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.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans used different types of exercise equipment, some of which is very similar to what we use today. For training, they used halteraes, an ancient version of the dumbbells. There were different types of halteraes and they were used for different purposes. One purpose of the halteraes was to help a jumper jump farther. For example in their version of the long-jump, Greek jumpers carried these weights in their hands in order to help them with their liftoff.
Halteraes were also used in different types of resistance training, just like we use dumbbells today. Basically all the moves that we do today with dumbbells could be performed in the ancient world using halteraes.
Other equipment that was used in the ancient times were all kinds of types of more natural equipment, such as big stones, logs or sandbags. There were different types of stones that were utilized by the fighters for their training. These stones could weight 100 kg or more. Some of the stones had grips for hands cut into them, while others were just round and natural. A variety of exercises could be performed with them, for example picking them off the ground, hoisting them above your head, throwing them, or for the heaviest just rolling them around.
The equipment that many of the ancient doctors recommended as the best equipment for exercise, were balls. For example Galen, a Greek doctor in the Roman Empire, wrote an entire book on exercises with small balls. There were different ball games played with them, but they could also be used by themselves to perform different exercises. Galen is a very good source of information on gladiators, since he started the practical part of his professional career as a doctor in a gladiatorial school in Pergamon, where he worked for 4 years, treating all kinds of injuries.
For practicing punching and kicking, the gladiators used a variety of different types of punching bags. A very significant part of the training day was spent practicing their technique and strengthening their punching power on them.
Another type of equipment that we have records of, was the pommel horse. Today, the pommel horse is used in gymnastics and a version of it existed in the ancient times as well. There are different descriptions of it by various authors and it was used by the Roman army to train their soldiers, so it is possible that the gladiators used it for their training as well. Other types of equipment that we know from modern gymnastics were also known in Ancient Greece and Rome and it is very possible that they were used by the gladiators to train.
Many of the principles that we use in our training were also used in the ancient world.
There is a story that was often told of Milo of Croton. This was an Ancient Greek athlete from the Greek city-state of Croton located in what is now southern Italy. He lived in the 6th century BC and was training for the Olympics.
One of the ways that he was training was by taking a newly born bull, hoisting it up on his shoulders and carrying it for some distance. He would do it every day. As time passed, the bull would grow larger and so Milo kept on hoisting more and more weight. This culminated with him walking into the Olympic stadium with a full grown bull on his shoulders.
So over time he was increasing the weight he was lifting. This is basically the birth of progressive overload. The ancients knew that if you want your muscles to grow and get stronger, you need to lift heavier and heavier weights.
Another principle from the ancient world is that of periodization. Many gladiator schools probably used periodization training, which is an organization of training that splits training into blocks of time, each one focusing on different skills. They would be training all day and split their training into units of time during which they would focus on just one skill.
The ancient gladiators also knew about the intensity of training and that you should not go into training full speed at the beginning, but need to warm up first, otherwise you risk injury. Galen wrote that intensity should be increased gradually: “Intensity should be gradually increased, peaking at the end. This should be of special concern in order to avoid injury to competitors.”
The cool-down process was also important. Hippocrates (an Ancient Greek doctor) said that “those who walk after exercising will then have a stronger and more rested body.” This means that there should be a period of cool down after intense training and people should not fall down and lie on the ground immediately, but instead the person should cool down by walking around. Also on rest days, according to Hippocrates, the athlete should not do completely nothing, but instead do something of low intensity.
The ancients were very aware of the dangers of over-training and many of the doctors preached against it. They knew that the body needs rest in order to recover from intense training and also that your body achieves the best results if rest is a part of your routine.
Throughout their training, the gladiators would use different types of equipment and do all kinds of varied exercises.
Galen divided exercises into three types:
Vigorous exercises: These were exercises performed with strength, but without speed. Examples of these include: digging, picking up any kind of heavy load and either standing still with it or walking (especially up a hill), climbing a rope, hanging from rope or beam for as long as possible, holding arms up (with or without weights) while partner tried pushing them in a downwards direction…etc. These exercises show that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had an understanding of overload (including progressive overload) and its positive effects on building strength and muscles.
Speed exercises: Here the primary objective was speed, apart from strength and force. Examples of these include: running, shadow boxing, hitting the punching bag, running around with balls, arm and leg exercises like drill stuff…etc.
A particular example of this type of exercise that was performed has the Greek name “pitylysma”. The exercise goes like this: start by standing on tip toes, stretch your arms upwards, move one arm quickly forward, while moving the other one backwards, roll quickly on the ground, quickly come up, stand erect and start jumping up and down, sometimes with a backward kick, sometimes bringing each leg forward in an alternating fashion.
Violent exercises: These combined speed and strength. Exercises classified as vigorous became violent if you increased their speed – jumping continuously without rest, or any speed exercises performed with weight became violent – moving around quickly in heavy armor.
The word “violent” in this context could be better understood if you use it as a synonym for the word “power”. A recommendation of Galen for these types of exercises was to rest between the different individual exercises.
