Game of Thrones: The Real History of Fighting Pits (They Can’t All Be Spartacus)

Game of Thrones brought the great games back to Meereen. But who were the gladiators that inspired them?

On last night’s  Game of Thrones, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea and Mother of Dragons, Daenerys The Unburnt and Stormborn Targaryen, reopened the gladiator games in Meereen. The Breaker of Chains might also slit the throats of all the masters, but she hasn’t quite decided. Still, the games were on if temporarily.

So, who are these gladiators and what were the gladiator games? Were they all slaves or did some free men fight in the trenches? They were legendary and disciplined fighters, but some gladiators rose to celebrity status, stayed out late, got drunk, wound up owing money, and were sent back to the arena. They can’t all be Spartacus….

While most of the early gladiators were slaves who committed crimes or people whose countries were conquered, not all of them came in chains. Gladiators were the star athletes of the time. Roman children had clay gladiator action figures. Gladiators made celebrity endorsements. Successful gladiators could be awarded rudis (freedom) if they won enough games.  Flamma was a Syrian slave with a record of 22 wins, four losses, one tie, and rudis. But he opted instead to continue fighting. He was offered rudis four times in total, but kept on fighting. Flamma died at 30.

Free men voluntarily signed contracts with gladiator schools to get in on the gladiator goodies. Most of these men were freelance warriors or ex-soldiers, who figured they might as well put their skills to use for profit. But some were from the upper classes, adventurers and speculators caught by the spectacle.

Roman historians of the time agreed that the gladiator games were a foreign import, though modern historians say the gladiatorial bouts were originally part of funeral ceremonies for the rich. The first gladiators were Etruscan and went back to about the late first century B.C., according to Roman Historian Nicolaus of Damascus. Scholar Livy placed the first games at 264 B.C., at the start of Rome’s First Punic War against Carthage. He fondly remembered Decimus Iunius Brutus Scaeva pitting three pairs of gladiators in a fight to the death in the Forum Boarium, Rome’s “cattle market.”

However, not all the gladiator games were a fight to the death. Only about one in 10 bouts left one of the gladiators dead. Though they didn’t fight by Marcus Quinsoborius Rules–sorry made that one up–the fights had strict regulations that were enforced by referees. The referees most often stopped the fight when of the fighters was seriously wounded. Some matches ended in a draw. Sometimes, if the match went on too long and the crowd got bored, the game would be called. If the competition was particularly exciting, both warriors could walk out of the arena with honor.

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Part of the reason the rulebooks let the gladiators live was because they were written by the fighters’ owners and were an expensive investment. Gladiators were owned by a Lanista, who also ran the gladiator schools. They were trained, schooled, fed, and given room and board. Trainers taught fighters to wound. That’s not to say that gladiators died of old age. Most of them only lived to their mid-20s.

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Just because a gladiator got a thumbs down ruling, didn’t necessarily mean the loser would be put to death. The emperor ruled the Colosseum decisions and could decide to put a warrior to death, but the thumbs down gesture was also the sign that the audience didn’t agree with the decision. Some historians think a thumbs up sign meant death. I’m sure there’s one historian out there who said the thumb went up someone’s ass, probably Cicero, he was a card.

If a death sentence was issued, the winning gladiator would stab the loser between the shoulder blades or through the neck and into the heart. If you ever saw how Titus Pullo killed Cicero on HBO’s Rome, that’s pretty much what it looks like.

The gladiators were unionized. The gladiators saw themselves as a brotherhood. They had their own gods of protection and they collected dues so their fallen brothers would get a proper funeral, and their families were taken care of with a little bit of cash.

Gladiators were organized into different classes and types based on their record, skill level and experience, and specialty. The Thraeces and murmillones fought with sword and shield. The Equites fought on horseback. The Essedarii entered the arena in chariots. The Dimachaerus were two-fisted swordsmen. The most popular gladiator class was retiarius, who fought with a trident and a net. The Venatores and Bestiarii fought animals, but these were special classes of warrior and it was rare. The Bestiarius class had very short-lived careers.

