In ancient Rome, gladiators fought, often to the death, to entertain crowds of spectators. Gladiators were trained in ludi ([sg. ludus]) to fight well in circuses (or the Colosseum) where the ground surface was covered with blood-absorbing harena 'sand' (hence, the name 'arena').
Slaves chosen as gladiators tended to be 1st-generation slaves bought or acquired in war or condemned slaves.
Gladiators Were Sometimes Indulged:
Popular, skilled gladiators could become very wealthy and have families. Before combats gladiators were provided with lots of food (albeit food that focused on the nutritionally inferior grain barley). From under the debris of the volcanic eruption of A.D. 79 in Pompeii, a presumed gladiator's cell was found that included jewels that may have belonged to his wife or mistress. It is debated how much we can make of this find.
Gladiators were divided into categories based on how they fought, their armor, and weapons. There were horseback gladiators, gladiators in chariots, gladiators who fought in pairs, and gladiators named for their origin, like the Thracian gladiators.
Victors received laurels, monetary payment, plus donations from the crowd. They could also win their freedom. At the end of service a gladiator won a rudis. He could then become a gladiator trainer or a freelance bodyguard -- like the men who followed Clodius Pulcher, the good-looking trouble-maker who plagued Cicero's life.
For information on the prices paid for the services of gladiators, see:
"Gladiatorial Ranking and the 'SC de Pretiis Gladiatorum Minuendis' (CIL II 6278 = ILS 5163)"
Phoenix (Spring - Summer, 2003), pp. 83-114
In the sacramentum gladiatorium 'oath of the gladiator' the potential gladiator, slave or hitherto free man, said "I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword" uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari. This oath bound him so that he was no longer truly free.
Source: Barbara MacManus
Who Were the Roman Gladiators?:
Gladiators came from a surprisingly diverse group. Gladiators were usually men, but they could also be women. They were usually slaves, but their number included emperors. Free men who had spent their inheritance and lacked other means of support might take up a career as gladiator hoping to win lots of money and the rudis quickly.
There appears to be no evidence for the thumbs up gesture -- or at least, if it was used, it probably meant death, not mercy. A waving handkerchief also signified mercy, and graffiti indicates the shouting of the words "dismissed" also worked to save a downed gladiator from death.
Beginning of the Roman Gladiators:
Roman gladiators appear to have entered the Roman scene fairly late in the Republic (about 2.5 centuries from the start of the Roman Republic), as part of funeral games for an ex-consul in 264 -- the year the 1st Punic War (264-241 B.C.) began. Another component of Roman games, the theatrical performances, seem to have started at the end of the same war. Gladiators may have come from a possible Etruscan custom of killing slaves at funerals.
There were few gladiatorial combats during the Republic, but during the Empire their popularity multiplied.
Attitude Towards the Games:
Mary Beard challenges conventional attitudes towards the gladiatorial games, saying that even in antiquity attitudes towards the cruelty and violence were mixed. Writers like Seneca may have expressed disapproval, but they attended the arena when the games were in process. Marcus Aurelius may have found the gladiatorial games boring, and may have abolished a tax on gladiator sale to avoid the taint of human blood, but he still put on lavish games.
Gladiators in the Modern World:
Gladiators continue to fascinate us, especially when they rebel against oppressive masters. Thus we have seen two gladiator box-office smash hits: the 1960 Kirk Douglas Spartacus and the 2000 Russell Crowe Gladiator. In addition to these movies stimulating interest in ancient Rome and the comparison of Rome with the U.S., art has affected our view of gladiators. Gérôme's painting "Pollice Verso" ('Thumb Turned' or 'Thumbs Down'), 1872, has kept alive the image of gladiator fights ending with a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture.
- Keith R. Bradley: Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World
- Lacus Curtius Gladiatores From the William Smith Dictionary