Many movies portray the Idea of Gladiator fights being one big carnage and that the fights automatically ended in the death of one of the combatants.
That wasn`t usually the case.
Let`s find out if roman gladiators fought to the death.
Gladiators rarely fought to the death, receiving mortal wounds during the fight was the absolute exception. But some Gladiators were denied mercy and were killed after the fight had ended. There was also the munera sine missione (prohibited after 27 BC), a type of fight where one of the fighters had to die.
Did Roman Gladiators fight to the death?
It was rare that a gladiator actually died due to mortal wounds during a duel. Usually, the referees would end the fight as soon as one of the combatants was too badly wounded to continue.
In my article here you can find more details on the 5 options how a gladiator fight could end.
The Idea was that the fight between an uninjured and an injured gladiator was not fair. When it came to gladiator fights Romans valued the equality of the chance for success!
But just because a Gladiator did not die during the fight didn`t mean that he survived his appearance in the arena.
His fate was up to the organizer of the fight to decide upon.
There was one exception!
The so-called munera sine missone was a rare type of gladiatorial game where giving up was not an option.
The only way for a Gladiator to get out a munera sine missione was to either die or kill his opponents. Giving up was not allowed. The munera sine missione was prohibited by the first roman emperor Augustus.
Augustus did not prohibit the munera sine missione out of the goodness of his heart but for political reasons.
An important part of the games was the interaction between the organizer and viewers.
While the organizer decided the fate of a surrendering gladiator he also included the mood of the crowd. The reason for that goes back to the question of why gladiators fought at all. You can find the answer to that here in my article.
Why did roman Gladiators rarely fight to the death?
The reason why most Gladiators did not die during the fight can be found in the rules of the fights and also the sophisticated system of armor and weapons that they used.
Please note that the article is only about if Gladiators fought until one of them died DURING the fight. If you want to find out more about the percentage of Gladiators that died after the fight was decided you might want to check out my article here.
How did Gladiators not kill each other during the fight?
The main reason why the probability of receiving a lethal wound during the fight was low were the weapons.
The sword that most types of Gladiators used was rather short. Actually, we would probably call it a dagger instead of a sword.
These gladiator swords were about 11,8 inches long and weighed around 1.3 to 1.5 pounds.
The kind of injury that a weapon like that could inflict was just as limited as the „Fencing“ one could do with that kind of sword. Click here to find out how Gladiators fought and why the word fencing is not accurate for their style of combat.
The most dangerous wounds that such a light sword could inflict were stabs. Generally one could say that the likelihood of surviving stabs was rather low.
That was one of the reasons why Gladiators would sometimes fight with swords that had a rounded tip.
The owner of the Gladiators (remember, most of the Gladiators were slaves, click here for more on how slaves and also free men ended up as Gladiators with servile status) and also the organizer of the games had a financial interest in the survival of as many Gladiators as possible.
The protective equipment of a gladiator played a major role in preventing mortal injuries.
While most types of Gladiators fought with a bare chest, click here to find out about the one exception, their limbs were well protected.
A good example of that is the so-called Manica. The Manica was a padded sleeve that would cover the arm of a Gladiator from the fingertips to his shoulder. It would be worn on the sword-arm since the other arm was protected by the shield.
Experiments have shown that the Manica is extremely resistant to cuts. Even direct stabs can hardly pierce the manica. The sword would have to hit the manica with full strength and in the perfect degree to have a chance of piercing it and wounding the arm.
Marcus Junkelmann, a german experimental archeologist, made the point that during a fight in which the arm of a Gladiator was obviously constantly moving it would be highly unlikely that a stab could be placed in the necessary degree to stab through the Manica.
So even when Gladiators did not use swords with rounded tips the danger of actually receiving a mortal stab was quite low.
But what about cuts?
Generally, it is important to note that ancient physicians, the Gladiators usually had pretty capable ones, could deal with cuts.
The real danger of a cut, kina like with any wound until the invention of antibiotics, was the risk of infection.
But since we are talking about an immediate death we can ignore the risk of infection for now. If you want to learn more about the mortality rate of a Gladiator not only during a fight but also after a fight you might want to check out my article by clicking here.
When we talk about cuts we once again have to remember the weapons that were used. The short and quite light sword that was used by the Gladiators was surely capable of cutting.
These cuts that the swords of gladiators could inflict would usually not be so deep that they would be immediately life-threatening.
Especially since Gladiators were fed in a way that resulted in a rather thick layer of fat under their skin. That layer acted as an additional layer of protection against cuts.
Click here to read my article where I go into depth about the surprising diets and not very Hollywood-like physiques Gladiators had.
Rules of the Gladiator fights
Duels between Gladiators were not pure anarchy.
The fights between Gladiators followed a strict code of rules.
The observance of these rules was strictly supervised by two referees, the summa rudis and the secunda rudis (first and second staff, named after the staff the referees had to enforce the obedience of the rules).
The Referees would intervene and separate the fighting Gladiators on different occasions. One of these occasions was if a gladiator was wounded in a way that impaired his fighting capability.
If you want to find out more about the referees and the little-known rules of the gladiatorial fights I would recommend you my article that you can find here.
In the case of a Gladiator getting badly wounded, the referees would stop the fight immediately without giving the superior Gladiator the chance of further injuring his opponent.
What happened then has highly been reproduced by several movies. The organizer of the games and the crowd would decide the fate of the defeated Gladiator.
Due to the light swords and the interference of the referees the chances that a Gladiator was killed DURING the fight were rather slim.
Yet independent of the rather low mortality rate during the fight the general mortality rate of Gladiators was quite jaw-dropping. Click here for my article about the shocking life expectancy of a Gladiator.
The major reason for the high mortality rate was that contrary to modern-day martial arts there was no limit on how long the fights could last.
There were five possible scenarios that ended the duel between two Gladiators…Check out my article here to find out which of the five ways was the most desirable.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating world of the Roman Gladiators.
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).