Dispelling Some Myths: Gladiators
Updated: Aug 23
Gladiator deaths in the arena were probably not as high as many modern commentators often portray. Gladiators were expensive to provide for and train, and perhaps to protect the investment, most only fought two or three times per year .
A gladiator’s price was fixed according to his rank, status and degree of success, with their market value being highly relevant if they died in the arena. His death became a chargeable item by which the owner, usually the lanista (trainer), would be recompensed. The lowest grade of gladiator would have had a maximum price of 5,000 sestertii - the equivalent of approximately £32,000 - hardly ‘something’ to be carelessly discarded! Of course, equivalency is very approximate being based on 4 sestertii as an average day’s pay, representing about £25-30. Regardless, this does not deny that gladiators died in the arena, just that the chances of survival varied at different times.
The Emperor Augustus for example, prohibited combats sine missio, i.e. to the death, partly to recognise the investment value of a skilled fighter but mostly to limit extravagant displays and thereby the political value to those staging contests by influencing voters with lavish entertainment. In the 1st-century AD, the chances of survival have been estimated at 9:1 based on analysing the results of contests. If a gladiator lost, the ratio reduced to 4:1 and ultimately depended on a successful appeal for missio. Under later emperors, however, a gladiator’s chances of survival deteriorated as more fights were to the death.
1. Shadrake, S. (2005), The World of the Gladiator, Tempus, p.91.