Gladiator fights were extremely popular in ancient Rome. And to this day they haven`t lost any of their appeals. Gladiator fights are still a regular topic of movies and series.
But while most movies like to portray the duel between Gladiators as a matter of life and death the reality offered more possible outcomes.
Every Gladiator who entered a fight could expect one of 5 possible outcomes…
- Death during the fight (rare)
- Draw (determined by the referees)
- One Gladiator is defeated but granted mercy
- One Gladiator is defeated and denied mercy
Let`s take a closer look.
The first and best way a duel could end for a Gladiator was his victory. That victory did not only ensure his survival, he would also receive a small amount of prize money.
You can find out more about the amount and the buying power of that prize money in my article here.
The chances for winning a duel were pretty even for both participating Gladiators. That equal chance of winning can mostly be attributed to the different types and equipment of Gladiators.
Every Gladiator was assigned to a certain type of Gladiator with very specific equipment and a closely defined type of Gladiator he would fight.
For example. A Murmillo, a heavily armored swordsman with a large rectangular shield, would fight a Hoplomachus, a type of Gladiator that was armored with a thrusting lance and a small sound shield.
The idea was that the better protected Murmillo due to the weight of his equipment was much slower than the Hopomachus.
Now you might ask yourself how it was decided if a Gladiator had won the duel. There were 2 ways how a Gladiator could win.
Either the defeated Gladiator was killed during the fight (which was rare, see Nr. 2) or the referees decided that the inferior Gladiator was no longer able to fairly partake in the fight.
Do you wonder about the rules the referees had to enforce to ensure a balanced chance of victory? You can find more information in my article here.
When one of the Fighters was too badly wounded to continue the referees would stop the fight, separate the two fighters and wait on further instructions from the Organizer of the games. More on what could happen to the defeated Gladiator in points Nr. 4 & 5.
Now just because the victorious Gladiator won the fight didn`t necessarily mean that he wasn`t wounded. One might think that due to infections even the mortality rate of victorious Gladiator was pretty high.
But that was not the case. Actually, both Gladiators that entered a fight had a decent chance of surviving! You can find out more about the surprisingly low mortality rate of roman Gladiators in my article here.
Death during the fight (rare)
Gladiators fought with real, sharp, weapons. And most types of Gladiators, the Provocator being the exception, fought bare-chested. Because of that, one could think that the mortality rate of Gladiators DURING the fight was rather high.
But the opposite was the case! It was extremely rare that a Gladiator was killed during a fight. That had multiple reasons.
First of all the swords that Gladiators used were rather short and light. So while they were certainly able to cut they would usually not cut really deep. I wrote an entire article where I go into depth on why these cuts were usually not fatal. Please check it out!
Secondly, the tips of the swords were often rounded. That was done to prevent the Gladiators from landing a lucky blow that would end the fight early.
And third of all the equipment and the sophisticated system of protection and exposure also prevented wounds that would immediately lead to death.
You can find more information about that sophisticated system of protection and exposure in my article here.
And the last reason why Gladiators usually not died during the fights was the referees. Now the presence of referees is one of the topics that is barely covered in movies. That is a real shame since these referees were extremely important.
They did not only watch over the observance of the rules, more about the rules of the Gladiator fights here in my article.
The referees did also make sure that the fight was ended if one of the Gladiators was too severely wounded to continue. Because of all these reasons Gladiators rarely died DURING the fight.
Draw (determined by the referees)
There were cases in which Gladiator fights ended in a draw. Either because both Gladiators were too badly wounded to be able to continue fighting. Or because both Gladiators had already fought so long and so valiantly that the crowd demanded that the fight should be ended without one of the Gladiators being defeated.
The Organizer of the Gladiator fights usually fulfilled the wishes of the crowd.
The reason why the Organizers of the Gladiator fights were so keen on fulfilling the wishes of the crowd can be found in the reason why Gladiators fought at all. You can find the answer to the reasons why Gladiators fought and how these reasons changed over time in my article here.
A draw in a Gladiator fight was usually determined by the referees.
Yes, you read right. Gladiator fights did not only have referees but also a strict code of rules. You can find out more about the less-known rules of Gladiator fights in my article here.
While the usual Gladiator fights allowed the possibility of a draw there was one exception.
The so-called „munera sine missione“, a fight without mercy, did not have the option of a draw between the fighters.
