A Turn of the Thumb: Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

Greetings ancient history fans! We hope you enjoyed last week’s blog post on the origins of gladiatorial combat and the different types of gladiators. If you didn’t read it, you can check it out by CLICKING HERE.

This week we’re venturing farther into the world of gladiators with a special guest post by archaeologist Raven Todd Da Silva.

Everyone who is familiar with popular representations of gladiators and gladiatorial combat will be familiar with the ‘turn of the thumb’ gesture, but do you know how that expression came about? Is it historically correct? Why was the thumb so important to Romans?

Well, Raven is going to demystify that for us. Take it away, Raven!


A Turn of the Thumb: Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

By: Raven Todd Da Silva

‘Pollice Verso’, painted in 1872 by Jean-Léon Jérôme

The notion of signaling life or death for a defeated gladiator by a thumbs up or thumbs down has been made popular by famous pieces of artwork and the 2000 film Gladiator.

But what is the real importance of our thumbs (digitus pollex), and how did it really function in the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome?

The Romans were unique in comparison to other civilizations in referring to the thumb as its own digit on the hand, and it’s suggested that they believed it to have power or hold sway (polleat) over the rest of the fingers. The Latin word for thumb, pollex, is also said to have derived from the word for power, pollet. So we can see here just how much influence a gesture with the thumb had.

In the days of the gladiatorial games, the audience could have their say in deciding the fate of the fallen combatants with a hand gesture – what we think of as thumbs up or thumbs down in today’s misconstrued pop culture-reliant society. The decision to kill the fallen gladiator was decided with what is know as the pollice verso – which translates only as “turned thumb”. If we look at Juvenal, he says:

to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay. (Juvenal; Satire III 36)

The Christian poet Prudentius also backs this up when talking about a Vestal Virgin watching the games:

The modest virgin with a turn of her thumb bids him pierce the breast of his fallen foe (Prudentius; Against Symmachus II)

The Médaillon de Cavillargues

We aren’t sure what this exactly means though, and there are no other proper surviving texts to give us specific insight. Contrary to popular belief, the “thumbs up” we all know today as a sign of a good job or to show that everything is A-OK did not always have this meaning. A study by Desmod Morris shows that Italians did not consider this action as a positive one until American pilots, who used it to signal to the grounds crew that they were ready to take off, imported it in WWII.

So we don’t really know which way the audience’s thumbs were pointing to indicate if they wanted the gladiator to die.

But if an extended, turned thumb indicated the kill, what did the audience do if they wanted to spare the gladiator’s life? Martial stated that the crowd appealed for mercy by waving their handkerchiefs (XII) or by shouting (Spectacles, X).

It seems the gesture was possibly to hide your thumb inside of your fist known as the pollice compresso or “compressed thumb”. Anthony Corbeill, the leading expert on ancient Roman gestures has translated Pliny’s pollices premere to mean that a thumb pressed down on the index finger of a closed fist signified mercy.

There’s some speculation with the reasoning behind these two gestures. Firstly, it’s a lot easier to tell the difference from the crowd. Second, it could indicate the state of the gladiator’s sword. Extended thumb indicating that the audience wanted the gladiator to give the conquered one final stab or blow, and the compressed thumb telling the victor to sheath his weapon and grant mercy on the defeated.

The Zliten Mosaic

Archaeologically speaking, the The Médaillon de Cavillargues, located in the Nîmes Musée Archéologique supports Corbeill’s conclusions. Also interesting to note, the gladiator may have had to wait for a judgment call from the producer of the games to know the true outcome from the audience vote – waiting for an audible cue in the form of a horn or some music, which is suggested in the Zliten mosaic.

One of the most famous paintings depicting gladiatorial combat is called the Pollice Verso, painted in 1872 by famous historical painter Jean-Léon Jérôme. It displays a victorious gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent, showing off to a crowd enthusiastically thrusting their thumbs down. Jérôme was a highly respected historical painter, known for his extensive research and accuracy, which is why this misrepresentation lead to so many misunderstandings from the general public and fellow academics.

Raven Todd DaSilva is working on her Master’s in art conservation at the University of Amsterdam. Having studied archaeology and ancient history, she started Dig it With Raven to make archaeology, history and conservation exciting and freely accessible to everyone. You can follow all her adventures on Facebook and Instagram @digitwithraven


The Gladiator and the Thumb

“Thumbs in Ancient Rome: pollex as Index.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997) 61-81 Anthony Corbeill

Juvenal Satire Book 3

Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (2004) by Anthony Corbeill

Zliten Mosaic

Pollice Verso

I’d like to thank Raven for taking the time to share this fascinating research with us. To be honest, I had no idea the Romans thought of the thumb as a digit that held sway over the other fingers!

You can read more by checking out the list of resources above.

If you have any questions for Raven about the ‘turn of the thumb’, you can ask them in the comments below.

Also, be sure to check out her website Dig It With Raven where she has a wealth of information on archaeology, history and art restoration.

