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How much do you really know about gladiators?

In The Deadliest Lie, Miriam bat Isaac’s brother Binyamin leaves Alexandria to become a gladiator. In The Deadliest Hate, she watches him fight in the arena. Take this TRUE or FALSE quiz about first-century CE gladiators. Then surprise yourself with the answers!


1. Most gladiators were slaves, criminals, or prisoners-of-war sentenced to the arena.

2. Some women fought as gladiators.

3. Gladiatorial combat began as a funeral rite.

4. All gladiators, as they passed before the emperor’s box, greeted him with these words: “Hail, Caesar. Those who are about to die salute you” [Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant].

5. The emperor turned his thumb up to mean the gladiator’s life was to be spared; down, to mean the gladiator was to be killed on the spot.



Very few were volunteers like Miriam’s brother. Binyamin volunteered because he wanted the excitement of living on the edge. Others volunteered to get their debts forgiven and redeem their place in society. But the distinction between volunteers and those sentenced to the arena was crucial. Volunteers signed a contract for a specified period of time, usually five years, and were trained and expected to fight only two or three times a year. Moreover they kept a portion of their purse and had the best medical care available. Although those condemned could earn their freedom if they lasted three years, without training and protective armor their chances of survival were virtually nil.


There were women gladiators, but they were rare. The Romans were offended by the sight of women in the arena, a place they regarded as a bastion of hyper-masculinity. On the other hand, many were thrilled by the novelty and admired the women's courage and skill.


The belief was that only human blood could propitiate the souls of the dead. But only the elite could afford the expense of killing off slaves. So the rite became a publicly-funded spectacle initially as an expression of piety.


This statement is a widely held misconception promoted by our popular media.


The thumb was turned to signal the fate of a fallen gladiator, but scholars disagree on how the thumb was turned. The popular view is that a downward thumb meant death, but some say the thumb was turned outward.

Want to learn more about gladiators? Read the books in the Miriam bat Isaac series.

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