As with everything, Hollywood likes to take creative liberties with how history works. This is especially true when it comes to Rome’s viciousness and Gladiator fights.
The big thing when it comes to Gladiator fights in the media is the idea of fighting to the death. There are even jokes made about it, the famous emperor pointing his thumb down being a staple in parodies, music videos, and other satirical scenes to call for the death of the loser. Another big image is the idea of the malicious emperor always being defeated by his champion being killed, signalling the victory of the good guy. Plus, usually the gladiator fights depict a fight to the death.
In actuality, though, gladiator fights were almost nothing like the sort. In reality, only around ten percent of gladiators actually died in battle, either from fighting animals or receiving wounds that were too severe to be healed. Gladiators were expensive to invest in, always being put through gladiator training. Investors and sponsors spent a lot of money on each gladiator, and to lose one was to lose quite a bit of money. Mercy was often granted especially, in order for the gladiator fight to be fair and more balanced. If a gladiator was tired or already wounded, he would be put at an automatic disadvantage over their opponent.
Gladiators were also like the rock stars of ancient Rome, something that wouldn’t happen if they died all the time. They could become insanely wealthy, buying their freedom (if they came in as slaves or prisoners of war), and living in the life of luxury. There are even tombstones of gladiators who were able to retire and live a long life.
Rather, gladiator fights were ended when one gladiator was able to hold a sword to the other gladiator’s throat, or get him in some position where he can no longer fight. That isn’t to say these fights weren’t brutal; like I said, some could sustain injuries bad enough where it killed them. But this was not all that often.
With the image of the sinister emperor controlling the games, almost every emperor attended the gladiator games, good or bad. He would sit in a booth along with the six Vestal Virgins who guard the eternal flame that “keeps” Rome alive. Another thing to note: there are only six Vestal Virgins at one time. They are dressed all in white. If you see lines of them, it’s not accurate.
Besides, the emperor didn’t have all the power in the world. The Senate got a nice set of marble seating not far from the main stage, nearby his private booth. The emperor may have some say in the fate of the battle (granting mercy before the fight), but he usually just sat by. Gladiator fights were for the entertainment of the people, not just the emperor.