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How did the gladiatorial games work? (Explained)

Many movies about gladiators make the mistake of portraying gladiator fights as a stand-alone event. That wasn`t the case. The duels between the gladiators were only the high point of an entire day or even multiple days of different entertainment shows.

While the Gladiators would only fight in the afternoon as the high point of the event animal hunts were offered during the morning. And during lunchtime public execution would be held inside of the arena.

Let`s find out more about how the gladiatorial games worked!

How long could gladiatorial games be?

There were big events like the inauguration of the Colosseum that could last for days or even weeks. Click here to learn more about the colosseum and in which other surprising types of buildings Gladiators actually fought. But here I want to focus on the more normal gladiatorial games that lasted only one day.

The problem is that I can`t just start the article on the day of the event!

Just like today advertisement was a big part of this kind of major event. Especially regarding the goal that the public official who paid for the games had.

Weeks before the gladiatorial games

In the weeks before the event, the editor (the organizer) of the gladiatorial games would advertise the event.

That was usually done with wall inscriptions. Romans loved producing graffiti and advertisements also used that strategy to spread the message.

When you are at Excavation sights like Pomeji or Herculaneum you can still see some of the graffiti that are advertising gladiator fights to this day!

The Inscriptions would usually read like: The gladiators of aedile so and so will be fighting at the 12. of June in Pompeji. There will be animal hunts, a sun sail, and presents.

Now especially the part were presents are promised might sound a little bit suspicious. But there were times when presents were distributed to the visitors. And if you know the idea of why gladiatorial games were held it makes perfect sense that the organizer would also hand out presents.

If you are interested in why gladiatorial fights and the surrounding events took place at all you will find answers here in my article.

The advertised sun sail on the other hand is there for the comfort of the visitor. The event usually lasted the entire day and the italian sun was and still is quite aggressive.

By the way, these sun sails were quite common.

The Colosseum in Rome for example had a sun sail that was so large that an entire department of roman marines was stationed close to Rome only to operate the sun sail. Click here to get to my article and to discover more about the incredibly efficient Colosseum.

Days before the gladiatorial games

In the days before the actual event, the organizer would publish the names, types, and opponents of the Gladiators that would fight.

It is a common mistake to believe that gladiators were armored in an accidental matter. There were actually precisely defined types of Gladiators. Click here to read my article about the different types of Gladiators.

And Gladiators would also not fight against a random other Gladiator.

Each Type of Gladiator had a certain opponent, for example, the Murmillo vs the Hoplomachus. Click here to check out my article on what types of Gladiators faced each other.

With the publishing of the names, types, and opponents of the Gladiators the fans would start debating the outcome of the duels.

Just like modern-day athletes successful gladiators (Those who lived long enough) would have a fan base.

And just like modern-day sports fans, the fans of the Gladiators loved to debate the quality and the chances of success of the respective Gladiator.

Speaking of the fans of Gladiators: There is another similarity to modern-day fans. Just like them the ancient fans would also sometimes riot when their favorite Gladiator was defeated or even killed.

Check out my article on the surprisingly low mortality rate of Gladiators.

These debates about the chances and quality usually filled the days prior to the day of the event. But these debates reached their peak in the evening before the gladiatorial fights.

The evening before the gladiatorial games

In the evening before the big day, all the Gladiators who would fight on the next day had a public feast.

During that feast, the Gladiators would be able to consume food, for example, meat, sweets, and alcohol, that they wouldn`t get on a day-to-day basis. Check out my article here on the diet of Gladiators and find out if Gladiators really were as ripped as Hollywood likes to portray them.

But the public feast was also an opportunity for the public to inspect the Gladiators and to find out who seemed to be in good shape. That was especially important since Romans loved to bet on the outcome of the duels!

The early morning of the gladiatorial games

The day of the Games would be started with a procession from the city center to the arena that usually was on the edge of the city.

Check out my article here to find out how arenas differed between the eastern and the western part of the roman empire.

That Procession would include the organizer of the games, musicians, servants who carried the weapons of the gladiators, and the gladiators themself. (Gladiators would be separated from their weapons for obvious reasons).

And of course, pictures of the roman gods were also carried along, just like during any other public event.

Some sources indicate that the weapons and armor would be inspected to prevent any sort of manipulation but unfortunately, it is not clear when that inspection would be performed.

The animal hunts in the morning

Since the duels between gladiators were the absolute high point and the most expensive part of the event they would be held during prime time in the afternoon.

The Time until then had to be filled. In the morning the actual day of gladiatorial games would be opened with animal hunts. 

The animal hunts consisted of duels between different species of animals and duels between men and animals. Click here to check out my article on the animal hunts and the men who fought in them.

Animal vs Animal

A Popular way of convincing animals to fight each other was to chain them together.

