By Natasha Sheldon
Graffiti and other archaeological evidence tell us a great deal about the lives and life expectancy of Roman gladiators in Pompeii.
The stars of the Roman games, gladiators could be slaves or freedmen. Despite the Pompeian’s appetite for blood, their life expectancy was not as low as one would expect.
Who were the Gladiators?
In the main, gladiators were slaves purchased for their strength by local businessmen. They were trained in troupes and then hired them out to fight in the games.
Many gladiators had single names like ‘Princeps’ and 'Hilarius’ which indicated that they were slaves. Some gladiators were also free. The gladiator Lucius Raecius Felix was probably a freedman. Felix was a common slave name and his other two names were probably adopted from his former master’s name and added after his freedom.
Some gladiators were also freeborn. Graffiti in Pompeii records the name of a gladiator Marcus Attilius. His name is not that of a slave and does not indicate he was a freedman, suggesting he signed up to the arena for profit.
The House of the Gladiators.
Before 62 AD, this was the original gladiator’s barracks and training area for gladiators in Pompeii. A converted house, it consisted of a central peristyle surrounded by rooms. Graffiti on the pillars of the peristyle informs on the types of gladiators who appeared in Pompeii and how the gladiators themselves saw each other.
Besides the well-known fighters such as Thracians, Murmillos and Retinarii (net men) the House of the Gladiators trained essedarius (chariot fighters) and eques (cavalrymen). There are also various pieces of graffiti that refer to the popularity of certain gladiators with local women, suggesting that the gladiators at least saw themselves as sex symbols.
The Gladiator’s Barracks.
After 62 AD, the gladiator’s training venue moved to the portico of the large theatre. This large complex known as the Gladiator’s Barracks was occupied at the time of the 79 AD eruption. Eighteen human skeletons were found on the premises as well as that of a horse.
The barracks consisted of a kitchen, mess hall, stables and armoury for storing the ceremonial armour and helmets that the gladiators wore in processions. Stairs on the east side were believed to lead to the lanista’s quarters on the second floor. A further set of stairs led below the barracks to an ergastulum or slave prison. Four more skeletons were found here. They were unchained despite the provision of iron fetters.
The Mortality Rate Amongst Gladiators.
Not every gladiator who lost a fight lost their life.
Graffiti is commonly found on tombs flanking the major routes into the city, detailing the outcome of gladiatorial combat. The equivalent of modern day sports reports, these accounts named the participants, how many bouts they had fought and how many of these fights they had won.
Victors were indicated by the letter ‘v’. Losers could be marked as either ‘m’ for 'missus' indicating that they had lost but been reprieved or ‘p’ for ‘perrit’ indicating they had been killed. Far more gladiator’s names were marked with an m indicating that losers often survived.
The World of Pompeii. (2007) Ed. John J Dobbins and Pedar W Foss. Routledge; LONDON and New York.
Pompeii: An Archaeological Guide. Istituto Geografico De Agostini
Pompeii: A Sourcebook (2004). Alison E Cooley and M G L Cooley. Routledge: London and New York