If you got sent back in time 2,000 years to ancient Rome, you probably wouldn't want to choose a career as a gladiator. After all, it was a messy existence, with a fairly low life expectancy. But if you were up to your eyeballs in debt, or wanted a chance at fortune or fame, you could break in at the top, by going to gladiator school.

And four different Roman gladiator academies rose above the nearly 100 others, to become the best of the best. At these schools, you'd learn specific fighting styles, and how to have an excellent death. What set these four schools apart? And what sort of training could you expect in the Ivy League of gladiator training schools?

All images from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, except where noted

The Four Prominent Schools
Early gladiatorial events culled participants from slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. But eventually, people could sign up to compete in the arena, and even go to gladiator school. These volunteer gladiators received payment for their participation, and kept any gifts the crowd wanted to give them. The gladiators often used the money earned to pay off massive debts. Image: a Pompeian gladiator school via Dom H UK/Flickr

Close to 100 gladiator schools existed within the Roman Empire, but four schools set themselves apart: Ludus Magnus, Ludus Gallicus, Ludus Dacicus, and Ludus Matutinus.

Emperor Domitian personally commissioned the creation of these four schools, and placed them within close proximity to the Roman Colosseum — thus setting the four apart and creating a foundation for gladiator training in the city.

Dacicus and Gallicus represented the conquered people of Gaul and Dacia, and trained students in the techniques of their native soldiers. Ludus Matutinus, meanwhile, trained its students to fight wild beasts, with a training regimen that was somewhat different from the others. The school of Ludus Magnus was the most high-profile, benefiting from a direct connection to the Colosseum of Rome through a series of underground tunnels.


Picking your major
Once you chose to become a gladiator, you'd receive a preliminary physical examination. This examination played a large role in your career, as it often determined what type of training you'd receive.

The schools taught very specific styles with very little cross-training — and the style was chosen to supplement the stature, build, and quickness of the student. If you were selected to be the guy with the net and trident (better known to Romans as retiarii), you typically could not switch to another fighting style if you got sick of nets.

Students of Ludus Dacicus perfected combat techniques using a traditional Dacian weapon, thesica, a curved sword about 18 inches long. Students of Ludus Magnus made use of chariots and became skilled in attacking while on horseback. Ludus Gallicus had a different aim — their gladiators used heavy armor, armor that often turned out to hamper their vision, movement, and survival in the arena.

The gladiators trained against gladiator replicants — wooden shield- and sword-bearing constructs designed to rotate and "counterstrike" the trainee, depending on his or her strikes. Although the students attended one of the best gladiator schools in Rome, they still lived in tight quarters, often sleeping two students per cell.

Besides providing fresh meat for the arena, the schools also put on gladiator exhibitions for large audiences within their walls. Ludus Magnus had seating for 3,000 spectators and regularly held events open to the public.


Contractual obligations and learning how to die
Gladiators signed individual contracts with the schools — which stipulated how many "performances" they would make per year. You'd typically enter the arena three to five times a year, with harsh clauses in their contracts, that allowed for torture or death if you violated the contract.

The schools also taught their students to plan for the nigh inevitable — death. Gladiator training included in-depth education on how to die with dignity and bravery — plus how to deliver a clean sword strike to the neck to swiftly end the life of your opponent.

Want to be a gladiator?
Although the gladiator school of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus at Capua is not remembered as one of the "top tier" schools, it deserves a special mention. Spartacus escaped from the school around 73 BCE and began a slave rebellion that led to the Third Servile War.

If you are interested in getting some gladiatorial training for fun or profit, there's a modern facility that operates in the tradition of these original gladiator schools, in Rome. The Scuola Gladiatori di Roma trains over 3,000 visitors in gladiator techniques a year and conducts mock combat sessions between students.