Today, our ideas about gladiators are based on a set of general beliefs that come from cinema and television. 19th century French painter Jean Léon Gérôme depicts one of the most well known beliefs about gladiators in one of his paintings: the famous thumbs up, thumbs down symbol, supposedly signifying life or death. In the painting, Gérôme portrays a fallen gladiator. The opponent’s foot is poised on the beaten gladiator, and his thumb is turned down to the ground. The decadent Roman spectators shout and mimic the triumphant gladiator’s thumbs down.
And yet, only one Latin text mentions a “thumb held out” that the painter translated by “thumbs down”: Satires by Juvénal. Through numerous epic films, the thumbs up, thumbs down symbols became popular and easily recognizable.
Two centuries later, based on this singular and erroneous translation, we have to deconstruct these general beliefs that have now seemingly become historical truths.
There are of course a slew of other clichés about gladiators. For example, the general public believes that gladiators were bloodthirsty barbarians who killed each other for the pleasure of the decadent Roman people, as is “well-known”.
What the sources say
Nevertheless, none of the historical iconographies represent this kind of scene: out of the 1500 archaeological documents available to us, there are no massacre scenes. You’ll never see a gladiator with a trident or a glaive struck through him. But you might see oil lamps with gladiators in a combat position, such as the missio, of the santes misi position, which are terms that we’ll explain a bit later: all of this to show that we really have a misconstrued idea of gladiators.
Indeed, Gérôme’s painting, based on a bad translation of Juvénal’s text, is doubly false from a historical point of view. Not only does it show the erroneous thumbs down, it also has a perspective that the Romans never use. Out of the thousands of archaeological documents studied, while you see the gladiators in combat, the referee and the animals used for the hunt, you never see the spectators, so it’s impossible to know what they would have been doing.
To understand the gladiator phenomenon, you have to look into its origins and development
The gladiators’ origins date back to the 4th century BC. Even though some believe that the origins might be a bit later, it’s at that time that we find the first archaeological proof, in Campania, southern Italy, in the form of fights around the funeral pyre, in honour of the fallen man.
Games are also represented at this time. The first representation of funeral games appears in the Iliad, Book 23, in honour of Patroclus. Various different sporting events were organised such as fistfights and wrestling matches but also armed combat.
These originally Greek games soon arrive in Campania, in Greater Greece. The competitors are equipped with Greek weaponry: a large, round shield and a spear. The gladiator must stab and wound his opponent in order to draw blood to nourish the earth while the funeral pyre burns and the deceased reaches the world of the dead. It is a symbol, an offering.
The word for gladiator combat in Latin is munus, which means “a gift of self”, in the sense of an offering, but not a sacrifice.
Later, under the Early Roman Empire, gladiatorial combat became more and more regulated. The pivotal period in Roman history is often seen as the transition between the Republic and the Empire, but it’s possible that it dates back to between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 1st century BC, at the same time that Marius’ reforms (107 BC) and the Civil War hit Rome.
This is an important period where Roman society is transformed under Caius Marius, Julius Cesar’s uncle, so that power is no longer in the hands of the Senate and the main figures of Rome, but in the hands of a General backed up by his army.
These reforms institutionalize the games. This period sets the stage for the fall of the Republic, the rise of the Empire and the professionalization of the gladiators.
Neither prisoners of war, nor sentenced to death nor to fight, gladiators are volunteers. Gladiators sign the auctoratus, a contract that states: “I solemnly swear that I accept to be burnt, chained or killed by dagger, sword, spear or trident… I wish to be a gladiator!” (On Tranquillity of Mind, Seneca). Men and women fight dressed in subligaculum (that can be translated by “what goes below” or “loincloth”), one of the details that allow us to identify the gladiators in the archaeological documents.
Gladiator combat: organised spectacles
Gladiators are therefore not prisoners of war that fight to the death. In fact, it is against the rules to voluntarily kill one’s opponent.
The only person who decides the fate of the gladiators is the editor, the producer of the performance. The editor is generally a local councillor, and it is also his role to provide the funds to the munerarius who is in charge of organizing the games. It is therefore the editor alone who decides what will happen to the gladiator, in accordance with the arbitrator in the middle of the ring.
A producer? An arbitrator? Thousands of spectators? And a fight that rarely ends in death?
Certain documents also provide us with other interesting details. For example, one such text presents a gladiator combat where the producer was able to get a special authorisation from the Emperor to use real weapons for this ONE particular fight. This of course implies that real, sharp weapons are not necessarily used in other fights, and when they are used, it’s clearly noted. Generally speaking, the weapons used in gladiator combat are real weapons, but ones that don’t actually sever limbs.
