Teaching Gladiators, Slavery, and the Lure of the Arena

My latest for Hyperallergic looks at the new, alleged gladiator cemetery found near the amphitheater in the town of Anazarbus. I have written on gladiators quite a bit over the years, since my PhD research focused so heavily on the legal stigma of infamia. Gladiators were one of many professions who endured this infamy in life. And as the article addresses: these stigmata can be carried into death as well. The ways that we bury our dead—in mass pits, separate from others, with or without burial at all—can say a lot about the attitudes of the living.

A funerary stele was dedicated by Sossia Iusta, a freedwoman manumitted from slavery, for a murmillo-type gladiator named Quintus Sossius Albus, 2nd century CE, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia, Aquileia, Italy (AE 2003, 680).

For those of us who teach standard Roman history surveys in our classrooms, we know that at least one or more days needs to be dedicated to the Colosseum and to gladiators. For me, I have always felt conflicted about engaging with the general hum of excitement that arises when I say we will be discussing the Roman amphitheater. I often have students do historical reviews of the movie Gladiator, for instance, and read Monica Cyrino’s essay on how the movie actually reflected America in the year 2000. It is one way to have students do a reflexive activity that has them examine their own fascination with voyeurism, violence, and entertainment.

One thing to emphasize is that gladiators were men and some women who overwhelmingly did not choose to be enslaved or to fight in the arena. Literary sources like to cite the freedmen, senators, and equestrians who (*gasp*) chose to fight in the arena (and there were freeborn gladiators, no doubt). The freeborn could also receive more prize money and status when fighting than did those enslaved fighters engaged in matches. Here, I always think to the passage in Petronius spoken by a centonarius (clothes dealer) named Echion:

Et ecce habituri sumus munus excellente in triduo die festafamilia non lan-isticiased plurimi liberti (Pet. Sat. 45).

And behold: we are about to have a superb spectacle of games lasting three days; not just a troupe of enslaved gladiators, but a large number of freedpersons.

While some did choose to be gladiators, most were enslaved persons forced to commit acts of violence—against others, against animals—for the pleasure of spectators. I think it is important to emphasize not just the different types of gladiators (e.g. murmillo, retiarius) or the games thrown by emperors, but also to teach the arena hand-in-hand with Roman slavery. I often teach this lecture in conjunction with Spartacus, underscoring the acts of resistance to servitude in the three servile wars of the late Republic.

I have included a few resources and readings below that may be of use to you as you begin to teach or to read about Roman gladiators—all with an eye to emphasizing the lived experiences of the fighters and those other professionals connected to the Roman arena.


Garrett G. Fagan, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

_____”6: Training Gladiators: Life in the Ludus,” in Aspects of Ancient Institutions and Geography. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004283725_009

Valerie Hope, “Fighting for Identity: The funerary commemoration of Italian gladiators,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement, no. 73 (2000): 93–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43767700.

Anne Hrychuk Kontokosta, “Contests in Context: Gladiatorial Inscriptions and Graffiti,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. Eds. A. Futrell and T. Scanlon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Donald Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 1998.

Orlando Patterson, “Authority, Alienation, and Social Death,”. in Critical Readings on Global Slavery. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004346611_006

Brent Shaw, Spartacus and the Slave Wars: A Brief History With Documents. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2001. Read it on Archive.org for free.

Emma Vanderpool, “Recreating the Voice of the Gladiator for the Secondary School Latin Classroom,” Classical Outlook (Vol. 96, Issue 2).

Nota Bene: I would never condone or suggest that students “play” gladiator or role-play as enslaved persons in the classroom.

Header Image: Epitaph for the gladiator Diodorus from Amisus (Turkey), now in the Musée du Cinquantenaire, Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. Image via Archaeology Magazine.

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