The idea of men fighting to death, began in Etruria. Gladiatorial combat originated at the funerals of Etruscan warriors. The earliest known combat of gladiators in Rome was presented in 264 B.C. in connection with the funeral of Marcus Brutus. As gladiatorial shows became increasingly popular, they were put on at state festivals, as well as at funerals.
Eventually they became a common form of public entertainment. Contests were customarily held in large, open structures, called amphitheaters, such as the world-famous Colosseum in Rome.
In Rome, these combats were always a form of popular entertainment, but until 46 BC they were ostensibly held to commemorate the death of a male relative. Staging a gladiatorial contest at his own expense was one way for an aspiring politician to bring himself to the notice of the public.
Their name was derived from the Latin word gladius ("short sword"), their principal weapon. Usually, gladiators fought each other, but on occasion they might be matched against wild beasts. Most gladiators were prisoners of war, condemned criminals, or slaves, but some were freemen who had been hired or kidnapped and sold for training in special gladiatorial schools. Successful gladiators could hope to achieve wealth and great acclaim from the public, and artists sometimes depicted them in sculptures, mosaics, and paintings.
Usually gladiatorial combats were duels between matched pairs of men. Occasionally as many as 5,000 pairs fought in a single afternoon. In most cases, combatants were armed with similar weapons.
The first gladiators fought with a sword (gladius), shield, and helmet. Later, the retarius was armed with net and trident, and the Thracian with a scimitar. At first, gladiators were drawn from prisoners of war, slaves and condemned criminals, and measures were taken to prevent their escaping or committing suicide. Occasionally they were volunteers, seeking a chance for fame and fortune..
Defeated gladiators were not always killed, but even so, life expectancy was not high. Those that survived often became trainers of other gladiators. Successful gladiators were often given their freedom, and were regarded as public heroes.
There were different types of gladiators. The retiarius, who wore a short tunic, had only a net and a trident, his strategy being to entangle his opponent in the net and then kill him with the trident. The samnite wore a plumed helmet and carried a shield and short sword; the mirmillone also had a sword, shield and crested helmet: their opponents were usually the Thraces, who carried small swords curved like scythes.
Gladiators who hesitated to enter the arena were driven with whips and hot irons. A fight usually ended in the killing of one participant, but a fallen gladiator could appeal to the spectators for mercy. The fate of the defeated combatant was decided by the gestures of the spectators: if they wished his life to be spared they waved their handkerchiefs: if they desired his death they turned their thumbs downwards. Well-born warriors occasionally fought in the arena, and also women, dwarfs, horsemen, and charioteers.
In the early days of gladiatorial contests, only three to four pairs of fighters would take part; by 174 BC, enthusiasm for the spectacle had increased to such an extent that one contest went on for three days, 37 pairs of gladiators taking part.
In AD 106, to celebrate his victory over Dacia, Emperor Trajan organised a contest in which 10 000 gladiators participated.
As gladiatorial contests became increasingly popular, gladiators began to come from other levels of society; a successful gladiator was acclaimed by ladies and eulogised by poets and was assured of a measure of immortality, his likeness being preserved in paintings, on commemorative emblems and in mosaics.
In AD 325, Constantine the Great issued an edict against gladiatorial contests but it was another 200 years before they completely ceased.