If you watch movies with shirtless attractive men in them, you’ve probably seen the movie Gladiator. The movie that I love while cringing in horror at its inaccuracies. The movie does get one very important detail accidentally right… Maximus is a soldier turned slave to Commodus and then Commodus throws him into the gladiator ring for everyone’s amusement. The part the movie got right: Maximus being a soldier, before becoming a gladiator.
That is quite possibly the only part of the movie that is historically accurate though. Gladiators legally couldn’t be slaves. It was a paid position, making them technically not slaves as they received a wage for every fight regardless of whether they won or lost (it was usually higher if they won).
And with that last sentence your brain might have given a slight stutter. What do you mean if they won? If they lost, they died, how did they get paid? But oh ho, not in the least. Gladiators trained at gladiator schools to fight in the arenas and killing the opponent was not how you “won.” As a matter of fact, killing an opponent was frowned upon quite heavily. It was considered a weakness to accidentally kill your opponent.
Gladiatorial events were similar in format to modern day boxing and MMA events. Two gladiators were the main attraction, they headlined the event in a match against each other. Leading up to that battle, there were lesser known gladiators fighting each other and occasionally wild animals (this was rare though for a true gladiator).
Now, some of the build up for the main event, did indeed include people who didn’t want to fight. Convicts could earn their freedom by defeating wild animals in the gladiator ring. However, the advantage was totally given to the animal as many times, the convict would not be armed, greatly reducing their chances at successfully defeating any wild animal.
And this is where Christians being thrown to lions comes into history. Christianity was a punishable offense during most of the time of the Roman empire. They were seen as subversive rabble rousers. However, most Roman emperors, including Nero, Caligula, and Commodus, saw the benefit in allowing Christians to fight for their right to live and so Christians facing wild animals in the gladiator ring became a thing. A very popular thing. Often the number of Christians advertised facing predators drew larger crowds than the headlining gladiators.
The “thumbs up” “thumbs down” thing was reserved for convicts, if it was used at all. It was incredibly disadvantageous for an emperor to call for the death of a gladiator, because gladiators often came from the highest ranks of society and the Roman army. Gladiators were basically the rockstars of their day and most emperors couldn’t risk the wrath of their people by having a popular gladiator put to death.