Ancient Romans were not as much into philosophy and teaching as the preceding Greeks, but they absolutely loved finding new ways of entertainment in their otherwise mundane lives. Today, even the thought of gladiators beating each other to death in an impressively huge arena full of enthusiastic audience would create unprecedented outrage among people. In fact, it would truly reflect the modern perception of much popular gladiator fights in ancient Rome. But regardless of the short life expectancy, being a gladiator was in many ways one of the most glamorous profession in ancient Rome. The gladiator battles would draw thousands of spectators, including the biggest of names in contemporary Roman elites. In an attempt to recognize the most popular of these ancient Roman athletic superstars, here is the list of top 10 ancient Roman Gladiators.
Tetraites was a popular gladiator in ancient Rome for his murmillones styled fights. He would go bare chested into battles wielding his sword, a shield and a helmet. Though his exact experience as an efficient and lethal gladiator could have used far more documentation, he remains largely known for his documented victory over Prudes. Two of them had made quite a name for themselves – both their names are depicted on glass vessels found in present day France, England and Hungary. The carvings portray the victory of Tetraites over Prudes, most probably the moment when his fame shot to new heights.
One of the famed gladiators who lived in the first century AD Rome, Spiculus not only was popular among regular spectators, but was also closely admired by the notorious Roman Emperor Nero. Spiculus went on to win a number of battles and emerged victorious against skilled adversaries. Nero took a particular likeness to his heroics, and awarded him with palaces and riches far more than he could have asked for. Nero had become so fond of him that when he was overthrown in 68 AD, he wanted to die a swift death at the hands of Spiculus. But his aides could not get hold of Spiculus in time and Nero took his own life by committing suicide. His fame did not only revolve around his relation with Nero. His depictions in several ancient Roman artworks give testimony to his far reaching popularity in ancient Rome.
Not much had been documented on the life of ancient Roman gladiator Hermes. However, he earns lavish praise from a contemporary poet Martial – so much so that Martial even dedicated an entire poem praising his skills as a competent gladiator. In his poem, Martial describes Hermes as a skillful fighter who enjoyed an overwhelming superiority over other gladiators. On the second line of his poem in which each line begins with the name of Hermes, Martial describes the versatility of said gladiator. Hermes was well trained at using different weapons that the gladiators used in their fights.
Most of the gladiators chose a certain type of fighting style and train hard to master the relevant skills. Hermes was not only well versed in most of those fighting styles, but also proficient in at least three different gladiators techniques – a knowledge that gave him a huge advantage over his opponents.
7. Priscus and Verus
These two might have had won a number of fights in their careers as competent gladiators, but they are mostly known for their legendary final fight in which they faced off against each other. Priscus and Verus fought an epic battle in the first Century AD in the famous Flavian Amphitheater. And as it so happened, their ultimate battle was also the first big spectacle in the Flavian arena – a spectacle that was documented in detail by the poet Martial. After fighting for hours in a nail biting battle, the two warriors submitted to each other at the same time. In respect for each other’s skills and mettle, they put down their swords; which was met by a roaring appreciation from the spectators. The organizer of the event, Emperor Titus was also moved by the way the battle had concluded. He awarded the pair with the “rudis” – a small wooden sword that granted freedom to gladiators upon their retirement.
6. Marcus Attilius
When Marcus Attilius fought his first battle as a gladiator, he was just a young novice and was given the designation of “tiro” – a title given to a gladiator who was commencing his career. Usually, the organizers would pit gladiators of similar status and experiences together during these fights. But as fate would have it, Marcus Attilius was facing Hilarus – an imperial gladiator who had already fought fourteen fights and won twelve of them. Right when everyone was convinced Marcus did not stand a chance, this newcomer scored a thumping win against the veteran – staging an upset that earned him much admiration. Then rose, the legend of Marcus Attilius, who went on to defeat the likes of Raecius Felix – another fighter who had won twelve fights in a row.
The era of the ancient Roman gladiators saw a number of popular bestiarius; a profession that was notorious for ridiculously short life expectancy, even by the standards of gladiators. Being a celebrated bestiarius, Carpophorus was instinctively gifted in fights involving wild animals. He was far more skilled at fighting different animals in the arena than at fighting in extensive hand-to-hand combats against fellow gladiators. Carpophorus would routinely face off against vicious wild animals such as lions, bears, leopards and rhinos. He even fought at the opening of the famed Flavian Amphitheatre and defeated a horde of bear, lion and leopard in a single battle. He also killed a rather ferocious Rhino with a single spear in another face off. But his personal best and the crowd favorite performance came when he killed 20 different beasts in a single battle.
