The first recorded Roman gladiatorial combats took place in Rome in 264 BC, at the start of the First Punic War against Carthage. Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus staged it in honour of his dead father Brutus Pera. It was held between three pairs of slaves chosen from among 22 prisoners of war, and held in the cattle market (Forum Boarium). The ceremony was called a munus or “duty paid to a dead ancestor by his descendants, with the intention of keeping alive his memory” (Baker, Gladiator 10). Roman aristocrats soon took up the practice as an alternative to the earlier custom of sacrificing prisoners on the graves of warriors, with events being held for notable people and repeated every one to five years after the person’s death.
These games became popular throughout the Empire and were especially popular in Greece. So popular that there are many records of people in towns where prominent citizens died virtually extorting promises of gladiatorial games from the survivors. The aristocracy also began to compete in having the best games so that whereas the sons of Brutus Pera offered three matches, a century later, Titus Flamininus offered 74 matches lasting three days for his father's funeral and by the passing of yet another century Julius Caesar promised 320 matches for his daughter, Julia. As a result the emperors eventually had to regulate how much could be spent on gladiatorial performances to prevent members of the elite from bankrupting themselves.
Gradually, as the connection to funerals faded in the late second century BC, the funeral games gradually transformed into public performances. Julius Caesar eventually owned so many gladiators that the Senate, fearing the use such a "private army" could be put to, passed a law limiting private citizens to owning no more than 640 gladiators. The moment when a true split from the funeral backdrop occurred was after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Bad omens plagued the city and the games were seen as a method to please the gods and save Rome. During the first century A.D., giving games even became a requirement of some public offices.
Over time the games had became integrated ever more into the Imperial cult through games financed by the state or by the Emperors as a means to get public approval, and especially so in the provincial towns. After Caesars' death a clear distinction between games organized by public officials (ludi) and those held by private citizens (munera) was set. Although it was still possible for private citizens to organise their own gladiatorial games, Augustus decreed that they could use no more than 120 gladiators and the days on which such private games could be organised were limited: from December 2 to December 8, during the Saturnalia from December 17 to December 23 (the Winter solstice), and between March 19 and March 23 for the Spring celebration of Quinquatria.
The popularity of the games resulted in the construction of proper venues and transformation of others (such as the Roman Forum) into spaces for the spectacles.
Gladiator fights took place in these amphitheatres during the afternoon of a full day event. The amphitheaters built were made of wood and were usually neither structurally sound, often being prone to collapse, nor did they survive the fires of Rome. The first permanent amphitheater in Rome dates to around 30 BC. Not until AD 70 and Vespasian's reign did plans for a purpose built stone venue for the games develop. The Colosseum (Amphitheatrum Flavium) was unveiled in AD 80.
The Stone Pine, a conifer native to the Iberian Peninsula was often planted near the local amphitheatre in foreign countries. The aromatic pinecones were traditionally burnt in bowls (tazze = cups) to mask the smell of the arena. The word “arena” means sand, a reference to the thick layer of sand on the floor for the purpose of soaking up the blood.
"In consequence of this the senate decreed that, whenever any public show was given anywhere, the first row of seats should be reserved for senators; and at Rome he would not allow the envoys of the free and allied nations to sit in the orchestra, since he was informed that even freedmen were sometimes appointed. He separated the soldiery from the people. He assigned special seats to the married men of the commons, to boys under age their own section and the adjoining one to their preceptors; and he decreed that no one wearing a dark cloak should sit in the middle of the house. He would not allow women to view even the gladiators except from the upper seats, though it had been the custom for men and women to sit together at such shows. Only the Vestal virgins were assigned a place to themselves, opposite the praetor's tribunal"
(Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars Augustus, XLIV).
The games were carefully and precisely planned by an organizer (editor) on behalf of the emperor. The combinations of animals and gladiator types were meticulously planned, such that the show would be most appealing to the audience. Gladiators would be publicly displayed in the Roman forum to large crowds one to two days prior to the actual event. Programmes containing the gladiatorial and personal history of the fighters were passed out. Banquets for the gladiators were also held the evening before the games and many attended these as well. Even the criminals (noxii) listed to fight were at times permitted to attend.
