Anyone who has seen films like Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus or Gladiator by Ridley Scott is familiar with the images of the Roman fighters destined for either glory or death as they entertained crowds with violent combats.
Maria Weiss, the director of the Archaeological Museum Hamburg where a new exhibition titled Gladiators - Heroes of the Colosseum Rainer is being held, told DW he wanted to bring historical facts to the forefront and ask hard-hitting questions about this bloody sport: "What does the pictorial tradition say about real life? What do bones, or rather studies about buried gladiators, say about their lives, about their diet, etc.?"
Gladiator games in ancient Rome
The first documented gladiator fights took place in Rome in 264 BC. At the time, descendants of a deceased person had three pairs of slaves compete against each other in the honour of their dearly departed. Typically, the fight would happen in a marketplace, not an enclosed venue.
Throughout the course of history, these private battles of nobility became increasingly popular among citizens of ancient Rome, and emperors had a hand in organizing them as a form of entertainment.
Under Emperor Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD), fights were allowed only during a few specific days a year. "The real gladiator fought three or, if it came down to it, four fights a year. In between, gladiators lived and trained in gladiator schools, which you can imagine as a boarding school," Weiss says.
Fighting by the rules
The gladiator battles were the day's highlight. Fighters didn't simply wave their swords around aimlessly: There was a complex set of rules and a referee who made sure they were obeyed. "This is something that we do not have in our collective imagination at all. There is never a referee who says 'Attention, the leather strap has come loose, give him time to fix it.' Or: 'Attention, he is turning around and taking a breath. You can't stab him now,' and so on," explains Weiss.
Although a draw was the rarest outcome of a fight, not as many gladiators died as is commonly thought. According to Weiss, it isn't true that one person per fight had to lose their life: "That was an exceptional case, because the fighters were highly trained, respected and really expensive experts, just like today's boxers or wrestling stars who are known by name and who have their fans." Some, however, did die in a fight if they gave up, for example, and if the audience or emperor refused to pardon them.
A famous arena: the Colosseum in Rome
While the gladiatorial games were initially held in marketplaces and large urban areas — not only in Rome but also in Pompeii and elsewhere — fights soon took place in amphitheatres.
The Roman Colosseum is the most famous of such venues. This building, commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in the 1st century AD, could accommodate up to 50,000 spectators.
Even today, the ruins bear witness to its former splendour. Each year millions of tourists visit the ancient site.
Between underdog and hero
Gladiators were by no means only prisoners or slaves. Gladiator schools ensured that there was a large supply of highly trained fighters and many "free citizens" also joined.
What may be surprising to many is that women also fought against each other. This topic is touched upon in the Hamburg exhibition. "This did not fit into the Roman worldview, which is why they were probably hushed and officially banned in the year 200," says Weiss. An imperial prohibition suggests that there must have been many such fights, he points out. In Roman culture, a woman's role was that of an admirer or lover, not a fearsome fighter.