It’s one of those things that most people assume – when gladiators fought one of the combatants had to die.
Not true. It’s just not true.
Was death a real possibility? Of course. It was a contest of strength, skill, and courage. Plus, they used real weapons.
But it was not mandatory, or even desired, for gladiators fight to the death. Off the top of my head, here are three reasons why:
- Gladiators were expensive to train. They spent months preparing for their first match, training with weapons and building strength. They were every bit as specialized in their occupation as soldiers or craftsmen.
- Gladiators who were killed during a games had to be compensated for by the organizer to the owner of the gladiator (if the gladiator was a slave). We know there were different classes of gladiators (ranking from first to fourth) and each class cost progressively more money to ‘hire’ for a games and more money had to be paid out if they were killed.
- There were strict rules and protocol when it came to ending fights. If an opponent had been defeated, it could be left up to the audience to determine whether or not the gladiator faced death. If he (or sometimes she) had fought well, the crowd would want the gladiator spared to fight another day.
And I’m going to throw in another tidbit, which maybe one day will get its own article: not all gladiators were slaves. There was a class of gladiator termed auctorati, who volunteered to join a ludus (gladiator school) for a certain number of years or matches. Though they faced social stigma for doing so, the money and fame awarded to successful gladiators was attractive enough that many decided to go for it. Even someone heavily in debt would think twice about becoming a gladiator if it were a certainty that one of the pair would die in the arena.
I may revisit this topic in the future, because gladiators have certainly caught our imagination, but they are a very misunderstood aspect of Roman culture.