When the day of the event came, gladiator fights were preceded by animal-on-animal fights, animal hunts (venationes), and public executions of condemned criminals (damnati) during lunchtime. As it was considered bad taste to watch the executions, the upper classes would usually leave and return after lunch. The Emperor Claudius was often criticised because he usually stayed in the stadium to watch the executions. The damnati were sometimes required to fight battle recreations or in paired gladiatorial combats against each. The winner then fought a new opponent and so on until only one was left alive. Usually this "winner" was then himself put to death but he could be spared if he showed sufficient bravery. Under Nero, it became the practice to perform plays adapted from myths in which people died and assigning the role of a character who would die to a condemned man. The audience would then watch the play, and the actual killing of the condemned man in the same manner as the fictional character. Before the afternoon fights began, a procession (pompa) was led into the arena containing the organizer, his servants, blacksmiths to show that the weapons were in order, servants carrying weaponry and armour, and the gladiators themselves. Next came the checking of the weapons to make sure they were real (probatio armorum) by the editor of the games. In Rome this would be by the emperor himself, or he could bestow the honour upon a guest.
Like today, the games had ticket scalpers or Ticket touts(Locarii), people who buy up seats and sell them at an inflated price. Martial in his Epigrams wrote "Hermes divitiae locariorum" or “Hermes means riches for the ticket scalpers” so scalping/touting seems to have been a common practice. The mentioned Hermes was a famous gladiator, not the deity, who was called Mercury by the Romans.
During the fights musicians played accompaniments altering their tempo to match that of the combat in the style now familiar with music in action movies. Typical instruments were a long straight trumpet (tubicen), a large curved instrument (Cornu) similar to an exaggerated French horn and a water organ (hydraulis). The Romans loved burlesque and pantomime and these musicians were often dressed as animals with names such as "flute playing bear" (Ursus tibicen) and "horn-blowing chicken" (Pullus cornicen), names sometimes found displayed on contemporary mosaics.
Like today’s athletes, gladiators did product endorsements. Particularly successful gladiators would endorse goods in the arena before commencing a fight and have their names promoting products on the Roman equivalent of billboards.
During gladiatorial combat, it was preferable for gladiators not to kill each other; technically, they were slaves, but they also often had years of intensive training and therefore were quite valuable. Gladiators were instructed to inflict non-lethal wounds upon each other, and often lived long, rather successful lives; they were able to purchase their freedom after three years. However, accidents did happen--at times resulting in death, and gladiators who failed to display bravery in combat could be executed by order of the emperor. After fights, the bodies of the gladiators were buried in a manner depending on the status of the fighter.
As with modern sports, spectators liked to support “sides” (factiones) which they called the “great shields” (scutarii) and the “little shields” (parmularii). The “great shields” were lightly armoured defensive fighter types. Whereas the “little shields” were the more aggressive heavily armoured fighter types. Fighting without a shield would have been classed as a “great shield” due to fighting style. “Little shields” always had an advantage early in a match (as attested by the odds given by contemporary Bookmakers) but the longer the match lasted the greater the advantage for the “great shield” as his opponent tired much more quickly due to heavier armour and also as they usually had helmets with more restricted vision. Spectators also had local rivalries. During games at Pompeii, Pompeians and spectators from Nuceria traded insults which led to stone throwing and eventually a riot broke out with many being killed or wounded. Nero was furious and banned the games at Pompeii for ten years. The story is told in graffiti on the walls of Pompeii with much boasting of their "victory" over Nuceria.
Julius Caesar in 59 BC started a daily newspaper called the Acta Diurna (daily acts) that reported gladiator news. It carried news of gladiatorial contests, games, astrological omens, notable marriages, births and deaths, public appointments, and trials and executions. The Acta's content varied over time depending on the Emperor's whims and the tastes of the public.
