A Roman gladiator defeated in the arena would usually be killed or executed by the victorious fighter.
It must have been a terrible moment in a gladiator’s life when he realised he had been defeated in the arena, and lay waiting on a sentence of life or death from the official in charge of the fight. In the modern world it is often assumed that many, if not most, gladiators were sentenced to death – but is this reflected in the ancient reality?
Firstly, we have to establish what we mean by a “gladiator” in the Roman world. This is more difficult than it might seem at first, because while all gladiators fought in the arena, not everyone who fought in the arena would be considered a “gladiator”.
Many of the people who fought in the arena were not trained fighters, but a sub-class known as noxii – criminals and slaves (including prisoners-of-war), who were used to provide a crowd-amusing form of entertainment-meets-execution. They could be pitted against trained gladiators, wild animals, or even each other – but whoever their opponent, the noxii were not intended to survive the fight, and probably would not be given the chance to ask officials or the crowd to “turn the thumb” in favour of letting them live.
But was this also the case for those fighters who might be better thought of as “professional” gladiators – men who were often hand-selected for the arena, and trained, housed, and fed at the expense of their lanista (owner)? Some were trained in a ludus (specialist gladiator schools), examples of which have been found in Rome, Capua, Praeneste, Pergamon, Alexandria, and Carnuntum.
These gladiators would be expected to pay back that investment, and hopefully, turn a profit. If these gladiators were killed the first time they lost a fight, the business would become highly unprofitable very quickly. So what is the evidence from the Roman world for gladiators surviving defeat in the arena?
In the Republican period, there were fights in the arena that only ended with the death of one of the gladiators (munera sine missione), but these often happened in funereal contexts – in games held to honour high-status Romans in death – or as de-facto human sacrifices (although the Romans would likely have denied this terminology) dedicated to the gods, funded privately by the Roman elites. In the Imperial period, however, this changed significantly.
Augustus absorbed gladiatorial combats into the state system, formalising them as a civic duty, but banned fights to the death due to their crippling cost (Suetonius, Augustus 45):
[Augustus] prohibited combats of gladiators where no quarter was given.
Augustus’ ruling on games without mercy for the defeated gladiator seems to have marked a trend in the Imperial period against the wholesale slaughter of trained gladiators in the arena, except under special circumstances or at the whims of a particularly cruel emperor or games official (Kyle 1998, p. 86).
The point of the games was not necessarily to kill as many gladiators as possible, but to entertain the crowd – ideally in a cost-effective manner. Forcing death on gladiators in the arena without the opportunity for mercy was seen as the action of a cruel and unjust man, and Roman writers emphasised the nefarious character of emperors by discussing their lack of mercy towards gladiators (Futrell 2006, p. 145).
Claudius in particular had a wider reputation for poor treatment of gladiators, with a reputation for cruelty and ordering execution even where it was not deserved. In particular, that he judged gladiators to be ‘defeated’ as soon as they fell down, even if it had been a slip that they would otherwise have been able to recover from (Suetonius, Claudius 34.1):
In any exhibition of gladiators, presented either by [Claudius] himself or others, if any of the combatants chanced to fall, he ordered them to be butchered, especially the net-fighters, that he might see their faces in the agonies of death.
These anecdotes were used by Suetonius and other writers to highlight the poor character of Claudius, suggesting that his attitudes to gladiators, particularly those that had fought well in defeat, were out-of-step with the way that most Romans felt.
It was customary for the match’s referee to allow gladiators who had fallen over, rather than being grounded by their opponent, to get up and continue fighting – although one tombstone, belonging to a gladiator named Diodorus, laments this practice, saying that he was mortally wounded by an opponent that he had defeated, but that the referee had allowed to get up again, turning the tables on Diodorus in the second phase of the fight (Carter 2011). Diodorus blamed this on “murderous Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis [referee]” for his death.
In theory, gladiators would fight until one of them was too exhausted or wounded to continue. However, gladiators didn’t have to fight until they were incapacitated – they could give a hand-gesture indicating that they surrendered the fight, seemingly either extending their thumb or one of their fingers towards the official overseeing the bout (Carter 2011, pp. 63-65) (Martial, On the Spectacles XXIX):
The law was to fight with a stated reward in view, till by his thumb one of the pair proclaimed himself vanquished.
On one occasion, the emperor Claudius almost found himself on the inconvenient (to him) side of the mercy law for gladiators, when he accidentally pardoned the gladiators about to take part in a naval contest (Suetonius, Claudius 21.6):
…when the combatants cried out: “Hail, emperor, they who are about to die salute thee”, he replied, “Or not”, and after that all of them refused to fight, maintaining that they had been pardoned.
Unfortunately for these particular men they were eventually forced to fight, but according to Suetonius, this was only achieved through a combination of threats and promises.
Mercy over death?
What happened after a gladiator had successfully surrendered would depend on the official in charge of the match, probably heavily influenced by the crowd. Most would be allowed to live and fight another day, as evidenced by a number of gladiatorial tombstones, usually those of retired gladiators.
These tombstones recorded the gladiator’s “career statistics”, which involved defeats and grants of mercy alongside their victories (Hope 2000, p. 103; Futrell 2006, pp. 144-145). A prominent example is a tombstone from Sicily dedicated to a gladiator named Flamma who died at the age of 30, recorded that he had fought in 34 combats, with a record of 21 wins, 9 draws, and 4 defeats (ILS 5113 = CIL 10.7297).
Modern estimates suggest that around 4 out of every 5 (80-85%) defeated gladiators would have lived – whether those who died were killed as a result of losing, or died from their wounds, is difficult to establish (Kyle 1998, p. 86). Probably the longer you lived as a gladiator, the better you got at staying alive – and became much more expensive to lose. Wiedemann (1992, p. 92) noted that gladiators who had fought well might also have been allowed to survive because they had demonstrated virtus, one of the most valued characteristics in the Roman world.
In some cases, a defeated gladiator may have fought well, but for whatever reason, found that the crowd still called for him to be killed. This was clearly seen by some in Rome to be a waste of a good fighting man – Julius Caesar ordered that in these cases the gladiators should not be executed, despite the wishes of the crowd, and brought to him instead (Suetonius, Caesar 26.3):
He [Caesar] gave orders that whenever famous gladiators fought without winning the favour of the people, they should be rescued by force and kept for him.
So the question of whether most gladiatorial fights ended in death is a difficult to answer conclusively. It really depends on who we are talking about, and how we define a “gladiator”.
If we exclude the noxii, who were put in the arena with the sole purpose of dying, it seems that many trained gladiators had a reasonable chance of mercy when they surrendered or were defeated, unless their fate rested with a particularly bloodthirsty emperor or other official. They were usually not put in the arena just to die, but to entertain the crowd – although many would eventually die as a result.
Gladiators could survive multiple fights, providing ongoing entertainment to the Roman people while also paying back some of the money invested in them. But ultimately, very few gladiators would have successfully escaped the arena for good, and most would have eventually died there – probably only a few superstars of the sport won or were able to buy a permanent release and retirement.
For these reasons, we rate this claim as mostly false.
- M.J. Carter, “Blown Call? Diodorus and the Treacherous Summa Rudis”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 177 (2011), pp. 63-69.
- A. Futrell, The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation (2006).
- V. Hope, “Fighting for Identity: The funerary commemoration of Italian gladiators”, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 73 (2000), pp. 93-113.
- D.G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (1998).
- T.E.J. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (1992).