Blood sports became so popular in Rome that the Colosseum was built specially for that purpose.
The Colosseum had seating for about 50,000 people. The ringside seats were reserved for the emperor, senators, and other bigwigs. People of progressively lower status sat farther away, proportionate to their rank. Women and foreigners were seated in the top rows.
The morning act was gladiator games. They began with the combatants parading into the arena, led by the sponsor of the games (in Latin—authors beware—he was called the editor).
In Rome, this was usually the emperor; in outlying areas it was usually a high-ranking magistrate. Music accompanied the procession and the subsequent bouts of combat.
The first events might be mock fights with wooden weapons, which were often followed by the animal acts. Sometimes these animals were trained to perform tricks, but more often they were there merely to be killed—the more common animals first, then progressively they presented the more exotic, sometimes in combat against each other, sometimes killed by an animal fighter called a bestiarii.
In the stands, people could pass any slow parts of the day by frequenting the food merchants, bookmakers, and prostitutes offering their specialties. But the lunch break was not a time to wander far because that’s when the state executed criminals who had committed particularly serious crimes, like murder, arson, sacrilege, and treason.
It was on the latter two charges that Christians were most often convicted, for refusing to acknowledge the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The hope then, as now, was that executions would act as a deterrent.
And then, as now, capital punishment wasn’t especially effective, as demonstrated by the fact that the Christians thrived and eventually took over Rome.
One form of execution was throwing the condemned person to wild animals; another was forcing them into dramatic reenactments of bloody myths or battles; still another was placing them into battle after battle until killed. (Refusing to participate was not a viable option: If they didn’t show enough enthusiasm for battle, they were prodded with hot pokers from ringside guards.)
After lunch came the mortal combat of the gladiators. Although it is popularly believed that the bouts began with gladiators chanting to the emperor, “We who are about to die salute you,” historians say that there’s little evidence that this was a part of the customary ceremony.
Gladiators would fight one-on-one or on teams. If one was injured, disarmed, or otherwise willing to concede defeat, he held up his left index finger; spectators signaled with hand gestures whether they wanted the losing fighter spared or put to death. (Despite common belief, the signals were not “thumbs down” for death and “thumbs up” for mercy. Historians say that “thumbs up” voted for death, and a fist or waved handkerchief for a reprieve.)
The editor made the final decision, usually following the disposition of the crowd. If the gladiator was to be killed, he was expected to accept the killing blow without flinching or crying out.
Some historians believe that there was also a ritual for checking the fallen gladiator for any signs of life, administering another fatal blow if necessary, and dragging the body offstage with a hook through a gate called the Porta Libitinensis in honor of Libitina, the death goddess.
The largest gladiator contest, given as a victory celebration by the emperor Domitian in 90 A.D., featured 5,000 contestants and resulted in the death of 2,000 humans and 250 animals.
Most, though, were much more modest than that—in fact, after Julius Caesar presented an exhibition of 300 gladiator battles in one glorious event, the Roman Senate voted to place limits on the number of contestants per event.