Ancient Roman gladiators were warriors who fought in armed combat, usually in large arenas to entertain the masses in ancient Rome.
While a few participated voluntarily as a means to achieve fame or wealth, most gladiators were slaves, captured enemies, or criminals forced into combat.
The word gladiator was Latin for “swordsman,” based on the root word gladius (sword). Therefore, by definition, a gladiator battle was expected to be bloody.
The amount of armor they were allowed to wear varied by region and class (criminals vs. slaves, for example). Most had some sort of protection on their shins and forearms, but only a select few got to wear plating of any sort on their chest or torso.
Most Roman gladiators fought barefoot, and for a period, even fully nude.
Even though the fighters came from what most considered the lowest of classes of people, a good fighter in the arena had the ability to build a following and became quite famous.
They might have been treated on the same level as present day professional wrestling icons. The development of gladiators was something like what we see with Olympic-level athletes today.
There were schools where they learned fighting skills and underwent a selection process. The best fighters were given a leg up and treated to a hearty, if regimented, diet, as well as the best medical attention available at the time.
Those who did not show promise were typically trotted out to simply be executed by the victors, or perhaps by wild animals. Lions were particularly a popular means to that end.
And who were the top of the heap of these rock stars of this ancient civilization?
Different sources vary slightly in who they consider the most famous, but here are ten famous gladiators in ancient Rome.
Thanks to Hollywood, this is likely the one gladiator everyone can name off the top of their head. But it is far fewer that know his actual story.
He started out as soldier from Thrace, which was centered on what is today Bulgaria and included small pieces of present-day Greece and Turkey.
The first recorded date of his life is 73 BC, at which time he was already a slave. So, at some point before that, he had lost in battle against the Roman legions and was taken captive.
He was sent to a gladiatorial school near Capua. He was considered a heavyweight fighter, called a murmillo, who got to fight with the biggest of the swords, typically about 18 inches long.
While his successes in the arena had gained him some localized notoriety, what he is best known for was plotting and executing a mass escape of some 70 slaves, most of whom were defeated warriors, from the school in the year 73 BC.
The revolt was timed to coincide with the absence of most of the Roman legions, who were in Spain fighting another uprising there. They used kitchen utensils to take control of several wagons full of gladiatorial weapons and armor.
The Roman forces in the vicinity were overpowered and the escaping prisoners swept through Capua pillaging not only supplies, but also freeing slaves to join their ranks.
They marched southward to a more defensible position on the sides of Mount Vesuvius some 23 miles away, adding to their numbers as they went. When they arrived, they set up a military encampment, complete with training regimens.
The Roman Senate dispatched two legions, about 10,000 soldiers, from Rome to put down the revolutionaries. As they were coming from the north, Spartacus lead his army, now some 70,000 strong northward from their winter camp.
The legions pushed through an initial skirmish with 30,000 of the rebel troops, in the first battle of what is now called the Third Servile War. When they reached the remainder of the rebellion, headed up by Spartacus himself, they were defeated.
The Senate put one of Rome’s wealthiest men, Marcus Licinius Crassus, in charge of dealing with the problem. Crassus marched with eight legions, approximately 40,000 soldiers, south to meet Spartacus.
With the superior numbers, Crassus was able to force Spartacus further and further south throughout 71 BC.
Two of Crassus’ legions managed to get behind Spartacus’ forces, finally boxing them in near present-day village of Quaglietta, about 40 miles southeast of Naples.
It was here that Spartacus and most of his men met their end late in the year 71 BC. To this day, excavations turn up weapons from that battle.
Crixus is most famous for serving as Spartacus’ right-hand man during the uprising that became known later as the Third Servile War.
Almost nothing is known of his life before he was a prisoner at the same gladiatorial school with Spartacus near Capua in the mid-70s BC.
His name is Gaulish for “one with curly hair,” so there is some basis to believe he came from Gaul, which roughly corresponds to present-day France.
In late winter 73 BC, Crixus led 30,000 of the recently freed slaves and others who joined them, on a campaign northward from Spartacus’ training camp at Mt. Vesuvius.
Historians are divided in their opinion about why he did this.
One school of thought is that these men wanted to ravage the countryside and march on Rome itself, while those who remained at Vesuvius were more interested in heading for the alps to escape to complete freedom.
A second theory is that the split was done as a strategic plan, hoping to also split the Roman legions that would inevitably come for them.
Whatever the reason, Crixus’ group was to be the first loss suffered by the rebelling slaves in the summer of 72 BC. The Roman legions confronted them near Mount Garganus, which is near the modern city of Manfredonia, in northern Puglia.
Of his 30,000 men, 20,000, including Crixus, were killed. How many of the remainder was captured is not recorded, therefore it is believed to be a small number. Most of the survivors fled and returned to join Spartacus in the west.
Commodus is another historical figure made famous by Hollywood. In the 2000 film, Gladiator, he was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. Even if the film had not been made, though, Commodus would still make this list.
Rather than a traditional gladiator who was a slave or a prisoner, Commodus was also the Emperor.
