Terracotta figurine of 2 gladiators

Two armed men faced each other in an arena. There was no time limit; they fought until victory was decided. There was usually a clear winner; either one of the gladiators was so severely wounded that he died or was unable to continue, or he was forced to capitulate through exhaustion or loss of blood. His ultimate fate, however, still hung in the balance. This was decided by the editor, the organizer or sponsor of the games, but he usually went along with the feeling of the crowd. If the loser had fought courageously and fairly, they might feel sympathy, and wave the hems of their togas or cloaks, crying 'missum!' or 'mitte!' ('let him go'). However, if his performance displeased them, they would demand his death, turning their thumbs up (pollice verso) and crying 'iugula!' ('kill him').

The first public appearance of gladiators in the city of Rome was in the third century BC. Gladiatorial combat originated in warrior fights staged as part of funeral ceremonies for important citizens. The shedding of blood beside a dead man's grave is an ancient practice common to many Mediterranean cultures. During the second and first centuries BC these spectacles became more and more common and elaborate. Gladiatorial schools recruited from among prisoners of war, slaves, condemned criminals and volunteers.