What proportion of fights ended in deaths? What proportion of gladiators who have fought retire to a safer life?

As a theoretical extreme, all fights end in death and all gladiators die in battle. Was there a regular process of pardons? And a high proportion of gladiator retirees?

Did free gladiators have a better deal than slaves? At what point can they have a family that is financially safe when they die?

So many myths float around: all media portrays that almost all fights ended in deaths; then I read that they cannot afford such a high attrition rate. So they could have 10 fights before dying under Augustus.

Losing gladiators were pardoned/healed so they can fight again. And they bulked up on fat to protect themselves.

And they were commodities for speculation. So I guess the owners try to pull strings to safeguard their lives.

Wealthy people did it for adulation. Free people did it to pay off debts. Surely they expected to live?


Certainly not every fight was to the death - that was considered very luxurious. Most of the deaths in such games would have been provided by condemned convicts.

One of the most comprehensive studies was conducted by George Ville. In a survey of first century duels, Ville calculated that 19 out of every 100 fights ended in deaths. This gives a comparatively low death rate of 9.5% per gladiator, per fight. By the third century however, the death rate had climbed to 25%. It seems missio had changed from being the norm, to a reward reserved for a good performance.

One hundred bouts, by his calculations, would likely result in nineteen fatalities. Assuming that one hundred combatants lost their match, the death rate for losers would be about one in five, while the risk of death for all who entered the arena was about one in ten ... Ville suggested the odds of survival got worse in the second and third centuries. This later evidence indicates that half of all matches ended in the death of one of the gladiators.

- Futrell, Alison, ed. The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation. Vol. 17. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Similarly, Mary Beard estimates from Pompeii's remains that the death rate was about 13% per fight.

True, there are a few old-stagers, but only a quarter of those we know have more than ten fights to their name. If we reckon, the other way round, that three quarters would have died before their tenth fight, that means a loss rate of some 13 per cent per fight.

- Beard, Mary. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Profile Books, 2010.

Even at its lowest, the death rate was high enough that a majority of gladiators were likely to die in the arena before retirement. That said, the turnover in gladiatorial games was probably not that high, since rank and file gladiators seemed to only fight a few times each year. Some even complained of excessive idleness. A successful gladiator could fight many more games, but was more likely also to be spared for the occasional losses.

Even assuming that they did not fight very often (two or three shows a year is one estimate), if they entered the arena at the age of seventeen they could expect to be dead by the time they were twenty-five.

- Beard, Mary. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Profile Books, 2010.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and top gladiators frequently survived. While a minority in their line of work, in absolute numbers many gladiators lived to retirement. Those successful enough to acquire their own tomb stones seemed to have averaged a lifespan of 27 years, not markedly different from the free citizens of Rome.

A first century gladiator was therefore unlikely to survive more than ten fights, although starts might win many times, some over 100 ... it is certain that many gladiators survived the arena to freedom and to retirement.

- Kyle, Donald G. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. Psychology Press, 2000.

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    Did free people, or popular fighters or other privileged people expect to survive better? I understand from your answer that being a gladiator was not significant for "years of life lost" even for a free citizen. Feb 14 '15 at 13:52
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    @aitchnyu Yes, popular (more or less = successful) fighters could expect to be spared more often, i.e. survive better. Fights were generally not the death, after all. I see no reason to expect non-slave gladiator to survive better, though.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 14 '15 at 13:56
  • Aitchnyu do you mean free citizens and aristocrats as opposed to popular slaves? Was it the empower Comodus who participated as a gladiator in the games? I think there were others (decried by social critics like the poet Juvenal) who vaingloriously participated for the thrill of it and to achieve popularity. I would expect their fights would have been commonly rigged. Feb 15 '15 at 0:33

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