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Tell me about Roman Gladiators - A Glorious Guide with Author Ally Sherrick

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Looking for an awesome, exhaustive, and - most importantly - fun history guide to Roman Gladiators? Then you've come to the right place my friend!

And, if you are not looking for an awesome, exhaustive, and - most importantly - fun history guide to Roman Gladiators, then what are you even doing here, man?

Now we've got rid of the hangers-on, let's get stuck into our Masterclass History Guide with award-winning children's author Ally Sherrick, shall we? Ally has written a fantastic new book of daring-do and heroic adventure, Vita and the Gladiator. All that Roman research means she's the ideal candidate to lead us through this Glorious Guide to Roman Gladiators.

Award-winning children's author and time-traveller Ally Sherrick

Hi Ally, first off, can you tell us a little bit about your new book, Vita and the Gladiator?

Thank you – I’d love to! It’s the story of Vita, a high-born girl living in Roman Londinium at the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Though she longs to write poetry and plays, for a girl like her, the only future is marriage. Until – spoiler alert! – on the day of her fourteenth birthday, her father is murdered and her mother and brother disappear.

Vita escapes with her life only to end up a slave in a gladiator school, sharing a cell with a fierce warrior-huntress - Brea and her wolf Col. Vita and Brea are from very different worlds. But when they discover they share a common enemy, they resolve to bring him to justice, even if that means standing against him in the arena...

Warning: Contains gladiators!

Well, that sounds very exciting! I’m looking forward to reading it! Our readers (and us!) would love to learn more about Gladiators from you! First off, what exactly even is a Gladiator?

A gladiator was a fighter trained to battle against a fellow gladiator, a wild beast, or a condemned criminal for the entertainment of the crowds. The word actually means ‘swordsman’ – from ‘gladius’ the Latin word for a sword – though not all gladiators were men and they didn’t all fight with swords either.

Most gladiators were either prisoners-of-war sold to fight in the arena, or else criminals sentenced to die by the sword (damnati ad gladium) or condemned to the games (damnati ad ludos). For these last more fortunate ones, if they worked hard at their training and learned how to fight well, then they might earn a living as a gladiator and even be awarded their freedom if they fought bravely and managed to stay alive long enough. Others who might find themselves in gladiator boot-camp were slaves considered too unruly by their masters to keep, or people who sold themselves to a gladiator-school to pay off their debts.

One thing they all share in common is that outside of the arena they were considered outcasts – the lowest of the low.

Inside the arena, it was a different matter, with brave, skilled fighters respected and even treated as heroes – the Roman equivalent of our modern-day celebrity sports stars, with stage names to match.

Fascinating! This 'arena' you mentioned, is that where did Gladiators do all their fighting?

The Colosseum in Rome in all its glory.

Though there were bands of fighters who travelled from place to place putting on fighting shows in market-places, ‘real’ gladiators fought in a purpose-built arena or amphitheatre. This was a large, earth and wood or stone-built building typically located in a larger Roman town.

The most famous example is the Colosseum in Rome, but there were amphitheatres in all major cities across the Roman Empire, including many in the Roman province of Britannia. The grand climax of my story happens in the arena in Londinium, the original location of which was discovered quite recently in the City of London. You can visit the remains in a specially lit underground room, though at the time of my story, the arena would have been roofless and open to the elements.

I did lots of research before writing the book to be sure to make the setting in my story as authentic as possible. For example, I included a scene in a special closed room where archaeologists believe the gladiators were kept waiting before the fight. Also a niche in the arena walls for a statue of the goddess Fortuna, the goddess of good luck and bad to whom gladiators would pray before a fight. And the souvenir stalls outside where spectators could buy a clay model of their favourite fighter, or perhaps a replica sword. When Vita and Brea appear there, the arena has just been renovated by the famous Emperor Hadrian, and can seat up to 7, 000 people. A pretty terrifying prospect for all but the most battle-hardened of warriors!

I’d definitely need my comfort blanket for a snuggle before facing that crowd! Were Gladiators trained, or did they just make it up as they went along?

A fantastic mosaic of two Gladiators. Photo courtesy of Catherine Randall.

The life of a gladiator was strictly controlled from the moment they started out on their ‘career’. Male gladiators were sent to a special training school (ludus), like the one run by the retired gladiator, Otho in my story. Here they swore the famous gladiator’s oath (the sacramentum gladiatorum) agreeing to be ‘burnt by fire, bound in chains, beaten and killed by the sword’ as their master (the lanista) commanded. Not a life for the faint-hearted!

Once sworn in, a new recruit (tiro) would be subject to a strict diet, dress code and training regime. All carried out under the watchful eye of the gladiator-master who had the power to fine, whip or even execute anyone who broke the rules.

After a first assessment, trainee gladiators showing the right sort of promise were set to attacking a wooden post (palus) for hours at a time wearing a helmet and carrying a heavy shield and a wooden sword. They were only trusted with real weapons – as I show in my story – once they were safely in the arena.

Following weeks, often months of this sort of hard training, the trainee was then assessed for their suitability to become a certain type of specialised fighter – more of which below ...

Female ‘wannabe’ gladiators (gladiatrices as we now call them) were unlikely to be accepted for entry into a gladiator-school and were most likely trained in private.

So many different types of Gladiator helmets! Image courtesy of Ally Sherrick.

Were there different types of Gladiators then?

The short answer is yes! Each gladiator had their own specialism, and their own special armour and weapons to match.

