The remains of the gladiator barracks at Pompeii. and graffiti carved outside the Nucerian gate, reveal a lot about the lives of gladiators. Some appreciated their profession, others would rather die than fight. Image by Wknight94 CC BY-SA 3.0

Gladiators may be part of the distant past, but literature and archaeology preserve some of the stories and even the names of real individuals who fought in the arena.

The Free Volunteer: Marcus Attilius

Not every gladiator was a slave. A series of graffiti scenes outside the Nucerian gate at Pompeii record the names of a number of Pompeian gladiators who competed in games at Nola. Most had single names, which identified them as slaves, but one of the gladiators bore the praenomen (first name) and the gens or clan name of a free man. His name was Marcus Attilius.

Why would a free man ‘put his life’s blood up for sale,’ in the words of Livy, and take to the arena? True, gladiators were regarded as the Roman equivalent of rock stars by some. But they were also reviled and tainted by the blood they spilled. Not only was a free volunteer required to sacrifice his self-autonomy for the period of his contract, he also gave up his civil rights and his honor.

It is most likely that Marcus Attilius took to the arena because he desperately needed the money. Whatever the reasons for his choice, the graffiti tells us a great deal about his career in the arena. He is depicted with a gladius, long shield, and short shin plates protecting his legs, making him a murmillo. The graffiti also tells us the number of contests fought and won by the gladiators.

In this portion of the Zliten floor mosaic in Libya, a murmillo faces a Thracian. The murmillo has a shield, and plates to protect his legs from injury.

M. Attilius, t(iro), v(icit); Hilarus Ner(onianus), (pugnarum) XIV, (coronarum) XII, m(issus)

As this inscription shows, in Attilius’s case, the Nola games were his first . He is referred to as tiro-a novice. He was matched against Hilarius, a slave and veteran of the arena with fourteen fights under his belt, twelve of them victories. Remarkably, Attilius won.

‘M Attilius, (pugnarum) I, (coronarum) I, v(icit) L Raecius Felix, (pugnarum) XII, (coranarum) XII, m(issus) shows that Attilius’s luck held. This inscription records his next fight, as he is referred to as pugnarum I- ‘fought one.’

His opponent, L Raecius Felix, was another successful gladiator, having fought and won twelve fights. Once again, Attilius was the victor.

Given his obvious skill with the sword, perhaps Attilius was an ex-soldier fallen upon hard times.

The Husband and Father: Urbicus

Most gladiators were part of burial clubs, who ensured their remains were interred with respect. For most ordinary gladiators, those graves would be marked with a simple stone stating their name and perhaps the number of their fights. But the stars of the arena could afford something more detailed to ensure their immortality. It is gravestones like these that give us information about the gladiator’s lives, not just in, but outside the arena.

One gravestone, whose inscription is recorded in the Inscriptions Latinae Selectee, preserves the story of Urbicus, a gladiator from Florence.

‘For Urbicus, a secutor. Primus Palus from Florence, he engaged in thirteen fights and lived for twenty two years. He is survived by two daughters, Olympia aged five months and Fortunensis by his wife, Lauricia who lived with her respected husband for seven years. I urge you to kill the man who defeated me! His supporters will preserve the memory of Urbicus with honour.’