"MORITURI TE SALUTAMUS, We who are about to die salute you!"
"Never had so much blood drenched the arena. How could this be followed? The crowd cried out for more. There could be no end to the spectacle now. Then Lelith herself strode into the arena. The crowd hushed at the very sight of her beauty and elegance. Her flesh bared as if to taunt the blade to draw her blood. Her hair loose as if to tempt her adversary to grip it and to strike the death blow. This was the way she liked to perform: so calm, so confident, so cold. The crowd gasped as she brandished her chosen weapons: a flashing of ice-cold silver, the kiss of death. Then the aliens were released into the ring. Not one, nor two, but ten assailants at once. Lelith danced with them, gifting each with a single choice wound. The crowded roared their approval, the entertainment would last long into the bloody evening!"
Because nothing says decadent and evil like carnage as a spectator sport.
People — criminals or slaves — are forced to fight each other or savage monsters. Sword and Sorcery (especially Sword And Sandal) and Lost World stories are particularly fond of the monsters; a good way to show them off. As a Blood Sport, this may last for a time, with many bouts, allowing the gladiators time to train; either the character can always win, or they do not always insist on death at defeat. The first is more common; the crowds will insist Finish Him!. Conversely, it may be a way of combining executions with amusement — a Death Trap that gets watched — which generally involves animals, as they don't want to deal with the winner.
Monsters used in an arena will fight long after a Real Life animal would retreat. Generally as a result of being starved a bit leading up to the match, as was the practice in the Real Life games.
Sometimes, after a particularly grand victory, the gladiator is freed, but generally ends with either Gladiator Revolt, or gladiators loosing the monsters they fight on the crowd, to great consternation. This trope is distinguished from other forms of recreational combat — such as a tourney — by one or both sides having no choice but to fight.
On the other hand, this situation was involved in the Trope Namer for Androcles Lion.
Frequently features in the nastier sort of Bread and Circuses, but it may just be an upperclass entertainment because Aristocrats Are Evil. Contrast The Tourney, which doesn't carry this stigma because the nobles risk themselves rather than compel others to do so.
Very popular in Ancient Rome settings, oddly enough, and in Sword And Sandal settings based on it. Hollywood History comes into play for some of the elements. In Real Life, only around a tenth of fights between professional gladiators actually resulted in death, as gladiators were very expensive to train. Hollywood gladiators almost always fight to the death.
The thumbs-up and thumbs-down signals, indicating that less fortunate contestants should be spared or killed are common in fiction, actually can be traced back no further than the 19th century, where Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1872 painting "Pollice Verso" popularized their anachronistic use in ancient settings.
When gladiatorial combat appears in a modern setting, it is often a Deadly Game or a Blood Sport. Will often take place in a ThunderDome of some sort.
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Anime and Manga
YuYu Hakusho: The Dark Tournament is a martial arts tournament organized by the trillionaires and masters of shady companies dedicated to accumulating wealth through the dark arts. The fights don't necessary have to end in death (although it is highly encouraged), participants can win with a 10 second knockout or ringout.
Crossbone Gundam. Tobia Arronax. Spoilered due to extreme awesome Tobia gets captured and is forced to fight in a gladiator ring. He's on foot armed with a machinegun. His opponent is armed with a mobile suit. And he wins. By hijacking the mobile suit, which he then uses to escape his captors.
G Gundam: Let's get this started! Fight all set! Ready, GO!
Kino's Journey: Kino has to participate in a gladiator-esque tournament (held for the benefit of an insane emperor). She manages to win without killing any of her opponents.
Mahou Sensei Negima!: One of these exists in the Magic World, which is used for a small Tournament Arc. There's been hints that it used to be much more violent than in the current story (including slavery and fights to the death).
It's been revealed that the reason that Jack Rakan is so unbelievably strong is because he spent years fighting in the arena so that he could earn his way out of gladitorial slavery, before moving on to fighting in wars.
One Piece: Amazon Lily Island has a gladiator arena that they use to execute criminals (men) or just throw a few more or less friendly fights to see who's the strongest (along with heavy betting).
A much larger-scale version with participants from the whole world later appears in Dressrosa's Corrida Colosseum. Unlike Amazon Lily, participating is entirely optional, and the participants usually fight it out over some glorious prize, the most recent one being Ace's Devil Fruit, the Mera Mera no Mi. Also unlike Amazon Lily, the competitors are actually referred to as "gladiators".
The Ninja Turtles had to fight in the Triceraton version of this in the original Mirage comics. The story is adapted and expanded upon in the second cartoon. They don't lose.
Exiles featured an alternate Earth where the entire superhuman population were slaves fighting in Gladiator Games for the entertainment of their Skrull conquerors. Unlike many examples of this trope, most of the fights were nonlethal; each superhuman was a unique entertainer, too valuable to lose.
