Famous long before Russell Crowe became Maximus Decimus Meridius, the gladiators of Ancient Rome fought for the entertainment of citizens throughout the Empire’s history. Though, contrary to popular opinion, most were slaves and did not enjoy great fame or cult status, there were some who became well-known due to their exploits and the reporting of them.
Some of the more famous gladiators were on personal terms with the emperors they performed before, as in the case of Spiculus. Close friends with the infamous Emperor Nero, Spiculus received almost Hollywood-level star treatment, including wealth and property granted to him by his ruler. During his overthrow in 68 AD, Nero reportedly even asked for Spiculus to kill him, as an alternative to his eventual fate of taking his own life.
Originally from Gaul (modern-day France), this formidable gladiator was part of the slave army that rebelled against the Roman Empire during the Third Servile War. Known as ‘The Undefeated Gaul’, he fought alongside the famous rebel Spartacus, and though he did not entirely live up to his nickname (he was killed in 72BC), his actions in battle were noteworthy enough that Spartacus himself sacrificed 300 captives in his name.
Speaking of which…
Arguably the first gladiator to receive the blockbuster treatment, Spartacus was born in Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria/northeastern Turkey) and, prior to his military exploits during the aforementioned Third Servile War, was a renowned and accomplished combatant. After serving in the Roman Army and later becoming a thief, Spartacus was enrolled in a gladiatoral academy in southern Italy, from where he and 70 other men escaped, recruiting slaves and workers to their cause as they travelled.
Not all gladiators were men, though female combatants were usually foreign slaves. In his Satires, Juvenal wrote about a woman called Mevia who fought wild animals such as boars while armed with a spear. Unfortunately, rather than being an example of Roman gender equality, female combatants were used primarily as a novelty, with Mevia being reported as fighting her animal opponents topless.
5. Emperor Claudius
Not the only emperor to take to the gladiatorial ring, this was perhaps the best example of a vain ruler seeking to gain easy glory by ‘fighting’ in rigged or unfair matchups. According to the noted contemporary historian and author, Pliny, Emperor Claudius – who was generally described as violent, cruel, and tactless to say the least – ‘fought’ and defeated a whale which had been trapped in a harbour. While those viewing the spectacle no doubt applauded their ruthless ruler, those like Pliny who wrote about the event afterward certainly did not lavish praise on Claudius.
6. Emperor Commodus
Another ruler who thought highly of himself, Commodus was memorably portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix opposite Russell Crowe’s Maximus in the aforementioned movie, Gladiator. In the movie, Commodus uses some dirty tricks in an attempt to set up an easy gladiatorial victory against his opponent, and the real-life emperor was also fond of taking to the ring himself. Believing himself to be akin to the legendary warrior Hercules, Commodus would regularly fight against weak or poorly-armed opponents in the arena to prove his ‘strength’.
This myrmillo fighter first came to the knowledge of historians after graffiti about him was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, but he was apparently renowned across the Empire. Fighting with sword, shield and only basic armour, pottery showing some of Tetraites’ triumphs has been found in some of the farthest reaches of the Empire, such as England.
While some gladiators specialised in battling other fighters, some particularly excelled at combating wild beasts; these were known as Bestiarii, and Carpophorus was one of the best. Rather than fighting beached whales like certain aforementioned emperors, he would often fight several creatures at once – at the opening of the Flavian Amphitheatre, he took down a bear, leopard and lion in just one battle.
A slave from Syria with a fight record that reads like boxing statistics, Flamma had fought 34 times when he died at 30 and won 21 of these battles. Offered the rudis – freedom from fighting and slavery – four times, he rejected it every time in order to keep fighting in the arena.
10. Priscus and Verus
Two fierce gladiatorial rivals, these men battled each other in the inaugural contest of the Flavian Amphitheatre in the 1st Century AD. The fight reportedly went on for hours, and ended only when both men conceded to each other and declared a draw. In response, the watching emperor Titus granted them the rudis, making it their last ever fight.