Gladiatorial combats where men or beasts battled each other to the death were a remnant of Rome's Etruscan heritage. For most of the Republic, they were held during privately-sponsored funeral games. Depending on the sponsor's wealth and power, the games might feature a single bout between two fighters, or several days' worth of engagements involving dozens of gladiators and wild animals. As Rome became richer, funeral games became more elaborate, featuring as many as several hundred gladiatorial bouts. Toward the end of the Republic (circa 50 B.C.), gladiatorial shows were so popular that they were staged without the excuse of a funeral. They became part of the regular state-run ludi. By Imperial times, great amphitheaters were erected to house gladiatorial events.
An amphitheater was a circular, open building ringed with several levels of seats and galleries. The mammoth Colosseum had four levels and housed 50,000 people. Beneath the amphitheater was an underground dungeon in which gladiators, condemned criminals, and animals were held before the show.
The largest was the Colosseum in Rome (actually called the Flavian Amphitheater), which enabled the staging of shows lasting several days and involving as many as 10,000 gladiators!
Gladiatorial combats were never as popular as circus races, with the largest spectacles attracting only 50,000 to 60,000 people, rather than the hundreds of thousands who attended the circus racing. Some Romans disapproved of these contests, but they still drew crowds of rabid fans. Their popularity waxed in the first and second centuries A.D. when, in imitation of Rome, most cities in the Empire built their own amphitheater, with city officials or patrons paying for them out of their own purses.
A full gladiatorial program in late Republican or in Imperial times would feature several types of events. It would start with animal events. Starving panthers, lions, and bulls were most common, but the sponsors of the games often tried to find exotic animals to delight the jaded crowds. These opening events might feature battles between the wild beasts, or between beasts and unarmed (or lightly armed) condemned criminals. "Comedy" battles were also held, involving unskilled prisoners, midgets, or women.
This was followed by an intermission. Sometimes floor prizes were distributed, ranging from food and drink tickets to valuable objects. During the intermission, theatrical skits, athletic performances, dances, or animal acts might also take place.
Then, just as the crowds were getting rowdy, came the meat of the program-the gladiatorial contests! All the gladiators marched into the arena wearing purple tunics and gave the sponsor of the games the traditional salute: "Ave __________ Moritori to salutamus!" (The Emperor would be addressed "Ave Imperator!") This meant "Hail __________! We who are about to die salute you."
A typical fight took place between two gladiators with different gear. An armored man with sword and shield (a mirmillo) vs. an unarmored man with a net and trident (a retiarius) was traditional, although other combinations were used. Teams of gladiators also fought. Other variations might be introduced in the quest for novel forms of bloodshed: free-for-alls, mock naval battles in which the arena was flooded and men fought from boats, battles between blindfoldedwarriors, and so on.
A wounded gladiator could surrender by pointing a finger upward. Assuming the other gladiator stepped back to give him a chance to surrender (most likely if he fought a man from his own gladiatorial company), the sponsor of the games would then listen to the crowd. If they thought he had fought well, they would shout their approval. The games sponsor would raise his thumb up, and the man would be spared. If they weren't impressed-or just felt bloodthirsty-they would scream for his death. The sponsor would point his thumb downward or toward his chest, and the man would be killed either by the gladiator or by arena attendants. The DM should decide the crowd's mood when player characters are in the arena, based on how bravely the PCs fought. For NPCs, a random reaction roll can be made, again with modifiers for bravery.
After a fight, armed attendants smashed the skulls of the fallen to make sure no one was feigning death and then carried them off. Meanwhile, the winner received a palm leaf of victory, and sometimes a prize of gold or jewelry (agood value in denarii is 2d4 times the XP of the foe defeated). The ultimate prize for an enslaved gladiator was the rudis, a wooden sword. It meant that the sponsor had been impressed enoughto pay to have him freed!
The last arena combats were fought in the fourth century A.D. Christians despised gladiatorial combat, partly because of their sect's opposition to violence, and partly because so many Christians died in the arena. When the first Christian emperors came to power (beginning with Constantine), the combats lost their official sanction. By circa 350 A.D., man-to-man arena combat became a thing of the past. Fights between armed men and animals were not as repulsive to Christians, however, so they remained popular. The Spanish bullfight is one survivor of this tradition.