Raven also posts regular VLOGS about archaeology and art restoration that are fascinating and highly informative. She’s also really funny! For anyone wanting to get their feet wet in these subject areas, I can’t recommend the videos enough. Make sure you subscribe to her YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of her awesome and educational videos.

We’ll definitely have Raven back on the blog!

Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for reading!


Gladiators: The Implements of Death

Few things about the ancient Roman world fascinate the modern masses more than gladiators. The subject of slaves dueling to the death for the entertainment of the mob is horrible, but at the same time darkly entertaining.

In the popular mind, most of what we imagine gladiators and gladiatorial combat to have been comes from popular movies and television. I still remember the first time I watched Spartacus as a kid, and the horror of the scene when Kirk Douglas fights his fellow gladiator, Draba (played by Woody Strode) and how the latter is cut down when he refuses to kill Spartacus. It made my heart race and guts tighten. A lasting impression to be sure!

And who can forget the more recent film, Gladiator, by Ridley Scott, with its epic fight scenes and recreation of the Flavian Amphitheatre, or rather, the Colosseum? Classics enrollment shot through the roof after that movie! What about the television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand?

Bloody, brutal, entertaining and mesmerizing.

Are you not entertained!
(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself there. Love this movie!)

Apart from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, however, few attempts have been made to properly portray gladiators and their equipment, their styles. The focus in the media has been on death and the panem et circenses, or ‘bread and circuses’, aspect of it all.

In this post, we’re going to look at the various styles of gladiators, along with some of their weapons. The reality of gladiatorial combat in the major arenas of the Roman Empire was not of two half-naked men slashing away at each other, but rather of a highly organized blood sport with its own set of rules.

But before we delve into that, let’s take a brief look at the origins of gladiatorial combat.

Funeral Games were an ancient tradition. The Games in honour of the death of Patroclus beneath the walls of Troy are depicted here.

Originally, it’s thought that gladiatorial contests were not for entertainment, but rather for funeral games.

Possibly the oldest depiction of a gladiatorial contest comes from a tomb painting at Paestum, in Campania, around 370-340 B.C. The murals of this tomb portray various activities such as chariot races, fist fights, and a dual between armed men bearing, helmets, shields, and spears. A referee and three pairs of fighting men are also depicted.

Because of this find, and the presence of the oldest stone amphitheatres in the region, it has been argued that Campania is where gladiatorial fights originated. The region was also home to some of the most important gladiatorial schools, or ludi.

Some of the earliest known representations of gladiatorial combat from Campania, Italy.

The idea of shedding blood by a dead person’s grave, was an ancient tradition, and the Roman world was no stranger to blood sacrifice. You can read more about sacrifices in the Roman world HERE.

However, later Roman writers, such as the Christian writer, Tertullian (c. A.D. 200), frowned upon this particular rite of sacrifice:

For of old, in the belief that the souls of the dead are propitiated with human blood, they used at funerals to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor value whom they bought. Afterwards, it seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. So they found comfort for death in murder. (Tertullian, De Spectaculis 12)

Tertullian, in a way, displayed a mindset more in tune with our own, perhaps, in which most of us feel horror at the thought of public execution and torture. This is a modern mindset, however. When it came to early gladiatorial combat, it does indeed appear that life was cheap when it came to the first gladiators who were most likely prisoners of war and slaves.

Relief depicting gladiators

Over time, gladiatorial combat moved from being a rite for funeral games, to an entertainment for the masses. ‘Bread and circuses’ as Juvenal put it in the second century A.D.

With the growing popularity of gladiatorial combat, the aristocratic families who wanted to maintain their political power in Rome began to use the games as a means of securing their power. They did this by putting on public games for the masses, the mob. It became an expensive entertainment to put on, and also a part of everyday life in the Roman world.

The first public gladiator fight was apparently in the Forum Boarium, but later they occurred in the Forum Romanum, and then, once it was built, found a permanent home in the Colosseum.

Graffiti in Pompeii depicting two known gladiators

Gladiatorial contests grew in popularity, and these slaves, for that is what they were, came to be superstars, second only, you might say, to charioteers.

Though the Romans may not have invented gladiatorial combat, they do appear to have ‘perfected’ it. They developed ludi, gladiatorial schools run by a lanista. In the Roman Empire, the state came to exert a level of control – there were four imperial ludi in Rome itself! There were styles of gladiator with specialized weapons and training, diet and the best medical care. And gladiators were no longer just prisoners of war or slaves, but also criminals and even volunteers!

Gladiators were also an investment. They developed a market value depending on their successes. Gladiators were to ancient Rome, what our modern-day sports superstars are now. They were part of a great show, complete with stage sets and storylines. They even had stage names, their images popping up in scrawled graffiti all over Rome, etched by their adoring fans.

Mosaic depicting gladiators with their stage names. Note the theta symbol (a circle with a line) beside some which stands for ‘Thanatos’, indicating that they are dead.

At this point, you get the picture. Gladiators evolved from being a sacrifice, to superstars in the world of Roman blood sport.

