In the ancient world gladiators were among the most famous athletes on the planet, revered and celebrated by all stratas of society much like today’s footballers.
Today, we extol our sporting heroes by way of newspapers and on the internet. During the Roman Empire, however, gladiators were celebrated in mosaics, on vases and even by way of graffiti - great news for today’s archaeologists because it means there is enough evidence to show us how these famed fighters once lived.
One of the most significant source of knowledge we have about how gladiators lived, fought and died is the gladiator burial site in Ephesus, where the bones of 60 gladiators was found last decade.
Ephesus is the most beautifully preserved ancient cities in Turkey and probably the country’s foremost historic attraction. The once mighty Roman city was built in the 10th century BC by the Greeks, and flourished from 129 BC until around 300 AD under Roman rule, when it’s thought up to 56,000 people lived in the city.
Famed for its Temple of Artemis, which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the city was a powerful seat of Roman influence for centuries.
The arena at Ephesus was originally built by the Greeks, and used for ceremonies and sports games. When the Romans came along, they introduced gladiator and animal fights. If there were Christians around to be thrown in, all the better. But the most famous and enduring of all the arena based activities were the gladiator fights. It’s these that captivated ancient audiences and fascinated modern historians.
The discovery last decade of the world’s largest gladiator graveyard in the ancient city changed what we know about the fighters. Gladiators typically didn’t have proper burials, which is the first reason the discovery of the Ephesus graves was so striking. It’s thought that the owner of a local gladiator school might have bought the burial plot for his students, commissioning the reliefs found on the tombs that depicted the fighters.
The Ephesus graves yielded thousands of bones, marked by three gravestones depicting gladiators. Researchers have carefully examined each and every bone, working to discover who the fighters were, and how they lived and died.
The researchers found around 67 individuals, mostly aged between 20 and 30. The most striking piece of information was that a number of the gladiators bore healed wounds during their lifetimes - including one case of a surgical amputation. This tells us that gladiators - the best of them, at least - received medical care and were probably not just flung into a ring with lions and left to meet their fate, as is depicted in films and books.
Life in the arena
The bones revealed that the gladiators didn’t tend to suffer serious multiple wounds, suggesting that they weren’t involved in large fights. Instead, they clashed in organised duels, possibly even with rules and referees who monitored the skirmishes, much like a modern-day boxing referee.
We now know that gladiators generally fought one-on-one, with armor and weaponry designed to give conflicting advantages. For example - a lightly armored, helmetless gladiator with a net and trident would be matched with a slow, armored-up fighter with a huge helmet and a long shield.
Written records from the time tell us that if a gladiator didn’t fight hard enough, or showed signs of fear, a cry of “iugula” (kill him) could be heard shouted around the arena. At this point the gladiator (if he was able) would lay his shield down and put his left hand up, pleading for mercy. Spectators would either signal approval by putting thumb and forefinger together, or give a thumbs up - which means something very different than it does today; in fact, quite the opposite.
If a gladiator was condemned to death, he was expected to die honorably, remaining still and waiting for the final blow, holding the thigh of his victor who would sink a sword down into the fallen fighter’s neck. The written reports of this practice chime with what the pathologists at the Ephesus site discovered - nicks to the vertebrae showing a number of the gladiators met this quick, but brutal death.
A good many skulls were also discovered bearing sets of three holes. It’s thought these fighters met their death with a strong blow from a trident. Others bore signs of hammers, which left rectangular holes.
The pathologists believe that these mortal blows might have been administered to severely injured gladiators, the ones who fought bravely and weren’t condemned to death, but stood no chance of surviving their injuries.
The findings also revealed another surprise - gladiators were well padded. Isotopic analysis, which traces chemical elements in bones to discover the diet of a long-dead individual, discovered that gladiators ate a high-carb diet with very little animal protein. It seemed the high-carb diet gave the warriors an extra layer of fat that protected them from wounds and shielded blood vessels and nerves. It also allowed the fighters to withstand superficial wounds in the arena - and a bloodied gladiator was always a show-stopping spectacle.
To keep their bones strong, gladiators drank drinks made from charred wood and bone ash, which sound vile but are high in calcium.
After surviving three years of fighting, gladiators would win their freedom, and be put to use in other ways: teaching at gladiator school or training soldiers. But with the odds of a gladiator surviving each fight estimated as being as low as one in three, it’s safe to say not many elderly gladiators were spotted in Ephesus or any other Roman settlement.
Like any fighter’s winning streak, the end of an era is inevitable. When Christianity became the official Roman religion in 413 AD, the arena at Ephesus was destroyed, and the Persecution Gate built in its place as a memorial to the sufferings of the Christians and gladiators who had died there.
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