We first hear about gladiatorial combat in the third century BC. At that time, they formed a part of the funeral rites of important persons. The Romans took this habit from Campania. From the second century BC onwards, gladiatorial combat became very popular. Because of the origin as funeral rites, gladiator games (munera) were always organized by private persons, whereas other entertainments in Rome, namely the horse races and the theater (ludi), were organized by the state.
Originally the gladiators were war prisoners. The different types of gladiators, e.g. Thracians and Gauls, wore the typical armament of their native region. When the demand for gladiators increased, also slaves were trained as gladiators. Because of their descent, the gladiators had a low status in Roman society, despite their fame. Nevertheless, sometimes also free citizens entered a gladiator school, forced by financial problems or seduced by the promise of fame.
In the imperial period, gladiatorial combat was popular not only in the West, but also in the East, in the same cities where also the Greek games were held. The fights always took place in the context of the imperial cult. In the second half of the fourth century AD, gladiatorial combat lost its popularity under the influence of Christianity.