Romans liked watching other people die. They thought that was fun, like maybe you think going to horror movies or watching Cops on TV is fun. They also believed that their gods liked gladiatorial fights, so that going to the fights was a sort of religious experience as well as being fun. Many Roman people went to big amphitheaters (like our football stadiums today) to see professionals fight (like boxers today). You went early in the morning, and paid for your ticket, and sat in your seat. Sometimes all the seats were free, if a rich person had given money to pay for the show.
Other times, you had to pay, and it cost more money for the good seats than for the bad seats, so the poor people had to sit way up top where it was hard to see.
First men in armor came out and fought against wild animals, like bears or bulls or alligators or ostriches or lions or tigers. Sometimes women fought, instead of the men. Hunters captured the animals in faraway places and brought them to the stadiums specially.
Then the Romans treated the animals badly to make them hungry and mean so they would fight. Usually the fighters killed the animals, but sometimes the animals killed the fighters, which everyone thought was very exciting. You can still see this kind of fighting today in bullfights in Spain or France or Mexico.
Around lunchtime there would be a break, and people would eat their lunches. Some people brought picnics with them: bread and cheese and vegetables mostly. Other people bought food from the vendors who were walking around the stadium selling wine and water and stuffed pastries (like spanikopita).
While people were eating lunch, in their seats, there would be a half-time show that sometimes had singers or dancers or a little play, or sometimes had criminals being killed. Sometimes the criminals were just brought out and had their heads cut off or were stabbed, but other times they were tied to posts and the bears came and attacked them, or they were dressed as Icarus and pushed off a high tower, or something creative like that. Because the gods loved to see justice done, they also liked to see criminals being killed.
After lunch sometimes there was another show, where men fought men, or once in a while women fought women. In big cities, these fights were to the death. In smaller towns, probably the gladiators usually just fought until someone was hurt, though sometimes they did get killed.
When the show was over, the surviving gladiators went back to their dorm to keep practicing and working out, getting ready for the next show. They ate a special diet – mostly vegetarian, bread and beans, with a lot of power drinks made out of vinegar and the ashes of burned plants. Gladiators were often, though not always, enslaved – sometimes enslaved men and women of color, brought from East Africa to fight in Rome.
Learn by doing – Roman gladiators project
More about the East African slave trade
Roman chariot racing
Asterix the Gladiator, by Rene Goscinny. A comic book adventure, but historically accurate (except for our hero Asterix!).
Gladiator, by Richard Watkins (2000). Easy reading.
The Roman Colosseum, by Michael and Elizabeth Mann (1998). Easy reading.
Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, edited by David Potter and David Mattingly (1999). Good solid information, if you don’t mind it being mainly about people who lived in cities.
Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power, by Alison Futrell (1997).