The movie Gladiator shows us how a free man became a slave and was forced to fight as a gladiator. But did that really happen?
How did you become a gladiator and were all Gladiators slaves?
Let`s find out…
Not all roman Gladiators were slaves. Apart from the group of enslaved Gladiators, there was also the group of so-called Auctoratii. Auctoratii were free roman citizens who submitted their freedom to fight as a gladiator.
How did you become a slave in ancient Rome?
There are basically 3 ways to become a slave. You are eighter born as a slave, captured and enslaved during war or you get sentenced into slavery for a crime you committed.
Born into slavery
The children of a female slave were also slaves.
Throughout antiquity one of the more lucrative side effects of war was the number of POWs who could be sold into slavery. That was not seen as immoral, it was common.
All famous figures from Alexander the Great to Caius Julius Caeser had no hesitations when it came to selling the hostile survivors of a battle into slavery.
That fate was also shared by the non-combatants of a defeated tribe.
A good example is the siege of Tyros by Alexander the Great. After the macedonian army had breached the walls and sacked the city approximately 13.000 women and children were sold into slavery.
If you are interested in the macedonian army of Alexander the Great and why it was such a formidable fighting force I would recommend you my article here.
Many of the POWs, especially the male warriors, would find their way into the gladiatorial schools for two reasons:
Reason number 1, warriors who were used to fight and trained to use weapons weren`t really trustworthy house slaves.
Reason number 2, since they already knew how to fight their training inside the gladiatorial schools could be shorter. And that meant more profit.
Roman criminal law was strict. It was common that criminals were condemned to one of the following punishments:
– damnatio ad metellum: slave work in the mines
– damnatio ad gladios: execution by sword, usually publically enforced inside the arena
– damnatio ad bestios: convicts were publically ripped apart by wild animals
– damnatio ad ludos: convicts were assigned to a gladiatorial school
The „damnatio ad ludos“ is the most interesting verdict when it comes to gladiators. In contrary to „damnatio ad gladios“ the „damnatio ad ludos“ did not mean certain death.
Sure, the convict was sent to a gladiatorial school where he would have to spend the next years as a gladiator. But he would also learn to fight like a gladiator. And that gave him a certain chance to survive his appearances in the arena.
Click here to find out how often a gladiator would fight per year.
And if he was lucky to survive long enough he could be released from his status as a slave after a minimum of 5 years. He would usually have had to spend 3 years as a gladiator and 2 as an instructor.
Now the chances of surviving 3 years of combat inside the arena were not great but they were better than the guaranteed death that the damnatio ad gladios meant.
If you want to find out more about how often a gladiator would fight during one year and how his chances of survival were I would recommend you my article here.
Auctoratii were free roman citizens who gave up their freedom and civil rights to be able to become a gladiator.
The auctoratii are probably the most unusual gladiators. The usual image of a gladiator is a slave who is fighting as a gladiator because he was sold to the lanista.
A lanista was an entrepreneur who bought and trained slaves for their use as gladiators.
He made money by either selling the finished gladiators or by renting them out to people who wanted to align gladiatorial games.
But how did free men fit into that structure?
Some free men decided that they wanted to fight as gladiators.
Little is known about their motives for pursuing such a dangerous and often a rather short career. They most likely were attracted by the promise of frequent meals, superb medical care, and the opportunity to win prize money.
For us it might sound foolish to give up ones` personal freedom and risk death for those benefits. But it must be remembered that ancient Rome did not have the kind of welfare that the modern-day western world has.
Other motives might have been a desire for fame and glory and the appeal of the shining lights of the showbusiness.
Interestingly not only lower social classes did join the ranks of the gladiators. Even the sons of knights and senators would occasionally find their way into the arena.
But most of the auctoratii were members of the lower classes who saw their best chance of survival in enlisting into a gladiatorial school.
By the way, auctoratii were named after the money that they got when they signed the contract. The contract was called auctoramentum.
That contract transferred all of the free man’s rights, including his life, to his lanista. The auctoratii would lay down an oath with which he pledged that he could be treated in the same way a regular enslaved gladiator would be.
There is no evidence that there was a difference between an enslaved gladiator and an autocratii when it came to housing, food, medical care, or chance of survival.
The only difference is that an autocratii could be bought out at any time. Although the amount of money that was necessary to buy out an auctoratii was large.
