The Roman Empire

Please note that I do not have any real training in Roman history, and the information is taken from other sources, mostly different shows on A&E Networks (History International and the History Channel, mostly) and Discovery Networks (including Discovery and the Military Channel). Some information was also gleaned from Wikipedia and a number of books in my collection. I've noticed a lot of searches for variations on "thumbs up in the Colosseum" have led to my site, so I thought I'd just put my thoughts and understanding of the situation down here on virtual paper. If you find any errors, feel free to let me know. Thanks.

From 80 AD on into the 5th century, numerous gladiatorial fights took place in the Roman Colosseum, as well as in other amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire. Most of these battles were not the free-for-all fights that are commonly thought of today. There was a referee present who made sure that the fights were fought according to rules, and the vast majority of the matches were one on one, not melees. There were staged battles and mass executions which took place, but these were just the "opening acts" in a day of entertainment at the Colosseum. The gladiatorial combats were the main event.

Gladiatorial games were staged by anyone with enough money and a reason to try to gain the public's favor. Obviously, Emperors and governors of provinces and such would be the primary hosts of the games, but wealthy businessmen and ambitious politicians could also attempt to win the favor of the public by holding events. The events were certainly not cheap, as the gladiators were well trained professionals, and a good deal of money would have been spent in their training and keeping them healthy and ready to fight.

There were a number of particular types of gladiator, each of which fought with a prescribed set of armaments and armor. Most of the types of gladiators were paired against a different type of gladiator, in pairings which were intended for the maximum enjoyment of the spectators. Often, this involved a lightly armed and armored gladiator opposing one with heavy armor and armament. The lighter man could typically move more quickly to avoid his opponent, jabbing at him while trying to avoid close combat. The heavier combatant had the armor to withstand the lighter opponent's weapons for the most part, and his objective was to try to engage his opponent in close quarters, where his heavier armor and weaponry would give him a decisive advantage.

Most gladiatorial battles were not necessarily contests to the death. Of course, the men were not playing with toys, so there was a chance that one or another of the gladiators would be killed by a chance blow during the battle. In such cases, the winner was obviously the man who lived. In most cases, however, one or another of the combatants would gain an advantage over the other, probably by disarming him. At this point, the disarmed man would discard any weapon he still held and would hold up his hand with his index finger extended as a sign of surrender. The referee would then step in and stop the fight. The defeated gladiator would then look to mercy from the individual hosting the games.

In 1872, a French artist named Jean-Leon Jerome painted a depiction of this situation. Called Pollice Verso, the painting shows the crowd with thumbs pointing down, calling for the death of the defeated man. Jerome researched the painting about as well as he could at the time, but new research leans toward the fact that he misinterpreted the term for the "death gesture." The actual phrase used by the Romans does not really translate as "thumb down," but rather as "thumb turned." Jerome interpreted this to mean the thumb turned down, as opposed to a thumb up. It seems that this is wrong.

New research done on skeletal remains found in a gladiator graveyard found near Ephesus, in Asia Minor, show an interesting set of wound patterns. The wounds show certain damage done to the back of the top of the sternum and to the hyoid bone in the throat. The way the wounds are positioned show that these men appeared to die from a very specific sword stroke. Unfortunately, my illustration skills are incredibly bad, so I'll try to describe it. The defeated man would be on his knees, leaning slightly forward. The victor would stand in front and slightly off to one side, with his sword pointing straight at the victim's throat. As the defeated man fell slightly forward, the victor would brace a hand against the other man's head, which would result in the man's throat being stretched out and exposed. A straight, firm sword thrust would then enter at the throat near the larynx and descend to pierce the heart or the aorta. The defeated man's own weight would add to the strength of the other's arm, making the end quick.

So it seems that the "turned thumb" was probably not a thumb turned down, but a thumb turned in, toward the throat. The thumb down, on the other hand, actually meant for the victorious gladiator to drop the point of his sword, or to let the defeated man live. The decision was primarily made based on how well the defeated man had fought. If he was a coward or had fought poorly, he was quite likely to be sacrificed to placate the crowd. If he had fought well and had entertained the crown, he was quite likely to be spared to fight another day. The final decision was made by the man who hosted the games, although he would very likely be swayed by the reaction of the crowd, since gaining public favor was usually the primary reason for holding the games in the first place. On the other hand, the fact that he would have to compensate the gladiatorial school for the death of the losing man would tend to temper his enthusiasm.

In the end, gladiatorial combat was bloody and brutal and many men died to entertain the Roman crowds, but it was not a matter of simply throwing a bunch of guys into the sand with swords and shields and having them fight to the last man standing.

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Created on ... March 3, 2009

Last updated ... March 3, 2009