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Did Roman Gladiators Fight to the Death?

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Most of us know about Roman Gladiators via Hollywood. Spartacus. Gladiator. Scenes replete with blood and gore that ended only when one of the fighters had been slain. But, historically, did Roman gladiators fight to the death?
Scene from Metropolis, Episode 3 | Image credit: Netflix

In 64AD, a great fire swept through Rome and burned for six days. In the aftermath, Romans rebuilt their city. Around six years after the fire, construction of the Colosseum began. Made of Travertine limestone, tufo, cement, tiles, bricks, marble with lead and terra cotta for the sewerage system, it is the largest amphitheater ever built and a marvelous feat of engineering.

Upon completion, the Colosseum was 50 meters high (the equivalent of a modern 12-floor building), 189 long and 156 wide. Underground was a network of tunnels and animal cages. The Colosseum could seat at least 50,000 (some estimates go as high as 80,000) people who could exit the structure within ten minutes through the various arches.

Today, the Colosseum is a relic that still attracts hordes of tourists. But, for hundreds of years, the Colosseum of Rome was the center of Roman entertainment.

The Colosseum of Rome was built for entertainment and was the scene of gladiator battles. Did Roman gladiators fight to the death?

Scene from “Metropolis”, Episode 3 | Image credit: Netflix

Yes, the Colosseum was built for entertainment. For people to watch organized spectacles, the most famous of which where gladiator battles.

Most of us know about Roman gladiators via Hollywood. Spartacus. Gladiator. Kirk Douglass. Russell Crowe. Slaves or convicts who fought to gain or regain freedom. Weapons ranged from spears to swords to spiked iron balls. Fight scenes were replete with blood and gore that ended only when one of the fighters had been slain. But, historically, did Roman gladiators fight to the death?

According to Episode 3 of Metropolis, they didn’t. Gladiators were men “trained in the fighting arts with a flair for theater.” It was like professional wrestling with blades. According to Alexander Mariotti, Historical Advisor to the British Institute of Roman History, and one of the presenters of Metropolis:

To become a famous gladiator was no easy task. You had to have right attributes, you had to have the physique, you had to have the looks — looks were very important, remember, and, of course, you had to sort of build you career just as a boxer would. Once you got to that top stage where you actually did get to fight in the Colosseum, you were just too powerful, too wealthy, too loved there was too much riding on them to be able to just have them risk their lives.

Most of us know about Roman Gladiators via Hollywood. Spartacus. Gladiator. Scenes replete with blood and gore that ended only when one of the fighters had been slain. But, historically, did Roman gladiators fight to the death?

Scene from “Metropolis”, Episode 3 | Image credit: Netflix

That observation was followed by an exhibition of how bloody injuries and death were faked. The gladiators used thick swords (soldier’s swords were thinner) that made better sound effects. For the blood, there was sausage skin with pig’s or sheep’s blood to make a blood pack strategically placed in the gladiator’s body. With a sword thrust, the gladiator squished the pack and, voila, there was blood.

Shocked, I opted to get a second opinion. History.com theorizes that because it was expensive to train and feed gladiators, trainers may have taught them to avoid killing. It also says:

Hollywood movies and television shows often depict gladiatorial bouts as a bloody free-for-all, but most fights operated under fairly strict rules and regulations. Contests were typically single combat between two men of similar size and experience. Referees oversaw the action, and probably stopped the fight as soon as one of the participants was seriously wounded. A match could even end in a stalemate…

Most of us know about Roman Gladiators via Hollywood. Spartacus. Gladiator. Scenes replete with blood and gore that ended only when one of the fighters had been slain. But, historically, did Roman gladiators fight to the death?

Scene from “Metropolis”, Episode 3 | Image credit: Netflix

History.com goes on to say that although gladiators did not always fight to the death, “historians have estimated that somewhere between one in five or one in 10 bouts left one of its participants dead.”

There was, however, no mention of fake blood.