiator—he faced Hilarus, a veteran fighter who had won 12 out of 14 matches in his career, equal to several years of experience as a gladiator.
In a stunning performance, the young Marcus Attilius not only fought Hilarus to a surrender, but in his next battle, defeated another 12-time-winning gladiator. The back-to-back upsets prompted Pompeiian graffiti artists of the time to memorialize his achievement. While Attilius was likely not widely known across the Roman Empire—one scholar suggests his fame was only regional at best—his renown in Pompeii came at a convenient historical moment: In 79 A.D., just a few decades after Attilius’s fights, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city—and its graffiti—preserving his legacy for centuries.
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Spiculus attended gladiator school in the Italian city of Capua, where he must have shown immense promise. In his first amphitheater match, he squared off against Aptonetus, a veteran gladiator and free Roman who had won 16 fights. In a stunning upset, Spiculus beat—then killed—Aptonetus. His triumph gained the attention of Rome’s then-emperor Nero.
Taking a liking to Spiculus, Nero lavished him with gifts—including a palace. This placed the young gladiator in a peculiar social position: technically enslaved, but living in luxury, attended to by servants who were themselves enslaved.
In 68 A.D., as Nero faced a rebellion in the empire and near-certain death, he asked his friend Spiculus to execute him. But Spiculus either didn’t get the message or refused, and Nero took his own life. Afterward, Roman citizens protesting his brutal reign began uprooting and destroying the emperor’s statues; according to the writer Plutarch, the mob used them to crush his friend Spiculus to death.
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Today, Commodus is best known as the “mad” emperor whose disastrous rule from 180 to 192 A.D. marked the end of Rome’s golden era (also known as the Pax Romana). The son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus became co-emperor with his father at age 16. He rose to power on his own in 180 A.D., after his father died—possibly from disease, possibly by murder.
Cruel, lewd and debauched, according to early historian Aelius Lampridius, Commodus kept a harem of 600 boys and young women and considered himself a god. Believing he was the reincarnation of Hercules, he often walked around the palace enrobed in the mythic strongman’s signature lion skin.
Not surprisingly, Commodus also styled himself a gladiator. He purportedly entered the ring 735 times, often fighting against animals, but occasionally battling other gladiators. Commodus wasn’t particularly skilled, but no rival fighter dared hurt or kill a reigning emperor, wrote historian Herodian; wounding Commodus seemed like a certain path to their own grisly death.
The Syrian-born gladiator, who rose to fame under the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138 A.D.), is best known for the length of his career, and for being awarded his freedom four times—and repeatedly turning it down. Flamma finished an impressive 34 matches, mostly in Sicily. He owed that long career not just to his success in the amphitheater, but also to the mercy of event organizers: He received some 13 reprieves, in which umpires either spared his life during a defeat or crowned both competitors as winners.
Flamma’s record shows just how dependent gladiators were on the mercy of umpires, who could either save a losing gladiator’s life or allow the opposing fighter to land a death blow. Flamma finally died at the age of 30, older than many of his peers.
The most prominent gladiator in Ancient Rome never actually fought in an amphitheater at all. Spartacus, memorialized in the 1960 Kirk Douglas film of the same name, was likely born in the Balkans, and was sold into slavery to train at a gladiator school in Capua.
In 73 B.C.E., still early in his training, Spartacus grew fed up with the abuses of gladiator school. He ran away and took refuge on Mt. Vesuvius. Soon, thousands of other enslaved gladiators fled their schools and joined Spartacus, as he organized one of the most famous uprisings in ancient Rome: the Third Servile War. In 72 B.C.E., a year after he fled, Spartacus led an army of enslaved people—by some estimates, as many as 100,000—to fight the Romans in Gaul. His success spurred the Roman Empire into action, and at Lucania the next year, General Marcus Licinius Crassus crushed the rebels. Nearly all of Spartacus’s army perished, including Spartacus himself.