The Cut and Thrust at The Roman Colosseum

The Colosseum in Rome

The Colosseum in Rome is a magnificent place steeped in ancient history, while it was destroyed and rebuilt many times during the reign of The Roman Empire. Many spectacles took place at The Colosseum, while some of the entertainment could be gruesome plus downright bloody and violent at best. Here we take a look at the era of the gladiators who fought in the arena at The Colosseum, it makes very interesting reading!

The Colosseum

Visitors to Rome flock to The Colosseum in order to soak up it's superb atmosphere and learn about its history. Even now, although The Colosseum is a shadow of its former self we can still imagine what it was like to sit in the audience as a spectator watching Gladiators fight to the death.

In its hey day the Colosseum, built in AD 72 by Vespasian consisted of four floors, one two and three with arched entrances, while the fourth had rectangular shaped doorways. The building was around 145 feet high with the arena itself measuring 79 x 45 yards. The floor was wooden in construction and was covered in sand.

The audience were seated behind nets in order to protect them, while the noise from the fifty five thousand strong crowd must have been both frightening and exhillarating depending on why you were in the arena. Huge marble plinths finished off the interior and were built at great expense not only financially but in human costs too as they were so heavy to move and construct.

Who Were The Gladiators?


We tend to think that Roman gladiators must have been the cream of the crop in terms of being citizens of Rome but gladiators mainly came from prisoners, criminals and slaves with the odd volounteer who was in it for money or fame and recognition that a winning gladiator could have. Gladiators were trained to a very high standard, while training in the art of fighting went on for months in dedicated schools. There were many different types of gladiator with categories changing as time went on. Here are some of them.

The Samnite

The Samnites who hailed from an area close to the Apennine Mountains of Italy, were heavily armed with swords, lances, large shields and wore visored metal helmets plus had one arm covered in protective armour. These fighting men were the earliest gladiators who usually fought each other rather than other types of gladiator.

The Thracian

The Thracians wore broad rimmed helmets that bore a Griffin crest. The Griffin was companion to the avenging Goddess Nemesis. They carried a small round shield and a curved sword, while they were also covered by thigh length greaves.


The clue is in the name of this gladiator as he fought animals such as lions or bears. Not all gladiators were involved in hand to hand combat.


This gladiator used a lasso to catch his opponent then once ensnared he would finish him off with his dagger.


This fine gladiator had earned his freedom, with some remaining cambatants, while some retired. Those who did continue to fight were very popular with the public due to their fighting experience. The Rudiarius had their own hierachy too that included trainers, helpers, referees and fighters.


The Venator hunted animals rather than fighting them and would perform dangerous tricks for the crowds amusement such as placing an arm in a lion's mouth, leading lions on a leash or riding camels.

Female Gladiators

It was in the reign of Emperor Nero that female gladiators emerged. Female gladiators fought against male dwarves as well as each other.

The Fight

Gladiators would enter the arena accompanied by entertainers in a colourful procession that was known as The Pompa. Musicians would play their trumpets and drums while acrobats and other entertainers walked or danced in time to the music.

Once the procession was over the gladiators would draw lots to see who would fight first plus which gladiator would fight which. Once that was over a match official would look at the weapons making sure that they were fight worthy. The gladiators would then turn to the emperor, or whoever the important representative of the day was and say those immortal words "We who are about to die salute you" then the fighting commenced.

There were no referees to ensure fair play it was every man for himself resulting in utter carnage as the crowd cheered and bayed for more, encouraging the violence. Sometimes there would be no apparent winner therefore the two gladiators would live to fight another day, while if it was thought they were not doing their utmost to slay their opponent they could be punished by whipping or branding.

Once a gladiator fell wounded he would raise his finger as a sign that he begged for mercy. The gladiator on his feet would then look to the emperor for a sign as to what to do, offer mercy or go in for the kill. The emperor would more often than not go with the crowd.

Wounded Gladiator

If the crowd wanted mercy for the wounded gladiator they would wave their hankies or give the thumbs up sign but if they wanted death they would point their thumbs toward their own chests meaning kill by a sword through the heart or they would shout "lugula" which meant slit his throat.

Some fights ended with one gladiators death, while some would play dead in order to survive. This was usually spotted, as in order to ascertain death men with hot irons would come into the arena and place them on the "dead" gladiator who naturally screamed out in agony if still alive, so would have their throat cut as a result.

Finally, blood would be cleaned from the sand and men dressed as Mercury the god, transporter of the dead would come into the arena and remove the body. The Latin word for sand is harena, hence why we call such a place of entertainment today an arena. We cannot imagine today such a spectacle taking place but back in Roman times violence was part of every day life for most people and so it went on!