The Ancient Roman gladiators were some lean, mean killing machines. Fighting was their way of life, the very essence of their being. This gave them an unwavering strength and a tremendous drive and determination. Their courage was legendary. If a gladiator wanted to be the champion, he could not let his focus waver. A single mistake, a slip up, a short lapse in his attention or a bit weaker stamina could end it all for him. His very life depended on being in peak physical condition and the master of his weapons.
Gladiators needed to be driven, not only to become the best they could be, but also to always be better than their opponent. For them, being second best could often mean only one thing: death.
Unfortunately only very few fragments describing their training survive, so it is very hard to reconstruct their training regimen. There was also never just one specific way of training gladiators. Gladiator training varied across time and geographic location. The type of training they received, as well as their diets, also often depended on how rich the owners of their schools were.
The richest and most prestigious schools could employ the very best trainers and physicians and also provide the highest quality food, while the poorer schools, especially in the outlying provinces often suffered from a lack of resources.
This article will focus on the ancient gladiator training techniques and what we can determine about them from the ancient sources. If you are looking for a modern “gladiator” inspired workout, then click here.
Sport specific training
The most important training for any gladiator was the training done with the specific weapons that he would use in the arena. If he wanted to win in a fight, he needed to be extremely proficient in their use.
The main weapons used by the gladiators included different types of swords, knives, shields and special weapons such as the trident for the retiarius, or a spear for some other types of gladiators.
In practice, the gladiators utilized wooden replicas of these weapons. Much of the training was spent sparring with these wooden weapons against other gladiators. Part of the time, wooden weapons that were heavier than the ones the gladiators wielded in actual combat were used. The idea of training with heavier weapons was that once they got used to fighting with these, it was much easier to fight with normal weapons.
During sparring, gladiators were taught the proper way of using the sword. They were taught not to slash at the opponent, but instead to stab him. This was considered the most efficient way of killing the opponent or causing him the most harm.
One of the most important exercises was called the “post” exercise. This was done using wooden weapons of normal or larger size against a large pole stuck in the ground. The exercise was described by Vegetius, a writer from the period of the Late Antiquity, in his book called “De Re Military“:
“They gave their recruits round bucklers woven with willows, twice as heavy as those used on real service, and wooden swords double the weight of the common ones. They exercised them with these at the post both morning and afternoon.“
The gladiators also spent considerable time practicing fighting without weapons. Things like wrestling were a very important part of training for any gladiator. Not only did they need to be skilled in the use of the sword, but they also needed to be good at hand to hand fighting.
Some descriptions of ancient hand-to-hand fighting survive. For example boxing, wrestling and an ancient version of MMA called pankration were official sports in the Ancient Olympics.
We do not know how the actual gladiator training without weapons proceeded, but it probably involved a lot of drilling of different moves and resembled the instructions for wrestling moves found in one 2nd century AD Greek papyrus or the even more ancient scenes from Ancient Egyptian wall paintings.
General training for physical condition
The historical record for what type of physical training the gladiators did is very patchy. There undoubtedly were a lot of manuals produced during Roman times, however very few survived to the present. So unfortunately we cannot produce a full “real” gladiator workout, but we can only surmise at the types of exercises they did from some of the writings that do survive.
The trainers of Roman gladiators did realize that fight specific training is not enough in order to build the ultimate fighting and killing machine. They knew that in order to develop strength, speed and stamina, the gladiators would need to do a variety of generic exercises in order to do that. Many of these were based on what was developed by the Ancient Greeks.
Different ludi (gladiator schools) organized their training regimens differently, however at the time of the Roman Empire, the most popular organization of training was based on the “tetrad” system developed by the Ancient Greeks. This divided training into 4-day cycles:
- Day 1 – day of preparation, which consisted of toning and short, high intensity workouts
- Day 2 – day of high intensity, which consisted of long, strenuous exercise
- Day 3 – day of rest (short, very light workouts were also done, but it was mostly about resting)
- Day 4 – day of medium intensity
In his work “Concerning Gymnastics” (one of the earliest surviving works on sports science), Philostratus, a Greek philosopher who lived during the time of the Roman Empire, described the tetrad system like this:
“By the tetrad system we mean a cycle of four days, each one of which is devoted to a different activity. The first day prepares the athlete; the second is an all-out trial; the third is relaxation; and the fourth is a medium-hard workout. Regarding exercise of the first day, it is made up of short, intense movements which stir up the athlete and prepare him for the hard workout to follow on the next day. This strenuous day is an all-out test of his potential. The third day employs his energy in a moderate way, while on the day of the medium workout or last day, the athlete himself practices breaking holds and preventing his opponent from breaking away.“
Once this cycle was over after Day 4, a new cycle of the tetrad would begin.