The reason why we don’t find many death scenes in the archaeological documents is that lethal weapons are not used in the majority of gladiator battles. In addition, the documents clearly show the moves the gladiators make. From these images, we know that there are four possible endings to a fight: victory, defeat, draw and exceptional victory (a sort of super victory that’s not very well known, but that is depicted on the inscription stones or stelae) (Louis Robert, Gladiators, p119).
This information clearly supports the idea that death is not the only outcome of a fight: only 2 or 3% of the historical resources depict the death of a gladiator, meaning that over 95% are not put to death.
The gladiators are placed under the firm rule of a trainer and go through a precise, step-by-step training process. Their equipment, or armaturae, also follows a similar progression, becoming more and more technically complex; in order to pass from one level to the next, the gladiator must have mastered certain technical points. To reach the status of retiarius, the gladiator must have fought under all of the other armuturae.
In his Moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes: “I came across the mid-day spectacles by chance”. We know from the sources that the death sentences were carried out at mid-day, after the morning hunt and before the afternoon gladiator battles. Seneca writes: “There, I saw entirely naked men who had absolutely no technical skills to protect themselves from blows. Those sentenced to death have nothing in common with the ordinary or renowned gladiators that we commend in the afternoon” (Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius). The text clearly puts forward the idea that gladiators were very well trained and even the ordinary gladiators, the sestarii, were better trained than the people facing a death sentence. This is indeed logical as the purpose of the public death sentences and the gladiator battles are completely different.
Gladiators complete their training in a school, known as the ludus.
The first step begins with the provocator who begins his training in equipment that is very similar to the Roman legionary outfit: a helmet with a large visor behind but no crest. Then, according to their skills, the opponents are brought before a gladiator with either a small or large shield. We mustn’t think “heavy” or “light” as each piece of equipment weighs between 17 and 20 kilos, whether they are small or large shields. The helmet alone weights 7 or 8 kilos…
According to their capacities, the opponents will face either:
- The parmati (those who wear the parma). The cycle is as follows: Thraex, with a small, square shield; Hoplomachus, with a small, round shield; or Retiarius with a spear and a net. On his left arm, Retiairius carries the manica with a large galerus, which is another type of small shield.
The scutati: the Murmillon, the anti-Hoplomachus, and the Secutor. These three gladiators are often referred to as the murmillo in ancient texts, although under the Early Roman Empire, a distinction is made for the secutor, literally the “pursuer”, whose technique involves chasing his opponents, as he only fights against the retiarius. According to sources, the secutor can be recognized and differentiated by his half-moon, fin-like crested helmet that helps him avoid the entangling net.
The famous gesture representing life and death
Let us now go back to the famous thumb gesture symbolizing life and death. First of all, in most fights, only non-lethal weapons were used. We also know from our sources that gladiators could reach a tie, santes missi, and that they can both be sent back “standing” or alive, in which case there is no missio.
Cavillargues’ medallion, on display in the Archaeological Museum in Nîmes, clearly shows the thumb gesture and carries the inscription santes missi.
There is also the case where one of the gladiators submits to his opponent, putting one knee on the ground and raising a finger: this is an example of the missio. From there, he holds out his hand and asks to die. Symbolically, this gesture means: “I hand over my weapons”. The thumb symbolizes the sword that he holds out to his opponent. We can imagine that, originally, during a funeral battle in honour of the deceased, the opponent would have handed his weapons over to his opponent. Over time, with the spectacularisation of the games, this act has been re-transcribed as a physical gesture.
Juvenal speaks about the pollex versus, “thumb held out” or the “hand held out”, as the word pollex can mean thumb or hand, which then became police verso in Jean Léon Gérôme’s painting which of course has a completely different meaning, “thumb turned down”, hence the confusion.
For the gesture symbolizing life, we have a theory based on numerous archaeological documents. To show that the beaten gladiator should be left alive, the editor would hold out his hand with the thumb pressed under the palm of the hand.
Let us not forget that in Roman civilisation, the thumb represents the sword, gladius in Latin, and the sheath in which the sword is stored is called the vagina: putting the sword in its sheath is therefore a symbol of life, just like the thumb closed into the palm of the hand.
We must also remember that the first battles take place during funerals in a society that is just putting its life and death rituals in place, in the theatre as in the arena or the circus, in the hopes of bringing together the Roman people. And if there is indeed something that is universal and timeless, even today, it is the symbolism of life and death.