In my story, Vita and Brea’s enemy in the gladiator-school - the fearsome Cronos the Skull- Crusher – is a provocator. This type of fighterwas a ‘heavy’ - powerful and sturdily built, though not particularly agile. In the arena, ‘the Skull-Crusher’, like all fighters of his type, is armed with a short sword, a large rectangular shield and a heavy metal helmet with grilles across the eyeholes. He also wears a manica or protective sleeve and greaves which cover the front part of his legs. He would normally be paired with another provocator – though as you will see if you read the book, it doesn’t quite work out that way!

Other distinctive types of gladiator I also mention in the story are the Thracian armed with a distinctive curved dagger and griffin-topped helmet which Otho the gladiator-master proudly tells Vita he once was. Also the famous retiarius or net-man, a quick-footed, agile type of helmet-less fighter armed with a net, trident and dagger and a special piece of shoulder armour in place of a shield.

There were strict rules about which gladiator could be matched with which, taking account of the different strengths and weaknesses offered by their weapons and armour – all to ensure a more exciting contest for the spectators.

A nifty Roman Mosaic of a Beast Hunter in action. Photo courtesy of Catherine Randall.

And then there were the beast-hunters or venatores, like native Briton, Brea in my story. These were a class of warrior apart from the gladiators. Men - and women too – trained in the killing of wild animals. Perhaps a lion, a tiger, or maybe a crocodile or two in Rome, but more likely a locally-grown bull or a Caledonian bear in Britannia.

The beast-hunts usually took place in the morning, before the main gladiatorial contest, and besides being a display of skill, were also intended to show the mastery of man – or woman - over nature. Of course, this didn’t usually prove the case, if a poor hapless criminal had been sentenced to be thrown to the lions, but that’s another matter...

Sounds nasty! Hang on, were there any rules then, or were Gladiator fights a free-for-all?

Gladiatorial free-for-alls would have been looked on with horror by Roman society. The arena was the place where imperial justice was seen to be served and a sense of order reinforced – a reminder of the power of the Emperor in Rome and the meaning and worth of Roman citizenship. Gladiatorial games were paid for by the games-giver (the munerarius). In the Imperial period, this was usually the Emperor or his representative, though in my story it is a local magistrate and old soldier friend of Vita’s father, Gaius Cassius Agrippa who finances them in his dead comrade’s memory.

A Retiarius jabs at a secutor whilst an official referees.

Following a programme of events involving beast-hunts, entertainments such as juggling and clowning, and the execution of criminals, the bouts of fighting began after lunch. Gladiators were matched with each other following the usual rules of which type of fighters could be pitched against each other. The fights were refereed by officials. Once the fighters had been presented to the games-giver and the weapons handed out, there was a short warm up period before the serious fighting began.

The games-giver usually agreed in advance with the gladiator-school how many gladiators they would be prepared to pay for to be put to the sword (each gladiator had his or her own monetary value). When a gladiator lost a fight, it was the game-giver’s decision – heavily influenced by the cries of the crowd – as to whether the fighter would live or die. Those that had fought bravely were usually spared. But woe betide any show of cowardice. For then the games-giver’s thumb would indicate a sticky end. The victor received an honorary palm leaf and a purse of prize money topped up by tips from the crowd which helped make all the blood and sweat worthwhile – sort of!

With all that sweet money on offer, did Roman citizens ever want to be Gladiators?

Most self-respecting ordinary citizens much preferred the idea of going along to watch a pair of fighters slug it out, potentially to the death, than to sign up for a stint in the arena themselves. And with the odds stacked against their long-term survival, who can blame them?

But though it might seem incredible to us today, there were some who chose to volunteer. A male volunteer (or auctoratus) might enter a gladiator-school either for the prospect of the prize money, or else the glory. This is true for one of my minor characters in the book, the hapless Decimus, who meets the wrong end of the Skull-Crusher’s wooden sword during a training bout.

Such volunteers might be ex-soldiers or else upper-class patricians, knights, or senators who relished the chance to demonstrate their warrior credentials, or even rebellious sons wanting to defy their parents.

The stone relief of Achillia and Amazon which inspired Vita and the Gladiator.

As already mentioned, some women fancied themselves as fighters in the arena too. My own story was actually inspired by a stone relief of two female gladiators – Achillia and Amazon – now in the British Museum.

But female fighters were a rarity. The thought of a woman fighting in the arena was a shocking reversal of the ideal of the Roman matron – decent, beautiful, and devoted to her husband and children. Though the novelty value made them an intriguing prospect for any crowd.

Achillia and Amazon both sound ace! Were there any famous historical examples of celebrity Gladiators that we absolutely should know about?

Definitely! Some of the most famous celebrity gladiators were actually Roman Emperors. Caligula and Hadrian, builder of the famous wall in Britannia, were two examples. The emperor Commodus is probably the most infamous example. He ‘fought’ against wild panthers and bears from the safety of a raised platform. In the arena too, but only against inexperienced gladiators or poorly-equipped, petrified members of the audience - contests he was always sure to win. Sadly, a case for his opponents of the odds never being in their favour...

A massive thank you and hearty high-five to Ally for answering all our questions so awesomely!

Wanna get yourself a copy of Vita and the Gladiator, then you should click right here buddy.

For more information about Ally and her books visit

You can also follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick


Is your class loving learning about the Romans? Then you'll definitely want to bring Imagining History's 'Roman Britain: A Time Travel Tour' workshop to your school!


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