From the Kubrick’s thoughtful 1960 film “Spartacus,” to Russell Crowe’s brooding performance in “Gladiator,” to the sexy gore-fest otherwise known as the Starz drama “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” gladiators have long been a favorite subject in popular culture.
Though the reality of gladiatorial life may have differed significantly from that of the oiled-up poster boys featured in many modern portrayals, several facets of gladiators’ athletic training have survived the test of time. In fact, many of today’s professional athletes follow training regimens that mimic those common in ancient Rome.
But the similarities don’t stop there; in addition to intense, regimented training, gladiators also followed certain nutritional guidelines and enjoyed public adulation — much like modern athletes.
The first gladiatorial events were performed to honor the dead; games were called “munera,” a term that connotes duties paid to deceased ancestors. The first recorded gladiatorial event took place in 264 BC, a funeral rite in which three pairs of gladiators fought to the death.
Early matches had great religious significance. The gladiators were believed to act as armed attendants, accompanying the dead to the next world and appeasing the spirits of the dead with their blood.
The real fun — for the spectators, anyway — didn’t start until the munera’s religious significance was replaced by political influence. Once a rite performed to honor the passing of important men, gladiatorial combat became a spectacle designed increase the power of the ruling class. The Carthaginian theologian Tertullian described this phenomenon as “public entertainment [that] has passed from being a compliment to the dead to being a compliment to the living.”
The gladiators themselves were mostly drawn from the lower classes; their ranks were filled with slaves, captured fugitives, criminals, prisoners of war and others who had no choice in the matter. However, some free men — known as “auctorati” — actually volunteered; by the fall of the Roman Empire, as many as half of all gladiators joined voluntarily.
Many auctorati were aristocrats who’d lost their wealth. Regimented gladiatorial life offered an alternative to army service, offered food, board, medical care and, perhaps most significantly, the chance to be adored by the public — and patronage from wealthy fans — in the arena.
As gladiatorial combat become a sport for the masses to enjoy — and a great source of profits for the wealthy and elite — the training associated with it grew more structured, regimented and regulated. After the Spartacus revolt in 73 B.C., the powers that be realized that independent gladiator training schools represented a threat to the established order, as a troupe of gladiators was essentially a very well-trained private army. The government took control of both the public games — now known as “ludi” — and of the training process.
Gladiators were housed and trained in imperial schools under the control of a manager or “lanista.” The word for gladiator schools, “ludus,” means imitation or repetition — both hallmarks of the training process.
Gladiatorial training followed a strict, almost scientific regimen, much like that of today’s boxers. Gladiators were taught to fight in a series of figures, taught in phases. In fact, this training method led to uniformity in gladiators’ fighting style, a source of complaint for ludi fans, many of whom regarded their combat technique as too mechanical or “by the numbers.”
Training was provided by a “lanista,” usually an experienced gladiator who was too old to compete in the area. Every day, the gladiators would lift weights to build their strength, a training practice still prevalent today. The development of structured training is often attributed to the influence of Galen, a Roman medical practitioner who established the link between exercise and increases in athletic ability and strength. Galen approached physical training with a scientific eye, monitoring changes in respiration and advocating the use of repetitive aerobic exercises and the use of weights.
Gladiators’ daily training regimen also included hours practicing combat routines using wooden swords against “men of straw” — a technique employed by many modern martial arts training traditions. Today, football and rugby teams practice using tackling dummies, as do boxers.
By the second century A.D., lanistas categorized gladiators into types based on fighting style, arms and armor. Usually, different categories of gladiators were matched in standardized pairings for public fights. These included the “Hoplomachus” or heavy weapons fighter, the “Provacator” or attacker, and the “Retarius” or netman. This trend can still be seen in categorizations such as handicaps, weight classes and league classifications.
Like many modern athletes. Gladiators also followed dietary guidelines. Archeological evidence indicates that gladiators had high bone density, enlarged muscle markers on leg and arm bones — characteristics also common to today’s trained athletes. These factors provide evidence of extensive and continuous exercise regimens.
However, though modern athletes tend to focus on high-protein diets, which are believed to build muscle, gladiators’ bones show increased levels of strontium, an element that builds up in the bones of vegetarians. Gladiators’ strontium level was twice that of modern omnivorous humans, indicating that their diet consisted largely of dried fruit, beans and barley.
Though diet of gladiators and modern athletes may differ, the use of performance-enhancing substances is another commonality between the two groups. Gladiators often drank mineral-rich bone-ash and herbal infusions that were believed to increase their strength and battle prowess. In modern times, the news is full of public outrage — and controversy — surrounding the use of steroids, stimulants and other performance enhancers such as protein drinks and herbal supplements in both professional and amateur sports.
One of the most striking similarities between the gladiators and today’s athletes is that of public adulation. Successful gladiators enjoyed celebrity status, as indicated by the ancient graffiti found in Pompeii: “Celadus the Thracian, three times victor and three times crowned, adored by young girls.” Outstanding modern athletes also win the cheers of the crowd and the love of the ladies — as well as exceptionally high salaries.
Gladiatorial games occupied a central role in the lives of many ancient Romans; the arenas where they performed held as many as 250,000 fans. Archeologists have even discovered ancient advertisements for games and a baby’s bottle with a gladiator stamped on the side. Many modern sports fans are just as centered on their favorite team’s activities as were the ludi fans.
In a world where violent death was an everyday occurrence, gladiatorial combat offered a symbolic way for people to face death valiantly by proxy – and sometimes to overcome it. As the lanista Proximo in “Gladiator” said, “Ultimately, we are all dead men …. We have to decide how to meet death in order to be remembered as men.”
Perhaps modern sport also offer a symbolic way to overcome human frailty, as well as act out socially unacceptable violent impulses in a non-violent manner. One thing is for certain — audiences appreciate the training, physical prowess and dedication of today’s athletes as much as they did in ancient Rome.