Gladiators were the celebrities of roman pop culture. Larger-than-life figures, they were fearless individuals, trained to kill. And it’s estimated that over one million gladiators died fighting in Roman Empire arenas. But who were these ultimate prize fighters?
From ancient texts, we know gladiators practiced their skills with a rudes (wooden sword), and were often referred to as bordearii (barley men) because of their diet. Some of these men were slaves fighting for their freedom. Others, prisoners of war or glory-seeking freemen. And the Roman public loved them all.
While gladiator fights provided violent entertainment, they also sent a clear message. Bloody, to-the-death gladiator battles communicated to friends and foe alike that Rome held the power. And as the Roman Empire expanded, amphitheatres were constructed in calculated locations. At present, 230 gladiator arenas have been discovered.
In 2004, archaeologists uncovered 80 gladiator skeletons from a single ancient Roman cemetery in the city of York. This walled city in northern England was at the heart of Roman Britain for over 300 years, playing a critical role as the Empire pushed north.
According to the York Archaeological Trust, the majority of these skeletons were male (75 bodies in total). The remaining bones were found to be one woman, two foetuses, a child 1-2 in age, and a slightly older child. The bones date to the second or third century. Most of the bodies were buried separately. And the skeletons buried with personal possessions suggest they were respected citiziens.
Studying gladiator bones sheds light on how the prize fighters lived and died. Who were the Beastman, the Pursuer, the Knight, the Heavy Weight, the Netfighter and the Prisoner? From carnivore bites, to iron rings forged onto legs, to shattered, decaptitated skulls, their bones reveal the violent soul of the Roman Empire.
Tune into Gladiators Back from the Dead on Tuesday, April 5th at 9 PM et/pt on the National Geographic Channel!