The Roman Gladiator: Myths and Realities

Jessica Zachar, Research Unplugged intern
March 24, 2008
head shot of man in khaki suit

Garrett Fagan

Although the upper echelons of Roman society attended gladiatorial games, they considered it very undignified to personally perform in a public spectacle, explained Garrett Fagan to a group of rapt listeners last Wednesday at the Penn State Downtown Theatre. "These Romans would look at our celebrities like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt and say 'My God, these people are scum!'"

Fagan, associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and history, helped the audience separate the myths from the realities regarding the historical figure of the Roman gladiator. Armed with only a scrap of paper with four talking points, Fagan primarily conducted his lecture through interaction with the audience, asking for their perceptions about gladiatorial games and explaining the different categories of gladiators. The audience was keenly interested in the subject and Fagan's enthusiasm and expertise kept the hour-long conversation entertaining and interesting.

Contrasting historical facts with the blockbuster movie Gladiator, Fagan shattered the myth that gladiators were all slaves, and explained that even wealthy Senators or equestrians occasionally volunteered to participate in the dangerous games. According to Fagan, the crowds favored the volunteer gladiators because they put on the best show. As Fagan put it, "If you're a rubbish swordsman, you wouldn't choose to be a gladiator."

Although gladiators always fight to the death in Hollywood movies, there were actually several possible outcomes of their bouts, explained Fagan. A gladiator could win the contest by killing his opponent, lose and be killed, lose and still live through an appeal, or the match could end in a draw if it became boring to the audience.

Fagan's humorous quips and extensive knowledge about the Roman gladiators made the conversation an unforgettable event. We look forward to next week's topic, "Nano Tools: The future of minimally invasive surgery," with professor of mechanical engineering Mary Frecker.

Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. He can be reached at

Last Updated March 24, 2008