Most movies and series (Spartacus comes to mind) portray the life of a gladiator as short and brutal with a high chance of not surviving the next fight. And while a gladiators` life was indeed brutal, hard, and usually pretty short the mortality rate of gladiators tends to get exaggerated.
Let`s find out what survival chance a roman gladiator had.
During the 1. Century AD a Gladiator who entered the arena had a 10% chance of dying in the fight, which increased to 25% for a defeated gladiator. Most roman Gladiators died between their 20th and 30th birthday, usually after 5-34 fights.
What percentage of Gladiators died?
The French historian Georges Ville investigated the percentage of gladiators who died during the first century AD. According to Villes, each gladiator had a 10% chance of death when he entered the arena.
But that chance of death increased during the fight! If the fight did not end in the death of one of the fighters, more on that later, the defeated Gladiators` fate was up to the organizer of the games to decide.
For political reasons the organizer would usually take the mood oft he crowed into account when he decided if the defeated gladiator should live or die. More on why the organizer did that here in my article.
During the first century AD, a defeated gladiator had a 25% chance of getting killed, that by the way was the moment when the famous thumb gestures happened (at least in movies).
It is important to mention that the chance of survival got worse over the centuries!
Georges Villes estimates that a gladiator during the third century AD had a 33-50 % chance of dying.
It is not known why the gladiator fights became more brutal. Some historians believe that the growing brutality of the gladiator fights was influenced by a long time of inner peace from around 27 BC to 180 AD. Their argumentation is that since the citizens never experienced a war themselves they became more and more lustful for blood.
Another theory is that the emperors wanted to harden the citizens who had gotten accustomed to peace by showing them more brutal gladiator fights.
Both Theories can not be proven. But for some reason, the gladiator fights became more and more brutal.
How often did Gladiators fight?
The number of fights a gladiator was able to fight in varies greatly.
We know from one gladiator who during the reign of emperor Trajan (ruled from 98 AD to 117 AD) fought on nine consecutive days. Absolving nine fights in nine consecutive days was so unusual that the gladiator was granted his freedom after the 9th day.
If you are interested in the limited career opportunities a released gladiator had you can check out my article here.
Another gladiator was killed at the age of 21 after getting defeated in his fourth fight. And a third gladiator died, according to his gravestone, at the age of 30. He had fought in 34 fights, had won 21, 9 were undecided, and 4 were losses where he had fought well enough to get away with his life.
Accounting for the times Gladiators had to rest between fights for their wounds to heal an annual number of 2-4 fights per gladiator seems reasonable.
During the last paragraph, you might have wondered how gladiator fights could end undecided.
Did Gladiators always fight to the death?
Gladiators didn`t always fight to the death as the 75% percent survival rate of defeated gladiators indicates.
I wrote an entire article about the question if Gladiators always fought to the death (and the one type of fight were they would have to fight to the death). Please feel free to check out that article here.
The reason why gladiators didn`t always fight to the death is simple:
Training and renting out gladiators was a business! The owner of a gladiator school, the so-called lanista did not only have to find capable recruits he also had to feed them during their training! Here you can find out more about how gladiators trained.
If you are interested in what men became gladiators and if there were any free men among the gladiators you can check out my article here.
And if you wonder what gladiators ate to fuel their intense training you find the answer in my post here. Speaking of training, I also have a post about the arduous training gladiators had to undergo here.
So Gladiators didn`t always fight to the death. But there was one exception: The munera sine missione. In a munera sine missione several gladiators entered the arena but only one of them would leave alive!
If you are interested in the rules of normal gladiator fights then you can find them here in my article.
The equipment of the different types of gladiators, more on them here, was also created in a way to minimalize the chance of receaving a mortal injury during the fight. More on how that was accomplished here in my article.
With all of that in mind, the next question obviously has to be the average life expectancy of a gladiator.
The average Life expectancy of a Gladiator?
It is difficult to give a clear answer to the average life expectancy of a gladiator. The reason for that is, that a good amount of gladiators did not survive their first fight in the arena.
Young Gladiators without a fan club were generally the most likely to die but also the ones who would not leave any traces of their existence.
Let me explain:
The organizer of the gladiator fight would consider the vote of the crowd when he decided if a defeated gladiator should survive or be killed, more on why that was a smart move here. Veterans of the arena usually had a solid fanbase that would try to influence the organizer of the games in favor of the gladiator.
New gladiators during their first fight didn`t have that kind of support from the crowd. And their worth was also lower than that of a seasoned gladiator meaning that a new gladiator was much more replaceable. The problem is that new gladiators didn`t have a chance to collect enough glory and money for an individual funeral and many were also not members of the funeral collectives yet.
Check out my article here for more information on what happened to the bodies of dead gladiators and why gladiators (like roman soldiers) organized themselves in funeral collectives.
It is estimated that most gladiators died between their 20th and 30th birthday, only a small group survived grew older.
But some were older and some were younger when they died.
One good example of an extremely old gladiator is a man named Flavius Sigerius who, according to his gravestone, died at the age of 60. The interesting detail is that, according to the inscription on his gravestone, Flavius Sigerius had retired as a gladiator shortly before his death!
It is important to note that Flavius Sigerius belonged to an extremely small group of men who were lucky enough to survive their 30th birthday! Check out my article here to find out more on what happened with retired gladiators and why they often ended up as referees at the gladiatorial games.
What age did most Gladiators die at?
Most gladiators died young, usually between their 20th and 30th birthday, after an average of 5-34 fights.
It is important to note that there was a large group of young gladiators who died during their first fight.
Although the training that gladiators had to endure, more on the brutal training methods here, prepared them for their first fight they still were the group with the highest mortality rate!
Apart from the training the equipment of the different types of gladiators also helped to keep them alive. Check out my article here for more information.
Did Gladiators get good medical treatment?
Gladiators received excellent medical treatment! The gladiator schools usually had dedicated surgeons and physicians like the famous Galen of Pergamon.
A good example of how good the medical treatment of gladiators was is the gladiator school of Pergamon. The gladiators at that school were treated by no lesser than Galen of Pergamon, one of the most well-known ancient physicians whose work also had a huge impact during the middle ages, more on that here.
After spending several years treating gladiators Galen would relocate to Rome where he would become the personal surgeon of not one but several roman emperors.
The first of these emperors was Marcus Aurelius who Galen accompanied on his campaign against the germanic tribe of the Marcomanni. It is easy to imagine that the roman emperor wanted to secure the services of a surgeon who was familiar with all kinds of injuries that could be inflicted by weapons. And who better to engage than a surgeon who had successfully treated gladiators! Source.
So in conclusion: The mortality rate of gladiators was high but not as high as one would expect. The training, the medical care, and the equipment that a gladiator could rely on did its` part to keep the chance of mortal injuries low.
The sophisticated equipment of the different types of gladiators is a story for another article. If you are interested you can find that 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).