National Geographic News
Artist rendering of a gladiator school unearthed in Austria.

This illustration shows the almost-complete remains of a school for gladiators found at Carnuntum in eastern Austria.

Illustration courtesy M. Klein/7reasons

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published February 25, 2014

Ancient Rome's gladiators lived and trained in fortress prisons, according to an international team of archaeologists who mapped a school for the famed fighters.

Discovered at the site of Carnuntum outside Vienna, Austria, the gladiatorial school, or ludus gladiatorius, is the first one discovered outside the city of Rome. Now hidden beneath a pasture, the gladiator school was entirely mapped with noninvasive earth-sensing technologies. (See "Gladiator Training Camp.")

The discovery, reported Tuesday evening by the journal Antiquity, makes clear what sort of lives these famous ancient warriors led during the second century A.D. in the Roman Empire.

"It was a prison; they were prisoners," says Wolfgang Neubauer, an archaeologist at Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology who led the study team. "They lived in cells, in a fortress with only one gate out."

The discovery shows that even outside Rome gladiators were "big business," Neubauer says. At least 80 gladiators, likely more, lived in the large, two-story facility equipped with a practice arena in its central courtyard. The site also included heated floors for winter training, baths, infirmaries, plumbing, and a nearby graveyard.

Map of Europe locating Carnuntum, Austria.

Prisoners of Rome

The gladiators were clearly valued slaves, Neubauer says, kept apart and separate from the town of Carnuntum, which was founded on the Danube River by the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 124 and later became a Roman stronghold.

"The find at Carnuntum gives us a vivid impression of what it was like to live and train as a gladiator on the chilly northern border of the Roman Empire," says gladiator expert Kathleen Coleman of Harvard, who was not part of the study team.

Although more than 100 gladiator schools were built throughout the Roman Empire, the only known remnants are in Rome, Carnuntum, and Pompeii (which had small, private gladiatorial grounds). Within the 118,400-square-foot (11,000-square-meter) walled compound at the Austrian site, gladiators trained year-round for combat at a nearby public amphitheater.

"They weren't killed very often, they were too valuable," Neubauer says. "Lots of other people were likely killed at the amphitheater, people not trained to fight. And there was lots of bloodshed. But the combat between gladiators was the point of them performing, not them killing each other."

Reconstruction of the gladiator school found in Austria.
Illustration courtesy Antiquity Publications Ltd.
This map of the gladiator school reveals that it was like a fortress or prison.

Tight Quarters

The gladiators slept in 32-square-foot (3-square-meter) cells, home to one or two people. Those cells were kept separate from a wing holding bigger rooms for their trainers, known as magistri, themselves retired survivors of gladiatorial combat who specialized in teaching one style of weaponry and fighting.

"The similarities show that gladiators were housed and trained in the provinces in the same way as in the metropolis [of Rome]," Coleman says. The one gate exiting the compound faced a road leading to the town's public amphitheater, reportedly the fourth largest in the empire.

The fortress prison also undermines the image of gladiators as traveling from town to town in a circus-like setting, as seen in the movie Gladiator released in 2000. (Another film set in the ancient Roman era, Pompeii, is opening this week.)

"They weren't a team," Neubauer says. "Each one was on his own, training to fight, and learning who they would combat at a central post we can see the remains of in our survey."

Neubauer expects to continue aboveground mapping efforts at Carnuntum, which is proving to have been a surprisingly large town.

Analysis of bones from a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey, suggests that gladiators ate a largely vegetarian diet, Neubauer notes. The team hopes to eventually perform a similar analysis on bones from the gladiator graveyard in Carnuntum, in a further attempt to explore the real lives of these ancient warriors.

Frank Olm
Frank Olm

It would be interesting to explore the diet of the Gladiator.

Bellz Webster
Bellz Webster

Great news. I love hearing about past history that can be proved.

Mohib Khan
Mohib Khan

This is lovely a great find. Modern days military academies are a continuation of these schools a little refined though. You have to have such individuals who can defend the society and the state from aggressors. The empire lived till these people could defend it and perished when the Huns gained power. It is true today that is why every nation spends heavily on arms and armies. The sad part is that man has yet to learn to share the resources and live in harmony with other humans. We are still split on the basis of color and language, With distinct religions and cultures and fight it out between ourselves to gain access to the resources which could be easily shared. Descended from apes but more cruel than apes.

Ronald Fontes
Ronald Fontes

It is very plain from inscriptions in Pompeii that gladiatorial familia DID travel to fight in other arenas, not just local venues. 17 years before the eruption, a familia from Nuceria fought the local "team," and a riot ensued, much like a modern soccer match. 

That is a very peculiar conclusion you have made based on one excavation. Aren't modern football training facilities fenced in? Gladiators were very much like modern sports stars.

By the first century C.E., there were many voluntary fighters who were not slaves. That is well known from literary sources. The film GLADIATOR contains many cringe-worthy factual errors, which is typical of movies (how about the dark brown Flavian Amphitheatre, which is actually faced with white marble?). POMPEII also is clearly inaccurate in that it depicts games on the day of the eruption. We know from inscriptions there were no games scheduled that month. In fact, the day of the eruption was a religious holiday devoted to the opening of the Underworld. If not at sacrifices in the Forum, most people were expected to stay home and indoors while the spirits of the dead roamed abroad.

And to that fellow who says only the "elite" watched the games: The games were open to the public. I see no difference in the games and people going to ultra-violent movies, which show far more gore and sadism than would be visible in a huge arena. The games were more like fencing matches, complete with referees (which you never see in movies) and very strict rules.

Gangadharan Pulingat
Gangadharan Pulingat

The illustration of fortress like prisons of gladiators lived is like modern day engineering drawing of jail like institutions with perfection and protecting and safe keeping of the gladiator youths whose lives were dependent upon their individual capability to fight and win for the sake of amusement to the viewers of the time which comprises the elite ones of the ruling society.  Actually when thinking it is brutal and cruel to see fighting and dying in such acts of gladiators of the time but common in Roman rule at the time. History and archeology facts have no place of emotions but theoretical facts merits. 

Yand Remand
Yand Remand

oh wow, very cool indeed!

Eric Moore
Eric Moore

@Ronald Fontes I think I read the emphasis in the 'undermining' passage a little differently. I thought it was specifically speaking of the idea of a traveling act with no real home base (much how I see mobile circuses portrayed, as always recruiting and training on the road instead of at a central location), rather than the idea that they traveled at all.

As to the rest, it's very interesting. I'm doing research for a pseudo-historical setting (which is how I found this page to begin with). Are there any particular sources you would recommend for some insight on the daily life in the late Roman Empire (2nd-4th centuries CE)?


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