The last time I was inside the Colosseum in Rome I overheard a tour guide giving great insights into the world of the Roman Gladiators. But there was one question where he started to struggle.
An older gentleman asked him why as civilized people as the Romans could enjoy such a horrific sight like a Gladiator fight.
I still remember that question (and that the guide did not have a good answer) and so I decided to give it a try myself.
The main reasons why Gladiator fights were so popular are…
- Chance for interaction with the leading class (senators/emperor)
- Distraction from day to day life
- The feeling of roman might
- Chance for the lower class to decide over a human life
- Chance to see excellent swordsmanship
- The feeling of personal superiority
- A chance for the roman poor to get meat
- Chance to see exotic animals
But let`s go into more detail!
Let`s start with the most obvious point. A day of gladiatorial games was a great break in between an otherwise uniform, worried life. Do you want to learn more about the different brutal events that made up an entire day of gladiatorial games? You can find more information in my article here.
It is important to realize that a large part of Romes` population consisted of poor day laborers who never knew if they would make enough money to survive another day.
These poor Romans, some Historians estimate up to 200.000, lived a life without financial security, political participation, and little to no chance of climbing the social ladder.
The lavish days at the arena, watching not only gladiator fights but also animal hunts were a welcome break that distracted the poor from their worries.
That by the way is why „panem et circenses“ (= bread and games) is often seen as a crucial part of keeping a large number of disadvantaged Romans from rioting.
Now that certainly was not the main reason why Gladiator fights were held, but it surely was a welcome side effect. Do you wonder why Gladiators fought at all? You can find the answer here in my article.
Chance for interaction with the leading class (senators/emperor)
While the aspect of entertainment is wildly known (and often shown in movies) the chance to interact with the leading class is far less known.
Think about it. A regular poor Roman and a senator (or after the fall of the Roman republic an emperor) would rarely cross paths in their day-to-day life.
And an ordinary Roman could hardly show his approval or disapproval of state politics. Sure, he could vote. But due to the construction of the political system of the Roman republic the upper class, the senators and knights, would win as long as they voted uniformly.
You can find information on the political system of the roman republic in my article here.
The gladiator fights, or to be more precise the 5 different ways a gladiator fight could end, were a prime opportunity to show approval or disapproval. Click here to find out more about the 5 ways a Gladiator fight could end.
For example. Let´s say a Gladiator fought valiantly but was defeated (but not killed during the fight). Now the aristocratic organizer of the fight had to decide if the gladiator was allowed to live or if he had to die.
A wise organizer would obviously consider the mood of the crowd. That by the way was the moment when, according to movies, the well-known thumb signals happened.
The fate of the Gladiator was often used by the crowd to project their mood about state politics.
Distraction from day to day life
As already mentioned in 1., the day-to-day life of the normal Roman was full of worries and dangers.
Just think about it, you work as a day laborer. Every day you go to bed without knowing if you can find work the next day. You worry about getting injured because even though Rome had excellent physicians you would not have the money to pay for their services.
And now you are presented with the opportunity to leave your worries behind for a few hours. By visiting the Gladiator fights you dive into an exciting world full of exotic fighters and animals.
And even though you are on a low stage in Roman society you now have the visual proof of belonging to a mighty global power.
The feeling of Roman might
Visiting the Gladiator fights must have given every Roman a sense of Roman superiority. Just imagine. You sit inside the Colosseum in Rome and suddenly animals from all corners of the world appear in front of you.
The option to bring any animal, even as big as an elephant, to Rome was clear proof of the power that Rome had.
And it was also proof of how large the Roman empire stretched.
When bears from the Roman provinces in Germany shared the arena with Lions from Syria, bulls from Spain, and Elephants from Africa then the reach of the Roman empire became evident for everybody.
Another reason where the Gladiators. Contrary to modern belief Gladiators were split up into strict types that differed in their equipment and opponent.
Many of these Gladiator types represented former enemies of Rome! The Hoplomachus for example reminded the Romans of the Greek hoplites.
The fact that men who represented defeated enemies of Rome would fight in the Roman arenas to entertain the Roman crowd was a clear parade of the roman might!
Another reason why Gladiator fights were so popular didn`t directly have to do with the fights themselves but with the environment in which the fights were held.
It is important to realize that during the time of the roman republic Gladiator fights were held by politicians to increase their popularity among the voters!
Here you can find my article with more information on how the reasons for financing gladiator fights changed during the early Roman republic, the late Roman republic, and the Roman empire.
Apart from presenting Gladiators and exotic animals a large appeal of the gladiatorial games was that gifts were distributed among the visitors.
These gifts varied in their worth from an amphora of olive oil or Garum to a slave. Do you wonder what Garum is? Garum was basically an ancient roman instant seasoning. I have to warn you, the taste of Garum is pretty unique. But if you want to try it you can find it here on amazon.
