In ancient Rome, there weren’t nearly as many forms of entertainment as there are today in 2019. However, Romans still loved finding new ways to keep themselves entertained and spice up their seemingly mundane lives. One of the most popular spectacles was gladiator fights, in which armed combatants would fight in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, or convicted criminals in an arena, most often the Roman Colosseum.

Successful gladiators were treated like superstars—awarded money, freedom, and popularity. They were held in high esteem by men and women, and their battles would draw thousands of spectators. Here’s our list of five of the most famous Roman gladiators.

Spiculus: Admired by an emperor

Spiculus is one of the most famous gladiators, who found his popularity in the 1st century AD. Depictions of his battles have been represented in several ancient Roman artworks. Spiculus wasn’t only popular with regular audience attendees, but he was also admired by the notorious Roman emperor Nero. Spiculus’ fighting ability awarded him many riches and even palaces to live in when he wasn’t fighting.

Nero was so fond of Spiculus that when Nero saw his power was gone and he would soon be overthrown as emperor (by Vitellius), he requested for Spiculus to end his life. However, the emperor’s aides couldn’t reach Spiculus, and Nero ended up taking his own life.

Marcus Attilius: The unlikely hero

Marcus Attilius was the unlikely victor in his first battle as a gladiator. One of the many freemen who willingly became a gladiator (instead of by slavery), Attilius was a young novice who was sure to lose his first fight against Hilarus, an imperial gladiator who had already won 12 battles. Attilius didn’t stand a chance, but just like your favorite fictional stories, the underdog proved to be superior.

Attilius scored a thumping victory over the gladiator veteran. Spectators were upset, but they also admired the new gladiator. From this, Attilius went on to defeat other gladiators, including Lucius Raecius Felix, who also won 12 previous battles. Attilius proved that just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re far less superior.

Carpophorus: The man who fought animals

Gladiators rose to popularity if they fought wild animals, otherwise known as bestiarii. However, the profession was often short-lived due to its extreme danger. Being a celebrated bestiarius, Carpophorus was especially gifted at fighting wild animals. In fact, he was more successful at fighting animals than participating in hand-to-hand combats against fellow gladiators.

Carpophorus would regularly face off against lions, bears, leopards, and rhinos. He even fought in a famous battle where he defeated bears, lions, and leopards in a single fight. His most memorable performance was when he killed 20 different animals in just one battle. Was this man even human?

Commodus: The committed gladiator

Commodus is one of the most famous gladiators, most well-known in popular culture by Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the fighter in the 2000 film, Gladiator. Commodus was obsessed with fighting. He had a high ego and considered himself more successful than other gladiators. He even had parts of his palace converted into an arena so he could fight gladiators whenever he desired.

Commodus would fight as many people and animals he could find—not caring about the risks. He even killed injured animals just to show off his seemingly impressive fighting skills. But his ruthless ego led to his eventual assassination in 192 AD.

Spartacus: The most famous gladiator

Mostly everyone has heard of the legend of Spartacus, portrayed by Russell Crowe in Gladiator. While as a Thracian soldier, Spartacus was captured by the Romans and sold as a slave. His owner saw his skills as a gladiator, but Spartacus outsmarted him. He arranged a rebellion, which ended with about 70 gladiators escaping from gladiator school. Spartacus continued to free slaves, using his skillful fighting force to defeat Roman legions.

139904/Pixabay

However, in 71 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus arrived with a well-trained army of 50,000 men to defeat Spartacus. The gladiator was unable to withstand the attack and was killed in Southern Italy. However, Spartacus’ legacy surpassed his death—making him the most famous gladiator in Roman history.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Ancient Rome had a long, interesting history. Learn 23 new facts about the civilization.

Nero was a big admirer of Spiculus. Learn about how the Roman emperor tried to kill his mom with a ship.