Can science clear misconceptions and correct the facts about Roman gladiators?

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Answered by: Mehlam, An Expert in the Historical Facts Category
No social class in Roman history has fired up imaginations quite like the gladiators. Unfortunately, no other social class has also been so misunderstood. Popular culture has certainly played its part in distorting facts about Roman gladiators. They lived short, brutal, and bloody lives; and while many who were relegated to that role were prisoners condemned to death, many assumed the mantle of gladiator of their own accord. Studies have now revealed that somewhere around 1st century AD many individuals seeking fame and adulation voluntarily donned the helmet of the gladiator. While the upper classes of society disdained the blood sport, some aristocrats who became financially bankrupt also took up the sword to earn their living. One notable example was Sempronius, who belonged to the Gracchi clan. This change in trend marks a sharp contrast from the Hollywood depiction of a condemned slave awaiting a death sentence in the arena.

It is also commonly believed that gladiatorial bouts were often fought to the death, but in reality there were formal rules that governed the carnage. Since the financial upkeep of gladiators was formidable, it wasn't good business practice to have them killed of too rapidly. Gladiators were trained to injure, and not kill their opponents. Forensic evidence on skulls has also revealed that blows to the back of the head were very rare. This suggests that opponents were discouraged from attacking their adversaries from behind. Gladiators often received the very best medical treatment after their bouts and Roman physicians were renowned for their ability to heal flesh wounds. Gladiators were also quite well fed according to experts. Bone analysis show that they ate meals comprised mostly of barley and beans.

One of the enduring misconceptions depicted by Hollywood movies is that the loser's fate was in the hands of the Emperor or the audience. While this was true in many cases, there are also incidents that suggest that severely wounded gladiators were swiftly dispatched by executioners waiting in the wings. Ancient records reveal that the survival chance for trained gladiators was 90%. While the image of a bloody free for all area is deeply embedded in the minds of most movie-goers, in reality, gladiatorial bouts were often bound by strict rules of conduct. Promoters would heighten tension by ensuring that certain classes of gladiators battled each other. Slower and heavier armoured fighters were often pitted against lightly armored but highly maneuverable counterparts. It is now commonly believed, partially due to Hollywood, that gladiators would often say: "We who are about to die salute you!" In reality, however, the line was recorded only once during the reign of Emperor Claudius.

Women gladiators most defiantly did exist, until they were outlawed by Septimius Severus in 200 CE. However, contrary to popular misconceptions, they didn't battle men or dwarves; but against other female combatants. The rules of the arena ensured a fair fight and women were able to enthrall the crowd as effortlessly as their male counterparts. Gladiators, men and women alike, were more than nameless slaves condemned to death. They were the athletic superstars of their era who were adored by their legion of admirers, not unlike the athletes of today. With the aid of modern science and forensics, perhaps new facts about Roman gladiators will continue to emerge and correct our misconceptions about this enigmatic strata of Roman society.

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