An indication of the declining popularity is that in AD 354 of the 176 official holidays with games, the main event for 102 of these were theatre performances, 64 were chariot races and gladiatorial combats were held on only 10 days. In AD 367 Valentinianus I placed a ban on sentencing Christians to the arena, but the sentencing of non-Christians remained unchanged. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 393 under the reign of Theodosius. The emperor himself sought to ban heathen festivals, but gladiator shows continued. Their programmes, however, were very limited due to financial reasons and the audience dwindled as many converted to Christianity. Honorius, Theodosius' son, finally decreed the end of gladiatorial contests in 399 AD. The last known gladiator competition in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404 AD.
It is speculated that gladiator fights were no longer practiced by AD 440, as they were not mentioned by Bishop Salvianus in a pamphlet attacking public shows. It would seem only appropriate for the inclusion of gladiator games had they still occurred.
Gladiators were very proud of their ethnic origins and made sure their true origin was known to the public if they fought under a title suggesting another ethnic group. Even in death they made sure their race was inscribed on their headstone. After Judea was “pacified” there was a large increase in the number of Jewish gladiators as it was common practice under Titus and Vespasian to sentence Jewish rebels and criminals to gladiatorial schools.
Left-handed gladiators were popular and a rare novelty, their fights were always advertised as a special event. As with modern-day "lefty" fencers, tennis players and other sportsman, these left-handers had a large advantage as they were trained to fight right-handers who were themselves not trained to defend against a left-hander. Mentions of left handedness on gravestones have been found.
Research on the remains of 70 Murmillos and Retiariae gladiators found at an ancient site in Ephesus has shown that, contrary to popular belief, gladiators were probably overweight and also ate a high energy vegetarian diet consisting of mainly barley, beans and dried fruit. Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute said he believed gladiators "cultivated layers of fat to protect their vital organs from the cutting blows of their opponents". Gladiators were sometimes known as hordearii, which means "eaters of barley". Although considered an inferior grain to wheat (a punishment for Legionaries was to replace their wheat ration with barley), gladiators probably preferred it as Romans believed that barley contributed to strength and covered the arteries with a layer of fat which helped to reduce bleeding. Other findings from the research indicate gladiators fought barefoot in sand.
Estimations are that there were more than 100 gladiator schools (ludi) throughout the empire. Two of the more famous are the school in Capua where Spartacus was trained and the school in Pompeii that was buried in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. One of the largest schools was based in Ravenna. There were four schools in Rome: Ludus Magnus (the most important), Ludus Dacus, Ludus Gallicus, and Ludus Matutinus (school for gladiators dealing with animals). The schools had barracks for the gladiators with small cells and a large training ground. The most impressive had seating for spectators to watch the men train and some even had boxes for the emperor.
Prospective gladiators (novicius) upon entering a gladiator school swore an oath (sacramentum) giving their lives to the gods of the underworld and vowing to accept, without protest, humiliation by any means. Volunteers also signed a contract (auctoramentum) with a gladiator manager (lanista) stating how often they were to perform, which weapons they would use, and how much they would earn. Prospectives also went under a physical examination by a doctor to determine if they were both physically capable of the rigorous training and aesthetically pleasing. Once accepted the novicius usually had his debts forgiven and was given a sign up fee. For as long as he was a gladiator he was well fed and received high quality medical care. Overall, gladiators were united as members of a familia gladiatoria and became second to the prestige of the school. They also joined unions (collegia) formed to ensure proper burials for fallen members and compensation for their families.
As a rule gladiators, slaves and criminals had tattoos (stigma) applied as an identifying mark on the face, legs and hands (legionnaires were also tattooed but only on their hands). This practice continued until the emperor Constantine banned them on the face by decree in AD 325.