For example, one leg of a bear and a bull would be connected with a short-chain. Both animals would be incited by men with torches, whips, and other devices until they would attack each other.

If you are interested in what happened to the carcasses of the animals that died in the Colosseum you can find the answer here in my article.

Another variation of the animal hunts was the fight between men and animals.

Men vs Animals

Aside from hounding animals against each other Romans also enjoyed the fight between man and animal. One reason for that was the idea that hunting large and dangerous animals fostered soldierly virtues like courage, stamina, and a certain contempt for death.

All these virtues were shown when the venatores. Venatores were lightly armored men who usually only had a thrusting lance or a sword when they faced Tigers, Lions, Elephants, bulls, and other wild animals.

It is important to emphasize that the men who fought against animals during the morning were not criminals!

They were the so-called venatores and had a similar social status to the regular gladiators. Just like Gladiators, the venatores would also get proper training to prepare them for the animals they had to face. And even their mortality rate was similar to that of an actual gladiator.

If you are interested in the men who had the misfortune of fighting wild animals like lions, bears, and even elephants you might want to check out my article here.

These animal fights would extend over the entire morning. The rate of consumption of these animals was huge.

Sources claim that Julius Caesar once used 400 Lions during the animal fights of one day.

Now it is hard to say if that number is actually true or a little bit exaggerated but the number of animals that had to be captured and shipped to the arenas was massive!

Keep in mind, Rome wasn`t the only City that held Gladiatorial Games and animal hunts. These events were held all over the roman empire. If you want to learn more about the buildings in which these events took place you might want to click here and check out my article.

The entertainment during the lunch break

The animal hunts during the morning were just the first step in a day of events that we today would find repulsive. And the events that followed on the animal hunts were worse.

Just like in modern-day arenas the ancient events would also have a break between the two major halves of the event. And like modern events the ancient events would also have a half-time show.

The only difference is that the roman half-time show consisted of public executions.

It was here, not during the animal hunts, where our stereotype of criminals who were torn apart by wild animals took place.

Click here to check out my article and to get a brief view of the roman criminal law and the different harsh sentences you could get for major crimes.

There were basically two options to get executed during the lunch break:

ad gladios (Execution by sword)

A group of convicts would be up for execution. Two at a time would enter the arena but only one of them had a sword.

The man with the sword would kill the unarmoured other convict and would that have to pass the sword on to the next convict that entered the arena. That newly entered convict would then kill the convict who was already in the arena.

That would go on until only the convict who entered the arena as last would be alive. He would then be executed by eighter one of the Gladiators or a crew member of the event.

While especially the psychological torture of killing somebody and knowing that only minutes later you would be killed in the same way was certainly cruel that was nothing against the other sentence:

ad bestias (Execution by wild animals)

There are different ways how these executions were performed.

One option was to just push the convicts into the arena and then release the wild animals. By the way, to ensure that the animals would do their job they would usually be starved for a few days before a show.

The other option was to tie the convicts to a pale to prevent them from running away. That would usually speed up the entire process.

Both options had one thing in common. The convicts were completely weaponless. Their death was guaranteed!

And that is also the difference to the already mentioned venatores. While both a venatores and a Gladiator had a chance of surviving the arena the men who entered the arena during the lunch break would face certain death.

The actual gladiator fights

The actual fights between gladiators were the absolute highlight of every event. And the organizer did his best to protract the time that gladiators fought as long as possible. He usually did that by only having one pair of Gladiators fight each other. That was also a financial necessity since Gladiators were incredibly expensive.

The Idea was that the visitor should be able to enjoy and admire the high skills that these men had. In order to ensure a fair fight referees would be supervising the observance of the rules. Click here to learn more about the little-known rules of the gladiatorial fights.

The opponents in these duels were also not assigned by chance. There was a strict system of types of Gladiators! Click here to read my article about the most popular types of Gladiators.

And these types would only face certain other types of Gladiators. Check out my article on which Types of Gladiators fought each other.

It is also important to note that Gladiators would usually fight against an opponent of similar experience and quality.

It was rare that a beginner would face an experienced veteran of the arena.

One of the reasons for that was that, although the idea of two men fighting each other potentially to death seems brutal for us, the Romans did not want to see a blood bath.

Romans wanted to see two perfectly trained, highly skilled gladiators of equal quality with equal chances of winning.

The idea that a gladiator should get wounded and bleed a little goes back to the origin of the gladiators as an institution.

Click here to read my article for more information on why gladiators fought in the first place.

With that origin in mind, it is quite interesting to notice that the Gladiators who could win a fight WITHOUT injuring their opponent would get the highest praise.

If you are interested in how the gladiators trained I would invite you to click here to read my article on that subject.

And if you want to learn more about the myth and the reality of how Rome was founded you might want to check out my article by clicking here.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of the gladiators.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


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).