A central point of the series Murena, not suprinsingly since the action unfolds in Ancient Rome.
The Basalt City Chronicles subverts this: The Empire of Smilodons has a reputation of allowing fights to the death for sport. Holding fights to the death for sport is actually VERY illegal, and is one of the very few capital crimes in the Empire. Not that their legitimate tournaments aren't brutal...
Same for the Geonosians in Attack of the Clones. These guys apparently liked their fights a bit more one sided than they already are, given that they chained their victims up. Which ironically saved them all.
The premise of Gladiator. In reference to the above mention of fighting animals, a rhino fight was planned. It was shelved due to both the cost, and for its implausibility. You'd have to piss off a rhino to an insane degree if you want a real fight out of it.
Played for laughs (naturally) in Life of Brian: first by showing the bloody aftermath of the "Children's Matinee," then in the next round, the stronger prisoner chases the weaker one around the arena, until the former collapses from a heart attack.
The Dutch film Temmink: The Ultimate Fight features gladiator style fights which almost always end in death in a modern setting. The participants are convicted criminals who chose this alternative over jail time, and have to keep participating in these fights until they die.
In Dan Abnett's Xenos, after a Chaos cult torturesEisenhorn, they throw him and his party to monsters. Their counterattack does considerable damage to the cult — and fortunately, a naval attack secures their escape.
In Dan Abnett's Ravenor, the Carnivora Circus, particularly when they dispose of intruders.
C. S. Goto's Blood Ravens novel Dawn of War: Ascension features their ushering the aspirants into an arena and telling them they can't leave. Fighting breaks out shortly, and the Blood Ravens watch with care. Gabriel Angelos remembers his own selection: he drew his sword and killed several people on arrival, before anyone else realized they should fight.
Same with the Black Templars in the comic Damnation Crusade, interseting the main character gets notic for refusing to kill a friend and getting everyone to stop fighting
In Ben Counter's "Hell Break", the dark eldar start by throwing Commissar von Klas into the arena — as the monster — to fight the wych. When he wins, they are seriously displeased and send him to torture.
In Chris Roberson's Imperial Fists novel Sons of Dorn, Rhomec's Back Story.
In James Swallow's Faith & Fire, the reenactments of Saint Celestine's life are quite literal, and since she fought the foes of the Emperor — well, this trope doubles up with Human Sacrifice. (The rich can bribe their way out, if chosen.)
In Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, the prospect of Dejah Thoris's being thrown to the wild dogs in the arena prompts John Carter to secure their escape. She does escape, but he is recaptured and forced to fight beasts in the arena.
In Chessman Of Mars, the hero infiltrates the game of the title, where the pieces are living swordsmen, and fights; he wins and leads a revolt.
Caramon was forced to become a gladiator in the Dragonlance book Test of the Twins.
The Gentleman Bastard Sequence features the infamous blood sports of the city of Camorr. Most of them involve condemned criminals battling professional gladiators or various types of monster, but the favourites are the female gladiators who stand on platforms in the water to battle the famous jumping wolf sharks.
Jonathan ends up in the arena in [[The Roman Mysteries novel The Gladiators from Capua, and its television adaptation.
Modesty Blaise is forced to do this in Dead Man's Handle. Actually, she's kind of forced to do something like this in all the books, frequently stripped for action, but Dead Man's Handle is the closest to Roman-style gladiation. More examples include:
Sabre-Tooth: Fights the Twins in a proper arena.
I, Lucifer: Forced to duel with Willie, pistol against throwing knife.
A Taste for Death: Fights an epee duel with Wenczel, stripped to the waist. The Fanservice is lampshaded as an attempt to distract one of the villains.
The Impossible Virgin: Forced to fight a gorilla.
The Silver Mistress: Not quite this trope—she fights Mr. Sexton with an audience of one. Worth mentioning for sheer Fanservice—her edge in the fight to the death against a larger, stronger, and dangerously skillful opponent is that she's completely naked and covered in grease.
Dragon's Claw: Forced to fight a quickdraw duel with the Reverend Uriah.
The Xanadu Talisman: Fights El Mico in an arena in the Atlas Mountains.
The Night of Morningstar: Fights the Earl in.
Douglas Hill's Last Legionary has the titular Keill Randor participating in a gladiatorial tournament. Despite him being the only one not using weapons, the rest don't stand a chance.
Conn Iggulden's Emperor novels, being set during the last decades of the Roman Republic, have quite a few of these. A notable one occurs in the third book, lasting for several chapters which is held by Julius Caesar to garner popular support in his campaign for consul. This also provides Character Development for Brutus, Domitius, and Servilia, brings Cabera to a turning point, and gives some insight into the ways Crassus and Pompey do business.
