The life and death of a Roman gladiator

What was it really like being a gladiator?

Russell Crowe aside, professional gladiators were young men (sometimes women) who, either poor or ruined, slaves or criminals, were lured by the promise of prize riches to sell themselves into a kind of slavery to the trainers and lead brutish, dangerous lives. 

If a gladiator was seriously wounded but not mortally, he stretched out on the ground and raised his left arm for mercy.

The victor then usually decided his opponent's fate. However, when the emperor was around, he got to make the call, giving us a gesture we still use today.

Gauging the crowd's reaction, he judged whether to spare the loser by flashing the thumbs-up signal, or give the order to finish him off by gesturing thumbs down.

(Some spoilsports would have us believe the two gestures in ancient times were actually thumbs-down for death and thumbs-sideways for life; I try to ignore these people.)

The only release from gladiatorial life was death in the ring or the granting by the emperor of the rudis,a wooden sword that signaled a dignified, well-earned retirement from the games.

Incidentally, Christians were not thrown to the lions—or at least an event was probably never billed as such.

It was true that oftentimes prisoners were tossed into the arena to fight to the death with wild animals, and since Christianity was outlawed at various times during the Empire, Christ worshippers were probably among those unfortunates on occasion. But it's unlikely many screamed for Christian blood by name.

One more possibly apochryphal tale: Only ancient history recorded any instance of the following practice.

According to Suetonius, on at least one occasion in AD 52 combatants did enter a place of battle, raise their arms to honor the emperor, and call out, "Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant!"—famously translated as "Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!"—to which Caeasr rather encouragingly replied "Aut non." ("Or not.")

However, this did not happen at the Colosseum but rather during a mock naval battle on Lake Fucinus, and the combatants were not professional gladiators but rather a motely crew of convicted criminals and captured soldiers. As such, it might have been a form of last-minute protest on the part of the condemned, mocking the entire proceedings and their ill-fated role in them with some good old 1st century sarcasm.

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