One of the Gladiators had to die! Now that rule obviously limited or shall I say destroyed any sort of crowd participation. That crowd participation was actually a major part of why Gladiator fights were so popular.
In my article here I put together 10 less known reasons why civilized people like the Romans enjoyed events that were as brutal as the Gladiator fights.
But because that crowd participation was such an important part of the Gladiator fights the first Roman emperor Augustus prohibited the munera sine missione.
But while the draw was quite rare the last two ways a Gladiator fight could end were much more common. Both concern the defeated Gladiator.
One Gladiator is defeated but granted mercy
A defeated Gladiator who wasn`t killed during the fight could hope to be granted mercy. His chance of receiving mercy depended on the time he lived in and on how well he had fought.
While defeated Gladiators during the time of the Roman Republic (established in 510 BC, more on that in my article here) had a 25% chance of dying that chance increased to 33-50% during the third century AD.
More on why the chance of dying increased so drastically in my article here.
In theory the decision over the life of the defeated Gladiator laid solely in the hands of the man who organized the fight. But due to political reasons, the organizer would include the opinion of the crowd in his verdict.
You can find out more about why Roman politicians were so keen on spending enormous sums of money on Gladiator fights in my article here.
There you can also find out why the motivation for organizing Gladiator fights chanced throughout the Roman monarchy, the Roman republic, and the Roman empire.
By the way, when we think about how movies portray the Roman crowd at Gladiator games, more on how the gladiatorial games worked here, one could get the idea that the more brutal and bloody a duel was the more entertained the crowd was.
That is actually extremely far from the truth!
Gladiators who were able to defeat their opponent without injuring him got the highest praise!
Now one could ask why a Gladiator would admit defeat if he wasn`t wounded. Well, a major reason for giving up was exhaustion.
Gladiators carried a lot of equipment, some types up to 44 pounds. Please check out my article here for more information on the different types of Gladiators and their equipment.
Another reason, especially for the so-called Secutor, was that he would not get enough air through the small openings in his helmet. By the way, the helmets of Gladiators had much more functions than just providing protection. More on that here.
And Here you can find out more about how the assigned enemy Gladiator type of the Secutor, the Retiarius, was responsible for the extremely unique (and restrictive) helmet of the Secutor.
Now we just assumed that the defeated Gladiator had either fought well enough or was popular enough, more on how the popularity of a Gladiator influenced his survival rate here, to be granted mercy.
But the Gladiator could also be denied mercy. And that leads us to the final way a Gladiator fight could end.
One Gladiator is defeated and denied mercy
Now we already established that due to the rules and the interference of the referees death during a fight was rare. But some defeated Gladiators were denied mercy. That procedure is quite prominently portrayed in movies when the viewers point their thumbs either up or down.
But what influenced the decision of the crowd? The answer to that lies in the difficult question of why Gladiator fights were so popular.
There were several reasons which I put together in my article here, please check it out. Of these 10 reasons in the article, I think only the chance for interaction with the emperor, the chance to see excellent swordsmanship, and the feeling of might when controlling a human life are relevant.
- Chance of interaction with the emperor
If the situation of the people of Rome, especially the lower class, was decent and the emperor was popular then the crowd was more forgiving and less angry. That obviously increased the chance for the defeated Gladiator
2. Chance to see excellent swordsmanship
A major appeal of the Gladiator fights was that these men were excellent fighters. The level of excellence was accomplished by years of hard training, more on the training Gladiators had to endure in my article here.
Because of that, the crowd demanded an entertaining performance that showed a high level of skill. As already mentioned, extremely skilled Gladiators were able to defeat their opponent without hurting him. Gladiators who were capable of that received the highest praise!
But that also had a downside. The crowd was less forgiving when a Gladiator showed a poor performance. Since Gladiators usually faced opponents of similar skill and experience, more on that here, there was no excuse for poor swordsmanship.
3. Chance to control a human life.
The life of most Romans was hard and characterized by insecure employment, expensive medical care, and no political influence.
Because of that, it seems quite realistic that the chance of deciding over a human life had a massive appeal to the crowd. Please read my article here for more information.
If you want to find out more about how Gladiators really fought (and why fencing is not a precise description) you might want to check out my article here. There you can also find reenactment videos to visualize how Gladiators fought.
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).