A well-known military leader during the Third Servile War, Crixus used to be a Gallic gladiator who enjoyed noteworthy success against notably bigger opponents in battle arenas. But he absolutely despised the leader of his gladiator school and his owner. So when a revolt broke out in the training school, Crixus was a happy volunteer among the 70 escaping gladiators. Then he played a pivotal role in defeating a small group of soldiers sent to quell their rebellion.
Soon, other escapee gladiators joined their rank and made it into a fearsome group of skilled members. But all Crixus wanted was to bring redemption upon the upper class society of Rome. This led to a dispute between him and the rebellion leader, and he left the group along with his men with the motive to destroy Southern Italy. But destiny had different plans set up for Crixus as the Roman legions were able to track down his advances before he could perpetrate a surprise attack. He did fight with all his might in the hopeless conflict, eventually dying at the hands of his enemy.
Commodus was an infamous Roman Emperor who was rather obsessed with performing in the arena as a gladiator. Many of us may know him from Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in the film Gladiator. He was notorious for his ego and considered himself above everyone else. Now at that time, regardless of all the glamour and popularity gladiators enjoyed, they were still considered lowly by the upper classes of Romans. So Commodus had parts of his palace changed into an arena so as to fight as a gladiator in private. Of course, that was never going to be enough to satiate his desire to fight as a real gladiator. So soon he started fighting in public battles, with absolute dis-regard for his royal status. But again, his fights were never fair to his opponents, who would be armed with wooden sword. Sometimes, he would fall as low as killing tethered and injured animals just to show off his non-existent fighting skills. Eventually, Commodus’ continuous and mindless dwelling into such antics led to his downfall when he was assassinated in 192 AD.
Flamma is one of the biggest names in the history of ancient Roman gladiators. Of course, his true name wasn’t Flamma – which was his ‘battle’ name. But this skillful athlete absolutely justified his name with his track record as a fearsome gladiator. Before his career as a gladiator started, he was a Syrian soldier who got captured and thrown into a battle against a powerful adversary to meet a quick death. Ultimately, he did meet his end, but not after commanding an unparalleled domination against countless enemies in the grand arena of the Coliseum. Using a small sword and a shield, and armor on one half of his body, he terrorized his opponents for about 13 years in battles that attracted the biggest number of spectators. By the time he died at the age of 30, he had fought an astounding thirty four battles, twenty one of which he had won, nine were drawn and he had lost in only four of them. He was even awarded with the “rudis” along with his freedom on four different occasions. But each time, he declined the offer and continued to pursue his life as a warrior.
A Thracian soldier by origin, Spartacus was captured by the Romans and then sold as a slave. His owner owned a gladiator school in Capua and noticed the opportunity of cashing in the various skills of Spartacus as a gladiator. But a true soldier reveres his freedom far more than anything else. Soon, Spartacus helped to mastermind a rebellion that ended with about 70 gladiators escaping out of the gladiator school – all of them well-armed with makeshift weapons. Crixus was also among the escapees and soon he became the right hand of Spartacus.
Together, they all escaped into the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and freed, many more slaves on the way which increased their numbers significantly. Soon, Spartacus had amassed a formidable and skillful force that went on to defeat Roman legions sent to capture them in more than six different occasions. But in 71 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus came with a well-trained force of 50,000 legions to wreak havoc among the rebel forces. Ultimately, Spartacus was unable to withstand the calculated attack from the Romans and was killed in Southern Italy – thus ending the story of arguably the most famous gladiator in Roman history.
Roman gladiators enjoyed unmatched popularity and following from the general public in ancient Rome. Though the following was never as high among the Roman elites, the gladiators truly represented the working class heroes of their time. Yes, most of them were slaves, but that does not take a single point away from the icon they went on to make for themselves in the Roman history. Such was the temptation of these grand battles between gladiators that even the likes of Emperors enjoyed being a part of the fame. The gladiators may have been dismissed by the so called upper classes Roman society, but none of them could ever match the fame these warriors achieved among the common working class of ancient Rome.