The gladiators originally performed at Etruscan funerals, no doubt with intent to give the dead man armed attendants in the next world; hence the fights were usually to the death.
At shows in Rome these exhibitions became wildly popular and increased in size from three pairs at the first known exhibition in 264 107) had 5,000 pairs of gladiators.
Shows were also given in other towns of the Roman Empire, as can be seen from the traces of amphitheatres.
There were various classes of gladiators, distinguished by their arms or modes of fighting.
The (“pursuer”); the former wore nothing but a short tunic or apron and sought to entangle his pursuer, who was fully armed, with the cast net he carried in his right hand; if successful, he dispatched him with the trident he carried in his left.
There were also the The shows were announced several days before they took place by bills affixed to the walls of houses and public buildings; copies were also sold in the streets.
These bills gave the names of the chief pairs of competitors, the date of the show, the name of the giver, and the different kinds of combats.
The spectacle began with a procession of the gladiators through the arena, and the proceedings opened with a sham fight () with wooden swords and javelins.
The signal for real fighting was given by the sound of the trumpet, and those who showed fear were driven into the arena with whips and red-hot irons.
When a gladiator was wounded, the spectators shouted “” (“He is wounded”); if he was at the mercy of his adversary, he lifted up his forefinger to implore the clemency of the people, to whom (in the later times of the Republic) the giver left the decision as to his life or death.
If the spectators were in favour of mercy they waved their handkerchiefs; if they desired the death of the conquered gladiator they turned their thumbs downward.
(This is the popular view; another view is that those who wanted the death of the defeated gladiator turned their thumbs toward their breasts as a signal to stab him, and those who wished him to be spared turned their thumbs downward as a signal to drop the sword.) The reward of victory consisted of branches of palm, and sometimes of money.