His reign was marked by his ever-increasing sense of his own self-importance. He never failed to point out he, and he alone in the Empire was a source of god-like powers.
While this was a common belief about the Emperors of the day, only a few took their role as a deity seriously. Commodus particularly identified with Hercules, a son of Jupiter, the chief god.
He demanded statues to be erected throughout the Empire and depicted himself dressed as Hercules, with his club and lion-skin hooded cloak.
Commodus fancied himself a gladiator. He enjoyed participating in the events of the arena. However, unlike real gladiators, his life was never really in danger.
Because he was the Emperor, when he fought proper gladiators, his opponents always yielded to him. In his mercy, he would then spare their lives. This was not the case with most of his lesser opponents though.
He routinely used the arena as a means to simply and personally butcher the ill and infirm.
He also staged regular exhibitions of his prowess over the animal kingdom. He killed many exotic animals in this way but only ensuring they were substantially weakened beforehand.
Commodus was murdered by members of his own military in 192 AD.
4. Marcus Attilius
Marcus Attilius is another example of a free person who volunteered to fight in the arena. His time in the spotlight was in the early 60s AD.
Very little is known about this man outside of the coliseum. We do not know why he volunteered. Perhaps he just in need of the money, and stable lifestyle afforded to competitors during their contracted time as fighters.
However, this financial stability had to be weighed against the societal lost. While the gladiators were considered rock stars in the arena, when they were in the outside world, they were still treated as low-class people, generally shunned by all.
Whatever his motivation, he proved very successful.
In fact, his very first fight as a novice had him pitted against a seasoned veteran named Hilarius, who had won his previous twelve consecutive fights.
The audience was convinced this newcomer didn’t stand a chance. But Marcus Attilius surprised everyone, including Emperor Nero, by winning the day. And he continued winning.
Almost nothing is known of this man, a strange thing to say on a list of the most famous gladiators.
While no contemporary documentation about him exists, yet he was known well enough throughout the Empire to have images of him fighting etched into glass and placed in mosaics in as disperse locations as France and Hungary.
The one fight that was deemed worthy to be captured for eternity in art was with a man named Prudes, who also seems to have held some popularity.
Even the time period in which he lived in a mystery. The only clue is that a wall with a painting of him was unearthed in Pompeii that must have been done before the famous disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
6. Priscus and Verus
These two are always mentioned together because the fight that gave them fame was against each other.
They were the main attraction for the events inaugurating the recently completed Colosseum, also called the Flavian Amphitheater, by Emperor Titus in 80 AD.
Their contest was recorded in a poem by Martial, the only complete description of a gladiatorial contest that survives to the modern day.
Through his eyes we learn that these warriors were equally matched, and that the fight, being more for show, was with wooden swords and no shields.
In the end, they were so well matched that neither gained an advantage, so they ended up yielding simultaneously. They were both declared victors and awarded their freedom by Titus.
All that is known personally of Priscus is he was from the northern regions of present-day France and was born a slave. Verus’ origins were not recorded, but he is believed to have been a captured soldier from outside of the Empire, and that he was given the name Verus, meaning “truth” when he became a Gladiator.
He was already a well-known fighter when he fought Priscus.
He was at the height of his popularity in the later years of Emperor Nero, so the mid-60s AD.
His image adorns many pieces of artwork that have survived to the present day, attesting the level of his admiration throughout Rome.
Nero had taken a particular liking to him and showered him with gifts and even a palace.
When Nero was overthrown in 68 AD, he sought out Spiculus because he wanted to die at his hero’s hands.
But the fighter could not be found, so the Emperor, unable to bring himself to take his own life, forced one of his closest servants to do it.
This gladiator was called a “bestiarius,” a fighter who specialized in fighting the wild animals.
The bestial shows were often used as an intermission of sorts between the fights of gladiators with their fellow prisoners.
This might well have been the precursor to the modern concept of “half time.” This was a popular activity begun during the reign of Caligula in the 30s AD and continued until at least another 50 years, perhaps longer.
Carpophorus was a gladiator who rose to be called the “Master of the Beasts.” He not only trained the animals which were set upon unarmed criminals and Christians, but he also added to the spectacle by battling them himself.
He was able to defeat several beasts set upon him simultaneously. In one recorded instance, a lion, a leopard, and a bear were pitted against him at one time and he managed to slay them all.
In another instance, he reported killing 20 lions in a single day.
Finally on our list is the man who many consider the greatest gladiator of all time. He is also the latest of all the ones listed here, living in the 2nd Century AD.
During his career as a gladiator, he participated in 34 battles. Though probably not a record, it is an impressive number when one considers the likelihood of being killed in any one of them.
Of those 34 contests, he won 21 of them and only lost four. The remaining nine times, the battle ended in a draw.
So impressed with his skills were the politicians of the day, he was offered his freedom on four different occasions. However, Flamma lived for the fight and turned them down each time. He finally met his end, as expected, in combat in the arena.
The reason we know so much about this particular gladiator is that it was all recorded on his gravestone, which can still be seen to this day in Sicily, where the great warrior is buried.
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