Most of the training that the gladiators did could be classified as functional training. Their training program was designed to build functional strength and besides strength training also consisted of a variety of different types of movements such as jumping and running. When done in long intervals, these also functioned to build stamina.
Jumping was a very important component of any gladiatorial training. This included different types of plyometrics training like jumping on high objects, sometimes with weights in hand, or doing an obstacle course where you had to jump over different obstacles, in different ways: from place, with running start, high jump, long jump…etc. One example of an exercise that was a favorite among trainers was the scissors jump, which is an exercise that is still in use today.
Running also featured prominently in the workouts of gladiators, either short distance for speed, or long distance for stamina. In his work “Anarchasis“, Lucian (an Assyrian commentator who wrote in Greek and lived during the time of the Roman Empire) wrote about the place of running in a training routine and especially recommended running on sand:
“We train young men to run, getting them to endure long distances as well as speeding them up for swiftness in the sprints. This running is not done on a firm springy surface but in deep sand, where it is not easy to place one’s foot forcefully and not to push off from it, since the foot slips against the yielding sand. We train them to jump over ditches … or any other obstacles and we train them to do this even when they carry lead weights as large as they can hold.“
Stamina was practiced throughout the entire course of the training. The gladiators would go on long-runs or just practice different drills for a long time, until the fighters got tired. Another very important part of training stamina was playing different types of ball games.
One example was a game called harpastum. No one is exactly sure about the rules of this game, but from descriptions it seems to be similar to modern rugby, but played with a small ball. This game usually lasted for many hours and was a favorite among gladiators.
Resistance training was already mentioned as being a very important part of any athletics training, and was also included in gladiatorial training. Gladiators would use halteraes made of stone or metal, or use other objects such as stones, wooden logs or sandbags.
They would do things that we do today like lateral raises, bicep curls, or walking lunges. There was a special gladiatorial twist that they added to their version of the walking lunges. They did them with arms outstretched in front of them when holding the halteraes.
Another exercise that is mentioned by Galen is one where two halteraes are placed 6 feet apart, the person stands in the middle between them, reaches out on one side and raises up the halterae on that one side, then goes to the other side and raises the one on the other side.
Sandbag training was probably also used. This type of training was already practiced by the Ancient Egyptians. It is good for stabilizers and a lot of things can be done with sandbags. One example of an exercise with a sandbag is rotation. This would be done by putting sandbags on your shoulders and then rotating your trunk from side to side. Another exercise with sandbags is putting them on your shoulders and doing squats. There are a variety of other types of exercises that can be done with sandbags and that were done in the ancient world for training and getting stronger.
Besides the different types of training mentioned above that was done with a variety of equipment, the gladiators relied on body-weight exercises in order to build a big and strong body. Calisthenics or body weight exercises were a huge part of gladiator training. Common calisthenics exercises that were also performed by gladiators include: push ups, sit-ups, lunges, jumping jacks, crunches, pull ups, squats, dips, planks…etc.
In order to add more resistance these can be performed in a variety of ways. The gladiators would perform different types of push ups on their knucles, on their fingers, with one arm, one leg, chest push ups and in a lot of other ways. They would similarly perform other types of calisthenic exercises in different ways.
Galen, in his writings also mentioned the benefits of rope climbing. The gladiators spent a significant portion of their time climbing ropes. These ropes hung from the ceiling, but oftentimes they were secured to the ground as well. Another favorite activity of the trainers was to have the gladiators hang off ledges or beams for as long as they could. These types of exercises served to build a strong grip, as well as other muscles, especially the stabilizers.
For becoming the best, the gladiators knew that they needed to train other things besides just speed (and quickness), strength and stamina. They also needed to train their balance and agility. For agility, they used different types of machines or swinging bags, where they had to run through a gauntlet of these different things and not fall. Also hand-eye coordination was important, and in order to improve this, Galen recommended a variety of exercises with small balls.
To help with recovery, many of the gladiatorial schools included bath complexes, which the gladiators used after training. For example the gladiatorial school that was recently discovered in Austria (the site used to be called Carnuntum in Roman times), included a large bath complex, among other things. Baths were a common way of relaxation and recovery in Ancient Rome and many sections of Roman society used baths regularly.
Visiting baths frequently was actually one of the main recommendations to promote good health by Celsus in his work on medicine titled “De Medicina”. These baths often resembled what we know as spas in the modern world, and included tanks of cold, warm and hot water and apart from relaxation could also be used for swimming.
The importance of eating in order to perform was recognized in the ancient world and great attention was paid to diet. There was no one gladiatorial diet, but the diet of gladiators differed based on place, time, money, availabity and the philosophical approaches of the trainers and doctors of that particular ludus.
Just like the nutrition debates of today, the ancient Greek and Roman world was full of bro science. The different commentators were always arguing over what type of diet is the best and diets for training ranged from an all-meat diet (this was used by a few Greek athletes) to something which was almost an all-carbohydrate vegetarian diet.
Another problem is that literary evidence is sparse. There has been some archeological evidence found from digging at a gladiator cemetery in what is now Turkey, but that has also sparked different interpretations. Recently another gladiatorial school in good condition was found in what is now Austria and once archeological digs are more advanced we can get better ideas.
