There were no televisions. There were no movie theaters. And the internet was still many centuries away. Alas, what was a person to do for entertainment in ancient Rome? Fortunately there were fights…gladiator matches to be exact. They were the hottest ticket in town and kept spectators on the edge of their seats. More than a mere sporting event, gladiator matches were a true spectacle highlighted by flashy costumes and various types of Roman armour. Similar to athletes in today’s world, the combatants of these popular arena fights became stars with their portraits being seen in public places and some even becoming sex symbols.
While the life of a gladiator had potential to resemble that of a Hollywood celebrity, they had to survive first. Their glory came at a cost, as their lives were always on the line. Although not every battle was a fight to the death, fatal wounds were pretty much a guarantee. After all, these men (and occasionally women) were fighting wild animals who were unpredictable and trained opponents who were aggressive. As a result, the life span of a gladiator was fairly short. According to historical records, most gladiators only survived to their mid 20’s.
To keep an even playing field, there were various classes that gladiators were categorized into and each match faced off fighters of similar stature and skill. Other distinguishing factors for classification were victory records, experience, fighting style, and weaponry used. In addition of gladiators included free men, slaves, criminals, captives from Roman Empire conquered lands, and even Roman emperors at times. The Roman armour sported by gladiators in the arena aided in showing class association as well.
Gladiators combined traditional Roman armour style with styles of the territories won over in Roman conquests. This blend culminated in a vast array of armour that pleased spectators, as they took great pride in being reminded of Roman victories. Among the many different variations worn into the arena, there were a few pieces of Roman armour commonplace to all gladiators. The cassis, or helmet, was essential for maximum head protection against fatal blows. While gladiator head gear differed in their appearance, metal construction was consistent throughout all pieces. The galea, a helmet with a visor, was the most popular and worn by most gladiator classes. Another crucial armament was the balteus, or sword belt, which contained a sheath and hung conveniently at the wearer’s front. This ensured quick and easy access to a sword, which was of utmost importance. Along with the balteus was the cingulum, a leather belt (often reinforced with metal plates) which guarded the waist from injury. The cuirass, or breastplate, was comprised of a single metal plate that protected the gladiator’s front and chest area. The galerus, or shoulder guard, was usually constructed of metal and offered shoulder covering, as well as some for the neck and head. The ocrea, or leg guard, was a metal piece that covered the front of the leg from the knee or thigh to below the shin. These were the basic Roman armour ensemble typically worn by gladiators in all classes. However, the specific design of these pieces varied and alterations and additions to this composition were not uncommon.
Although gladiators lived with death looming at their doorstep, they were influential in uniting the people of ancient Rome. They ushered in a sense of widespread pride, exciting a society with something to cheer for. These fighters were truly hometown heroes and while their lives may have been cut short, their legacy lives on!