In many ways a Roman Gladiator was a bit like a Big Brother Contestant. By which I don’t mean that in the Big Brother household they are battling to the death with Gladius in hand (although perhaps they should be, Channel 5 take note). Instead I mean that Gladiators were both loved and despised just like the fast fading celebrity who finds themselves in the midst of the Big Brother household. You can’t help but think of the average BB contestant as being someone you totally dislike but at the same time you just can’t bring yourself to turn the TV off (even when they’ve just spent the last 10 minutes screaming at someone for eating the last of the coco pops).
Gladiators were idolised. They were the sporting hero of their time. A baby oiled titan. And yet they were hated in the same breath, they were slaves, and much lower status than virtually everyone else in Roman society (apart from the actors, they were real scum). If you were unfortunate enough to become a Gladiator (unless you wanted to be one, free Romans were often drawn to the danger and excitement of the arena although they would of course keep their identities a secret so as not to embarrass their families) then you had to work hard to survive. Balancing both being really good at fighting with having the charisma necessary to win over the crowd.
How did they do this? What top tips would they have shared in order to be triumphant?
Fortunately for you, I (Captain Max Virtus – expert in Bizarrchaeology) have the answer for you. I didn’t discover this answer by reading dusty and forgotten text books or frantically scanning a Gladiator article on Wikipedia, Oh no, I LIVED the life of the Gladiator! Yup, in one of the halls in my castle I built a miniature Flavian Amphitheatre, hired a bunch of highly skilled trainers and then I practised being a Gladiator. I did it all;
- Took on the role of a Venatore Gladiator and punched a hippo in the face (don’t worry animal lovers, the hippo got to punch me in the face too, and they can punch hard).
- Practised using a lasso whilst training as a Laquerarii gladiator (don’t try to lasso the hippo you just punched, they really don’t like it and it all goes a bit horribly wrong when they try and lasso you back, having no opposable thumbs).
- Fought with a Samnite, Provocator and Murmillones Gladiator types, gladius to gladius
- I even rode on my war chariot as a Essedari gladiator (Unfortunately space was rather limited so this did involve a great deal of awkward reversing).
So what are the most important lessons that I leant? What things can I share with you, dear reader, so if you ever were to be thrust back in time, due to a freak accident with a crazily over excited doctor and a DeLorean, and found yourself living the life of the Gladiator in ancient Rome that you could survive (perhaps even thrive) too?
Top Tip 1 – Never become an Andabatae Gladiator
Imagine the scene, you’re a new Gladiator and you’ve just arrived at the Ludus (Gladiator School) for your first day. Suddenly, the biggest, baddest and brutalist (new word) Gladiator rocks up and starts hanging out with you. You are totally flattered because he is one of the cool Gladiators. He’s then being all friendly and says something along the lines of;
‘Hey dude, you know you would be major awesome as an Andabatae Gladiator. Would you like to be one at the next games?’
Don’t be tempted, don’t even pause to consider the question, just say NO!
First of all, I have no idea why the Gladiator was speaking like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Secondly, Andabatae gladiators were terrible, as your chances of survival were virtually zero.
To become an Andabatae you would have to commit a crime (this could be something major, like murder, or something relatively minor, like not being able to repay your debts) and sent to the arena to die. When you got there, you and a bunch of other criminals would be given;
A Gladius (things are looking up, a sword!)
No armour (that’s not so bad, at least your opponents don’t have any either)
And a helmet (yay!) with no eye holes so you are rendered completely blind (you what?!)
Once your helmet is on your head you would be sent out into the area to frantically wave your sword around, hoping by Jupiter’s left toe, that you hit your opponent before they hit you. Even if you are hit but are only injured you are still going to die anyway, because a friendly chap dressed as Charon (the ferryman to the underworld) will come along with a hot poker to check you’re dead, if not, expect him to wallop you over the head with a hammer until you are (it probably won’t take long, it’s a big hammer).
Maybe you might get lucky and end up being the last man standing and get to live. But your chances are not even half as good as a regular Gladiator. In actual fact, most Gladiators had the best health care in all of Rome, with few battles resulting in death (after all, which self respecting event organiser would want to pay out a fortune to the owner of the Gladiator if they were to die in battle?)
Top Tip 2 – Don’t get the Emperor’s thumb the wrong way around
So, you’ve just won your first big fight in the Colosseum with Emperor Commodus himself watching, exciting stuff! Your opponent lies exhausted at your feet and your stand above him, Gladius raised and ready to strike. The crowd chant around you in an incomprehensible wall of noise. You look up to the Emperor, he’s stood there looking pensive (the lion’s head he is wearing looks slightly pensive too – Commodus wore one as he desperately wanted to emulate his hero Hercules). Then with a nod the Emperor has decided, he extends his arm with his thumb pointed down towards the floor. You respond and with a neat swing of your blade your opponent is dispatched.
WHOOPS! You just disobeyed the request of the Emperor. You are in trouble.
Don’t make this rookie mistake. A downwards thumb means let your opponent live (the direction of the thumb indicates that the blade should be lowered) An upwards pointing thumb means kill them (the thumb is pointing towards the neck, where they should be stabbed).
Don’t forget lest you really embarrass yourself and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Top Tip 3 – Don’t bring Kitchen implements to a Sword Fight
Being a man of wonder I don’t make many mistakes (unless you count letting a Hippo punch me in the head) but one I did make was bringing the wrong weapon to one of my duels. My trainer had explained that in the next fight we would be battling as Scissors Gladiators. So off I went to the kitchen and fetched my finest Kitchen Scissors (they even have golden handles, to go with the theme of my kitchen) only to return and discover my trainer had a metal gauntlet on his right arm, attached to it were two large blades. It’s then that I realised my trainer had said Scissores Gladiators rather than Scissors Gladiator. Suffice to say I lost the fight. Badly.
Go Forth Gladiator, Rome salutes you.
So there you have it, Max Virtus’ Top 3 Tips to survive as a Gladiator in Ancient Rome. With these lessons learnt you stand a good chance of getting your hands on the wooden sword known as a Rudis and earning your freedom. But don’t worry, if you find yourself missing the danger and excitement of the arena once you are free you can always go back for one last big payout. Just be careful, without an owner to have to pay back you’ll find the event organiser won’t provide you with nearly as good healthcare as before. After all, what better way for the crowd to remember the event than with the death of a famous Gladiator?
(Content Provided by the intrepid Max Virtus, as fun a Historyland guide as one could wish for, see his website below)