Gladiators (from Latin gladiatores) were both professional and amateur fighters in ancient Rome who fought for the entertainment of its "civilized" spectators. These matches took place in arenas in throughout the empire and for the bulk of its history. Man vs. man and man against animal engagements, in combat that was at times to the death, was the ancient world sport that rivaled all of modern society spectacles rolled into one.
It's most likely that the origin of the "games" was rooted in the Estruscan custom of ritual human sacrifices to honor the dead. The first gladiatorial contest in Rome took place in 264 BC as part of one of these funeral rituals called a munus. Marcus and Decimus Junius Brutus staged a gladiatorial combat in honor of thier deceased father with three pairs of slaves serving as gladiators in the Forum Boarium (a commercial area that was named after the Roman cattle market). The concept of the munus was that it kept alive the memory of an important individual after death. They were held some time after the funeral and were often repeated at annual or five-year intervals. Gladiatorial games, or munera were not made a regular part of public games until the late first century.
A contemporary second century AD scholar, Festus, (who abridged the work of the Augustan era writer Verrius Flaccus) suggests that gladiatorial combat was a substitution for an original sacrifice of prisoners on the tombs of great warriors. Tertullian, a Christian writer also of the second century, claimed that gladiatorial combat was a human sacrifice to the manes or spirits of the dead.
Gladiator matches took place in ampitheatres (like the Flavian Ampitheatre or Colosseum) and were staged after the venationes (animal fights) and public executions (noxii). In its earliest forms, individuals of patrician or equestrian status organized these, often to gain political favor with the public. The organizer of any of these games was called the editor, munerator, or dominus and he was honored with the official signs of a magistrate. In the Imperial period, the Emperors were nearly solely responsible, excepting cases with special permission, for these all inclusive public ludi circenses, or "games".
Gladiators were typically recruited from criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war. If selected for such duty, having lost, or never had, the rights of a citizen, there was no choice but to comply for these "recruits". Provided that one had desirable physical appearance and abilities, the arena could be a likely destination. Some free-born men as well, although they had not lost their citizen rights, voluntarily chose the profession and pledged themselves to the owner (lanists) of a gladiatorial troupe (familia) by (according to Petronius) swearing an oath "to endure branding, chains, flogging or death by the sword". It has been estimated that by the end of the Republic, about half of the gladiators were volunteers (auctorati), who took on the status of a slave for an agreed-upon period of time, similar to indentured servitude that was common in the late second millennium.
These auctorati, by taking the gladiator's oath, agreed to be treated as a slave and suffered the ultimate social disgrace (infamia). Seneca described this oath as "most shameful". The potential advantages for this new career could outweigh the alternatives, however. Aside from the potential for public fame and fortune, including liaisons with Roman women of even aristocratic status, the gladiator recruit became a member of a cohesive group that was known for its courage, good morale, and absolute fidelity to its master to the point of death. Life became a model of military discipline and through courageous behavior he was also now capable of achieving honor similar to that enjoyed by Roman soldiers on the battlefield.
Gladiators were trained in special schools called ludi which could be found as commonly as ampitheatres throughout the empire. There were four schools in Rome itself, the largest of which was called the Ludus Magnus which was connected to the Colosseum by an underground tunnel. Among the most famous is the school at Capua where the slave rebellion of Spartacus was sparked in 73 BC.
Typically, like modern boxers, most gladiators would not fight more than 2 or 3 times a year and with enough fame and fortune they could purchase their freedom. Some, however, such as criminals, were either expected to die within a year (ad gladium), or might earn their release after three years (ad ludum), if they survived.
Unlike the movie "Gladiator" with Russel Crowe, gladiators usually fought in single pairs (Ordinarii), in one on one combat. Sponsors of the games or special audiences could, however, request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii), or specific gladiators against each other even from outside the established troupe (Postulaticii). Occasionally, lanista used substitutes (supposititii) if a scheduled or requested gladiator was killed or wounded. In the imperial era, Emperors could have thier own team called Fiscales.
Again, contrary to what is seen in most movies, gladiatoral combat was less likely to result in death than is depicted. Gladiators were expensive to maintain, train and replace in the event of death, and keeping the most popular of crowd pleasers alive was far more practical than the alternative. That's not to say, however, that death wasn't common among the non-elite. In these cases, when a gladiator had overpowered his opponent, he would turn to the spectators for a reaction from the crowd. The defeated gladiator would possibly raise his left hand (also sometimes referred to as raising a finger which may have indicated a request for mercy) asking for his life to be spared. If the spectators turned their thumbs down they were indicating that the fighter should live (perhaps indicating a desire to sheath or lay down the weapon). One theory regarding the thumbs up is that it represented the desire for the victor to cut his opponents throat. Other suggestions include the crowd yelling 'missum' or 'mitte' (release or send away) as a gesture of mercy and conversely yelling 'iugula' (to kill.. generally by slitting the throat) when they wanted the victor to finish his opponent. There are other theories regarding the use of thumbs and various motions to indicate the end of a match, such as that the thumb was positioned sideways to indicate a slashing motion across the neck, or even that a thumb pointed down with a thrusting motion may have represented an order for the victor to thrust his sword down into his opponents chest. Regardless of the debated hand motions, the final decision in this was not made by popular crowd appeal and was usually left to a single judge (though clearly abiding by the crowd's desire was a wise policy). In the presence of the Emperor, the judgment belonged to him, but otherwise it may rest with the games munerator or sponsor.
There are many such events depicted on frescoes or mosaics. In one specific example, the result of a fight is shown in an inscription (Astyanax defeated Kalendio) with the symbol of death (a circle with a diagonal line through it) marked over the loser. Another possibility related to the thumbs up/down debate is that the crowd raised their fists but kept their thumb inside it if they wanted the loser to live, and pointed down to indicate death. If the audience felt both men fought admirably, or witnessed a bout between two popular gladiators, they would likely want both to live and fight another day. A gladiator who won several fights, or served an indefinate period of time was allowed to retire, in many cases to continue as a gladiator trainer. Those who did win or buy their freedom, or at times at the request of the crowd or Emperor, were given a wooden sword (rudis) as a memento.
Gladiatoral contests were first known to be outlawed by Constantine I in 325 AD, but they did continue through the mid 5th century. The Emperor Honorius is credited with putting a stop to it as the western empire was nearing its fall. The last known gladiator competition in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404.
Some interesting gladiator facts:
The Emperor Commodus liked to stage fights between dwarfs and women. He also appeared no less than 735 times on the stage in the character of Hercules, with club and lion's skin, and in a position of little risk of harm to himself, he killed countless beasts and men.
Tacitus in his Annals writes about Roman emperor Nero staging "a number of gladiatorial shows, equal in magnificence to their predecessors, though more women of rank and senators disgraced themselves in the arena". in 63 AD
Petronius' Satyricon mentions a Roman circus which featured a female chariot fighter competing against men.
According to Suetonius, the Emperor Domitian (reigned AD 81-96) made women gladiators fight by torchlight at night.
Women were members of the venatores, according to the writings of Martial and Cassius Dio.
Emperor Septimius Severus issued an edict prohibiting women combatants in the arena in 200 AD.
Caesar's large-scale exhibitions prompted the Roman Senate to limit the number of contestants. For his daughter Julia's funeral games, he pitted 300 pairs of gladiators.
The largest contest of gladiators was given by the emperor Trajan as part of a victory celebration in107 AD in Dacia and included 5000 pairs of fighters.