Training was under teachers called “Doctores” and involved the learning of a series of “numbers”, which were broken down into various phases much as a play is a series of acts broken down into scenes. Sometimes fans complained that a gladiator fought too “mechanically” when he followed the “numbers” too closely. Gladiators would even be taught how to die correctly. Each type of gladiator had its own teacher; doctore secutorum, doctore thracicum, etc. Although gladiators in times of need helped train legionaries, they were not usually good soldiers themselves as a result of this choreographed style of training. Within a training-school there was a competitive hierarchy of grades (paloi) through which individuals were promoted. They trained using two meter poles (palus) buried in the ground. The levels were named for the training pole and were primus palus, secundus palus, and so on. It was also rare for a novicius to train in more than one gladiatorial style. Once a gladiator had finished training but had not yet fought in an arena he was called a “Tiro”.
An average game had between ten and thirteen pairs (Ordinarii) of gladiators, with a single bout lasting around ten to fifteen minutes. They were usually of differing types. However, sponsor or audience could request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii) or specific gladiators against each other. As a rule gladiators only fought others from within the same school or troupe (ad ludum gladiatorium) but sometimes specific gladiators would be requested to fight one from another troupe (Postulaticii). Sometimes a lanista had to rely on substitutes (supposititii) if the requested gladiator was already dead or incapacitated. The Emperor could have his own gladiators (Fiscales). The largest contest of gladiators ever given was by the emperor Trajan in Dacia as part of a victory celebration in 107 AD and included 5,000 pairs of fighters.
Some matches were advertised as “sine missione” (without release) meaning “to the death”. The referees allowed these fights to continue as long as it took to get a result. Although already a rare event, Augustus outlawed “sine missiones” due to the expense of compensating the “Lanistas” but they were later reintroduced.
When one gladiator was wounded the spectators would yell out one of several traditional cheers such as "habet, hoc habet” (he’s had it) or "habet, peractum est” (he's had it, it's all over), the referee would then end the fight by separating the combatants with his staff. A gladiator could also acknowledge defeat by raising a finger (ad digitum), The referee would then step in, stopping the combat, and refer the decision of the defeated gladiator’s fate to the games sponsor (munerarius) who would decide whether he should live or die after taking the audiences wishes into account or considering how well he had fought. If a gladiator was killed it was normal practice for the games sponsor to pay compensation to the owner (Lanista) of up to 100 times the gladiator's value. For the death of a popular gladiator this could be very expensive.
Fights were generally not to the death during the Republic, but gladiators were still killed or maimed accidentally. Claudius was infamous for rarely sparing the life of a defeated Retiarius. He liked to watch his face as he died, as the Retiarius was the only gladiator that never wore a helmet. Suetonius recounts a combat where the death of an opponent was called a murder. "Once a band of five retiarii in tunics (retiarius tunicatus), matched against the same number of secutores, yielded without a struggle; but when their death was ordered, one of them caught up his trident and slew all the victors. Caligula bewailed this in a public proclamation as a most cruel murder." (Lives of the Twelve Caesars XXX.3)
The figure of a referee is frequently depicted on mosaics as standing in the background, sometimes accompanied by an assistant and carrying a staff with which to hold back a gladiator after his opponent signified submission. This implies contests were fought with fixed rules. We know from mosaics, and from surviving skeletons that gladiators primarily aimed for the head and the major arteries under the arm and behind the knee.
Gladiators were paid each time they fought. The winner of a match received from the editor a palm branch and additionally an award such as a golden bowl, crown or a sum of money in the form of gold coins. Money was also awarded to the victor by the crowd and was collected on a silver tray. A laurel crown was awarded for an especially outstanding performance. The victor then ran around the perimeter of the amphitheatre, waving the palm. Gladiators were allowed to keep any money or gold they received as a prize. The ultimate prize awarded to gladiators was a permanent discharge from the obligation to fight. As a symbol of this award, the editor gave the gladiator a wooden sword (rudis), Martial (Spect. 27) mentions a particularly famous match between two gladiators named Priscus and Verus, who fought so evenly and bravely for so long that when they both acknowledged defeat at the same instant, the emperor Titus awarded victory to both and gave wooden swords (rudes) to each. Gladiators (including criminals) could earn their freedom if they survived three to five years of combat but there was no set rule as to what a gladiator would have to do in order to win this freedom. Usually if a gladiator won five fights, or especially distinguished himself in a particular fight, he won the rudis and his freedom. A famous Secutor nicknamed Flamma was awarded the rudis four times but he chose to remain a gladiator. He was killed in his 34th fight. Flamma's gravestone in Sicily is particularly informative as it includes his record: Flamma, secutor, lived 30 years, fought 34 times, won 21 times, fought to a draw 9 times, defeated 4 times, a Syrian by nationality. Delicatus made this for his deserving comrade-in-arms.
