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The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield. Source: Public Domain

5 Celebrity Gladiators of Bloodthirsty Ancient Rome

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Fierce fighters, enslaved and forced into a world of violence and brutality, Roman gladiators provided gruesome entertainment to the Roman public, training for months in specialized schools managed by wealthy investors who profited from their fighter’s success. Most fighters only fought 2-3 times a year, and only about 10-20% of them died during matches, despite popular belief that they fought to the death. Although they didn’t fight often, some gladiators managed to gain extraordinary renown from their performances, personalities or personal backgrounds. So let’s take a look at the most famous gladiators of all time.

1. Spiculus

Spiculus was a gladiator who was popular not just with the masses, but with the emperor of Rome himself, Nero. He attended gladiator school at Capua, and in his first match, he faced off against a veteran gladiator who had won 16 fights, called Aptonetus. Somehow, Spiculus emerged victorious, and his victory caught the attention of the emperor Nero.

Nero took a liking to Spiculus and lavished the young gladiator with gifts. He awarded Spiculus with palaces and riches and had servants attending to him. This left the gladiator in an unusual position: he remained enslaved, but yet, as a famous gladiator, he was living in luxury and was attended to by servants who were enslaved themselves.

When Nero was overthrown in 68 AD, he asked Spiculus to execute him. Spiculus refused, and Nero took his own life. Afterwards, the mob began overturning and destroying statues of Nero, and according to historian Plutarch, used them to crush his friend Spiculus to death.

Pompeiian graffiti - two thraeces, M. Attilius and L. Raecius Felix (Public domain)

Pompeiian graffiti - two thraeces, M. Attilius and L. Raecius Felix ( Public domain )

2. Marcus Attilius

Marcus Attilius was an unusual gladiator. He was a free-born Roman who decided to sign up for a gladiator school of his own volition. This made him part of a small but elite pool of Roman gladiators who volunteered to fight. It is likely that he did this as a way of freeing himself from debt. As a novice or a ‘tiro’, most gladiators fought people at a similar skill level to them. Marcus, however, was paired up with Hilarus, a veteran fighter who had won 12 of his 14 fights and belonged to the emperor Nero.

Against all odds, Marcus won by forcing Hilarus to surrender, marking the beginning of what was to be a glittering career, as well as the beginning of the legend of Marcus Attilius. He went on to defeat another volunteer gladiator and veteran of 12 fights, Lucius Raecius Felix. The fight is memorialized through a piece of graffiti discovered outside the Nocerian gate at Pompeii where Marcus is depicted with his gladius, long shield shin protectors.

3. Flamma

Flamma rose to fame during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD). Flamma, meaning ‘flame’ was just his battle name. His real name is unknown, but we do know he was a Syrian soldier who was captured and thrown into the arena to face a quick death. But Flamma, against all odds, survived not just his first fight, but 34 battles over the course of his career before his death at the age of 30.

Flamma gained fame and fortune thanks to his feats in the amphitheatre and was even offered his freedom on four different occasions, but chose instead to continue his career as a gladiator. Of the 34 battles he entered, he won 21, drew 9 and lost 4. It was an impressive record, but it does show how much he owed his long career to the mercy of the umpires, who could choose to either save a gladiator’s life or allow their opponent to land a death blow.

Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic, c. AD 200 (Public Domain)

Gladiators from the Zliten mosaic, c. AD 200 ( Public Domain )

4. Commodus

Commodus may not be the most famous person on this list, but he may be the most influential, given that he is better known as Rome’s ‘mad emperor’, facilitating the downfall of Rome’s golden era, than as a Roman gladiator. Commodus was the son of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius , and became co-emperor alongside his father at the age of 16. Aurelius ruled well, but when he died in 180 AD, Commodus became sole ruler.

It is fair to say Commodus was not exactly the most popular of emperors. He was believed to be insane, imagining that he was the god Hercules and entering the arena to fight as a gladiator or kill lions with a bow and arrow. He reportedly entered the ring 735 times, and although he wasn’t particularly skilled, no rival fighter had the nerve to hurt or kill a reigning emperor. Commodus was assassinated on 31 December 192 AD when his advisors had him strangled by a champion wrestler when he announced, dressed as a gladiator, that he would assume the consulship (this was the senior administrative office under emperors that was often assumed by the emperors themselves).

Bronze of Spartacus (David Eugene Henry / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bronze of Spartacus (David Eugene Henry / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

5. Spartacus

The most famous gladiator in all of ancient Rome, Spartacus was a Thracian who was likely born in the Balkans. At one point he served in the Roman army before being sold into slavery to train at a gladiator school in Capua. In 73 BC, Spartacus grew tired of the abuses he faced at the school, so together with around 70 of his fellow gladiators, he escaped and took refuge on Mount Vesuvius where other runaway slaves joined them. There, the band of gladiators defeated two Roman forces in succession before completely overrunning southern Italy. Their forces grew in numbers, and before long they had over 90,000 enslaved people in what was now an army.

His escape attempt had turned into an uprising known as the Third Servile War. In 72 BC, the year after Spartacus fled, he fought alongside his new armies against the Romans in Gaul and defeated two Roman consuls (chairmen of the Senate who commanded the Roman army). Unfortunately for him, he was defeated a year later by the new Roman commander sent against him, Marcus Licinius Crassus at Lucania. Spartacus died in the battle along with the majority of his army.

Top Image: The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield. Source: Public Domain

By Mark Brophy

References

Adhikari, S. 11/8/2021. Top 10 Famous Ancient Roman Gladiators. Ancient History Lists. Available at: https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/rome-history/top-10-famous-ancient-roman-gladiators/

Commodus. 20/7/1998. Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Commodus/additional-info#history

Spartacus. 20/7/1998. Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Spartacus-Roman-gladiator/additional-info#history

Top Five: Gladiators. 12/2/2015. Military History. Available at: https://www.military-history.org/feature/top-five-gladiators.htm#:~:text=Marcus%20Attilius&text=Attilius%20was%20a%20free%2Dborn,13%20wreaths%20to%20his%20name

Walters, M. 30/6/2022. 5 Famous Ancient Roman Gladiators . History. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/most-famous-ancient-roman-gladiators

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