As soon as you read the subject of today's entry, "Gladiator", I bet your brain immediately held images of sexy, half-naked men holding swords and shields, grunting, sweating, perhaps looking like Russel Crow...
Of course, that's Hollywood. They want the gladiator to look hot and be victorious, otherwise we wouldn't waste our money watching. Who wants to see a bloody battle where the hero dies?
But, tens of thousands of ancient Romans did enjoy them. The bloodier, the better.
Gladiators were like heavy-weight wrestlers of today. A lot of time and money was invested in these men (most of whom were slaves) to make them superior athletes, despite the fact that many died after one or two fights. Not very many actually made a career of fighting. Those that did became celebrities and sometimes were their freedom and a symbolic wooden sword. Ironically, these gladiatorial slaves had the best medical care and the best nutrition available.
So much focus went into these games because they correlated to the emperor's popularity with the people. If the spectators enjoyed the games and were happy, then they were happy with the emperor. Eventually, the emperor became directly tied with the outcome of the games as a sort of referee. When a gladiator fell or was defeated, it was the emperor who decided whether he should live or die. If the crowd wanted to see the gladiator's death, then the emperor gave the signal ("Jugula") to cut his throat.
Gladiators spent six long, dedicated months training at the Ludus or Ludi (gladiator school). They start with wooden swords and build up their stamina and muscles and finally learn to use real swords. The trainer is called a lanista. One recent archaeological excavation showed that the lanista was well-respected almost treated like royalty in his burial.
Each game consisted of several pairs of fighters. Romans believed in fair fights between "matched up" players. Each player had a specific role. For example, one role was the Net Man (Retiarius) who used a net and a trident to capture his opponent. Another role was the Fish Man (Murmillo) who relied on a sword. A fight would pair these opposing roles (Net vs Fish) for a more entertaining battle. Since their tools and armor were limited, they relied on their wits to win. Like modern day wrestling matches, they would include a lot of drama to woo the crowd.
The name Gladiator actually derives from Gladius, a type of two-edged sword.
The games lasted about 350 years, starting in 264 BC. The first games lasted 100 days and consisted of thousands of animals (many exotics imported from Africa). The largest games were held at the Colosseum which had a capacity up to 80,000 people.
Women did participate in Gladiatorial games and were called Gladiatrices.
"When Rome Rules - Secrets of the Gladiators" - http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/when-rome-ruled/4722/Overview
"The Real Story - Gladiator" - http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/site/sn/video/player/culture/related/the-real-story-gladiator-sneak-peek/876374365001/
Gladiatorial Games - http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/arena.html