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Interesting facts related to gladiator fights

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Scene from the movie "Gladiator"
Scene from the movie Gladiator

Gladiators received cash prizes for their win. In the event of a decisive and effective victory, the warrior additionally received a laurel wreath. The greatest reward was the release from fighting in the arena, which was shown by handing over a wooden sword. In contrast, convicts and criminals, forced by the authorities to fight, were given freedom if they survived more than three years of fighting.

After the fight

Killing a defeated gladiator was based on a special ritual. The loser, with one knee on the ground, grabbed the winner’s thigh, and the winner, holding the helmet (head) of the defeated, stuck a sword in his neck or cut his throat. The loser should not have asked for mercy or showed weakness. All behaviour required proper discipline.

After defeating his rival, the victorious gladiator saluted the audience. In the event of the death of a rival, a special staging took place: two men dressed as Charon (god of death) and Hermes (God’s messenger) entered the arena and approached the body of the deceased. Charon verified if the gladiator was really dead by hitting him with a wooden hammer (he finished the mortally wounded); Hermes, in turn, placed a hot object on the body. After confirming death, the body was removed from the arena Porta Libitinensis and the spectators poured a fresh layer of sand to cover the traces of blood. The corpse was then taken to a nearby morgue. To be sure, the gladiator’s throat was also cut.

It is worth mentioning that defeated gladiators who were spared their lives came out through another gate (Porta Scavinaria). The victorious gladiators, in turn, left the arena Porta Triumphalis (Triumphal Gate).

Most gladiators were under the age of 30, with 50% of Roman citizens dying, for various reasons, before the age of 25.

Fight, not slaughter!

The cost of training a fighter was very high. Training gladiator amounts to tens of thousands of sesterces. Hardly any school would allow itself a carnage in which dozens of gladiators would lose their lives. In addition, it should be emphasized that a doctor was often admitted to the arena so that he could quickly dress the wounds. The doctor then assessed which gladiator was fit for the fight, and which was crippled after his injuries. Of course, the gladiators died.

There are still gladiatorial cemeteries to this day but hasn’t spilt as much blood on it as it is told by fiction, which has little to do with reality. Many gladiators were given freedom after winning dozens of fights, and many Romans and Romans saw fights as an opportunity to make a good career and earn money.

Ephesus’ graveyard

In 1993, an ancient burial ground was found in Ephesus (western Turkey), the former capital of the Roman province of Asia. Scientists have found that they are dealing with a mass grave of gladiators. Bone deduction had interesting conclusions.

Many gladiators died after blows to the head. The three skulls were pierced by tridents, a weapon used by retiarus – a lightly armoured warrior who also had a net that he threw at his opponent to restrain him. Most often his rival was murmillo – a heavily armoured infantryman with a helmet and a large shield. Ten other men died from heavy blows with blunt weapons – possibly the hammers used for final death.

The remaining men died according to the “best” patterns: after a hard fight, which the gladiators paid with many cut wounds, the defeated rival ended his life, being stabbed with a blade in the heart, over his shoulder.

Pollice verso

The defeated opponent could ask for grace by raising his index finger, to which the crowd watching the fight responded by stretching his thumb up (which meant sparing his life), or pointing him down (death) – the so-called pollice verso or verso pollice (literally “inverted thumb”). However, this is a moot point, some scientists believe that they pointed their thumbs down to spare life, and to their throats when they wanted the gladiator dead. There is also an opinion that the finger-pointing up after the defeat of a gladiator in the arena probably did not mean the grace of sparing life but rather was a signal to order a quick death as a grace for a brave attitude. In turn, the thumb was directed towards the neck, which meant death by a sword in the neck, or rather it’s back, in order to damage the cervical vertebrae and thus cause the warrior to die quickly.

According to the current state of research, the most probable seems to be the hypothesis that the thumb pressed against the index finger (hand curled into a fist) or the thumb hidden in a fist meant a request for grace, while thumb sticking out above the clenched fist (direction doesn’t seem to matter) or extended hand meant killing blow.

  • Grant Michael, Gladiatorzy, 1980
  • Winners and Defeated, "Colosseum"

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