Brian Aldiss's short story "In The Arena". Human captives of the redul are forced to fight alien monsters in an arena. The male protagonist is paired with a female fighter in a "double double": the two of them against a pair of deadly yillibeeth, with each pair being chained together.
In A Song of Ice and Fire Danaerys has the fighting pits of Mereen closed, and is constantly being asked to reopen them. In A Dance with Dragons she agrees, but the blood and noise serves to attract Drogon, who's a bit more formidable than any of the animals they anticipated fighting.
Time Scout: Ancient Rome is a tourist destination. Tourists go and watch sometimes. Scouts and guides and tourists sometimes get unlucky and end up playing along.
The episode "Arena" is so named because of this trope. Very powerful aliens trap Kirk and a Gorn alien on a planet together so they can go at it to the death. No Romans, no literal arena, but the concept is identical. Kirk gets the upper hand, and refuses to dispatch the defenseless Gorn.
In "The Gamesters of Triskelion" Kirk and co. are captured by the titular disembodied intellects and forced to battle for their gambling enjoyment. Three hundred quatloos on the human!
An episode of Angel featured a demon arena where all the captured demons had bets taken on them. Angel is captured as well, and spends the episode trying to free them... and then realizes that he's unleashed a whole gang of demons on Los Angeles.
One of the novels had Buffy and Angel being forced to fight each other like this for a while.
Sylvester Stallone appeared as gladiator fighting a lion in a sketch on The Muppet Show. As it happens, the lion doesn't want to fight and the two decide to sing and dance "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" instead.
An episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys called, well, "Gladiator" featured our heroes trying to free a gladiator and being forced to take part in the games as well.
The Saint episode "The Man Who Liked Lions" has Simon Templar running afoul of a thuggish Roman revivalist.
The Outer Limits episode "Fun and Games" featured an alien race that regularly abducts beings from other planets and forces them to fight to the death for their amusement. For incentive, anyone who loses or refuses to fight gets their home planet destroyed. The evil aliens also like to make the fights one-sided. For example, when a man and woman from Earth are abducted, they are pitted against a male and female pair of savage aliens with incredible strength. The aliens are provided with food and Absurdly Sharp Blade boomerangs, while the humans are only provided with food and the bullets in the man's gun are confiscated. The humans win anyway.
Blood Ties episode "Necrodrome" featured a necromancer using rites based on Egyptian mythology to re-animate dead athletes to perform in bouts.
Being Human (UK) episodes "Lia" and "The Pack" have cage matches with captured werewolves, run by vampires.
A popular variation is to pit a werewolf against a human armed only with a knife. After all, what fun is it without giving him a sporting chance?
The Smallville episode "Dominion" had Clark Kent and Oliver Queen sent to the Phantom Zone, where they find that General Zod has taken over and organizes these. Naturally, Clark and Oliver were forced to participate.
From Aesop's Fables, "Androcles and the Lion". After he took a thorn from the paw of a lion, Androcles was thrown into the games. Fortunately, the lion to which he was thrown was the same lion, and remembered.
In the Modesty Blaise arc "Those About To Die", Modesty, Willie and a group of elite athletes are captured by a mad millionaire and forced to participate in a Deadly Game recreation of the Roman games.
Dark Eldar Wyches live and breathe Gladiator games. The main reason they go along on raids is to acquire captives to use as opponents/victims.
The Star Wars role-playing game kept the tradition seen with Jabba in Return of the Jedi, mostly in published scenarios: From West End Games's D6 game (happens in Secrets of the Sisar Run) to Wizards of the Coast's D20 alternative (Reckonings) to Wizards's Saga Edition (Dawn of Defiance). It's easy to use this trope in a role-playing game scenario, satisfying the players' need for Attack! Attack! Attack! !
Yu Gi Oh has the Gladiator Beasts, a set of monsters that are Exactly What It Says on the Tin, and has the gimmick of "tagging out" with each other after a battle. Bonus points for Konami showing their work by using the real gladiator types and weapons/battle tactics for most of the cards, as well as real-life Roman figures for the namesakes of the most powerful Beasts.
Cyrodill's Arena (Oblivion) was nearer the Roman institution, in that fighters, animals and captive prisoners would fight to the death for entertainment. Vvardenfell's Arena (Morrowind) was different in that it was for formal duels before witnesses; that there were spectators and betting was simply a side effect (and most of that was from immigrants from the rest of the Empire.)
One of the many, many sadistic uses for caged enemies in Dwarf Fortress. Cage traps are useful because they're a guaranteed elimination, except that you have to find a use for them. One of these is providing much-needed XP for your military by letting your troops grind them into powder in an arena. (Another use is forcing them to run a horrifically sadistic deathcourse...Videogame Cruelty Potential rocks).
