The Daily Life of a Gladiator

Due to new findings from a gladiator cemetery by the University of Vienne in Ephesus (west coast of Turkey), we now have a different perception of the ways gladiators lived in the ancient world. Daily life in the so-called ladus (Latin for gladiator school) can now be reconstructed from the analysis of skeletons through which we can deduce the eating habits, medical care, training activities and fighting manners. In the ladus the gladiator lives side by side with his ‘brothers’. They eat together, wash, talk and train together. The resulting close and almost family relationship between the warriors is thus quite understandable and is even named by ancient scholars as familia, which is the Latin word for family.

Fig. 1: Figure of a Thracian gladiator, wearing a loin cloth with protective waist-belt, helmet, and armoured guards for his shins, sword arm and shoulder, 1st to 2nd century AD, British Museum 1888,0719.97 © Trustees of the British Museum

The findings in Ephesus give evidence for how gladiators were fed on a low-meat diet, as meat was very expensive. To maintain their energy, however, their main diet consisted mostly of barley porridge and beans. Ancient authors confirm the results of these anthropological analyses as they refer to the gladiators as hordearii, meaning barley eaters. To compensate for the lack of calcium the warriors took some sort of energy drink after the training, which was made of ashes. Judging from the findings we have now a better image of a gladiator being generally a well-fed vegetarian whose carb-based diet would likely have given him the shape of a chubby, muscular man.

Many skulls found in Ephesus further the evidence in support of the idea of a well-maintained medical supply since the skulls appear well healed after violent injury. Most of the human bones found show that after several complicated fractures they were treated skilfully years before the patient died. Once again these scientific results confirm a phenomena that can also be found in ancient written sources. According to written evidence, even the most famous physician in the Roman Empire, Galen, had worked many years in a ludus. These sources furthermore imply that masseurs were employed in the ludi.

Nevertheless is should be mentioned that the lentulus (owner of the gladiator school) caring attitude is caused less by compassion, but rather for economic reasons for only a healthy and well trained gladiator would earn him money in the arena for his ludus.

Fig. 2: The medicus is an important member of the ludus and is therefore well deserving of his own part in the TV series „Spartacus – Blood and Sand“ by David Austin. Check out the possibly greated fan homepage on the series

So despite the apparent comfort offered by the ludus, the daily life of a gladiator still consisted mainly of a tough and strict training and of battle education for the arena. Evidence that a gladiator was indeed a strong build, however not much like a body builder as shown in films and television, can also be found in the skeletal remains at Ephesus. Anthropologists have discovered so-called ‘muscle marker’ on arm and leg bones that indicate a regular and hard physical training. Yet again archaeological discoveries supports ancient written sources as authors describe the daily activity of a gladiator mainly consisting of combat exercises with wooden weapons, aiming for wooden pickets (lat. ‘pali’). Generally it is supposed that their training was not much different to the fighting art of a legionary. In bigger ludi, providing they had the necessary resources and facilities, the training of the gladiator was divided according to their weapon types and supervised by specialists of this fighting technique. The goal of this exercise was to train gladiators for an outstanding spectacle in the arena that showed diversity and skill instead of impulsive and quick slaughter (more on this on the following article!), which is commonly shown in films and television.

Fig. 3: Training in the court of the ludus in Capua which presumably belonged to one of the greatest and best known gladiator schools in the Roman Empire in the Late Republican period. (found at:’_Ludus)

This leads us to the first season of the great successful SPARZ TV series “Spartacus – Blood and Sand”. The whole first season is set in the ludus of the lentulus Batiatus and depicts mostly the training (or taming) and education of the wild and indomitable Spartacus, a captured Thracian turned gladiator. Especially interesting are the scenes dealing with the daily life of a gladiator; their working schedules, medical treatments and eating habits which correspond fairly accurately with current archaeological and historical knowledge. But more than that, a genuine image of the representation and moral contradictions of these warriors are given. Gladiators were usually (however, not always) slaves that were caught during the vast ‘Romanisation’ of the Mediterranean, to the people their role and fame was almost that of a hero. The inner conflict between their honour and duty towards their ‘familia’, especially for those who have been successful gladiators for a long time, are nicely presented by Crixos who despises Spartacus’ attitude for not wanting to deliver a great spectacle at the arena. Crixos’ welfare and health (and later Spartacus’ as well) are of great concern to lentulus Batiatus, as he brings in the most profit to his ludus.

In this sense, “Spartacus – Blood and Sand” gives, despite some extreme exaggeration (i.e. body builders wandering almost naked across the scene) a nice image of the daily life and training of a gladiator in the Late Republican era (202 – 31 BC).

Bibliographic references: Köhne, E. and Ewigleben, C. (eds) 2000, Gladiators and Caesars. The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, London; Junkelmann, M. 2000, Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpfen Roms Gladiatoren, Antike Welt Sonderbd., Main am Rhein; Mann, C. 2013, Die Gladiatoren, München.
Acknowledgements: Freya Redman

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  1. lunaurban sagt:

    This is a very interesting article! Thank you for sharing!

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