You’ve heard the legendary stories of Roman Gladiators like Spartacus, but have you ever
wondered what it would be like to actually be at the Colosseum for a gladiator fight?
An ancient Roman’s experience of a gladiator fight, from the location of their seats to
their reason for attending, would depend a lot on their place on the Roman social ladder.
Why did Roman rulers put on gladiator fights?
What would it have been like to be a citizen witnessing the spectacle?
How would it have felt to be a gladiator preparing to fight for your life?
Today on the Infographics Show we’ll experience a gladiator fight at the Colosseum through
the eyes of an ordinary Roman citizen, an influential politician, and a popular gladiator,
to learn what it would be like to be at the Colosseum for a gladiator fight for different
classes of Romans.
You probably recognize the crumbling facade of the Roman Colosseum.
After centuries of earthquakes, neglect and even stone thieves, the impressive stone arches
are still an iconic symbol of the Roman Empire at the height of its power.
Emperor Vespasian began construction of the Colosseum around 72 CE, and it was completed
in 80 CE by his successor Emperor Titus.
At the time of the Colosseum’s completion, Emperor Titus’ reign was in trouble - crisis
after crisis, including the destruction of Pompeii, had his people wondering if the gods
were displeased by their emperor.
In an extravagant and expensive effort to regain public favour and pacify the masses,
he celebrated the opening of the Roman Colosseum with 100 days of games.
This was a classic example of what the Roman poet Juvenal called the “bread and circuses”
program - distracting the public from their troubles and the corruption of the ruling
class with free entertainment.
Important men throughout history sponsored gladiator contests to display their wealth
and power, and attempt to increase their popularity with the masses.
The more gladiators they sponsored, the more expensive and therefore impressive the contest.
Since they were so expensive to train, the sponsor could be charged up to 100 times the
regular fee if a gladiator died, so a sponsor who allowed a gladiator to be killed during
a fight would have been showing off his wealth and generosity.
By the early 5th century, the popularity of gladiator fights was fading with the rise
In 404 CE, Emperor Honorius officially ended gladiator fights after a Christian monk was
stoned to death in the arena by an angry crowd for stepping between two fighting gladiators.
Just six years later the Roman Empire would fall in the infamous Sack of Rome.
During its heyday though, the Roman Colosseum was the largest arena of its time, covering
more than 6 acres.
The arena floor was made of wood and covered with sand and the arena was surrounded by
a 15 foot high wall- fun fact: the latin word for sand is actually ‘harena’.
In a design that would feel familiar to modern sports fans and concert-goers, the arena was
surrounded by a series of tiered seating areas that could fit more than 50,000 spectators.
This tiered seating was a hallmark of the Roman Colosseum, and was fitting of Rome’s
strict social hierarchy.
The poorest, most unimportant people were relegated to the nosebleeds.
As you increased in social importance, you moved closer to the action on the arena floor.
Each tier was divided into sections, and all sections, rows and stairways were numbered
to correspond with the numbers on the shards of pottery that served as tickets.
Seats were accessed through one of 80 entrance gates leading to a passageway behind each
section, which allowed for quick evacuation in emergencies.
The passageways were called “vomitaria”, meaning “to discharge quickly” - fun fact,
this is the root of the word “vomit”.
A day at the gladiator games for the ruling class was all about strategy - forging alliances
and gathering information, undermining enemies and currying favour.
As an influential senator, you would arrive at the games through one of the four richly
decorated grand entrance gates and make your way to your seat on the Podium.
The Podium, or “place of honour” was a 15-foot wide marble platform that made up
the first tier of seating, and offered the best view of the arena floor below.
It was reserved for the most important Romans, like nobles, priests, and politicians like
The Emperor had his own Imperial Box on the Podium, which he could access through a lavish
tunnel directly from the Imperial Palace.
Less important Romans from the “Patrician” or ruling class would sit in the second tier
just behind the Podium.
Because of your power and influence, you would have been able to reserve a prominent space
for yourself quite close to the Imperial Box by carving your name in the stone.
As you settled in to the stool and cushions you brought with you to await the start of
the show, you’d be talking with your important neighbors and keeping your ears open for any
useful gossip that might win you favor with the emperor.
In his book Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual, author Philip Matyszak
explains that although betting was technically illegal, wagers on gladiator fights were extremely
common, especially among the ruling class.
Even gladiators were known to place bets!
As a wealthy Roman, you would likely have some money riding on your favorite fighter,
if only to pass the time and hear more gossip.
For the common Roman citizen, a gladiator fight would mean a much-needed day off and
a rare chance for some entertainment.
As a hard-working laborer and a member of the “Plebian” class, you’d be entitled
to a seat in the upper sections of the third tier.