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Most games opened with an animal hunt, but it was different than what we see in the movies; it was more of a slaughter. The animal gladiators didn’t just fight lions: they went up against anything from a deer to an elephant, with lions, bears, crocodiles, and ostriches thrown into the mix. Some animals did tricks. Others were used as a form of execution.

The best of the Bestiarii class was Carpophorus. The gladiator’s schtick was to fight a  bunch of animals at the same time. He beat a bear, leopard and lion in the opening battle of the Flavian Amphitheatre. Carpophores also famously slaughtered a rhinoceros with a spear. Fans and fellow gladiators compared Carpophorus to Hercules. But he was no Spartacus.

According to graffiti that was unearthed in Pompei in 1817, one of the best known fighters in the murmillones class was a gladiator named Tetraites. Tetraites fought with only a sword, shield, and simple armor. He was renowned as far as Roman outposts in Gaul and England, where pottery that detailed his victories have been found.

Two documented rival fighters, the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman of their time, were named Priscus and Verus. They had a two-hour battle in the first century A.D. in the Flavian Amphitheatre. The two gladiators conceded, put down their swords, and left the arena free men, courtesy of Emperor Titus.

There were female gladiators. Sometimes they fought dwarves, but occasionally they were involved in more serious bouts. Mevia, one of the female gladiators, fought wild animals with a spear while topless. She inspired today’s nude mud wrestling. In about 200 A.D. there was a fight, recorded on marble, between an “Amazon” woman and a woman gladiator named Achillia. The fight ended in an honorable draw. Emperor Septimius Severus banned women from taking part in the games sometime later in that century.

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Caligula, Titus, Hadrian (the guy who build the first great wall), and other emperors took part in the games, though their opponents were probably armed with a non-lethal weapon. Some emperors, like Claudius, fought unfair matches in the gladiatorial ring.

Emperor Commodus would kill bears and panthers with a spear. Sometimes, he fought against green gladiators and would take home the cash prize, which he usually stacked to about one million Roman sesterces. Commodus believed he was Hercules reincarnated. A renowned narcissist, he was never invited to appear in the arena. He fought opponents armed with wooden swords or slew disabled Roman citizens for a giggle. Commodus was assassinated by unamused gladiators in 192 A.D. Commodus was played by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film Gladiator.

The gladiator Spiculus was good buddies with Nero, who lavished him with wealth, palaces and slaves. When Nero was overthrown in 68 A.D., he asked to throw himself on the sword of Spiculus, but the fearless and fearsome athlete was hiding until the danger passed and was nowhere to be found. Nero threw himself on his own sword. Spiculus was no Spartacus.

Marcus Attilius was a Roman citizen who enrolled at gladiator school to pay off his debts. In his first bout, he broke a 13-fight winning streak enjoyed by Hilarus, who was owned by Nero. He went on to break a 12-bout winning streak from the gladiator Raecius Felix. But he was not Spartacus.

Crixus was a Gallic gladiator. He was the original rebel.  He rebelled against his Lanista. He rebelled against his gladiator school. He rebelled against the Roman Senate. And he rebelled against his rebellion leader what’s-his-lips, and formed his own rebel group to take on the whole of southern Italy. Roman legions took out Crixus’s group, but he bought time for Spartacus.

Spartacus is the most famous gladiator. He was a captured soldier from Thrace. He was sold into slavery and snatched up by Lentulus Batiatus of Capua. Spartacus led a slave revolt with 70 other gladiators, including Crixus in 73 B.C.  The gladiators fought their way to Mount Vesuvius, setting slaves free as they went until they had an army of 70,000 free men and women. The freed slaves spent the winter of 72 B.C. training for what we now call the Third Serville War. Whole legions were sent to kill Spartacus, but beaten time and time again by the arena-hardened gladiators. 

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Marcus Licinius Crassus defeated Spartacus in Southern Italy in 71 B.C. Crassus crucified 6,000 of the rebel slaves along the road from Capua to Rome.

It turns out the historic Spartacus was no Spartacus in the end either.