When you mention Gladiator training to people today, they immediately reference the movies Spartacus and Gladiator. Why is that? The actors who portrayed these gladiators of ancient Rome resembled the real thing, physically, at least. The first step in entering a Ludus was being in both fine physical shape, to withstand the training and fights, and be attractive to the masses.
Gladiators were both slaves and freemen, who elected to renounce their social status. Before entering training a novice first had to swear an oath agreeing to endure both humiliation and death with honor. After signing a contract agreeing on a monetary value and the amounts of fights per year, he was then evaluated for what style of fighting he would best be suited for.
There were five main different fighting styles; a Thraex fought with a relatively small, curved sword (sica) and a small shield (parma). The parma was used to not only block blows but also to cover the gladiators core section. Often times, he would also wear long leg-plates. The Murmillones, named after net fishermen, fought with a long shield (scutum) and a narrow sword (gladius). Like the Thraex, he was also allowed leg-plates, but his could reach no higher than the shin. The Murmillo was often paired against the Hoplomachus. His equipment resembled that of the Thraex, but he was afforded a helmet, and instead of a parma, he fought with a round bronze shield. He would start his fights with a lance, switching to a sica only after being disarmed. The final gladiator style was the Retairius, he went into battle wearing a loin cloth, with his only protection being a protective wrapping around his left arm and a bronze plate from his left shoulder to his elbow. His weapons were a circular throwing net and a trident. While he could be paired against any of the other gladiators, he was mainly paired against the Secutor. This gladiator resembled the Mumillo with the largest difference being his helmet. This helmet covered his entire face leaving eye holes to see out of, but it also greatly reduced the gladiator’s field of vision. (Meijer, 2003, 90-93)
Once the fighting style was chosen the novice would then be assigned to a weapons specialist, normally ex-gladiators who could no longer fight. Under the care of this specialist, the novice would spend almost every waking moment in the training yard learning the fighting technique, repeating the movements over and over until they knew them automatically. As their skill progressed, they were moved from practicing with wooden weapons against a wooden pole to blunted weapons against other trainees. These men would practice until they literally dropped from exhaustion daily.
To keep their strength up they were well feed, compared to the general masses. This was one reason why some freemen volunteered to become gladiators. Their meals were taken in the canteen along the short edge of the training yard and consisted of barley gruel with beans, vegetables, and brews of charred wood or bone ash. (Curry 2008) The reason for this was two-fold, the gladiator tended to burn off these calories while in training and when it was time to enter the arena, the added layer of fat acted as a an additional layer of protection. “If he was wounded, but only in the fatty layer, he could fight on. It didn’t hurt as much, and the blood looked great for the audience.” (Curry 2008)
While assigned to a Ludus, the Gladiator was always well fed, and cared for by top physicians. While most Ludus provided seating for spectators to watch the gladiators spar against each other, the gladiator remained a novice until he entered the arena for the first time. At this point, he would be given his rating depending upon the outcome of the fight. Although, we always hear the oath to the Emperor as, “We who are about to die salute you,” it was rare that a gladiator was killed in the arena. “A gladiator counts it a disgrace to be matched with an inferior, and knows that to win without danger is to win without glory.” (Seneca Ess 1-17)
Archeologists are continuously uncovering more and more information about the training camps of the gladiator. From a gladiator cemetery, outside of Turkey, they are learning more on how they died and injuries sustained while both training and fighting. The equipment used has been uncovered from a Ludus in Pompeii, and a new Ludus has been discovered in Austria, intact. As we continue to learn more about these athletes of the ancient world, our desire to know more ever increases over time. The Ludi are best compared to the NFL training camps of today, and these gladiators are best compared to our toughest football players, only our athletes do not have to face death in the arena.
Carter, M.J. 2006/2007. Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement. The Classical Association of the Middle West
and South 102, no. 2 (Dec-Jan., 2006/2007). http://www.jstor.org/stable/30038038. (accessed Sept 18, 2011).
Curry, Andrew. 2008. The Gladiator Diet. Archeology 61, no. 6 (Nov-Dec., 2008).
Meijer, Fik. 2003. The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Seneca. Essays Volume I. Ess 1-17
Watson, Traci. 2011. Huge Gladiator School Found Buried in Austria. National Geographic Daily New,
ancient-walmarts-science/ (accessed Sept 18, 2011).