Life as a gladiator began in a ludus, or gladiator training school.
You probably would not want to be in a real ludus. You would be fed porridge, given a cell a few feet square, and subjected to absolute discipline and rigorous physical training. On the other hand, if you proved successful, you might end up with a wife and family and enough of a fortune to buy your own freedom and live in comfort. You would also be a star on par with today’s best-known athletes.
Then again, you could end up young and dead.
Each Gladiator trained to master the techniques of a specific class of fighter, defined by the type of sword, the size of shield, and the amount of armor. The trainers were often former gladiators themselves. But the whole troupe, or familia, was owned by a single individual, the lanista, who would rent them out for a tidy sum.
As with our own professional sports, when it came to game time there was a certain amount of room for theatrics, but what really mattered was: you better be good at the game – very good. Gladiators knew how to read their opponent’s every move. Anyone trying the sort of antics we see in the movies would be lying on the ground before he knew what hit him.
So after all this investment in time and money, would you really want your gladiators to end the day dead?
The answer is a little complicated.
First, we should remember that gladiator spectacles took place over the course of centuries, covering an area from Britain to North Africa to Syria. Customs varied over time and space, and some presenters of “the games” would boast that none of their fighters were put to death, while others proudly proclaimed that no loser would be spared execution.
Sometimes, of course, a fighter died outright in combat. Perhaps just as often, however, one would be wounded grievously enough to call off the fight and plea for mercy. In this way, many defeated gladiators lived to fight again, and any survivor always received the best medical care available.
Compared to today, life in Roman times was short and often violent. Living – and dying – as a gladiator was not always the worst of all possible worlds.
But at the end of the day, whoever could afford to fund a gladiator spectacle did it to show off his wealth and power. If the crowd was really hungry for blood, well – so be it.