You wanted to know: How many gladiators died in the Colosseum?

  • This Zilten mosaic from Libya depicts gladiators as brave fighters.

    This Zilten mosaic from Libya depicts gladiators as brave fighters.

Posted8/4/2010 12:01 AM

You wanted to know:

A student in Gregg Thompson's sixth-grade social studies class at Woodland Middle School in Gurnee asked: "How many gladiators died in the Coliseum since it was built?"


The Roman Colosseum took ten years to construct and was used for more than 500 years to stage brutal and savage events to entertain the citizens of Rome. About 50,000 spectators filled the marble-topped seats surrounding the 6-acre arena to gawk at the gladiators as they championed feats of strength and, if necessary, sacrificed their lives to the glory of the gladiatorial games.

Cameron Hawkins, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, said the Coliseum held three types of events that featured gladiators: wild animal hunts, executions of criminals and gladiator shows involving man-to-man combat. All were gruesome as the gladiator was expected to fight to the death. A gladiator's life could be spared by a judge if it was determined that he was a valiant and skilled fighter. Thumbs-down meant an uneventful fight would result in certain death.

Gladiators were slaves, criminals or simply men who chose the risky life of the gladiator. They trained in gladiator schools to prepare for the two or three times each year that they might be called to perform. Technically considered to be at the lowest class along with slaves, these men held a special place in Roman society because of their bravery and courage during combat. Graffiti found on walls in Pompeii suggested that women loved gladiators.

Hawkins estimates there could have been 5,000 gladiators killed each year during the Roman Empire, which lasted until the end of the Fifth Century.

"Because of the emphasis on skill and courage, and because trained gladiators and hunters were expensive and hard to replace, the odds of survival were much better for gladiators and hunters than they were for criminals and for animals selected for the hunt. Hunters probably ran risks not unlike those faced by modern matadors," Hawkins said. "While there was a distinct danger that the animals pitted against them could wound or kill them, a skilled hunter probably had the odds on his side."

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Hawkins figures that about 20,000 slaves each year were sold to be employed as gladiators. The sale price was set by the Roman government.

Emperors and aristocrats staged the gladiator shows at their own expense and earned no income from the games.

Hawkins said, "No matter who was staging the show, his most important job was to recruit the gladiators and hunters who would fight. He could try to recruit free men who were skilled with weapons and who were willing to fight in exchange for a cash payment. He could sign a contract with the manager of a gladiatorial school who owned and slaves trained to fight in the arena. He could purchase slaves and have them trained at his own expense. During the Roman Republic, most gladiators were likely slaves who were owned by professional managers, but wealthy aristocrats who liked staging games increasingly started buying slaves to fight as gladiators, and by the First Century AD the emperors themselves owned several gladiatorial schools in which slaves were trained to fight in the arena."