When it comes to gladiators, popular culture depictions often involve a lot of death, a lot of lower class scum, and are void of women. While elements of these portrayals are correct, they are not completely spot on. Curious now? Well, then, it’s time to go a bit deeper into the gladiator world to straighten out a few things.
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To gain an accurate picture of gladiators, let’s first explore who exactly made up this group of fighters. It is often incorrectly assumed that these fighters were solely comprised of slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. While a good number was comprised of these types, there were also some who freely volunteered for the job. It is crazy to think that anyone would put their life at risk in such a dangerous and potentially life threatening way, but sometimes a little adventurous behavior is exciting. Indeed, some chose to be gladiators simply for the thrill of it while others saw it as a career. Like athletes of today, gladiators who proved to be victorious in the arena could rise to great fame and fortune and essentially achieve celebrity status.
Another falsity in who joined the gladiatorial ranks is in the area of gender. Because gladiators in media are usually depicted as men, the idea of women taking part in arena matches seems unlikely. However historical evidence, including ancient writings supports the little known fact that female gladiators did exist. Obviously, arena bouts with women were not the norm, but were considered more of a novelty act. It can also be inferred that women took a lot of flack for their participation since the arena was deemed a male domain. Thus, it would have been considered a disgrace for females to perform in it.
As for the fights themselves, some light needs to be shed on them as well. It is a common interpretation that gladiator matches were fights to the death. Once again, media has reinforced this idea, which is not quite true. While deaths did transpire, not every gladiator bout ended an opponent’s life. A Roman scholar’s study of gladiator games in the 1st century reports that out of 200 arena battles, only 19 deaths ensued. Considering the money and training time gladiator owners had put in to their fighters, they were a valued presence. In fact, gladiator owners were usually compensated if one of their combatants died in the arena. More often than not, gladiators were spared, even in an instance of a severe wound or when they were at the hand of their opponent, especially those that fought boldly and bravely.
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So, to recap, gladiators were valued commodities. They were of both genders and made up of both captive and free people. They put up a good fight in the arena and survived their matches most of the time. And thus, the air his cleared on some of the most common gladiator misconceptions.
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