Glimpses of gladiators through literature and art

Many images in art depict a type of gladiator called a retiarius (“net-fighter”), who threw his net over his opponent, impaled him on the end of his trident, and came in close to stab him with a dagger. This gladiator’s skull, found in the graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey, clearly shows a trident’s impact.

Credit: Fabian Kanz, Austrian Archaeological Institute/Medical University of Vienna

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Upper-class Romans didn’t write about “vulgar” topics like gladiatorial combat, so much of what we know is pieced together from stray remarks in literary works, from gladiators’ epitaphs, or from citations on the bases of statues honoring the sponsors of gladiatorial shows.

Images—on everything from lamps to wall paintings—show the different types of gladiators. Many mosaics and relief sculptures show the defeated combatant raising his finger in a plea for mercy. (A defeated gladiator wasn’t killed so long as he fought well enough to merit a reprieve.) From a casual reference in a legal text, we know that the sponsors of gladiatorial shows had to pay up to fifty times more for renting a gladiator who was killed or severely injured, since the owner of the troupe had to be compensated for his loss. And graffiti scratched by fans on the walls of Pompeii record an exact tally of individual gladiators’ victories and defeats.