These gifts were distributed by throwing wooden balls with numbers on them into the crowd. Whoever caught the ball could then walk up to a stand where he could trade the ball for the prize with the matching number on it.
It is easy to imagine that these gifts were a welcome relief for the poor Romans and another way for the organizer to gain popularity.
Chance for the lower class to decide over a human life
Deciding over a human life was somewhat normal for Roman aristocrats. Not only because all aristocrats were slaveowners but also because all roman politicians (all of them were aristocrats) had a military background.
To start and drive forward a political career a candidate had to spend a certain amount of time on campaigns.
And since these young aristocrats would usually not serve as enlisted infantrymen (there were exceptions) they would start as low-ranking officers like Military tribunes.
Even though these military tribunes usually didn`t hold a lot of power they still had power over the lives of a few soldiers.
The normal, non-aristocratic, Roman would usually never come into a military- of political position where he would have to decide over the fate of a human.
During the Gladiator fights the normal Roman could decide over the life of a human. If a Gladiator fight ended with the defeat of one of the fighters (but the defeated was not killed during the fight) then the organizer had to decide if the defeated Gladiator was allowed to live or if he should be killed.
Please check out my article here for more information about the 5 different ways a Gladiator fight could end
Due to the reason why Gladiator fights were held, more on that here, the organizer had an interest in considering the mood of the crowd.
So the crowd could indirectly decide over the fate of the defeated Gladiator!
Chance to see excellent swordsmanship
Gladiators were extremely well-trained warriors. Their training, more on that here, was designed in a way to make the duel between two Gladiators as interesting and entertaining as possible.
To further increase the technical level that was expected of a Gladiator Gladiators were split into different types. You can find more information about the different types of Gladiators and their unique equipment in my article here.
Additionally, these types of Gladiators had certain opposing types assigned to them.
The idea was that by pairing up contrasts (for example well protected vs unprotected) the fight would be more exciting. Here you can find my article with more information on what types of Gladiators fought each other.
And here you can find more information and reenactment videos about how Gladiators really fought.
The level of training and dedication that a Gladiator had is similar to modern-day martial artists.
So one could say that Gladiator fights had a similar appeal to modern-day martial arts. Yes, it is highly impressive what these men and women can do. But the average spectator prefers to watch instead of trying to fight himself.
The feeling of personal superiority
I personally think that the feeling of personal superiority played a massive role in the popularity of the Gladiator fights.
As already mentioned, the life of the average Roman was hard and full of worries.
And apart from being free, the poor Romans didn`t differ a lot from the slaves that were socially beneath them.
My point is that in day-to-day life the visual differences between one of the free but extremely poor Romans (and there were a lot of them) and slaves were quite small.
In the arena, the difference between the free roman citizens and the slaves was quite obvious.
Not only did the enslaved Gladiators fight on the sand of the arena while the roman citizens were watching from the ranks. The Gladiators were also half-naked while the roman citizens have covered in at least a tunica.
Do you wonder if every Gladiator was a slave and how one could become a Gladiator? Please check out my article here.
Watching half-naked slaves fighting in the arena while being a tunica-wearing roman citizen gave the visitor of the Gladiator fights a sense of personal superiority over the socially outcasted Gladiators!
A chance for the Roman poor to get meat
The chance to get free meat is strongly tied to the gifts that were distributed among the visitors of the Gladiator fights. As mentioned, these gifts were a welcome help for poor Romans.
But in order to understand that point, it is important to realize what the average diet of the roman poor looked like. You can find more information here in my article.
To sum it up, poor Romans barely ate meat. They just couldn`t afford it.
Now you got a large part of the population that can`t afford meat and you have gladiatorial games during which large amounts of animals were killed. Do you wonder what animals were forced to partake in the gladiatorial games? Here you can find my article with the answer!
Since these animals were freshly killed it would have been a waste to just throw them into the mass graves on the edge of the city.
Splitting up the carcasses of the killed animals and distributing the meat among the visitors was an easy (and cheap) way to get rid of the carcasses and to gain further popularity among the poor!
If you want more information on how the meat of these animals was distributed and which social classes relied (and didn`t rely) on that meat source you can check out my article here.
Chance to see exotic animals
As mentioned above, importing and presenting exotic animals was a popular way for roman senators and emperors to demonstrate the extent and power of Rome!
Victorious Roman generals would often import animals from the region where they had fought. These animals would then be presented in the triumphal procession through Rome.
After that, they would often find their end inside the arena where they would have to fight either men or other animals. But that is a story for another time. You can read more about how animals were used in the gladiatorial games in my article here.
And if you are interested in how a day of Gladiatorial games worked (and the events that took part during that day) you can check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K. Nossov; Gladiator: The complete Guide to Ancient Rome`s Bloody fighters (2011).
F. Meijer; Gladiatoren. Das Spiel um Leben und Tod (Amsterdam 2003).
M. Junkelmann, Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren (Mainz am Rhein 2000).