Early in Baldur's Gate II the party can find an underground gladiator ring hidden in the back of the Copper Coronet, with the option of starting a quick Gladiator Revolt for some good karma. A few acts later, stumbling into the wrong part of the Underdark results in the whole party being captured by Mindflayers and sent to fight monsters in their arena.
Happens to the player and their squad in Clive Barkers Jericho. The Jericho team, travelling through the Roman time-slice in the Pyxis, are lured into a trap by the Big Bad of the period, Cassus Vicus, a ridiculously fat Roman governor who was said to be so utterly depraved that he was banished from Italy by Caligula. The team find themselves in a huge arena where they must fight off a few waves of monsters while being watched by Cassus and thousands of spectators. Once this is over, you go on to fight Cassus himself.
There's an important sub-plot involving traditional gladiatorial games in Suikoden V. They're more humane than most of the examples on this list, thanks to some new laws introduced by the Royals Who Actually Do Something in the backstory, and by the end of the game they've been abolished entirely.
In Dungeon Keeper 2 the combat pit is used to train fighters past level 4.
At one point in Overlord II you are captured and sentenced to die in the Arena where you are pitted against laughably weak prisoners, not so laughably weak unicorns, a Gargantuan, and the Yeti. Fortunately there are plenty of captive minions in barrels to be found, and you can turn the tables on the audience by making them part of the show.
World of Warcraft features a Player Versus Player Arena system, allowing players to form teams of two to five characters and fight against other teams for rewards, including ranking, titles, and the best PvP gear in the game.
It also features a dungeon and raid that pit the players against NPCs representing the opposing faction, champions of the Argent Crusade, and gigantic monsters captured for the sole purpose of unleashing them in the arena. Rather than just being entertainment, it's part of a tournament to find the greatest heroes in the world to take on the Big Bad, but that doesn't stop the crowd from cheering when you trample someone under your horse.
The trailer for The Force Unleashed 2 shows Galen Marek entering an arena and taking on some type of titanic beast that just picked up a rancor with one hand and threw it to the cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd.
Rome: Total War allows you to put on (very abstracted) gladiatorial games in order to keep a city's population happy.
In Dragon Age: Origins, a very prestigious sport for the dwarves of Orzammar. Combat in the Provings is not to the death, however, except in extremely rare cases. Oghren apparently accidentally killed a noble who challenged him in a battle to first blood, due to being a berserker, and thus was banned from bearing arms and armor in the city.
Saints Row The Third features Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax, which hilariously mixes this with the vibe of a Japanese game show.
This is the fundamental premise of the Unreal Tournament franchise: the NEG and Liandri Corporation run the Tournament as a way of keeping the masses in order. Contestants include convicted criminals, mercenaries trying to win fame and fortune, and aliens and robots trying to prove their dominance over humanity. The original title included at least one economist, with the character bio saying, "people will pay good money to see economists, lawyers and other scum fight in the arena". Not to mention that the big champions like Xan Kriegor and Malcolm have become genuine celebrities for their Tournament exploits.
Fallout 3's The Pitt has the Hole, an irradiated Thunderdome-style arena in which the player must fight several slave opponents to regain his/her freedom and equipment.
Perfect Dark Zero has VR deathmatch apparatuses, and you must fight Mai Hem in one that is rigged so that the player who dies in the game dies for real.
Belkar dreams of watching people "fight to the death for his amusement". A few times, he thought he gained power over some group and imediately ordered them to do so (as soon as they provide him with some hookers). (Un)fortunately, he didn't actually have any power in any of those cases.
"Yes! Die, die! I have everything and you have nothing!"
In the first (Tartakovsky-produced) Star Wars: Clone Wars series, Count Dooku used such games to recruit anti-Jedi assassins. Asajj Ventress proved herself by killing all of the other candidates. In one fight.
The Galaxy Rangers episode "Shoot Out": The Queen builds a stadium on the Wretched Hive world of Tortuna, and inaugurates it with a gun-slinging tournament (yup, this is a Space Western). This serves as Bread and Circuses for her subjects, adds a few more poor bastards (the losing contestants) to her Psychocrypt, and she baits the Rangers there with the promise of awarding Eliza's crystal to the winner. The last part turns out to be total BS.
When South Park had Stan entering Facebook, in a direct parody of Tron, the game is... Yahtzee.
In The Smurfs episode "Gnoman Holiday", Brainy is forced to fight a muscular brute named Biggus in order to keep Smurfette from marrying Julius Geezer's son Nerdo during their time travels.
Generator Rex: Van Kleiss is sold into the arena after being captured by the Romans in "A Brief History of Time".