So in conclusion: Not all gladiators were slaves, some were free men who gave up their freedom to fight on the sand of the arena.
The ratio between enslaved Gladiators and Auctoratii
The ratio between enslaved gladiators and auctoratii is unclear and changes depending on the time that we look at.
It is pretty sure that during the time of the roman expansion of the roman republic and the first years of the roman emperors most gladiators were POWs.
But that chanced especially during times without any large wars. Since only a low number of POWs would enter the gladiatorial schools most gladiators during these times would have been regular slaves and auctoratii.
But even though roman writers sometimes claimed that due to the attraction of becoming a gladiator the recruitment for the legions would be limited it is most likely that auctoratii remained a minority throughout the entire time of the gladiators.
Did roman gladiators get paid?
Since all Gladiators had the same social status as slaves they were not paid. Their owner would get the pay for providing his property for the gladiatorial games. A victorious Gladiator would usually get a palm branch and prize money that he was allowed to keep.
Training and renting out Gladiators was a business. It wasn`t a business with high social standing, actually, the lanista (Owner of a Gladiator school, had the same social standing as a pimp.
But aside from the low social standing the profession of lanista, especially during the roman republic, was highly profitable. Gladiators were rented out to noblemen who wanted to organize gladiatorial games. Click here to check out our article on why roman noblemen were so keen on paying tremendous sums of money for these games.
And a lanista would not only get the rent for providing his gladiators. If one of the gladiators would not survive his appearance in the arena (check out our Article on the mortality rate of Gladiators) the owner would also be compensated for the loss of his property.
Once again, it is important to understand that slaves (and gladiators, even the auctoratii) were seen as the property of their owner.
So they would not get a share of the money for which they were rented out.
But the price money that a victorious gladiator got after the fight would, to our best knowledge, not have to be given to the lanista.
The amount of prize money obviously depended on the size of the show. But it was usually high enough that the gladiator could either afford some conveniences or save it up in the hope of one day being able to buy himself out of slavery.
If you want to learn more about the amount of prize money a victorious Gladiator could earn you might want to check out my article (especially the second half of it) here.
By the way, not only gladiators were allowed to keep money that they would get on the side. Usual slaves would sometimes also get small sums of money, for example at certain holidays. Just like Gladiators, they could also use that money to buy themselves some conveniences or to save it in the hope of one day being able to buy themselves out of Slavery.
By the way, one of the reasons for the success of Rome was the ability to climb the social ladder, even as a freed slave. More on that here.
Released Gladiators who returned to the arena
Now I just said that Gladiators didn`t get pay apart from their price money.
But there is one exception to that:
Gladiators were usually released after several years or if they had saved up enough price money to buy themself free.
But even when released from slavery these Gladiators did not become a part of the proper roman society since they still were subject to the Infamia.
Infamia was a social standing that prevented a former Gladiator from many honorable positions in Roman society. The former gladiator was not allowed to join the army, couldn`t work in certain fields and his social standing was still low, ranking on the same level as that of a prostitute.
Also, the skill set that a Gladiator had acquired during the years of training and fighting in the arena did not transfer well into civil society.
More Information on how Gladiator fights worked here and how often a gladiator would fight per year here .
It seems quite reasonable that veterans of the arena who had gained their freedom would return to fight in the gladiatorial games to make a living.
The difference was that now they were free men who could negotiate their own pay without having to leave the bulk of the pay to the lanista.
There are reports of the roman emperor Tiberius paying a retired gladiator the sum of 100.000 Sesterces to return to the arena.
That sum was huge. If you want to find out how much money that was I would recommend you my article here. There you will find a list with the price of daily goods and the wage of a roman soldier to give you an idea of how much 100.000 sesterces was.
Was it free to visit the gladiator fights in ancient Rome?
Visiting gladiator fights in ancient Rome was free. The visitor did get a ticket of admission but he did not have to pay for it. It was used to get the visitors to their seats in the most efficient way.
Gladiatorial games were usually free. But the visitors would still have to get a ticket for admission to get into the Colosseum.
If you want to read more about why visitors needed a ticket despite the spectacle being free you can read my article here. There you can also find information on who was allowed at the games and how the social status (and gender) of the visitor influenced his seating position.
For more information on the types of buildings that gladiators fought in you can check out my article here.
And last but not least I also have two articles on the different and clearly defined types of gladiators here and how gladiators actually fought here.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the exciting 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).