After a gladiator's defeat, if the crowd gave the signal for him to die there was a ritual to be observed. With one knee on the ground, the loser grasped the thigh of the victor, who, while holding the helmet or head of his opponent, plunged his sword into his neck or cut his throat depending on his weapon (Martial). To die well a gladiator was not allowed to ask for mercy and was not allowed to scream when killed. Recent research suggests that gladiators adhered to a code of discipline, and were not as savage as once thought — they did not resort to violence and mutilation which could occur on the battlefields of the day. If defeated but mortally wounded the gladiator was not killed in front of the audience but was taken from the arena to be executed "humanely" with a hammer on the forehead in private.
After the death of a gladiator in combat, two attendants impersonating Charon (ferryman of Hades) and Mercury (messenger to the gods) would approach the body. Charon would strike the body with a mallet and Hermes would then prod the body with a hot poker disguised as a wand to see whether the gladiator was really dead or not. The body was then placed on a "couch of Libitina" by bearers (libitinarii) in larger games and taken from the arena through the Libitinarian Gate (victors left via the Porta Triumphalis and losers the Porta Sanavivaria). In lesser games the libitinarii often used hooks to drag the body. Attendants then spread a fresh layer of sand (harena from where we get the word arena) to soak up the blood. Libitina was the goddess of funerals. After stripping the armour, the gladiator's body was then taken to a nearby morgue (spoliarium) where by custom, as final proof the fight was not "fixed", officials slit the man's throat to ensure that he was truly dead.
Gladiators rarely lived past age 30 unless they were particularly outstanding and accomplished victors but at a time when around 50 percent of Roman citizens died, from all causes, before age 25 this indicates that gladiators in fact tended to live longer than the general populace which is attributed to the extra care they received. Reasonable estimates show that they fought on average two to three times yearly, but there are some exceptions such as some men fighting all nine days during one of Trajan's shows.
French historian George Villes evaluated 100 fights from the 1st century CE, involving 200 gladiators, and found that 19 gladiators had lost their lives. His evaluations of gladiator gravestones indicates that the average age at time of death was around 27 years. However, historian Marcus Junkelmann points out that only the most successful gladiators were usually given a headstone and that the majority of the gladiators who died were at the beginning of their career and thus not included in this average. According to Junkelmann the majority died between 18 and 25 years of age.
Outside the intellectual circle of people such as Pliny the Younger (whose dislike for gladiatorial shows may have been more class- than conscience-based), there was widespread acceptance of gladiatorial shows and little qualm as to their brutality.
Many ancient writers give specific instances and detailed accounts of the combats that provide invaluable insight into Roman attitudes: “Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheatre” (Tacitus 15.32). The Roman historian, Cassius Dio (62.17.3), writes of a festival that Nero held in honour of his mother: “....There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, when men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus, and in the hunting-theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem; they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will". Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed gladiator shows to be boring, but also saw the gladiators themselves as privileged athletes and so took extraordinary measures to prevent bloodshed and death (Cassius Dio 71.29.4) For example he decreed that swords have a blunt point and banned iron blades.
Gladiators often developed large followings of women, who apparently saw them as sexual objects despite it being socially unacceptable for citizen women to have sexual contact with them.