Although tickets were free for citizens, if your favorite Gladiator was scheduled to fight
today, you might pay a scalper for a better ticket, closer to the action in the lower
third-tier seats, where your boss would sit with the wealthier businessmen and merchants.
On the day of the games you would check your ticket for your section and row number, and
enter the Colosseum through the numbered gate closest to your section.
When you reach your seat high up in the third tier, you would say “Goodbye” to your
wife, who would continue on up to the gallery where steep wooden seats in the fourth tier
were reserved for common women.
This may seem unfair, but some groups, like slaves, artists, grave diggers and ex-Gladiators,
were not allowed to enter the Colosseum at all.
You would have brought your own wooden plank to make the marble benches more comfortable,
and possibly even a picnic lunch.
That may seem gruesome, but as a city-dweller in the days before YouTube, you took what
you could get as far as entertainment went.
Gladiator fights were a chance to see what battle looked like, and ancient people were
no stranger to death and violence in their daily lives.
Plus, gladiators were not really considered human in ancient Rome, anyways.
For the average Roman citizen, a day at the Colosseum was all about entertainment, and
was a welcome opportunity for a break from the daily grind of life in ancient Rome.
Although technically frowned upon by authorities, you’d have no trouble finding someone to
place a bet with if you had a little money to spare.
A gladiator fight also offered a rare chance for an ordinary Roman Plebian to wield some
power - the power of life and death over the gladiators.
During one of the first gladiator battles of the day between two popular gladiators,
one of the gladiators was severely wounded early in the fight.
He kneels down and raises his arm to the emperor, signalling that he cannot fight on.
The emperor must now decide - let him live, or have the other gladiator kill him.
In theory, it’s the emperor’s decision, but in reality, he always does what the crowd
He looks around at the cheering masses, sees many “thumbs-up” for “let him live”,
but many more “thumbs-down” for “kill him”.
The crowd does not think the gladiator fought well today, and so his fate is sealed.
If you were unfortunate enough to be a criminal in ancient Rome, then a day at the Colosseum
would be your worst nightmare.
Before the main event of the gladiator fights and during intermissions, emperors took the
opportunity to perform gruesome public executions, as a display of power and to dissuade the
public from revolting.
Criminals would be fed to wild beasts, forced to fight each other, or made to participate
in dramatic executions based on Roman myths.
As a runaway slave, you’d be spending the day of a gladiator fight in a cage somewhere
in the maze of the Hypogeum, two stories of tunnels under the arena floor where people
and animals awaited their turn in the arena.
Much too soon, your time would come, and an impressive series of machinery would come
to life - with the help of pulleys, elevators and trap doors, you would be raised from the
Hypogeum and be deposited on the arena floor to face your fate.
Gladiators were the sports superstars of ancient Rome.
They were highly trained, received excellent medical care (for the time…) and were fed
an expensive, high-energy diet, making them a big investment for the owners of gladiator
schools and the sponsors of gladiator fights.
Despite their high status and skill, gladiators were treated like slaves or property and lived
a brutal life.
What if you were a gladiator in ancient rome though?
Most of your fellow gladiators would be slaves and captured prisoners of war, but you might
have been sold to a gladiator school as a young man to cover some family debt.
Despite the hard life you live and the fact that you are now a slave, you are proud of
your role as a gladiator, and are renowned for your strength and your fighting skills.
After travelling from your training school south of Rome, you’d arrive at the Colosseum
on the day of the fights through a tunnel from the gladiator’s barracks just outside
You would await your turn in the arena with the criminals and animals down in the Hypogeum.
Your wait is a long one - as one of the most popular gladiators, your fight is one of the
final events of the day.
If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to speak to your family briefly before your fight,
and have them place your bets for you.
After many hours, you would enter the arena to the roaring cheers of the crowd, and face
After a short fight you severely wound him, and the crowd, feeling deprived of a longer,
more drawn out battle, cries for his death.
The emperor complies, and you are required to end the life of your fellow gladiator.
Although you aren’t happy to have to do it, you can’t help but be grateful that
you’ll live to fight another day - and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to earn enough
money to one day buy your freedom.
For more than 300 years, the Colosseum was the site of countless gladiator fights and
other spectacles designed to show off the power and wealth of the emperor and distract
the public from their troubles.
More than half a million people and tens of thousands of animals met a violent and bloody
end on the sands of the arena.
Although gladiator fights ended hundreds of years ago, they continue to capture our imaginations
and inspire everything from the chivalric tournaments of medieval knights, to the Olympic
games, to modern Hollywood movies.
So, how do you think it would have felt to be at a gladiator fight at the Colosseum?
Do you think you could stomach the action from the Podium?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Also, be sure to check out our other episode, “The Worst Things That Happened in the Roman
Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe.
See you next time!