Roman gladiators were mostly slaves and prisoners who fought in arenas for public entertainment. Sometimes they were set against each other and sometimes against wild animals.
Fights were rarely to the death because gladiators were valuable to their owners and generally popular with the public. A gladiator would acknowledge defeat by holding up an index finger.
Gladiators who fought well were seen as exemplifying qualities Romans admired. Their value as an asset might increase, but they were unlikely to ever become part of mainstream Roman society.
There were several different types of gladiators, with each having its own particular armour and weapons.
Retiarius (Net-fighting gladiator)
The retiarius was styled on a fisherman, and was the most lightly equipped gladiator. He wore no helmet, and had only an arm-guard and shoulder-guard as protection. His weapons were a trident, dagger, and weighted net, which he would wield to entangle or disarm his opponents.
The secutor typically wore protection on his right arm and left leg. He also had a helmet and curved rectangular shield, and fought with a short sword. The secutor usually battled the retiarius, so his helmet was rounded to avoid being caught up in the retiarus’ net. The helmet also had eye
-holes rather than a visor for better protection against the retiarius’ trident.
The Thracians, on whom the thraex was modelled, were a group of Indo-European tribes that clashed with the Romans. The thraex was armed with a short sword with a slightly curved blade. His protection consisted of an arm-guard, a shoulder-guard, a small rectangular shield, and a helmet.
The murmillo was armed like a Roman legionary. He wore a high-crested, fish-shaped helmet – his name being derived from a type of fish. He had protection on his lower left leg and right arm, and carried the curved rectangular shield of the Roman legionary. His weapon was the legionaries’ short, straight sword, or gladius, from which the name gladiator comes.
The murmillo usually fought the thraex or hoplomachus, both of whom were styled on enemies of the Romans.
Hoplomachus (Armed fighter)
The hoplomachus was equipped to resemble a Greek fighter. He wore a helmet, protection on his right arm and both legs, and carried a small round shield. His weapons were a spear and long dagger.
The rudarius, in white, holds a rudus (wand of office), which he used to separate the gladiators once one had given in. To acknowledge defeat, a gladiator would hold up an index finger. You can see a retiarius, who has suffered a wound to his lower leg, and a murmillo doing so in the mosaic. The audience, sponsor, or emperor would then decide whether the loser should live or die.