What was the youthful charm that so fired Eppia? What hooked her? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called "the gladiator's moll"? Her poppet, her Sergius, was no chicken, with a dud arm that prompted hope of early retirement. Besides his face looked a proper mess, helmet-scarred, a great wart on his nose, an unpleasant discharge always trickling from one eye. But he was a gladiator. That word makes the whole breed seem handsome, and made her prefer him to her children and country, her sister, her husband. Steel is what they fall in love with. (Juvenal: Satires: 6.102 ff. Translated by P. Green).There is an inscription on a wall in Pompeii that says the Thracian gladiator Celadus was "suspirum et decus puellarum", literally "the sigh and glory of the girls." Faustina the Younger, the mother of the emperor Commodus, was said to have conceived Commodus with a gladiator, but Commodus likely invented this story himself. Despite or because of the prohibition many rich women sought intimate contact with gladiators and there are several instances of historians mentioning Senators wives running off to live with gladiators. The ancient celebrity and the festivity before the fights gave the women an opportunity to meet them.
Despite the extreme dangers and hardships of the profession, some gladiators were volunteers (called auctorati) who fought for money; effectively this career was a sort of last chance for people who had fallen into financial troubles. Indeed, their combat skills were such that, when he had no alternative, Gaius Marius had gladiators train the legionaries in single combat. They were also frequently depicted in art, the Gladiator Mosaic, or a Bignor Roman villa showing Cupids as gladiators. Souvenir bowls were also produced depicting named gladiators in combat.
Even lower on the social scale were gladiators considered effeminate. They appear to have fought primarily as Retiarii or more specifically Retiarius Tunicatus, named for the tunic they wore to differentiate them from normal Retiarii who fought bare chested. Although mentioned by Juvenal, Seneca and Suetonius very little detail is given. They are referred to as training in an “indecent part of the gladiator's school” and fighting in a “disgraceful type of armament”. Juvenal mentions the trainers practice of keeping separate "from their fellow retiarii the wearers of the ill-famed tunic”.
It was thought by their contemporaries that they willingly became Retiarii to exhibit both their vanity and contempt for disgrace as their faces were not hidden by a helmet as was the case with other gladiator types.
"In this way they incurred death instead of disfranchisement; for they fought just as much as ever, especially since their contests were eagerly witnessed, so that even Augustus used to watch them in company with the praetors who superintended the contests" (Cassius Dio, LVI.25.7).
The only named example of this class of gladiator was Gracchus, an aristocrat and descendant of the Gracchi who was infamous for his marriage (as a bride) to a male horn player. It is recorded by Cassius that he voluntarily fought, not only as a Retiarius Tunicatus, but wore a conical hat adorned with gold lace and ribbons during the combat (Gracchus was also chief of the priests of Mars (Salii) for whom this hat was normal attire).
The Emperor Domitian liked to stage torchlit fights between dwarves and women, according to Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars. From depictions it appears they fought bare-chested and rarely wore helmets no matter what type of gladiator they fought as.
Women apparently fought at night, and this being the time that the games main events were held indicates the possible importance or rarity of female gladiators. Most modern scholars consider female gladiators a novelty act due to the sparse writings about them but those ancient historians that do mention them do so “casually” which suggests that female gladiators were "more widespread than direct evidence might otherwise indicate". The author of an inscription found in Pompeii boasts of being the first editor to bring female gladiators to the town.
Dio Cassius (62.3.1) mentions that not only women but children fought in a gladiatorial event that Nero sponsored in 66 AD. It is known the emperor Nero also forced the wives of some Roman senators into amphitheatres, presumably to fight.
A 1st or 2nd century Marble relief from Halicarnassus suggests that some women fought in heavy armour. Both women are depicted as provocatrices in combat. The inscription names them as “Amazon” and “Achillia” and mentions that both received an honourable discharge (missio) from the arena despite fighting each other (both deemed to have won).