Most of what we do know about the different gladiatorial diets is from the writings of Ancient Roman commentators. From the writings it seems that one of the staples of the gladiator diet was barley. This could come in different forms, such as soup, porridge or pancakes. They ate so much barley in fact, that Pliny the Elder called them “barley-men”.
Galen also commented on how when he became a gladiatorial physician, the most frequent meals of the gladiators in his ludus, were bean soup and barley. He complained that this diet did not toughen the flesh, but instead made it flabby.
Other commentators mention that dried figs, moist cheese, and wheat for breakfast were the standard for many athletes. It also seems that beans and cheese were quite popular among them. Different types of fiber were also considered important.
The Ancient Greeks discovered that meat helps athletes grow strong. It became a staple in the diets of many athletes. Diogenes Laertius in his “Lives of the Philosophers” mentions how this came about:
“Pythagoras is said to have been the first to train athletes on a meat diet. The first athlete he did this with was Eurymenes. Formerly, athletes had trained on dried figs, moist cheese, and wheat.”
It should be mentioned that the Pythagoras he talks about here is not the famous philosopher, but instead an athletic trainer of the same name.
Mythology also talks about the diet of the famous Milo of Croton. Supposedly he ate 20 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of bread daily!
There was also much discussion on what types of meat is best for athletes. Galen said that it was pork. Some other commentators agreed. The discussion on pork can illustrate the type of bro science that the Ancient Greeks and Romans got up to. They were actually discussing from what types of pigs you should eat pork. It was said that the best pork comes from pigs fed on berries and that you should not eat the meat of pigs raised near rivers! 🙂
While some gladiatorial schools had diets which were to a large extent close to vegetarian and full of carbohydrates, some gladiatorial schools instead focused on a diet full of meat. Since meat was expensive to obtain, a large part of the meat that was eaten in the ludi often came from the venationes or animal hunts that occured in the arenas together with gladiatorial fights. So the gladiators would often end up feasting on elephant or ostrich meat. 🙂
The ancients also realized the importance of calcium to have strong bones and they had different sources of it. One of the ways that the gladiators used to replenish calcium was through drinking an old-school “sports drink” made out of the charred ashes of plants. Move over Gatorade, we got some Charredashade. 🙂
Other related training
The gladiators didn’t only train their bodies, but they had to train other things as well. They also received training as actors. Having the crowd on your side could often be the difference between life and death. So every gladiator needed to be a bit of a showman. It was a lot like the modern WWE, except the blows were real and the loser would not always make it out of the arena alive.
That’s why they were also taught how to die. Every gladiator had to be indifferent to death and had to die in a stoic fashion. A gladiator should die with honor. They had to die like it was nothing and be at peace with it. Even in their ultimate moments of life, it was necessary to show contempt for death.
Except for the superstars, most gladiators led a simple life. They only had few possessions and slept in very meager conditions. Seneca, in his “Allegiance to Virtue” even compared the stoic life to the life of a gladiator:
“You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding. Any man will be but mocking you, if he declares that this is an effeminate and easy kind of soldiering. I will not have you deceived. The word of this most honorable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: “Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword.”
From the men who hire out their strength for the arena, who eat and drink what they must pay for with their blood, security is taken that they will endure such trials even though they be unwilling; from you, that you will endure them willingly and with alacrity. The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding.
Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born. “Then how can I free myself?” you ask. You cannot escape necessities, but you can overcome them. By force a way is made.”
They were supposed to represent the ultimate virtues to the ordinary Romans.
Yet they also had to be motivated. It was a tough life and an unpredictable fate and their trainers also had to be masters of sports psychology. The gladiators were encouraged and motivated to overcome their fears and become the best.
What lessons you can apply to your own training
So if you want to train like a gladiator, how can you do it? Follow the basic principles of progressive overload, periodization and varied intensity and train for strenght, speed and stamina. You won’t be able to reproduce their entire workout since they trained all day, but you can certainly put elements of their training into your workouts.
A big part of gladiator training were bodyweight exercises. Try to incorporate them in your routine and periodically do more and more challenging moves.
Also start training a bit more like a strongman competitor. The gladiators had to lug around heavy things in order to get stronger and so can you.
The farmer walk is a good exercise for that:
Gladiators also had to lift heavy stones:
Incorporate some jumping exercises into your routine:
You can also incorporate different wrestling exercises in your routine and train like modern Greco-Roman Wrestlers do:
You can also do static holds until failure. A lot of exercises that the gladiators did involved this. For example they would outstretch their hands to the sides and hold them for as long as they could. For added resistance, they would hold halteraes in their hands, so you can hold dumbbells.
In order to increase your stamina, you can also go running around in a weighted vest. Many gladiators used to go on long runs in full armor and you can simulate that by wearing a weighted vest.
Last of all remember to have fun while you train. You have the luck of not being born in an era where stepping out in the arena was a life or death situation. You will survive. You only have to concentrate on getting better, without all that nasty stuff. Embrace the challenge…
Who were the Roman gladiators?