Mark Vesley, a Roman social historian speculates that as gladiatorial schools were not fit places for women, they may have studied under private tutors in the collegia iuvenum. These schools were for training high ranking males over the age of 14 in martial arts but Vesley found three references to women training there as well including one who died..."To the divine shades of Valeria Iucunda, who belonged to the body of the iuvenes. She lived 17 years, 9 months".
A female Roman skeleton unearthed in Southwark, London in 2001 was identified as a female gladiator, but this was on the basis that although wealthy she was buried as an outcast outside the main cemetery, had pottery lamps of Anubis (i.e., Mercury, the gladiatorial master of ceremonies), a lamp with a depiction of a fallen gladiator engraved and bowls containing burnt pinecones from a Stone Pine placed in the grave. The only Stone Pines in Britain at the time were those planted around the London amphitheatre as the pinecones of this particular species were traditionally burnt during games. Most experts believe the identification to be erroneous but the Museum of London states it is "70 percent probable" that the Great Dover Street Woman was a gladiator. Hedley Swain, head of early history at the Museum states: "No single piece of evidence says that she is a gladiator. Instead, there’s simply a group of circumstantial evidence that makes it an intriguing idea". She is now on display at the end of the Roman London section of the Museum of London. This gladiator was the subject of a program on the UK's Channel 4.
It is known that the audience (or sponsor or emperor) pointed their thumbs a certain way if they wanted the loser to be killed (called a pollice verso, literally "with turned thumb"), but it is not clear which way they actually pointed. A thumbs up (called pollux infestus) was an insult to Romans so is unlikely to have meant sparing a life. The clear "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" image is not a product of historical sources, but of Hollywood and epic films such as Quo Vadis. It is thought they may have raised their fist with the thumb inside it (pollice compresso, literally "compressed thumbs") if they wanted the loser to live. One popular belief is that the "thumbs down" meant lower your weapon, and let the loser live and a thumbs up sign pointed towards the throat or chest, signaled the gladiator to stab him there. Some scholars believe that a hand movement was involved as the notion of "turning" does not seem to fit the action of merely extending a thumb. One of the few sources to allude to the use of the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" gestures in the Roman arena comes from Satire III of Juvenal (3.34-37) and seems to indicate that, contrary to modern usage, the thumbs down signified that the losing gladiator was to be spared and that the thumbs up meant he was to be killed. A carved relief of a gladiator being spared also exists that shows the hand "sign" as a thumb laid flat along the hand (pressed?) with two fingers extended and two clenched. This has led some to believe those who wanted the gladiator killed waved their thumbs in any direction they wanted, and those who wanted him spared kept their thumbs pressed against their hands.
The now famous gladiatorial salute “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant” or “Hail Caesar, they who are about to die salute you” is another product of movies. This salute was only mentioned by Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius, XXI, 1214) as happening once, spoken by condemned men (damnati) to Claudius at a naumachia (a staged naval battle) and they used the word “imperator” (Emperor) not Caesar. Tacitus also wrote of this event:
“although they were criminals, they fought with the spirit of brave men. Their (the survivors') reward was exemption from the penalty of wholesale execution”.
The cutting up of the bodies to feed the animals is another common misconception and is mentioned only by Suetonius as an extraordinary and unheard of action that Caligula ordered to be done only once. The bodies of noxii and damnati were either buried or thrown into rivers, this being the traditional Roman disposal method for the bodies of executed criminals while other gladiators were often buried with honours by their "union" (collegia) or friends. Animal carcasses were either disposed of or distributed to the poor for sustenance.
Although ancient Romans did not normally wear hats (went heads bare capite aperto) and this is seen in today's movie depictions of games, it was actually customary for free men to wear white woolen conical hats when attending games and festivals (Martial xi.7. xiv.1 Suetonius Ner.57. Seneca Epist.18). The hats were a symbol of liberty.
Gladiators feature frequently in many epic films and television series set in this period. These include films such as four versions of Ben-Hur, Spartacus (1960), Gladiator (2000) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Quo Vadis, as well as the television series A.D. (1985) (which features a female gladiator), and Rome.