However, it wasn’t just a matter of matching any type of gladiator against another. There were specific styles that developed over time, and they stemmed from mythological beasts to shadows of Rome’s former enemies.

Pairings of the different types of gladiators were not random. You might be surprised to know that the rules called for very specific types of gladiators to be pitted against each other, especially in the great amphitheatres of the Empire.

Much of what we know of the equipment of the different types of fighters comes from pictorial depictions on anything from elaborate mosaics, to frescos, oil lamps and even street graffiti.

An ancient oil lamp decorated with a gladiatorial combat scene. The perfect addition to any young man’s cubiculum!

The different classes of gladiators had distinctive equipment, and protection was worn on different parts of the body, depending on the style. Usually, the head, face and throat were protected by a helmet, and some of these are the most impressive remains of gladiatorial equipment. Different limbs were also protected by organic materials like leather and linen, but there were also metal guards such as greaves.

In almost all cases, the gladiator’s chest, no matter the style, was unprotected, but for the provocator which we will look at shortly. The only piece of clothing worn was a loin cloth, or subligaculum, which was belted with a cingulum or later, a wide sash.

There were variations on some of the protective equipment such as manicae, which were arm guards worn regularly in late antiquity, and fasciae, padded tubes for the legs which could be worn beneath greaves.

Artist impression of two equites gladiators

The first type of gladiator we are going to look at is the eques, or horseman.

Equites fought only against other equites, and were considered lightly-armed gladiators. They were the only gladiators to wear clothing, in the form of a tunica, and they wore gaiters on their legs, but no greaves. They had a manica on their right arm, wore a visored helmet, and carried a parma equestris, a round cavalry shield.

As far as weapons, the eques carried a hasta, which was a lance of about 2.5 meters in length, and a gladius.

More often than not, the equites bouts would take place at the beginning of the gladiatorial combat schedule during the games.

A re-enactor dressed as a murmillo gladiator

Probably the most famous or recognizable gladiator style was the heavy-armed murmillo.

Murmillo is actually a term for fish, and the style of his helmet resembled something of a sea creature or monster in a way. He was usually set against a thraex (Thracian) fighter, or a hoplomachus (a Greek style fighter).

When you look at this fighter, you can tell that it was a formidable opponent, and from the weapons, one could say that in the combat against others, he represented Rome and Rome’s army.

The murmillo’s torso was bare and he was protected by a manica on his right arm, and a gaiter and short greave on his right leg. The head was protected by a wide-brimmed helmet with a crest and feathers, and he bore a heavy scutum in his left hand, the large rectangular shield of Rome’s legions. Because of this protection, the murmillo fought with his left foot and shoulder forward, striking with the only weapon he carried, a gladius, in his right hand.

The murmillo never fought against his own kind, and it seems likely that the pairing of a murmillo against a thraex was the most common pairing in Roman amphitheatres.

Thraex helmet. This find is in amazing condition. Note the griffin shaped crest.

As mentioned, the thraex fighter, named after Rome’s Thracian enemies, was the main opponent of the murmillo, and was also a heavy class fighter.

The equipment of the thraex is often confused with the hoplomachus because of certain similarities such as quilted leg protection, two high greaves that reached above the knee, and a brimmed helmet with a tall crest.

The thraex carried a smaller, almost square shield known as a parmula, and his helmet was often decorated with a griffin. He had a manica on his right arm as well. Unique to the thraex was the distinctive curved short sword or sica.

In addition to being the main opponent of the murmillo, the thraex was also pitted against the hoplomachus.

Re-enactor dressed as a hoplomachus

Hoplomachus literally means ‘fights with a weapon’, which is rather obvious for a gladiator, but this heavy class fighter was representative of the ancient Greek hoplite warrior who was named after the round hoplon shield.

However, the circular shield carried by this gladiator was a smaller bronze version of the Greek shield. In addition to the body protection in common with the thraex mentioned above, the hoplomachus carried two weapons: a long dagger in his left hand, to which the shield was strapped, and a lance or spear in his right hand.

The hoplomachus usually fought a murmillo, although he could be matched against the thraex. The pairings were part of the show, an imitation of Roman soldiers (murmillo) against the foreign enemies of the past.

Artist impression of a provocator

The only middle weight gladiatorial class appears to have been the provocator.

This style of gladiator usually fought his own type, and was the only one with a protected chest in the form of a square or rectangular breastplate. He also had a half-length greave.

The provocator carried a rectangular shield, similar to a scutum and carried a gladius as his weapon. His helmet had a visor but no crest.

These fighters may not have been the headliners of the show, but their lighter weight must have made for a quick, equally-matched and impressive fight.

Mosaic depicting a battle between a retiarius and secutor.

Apart from the murmillo, the retiarius is probably the most iconic symbol of the gladiatorial family.

The name retiarius, means ‘fights with a net’.

This fighter was one of the few who had no helmet. Nor did he have a greave or shield. However, the retirarius did have a manica protecting his left arm, as well as a galerus, a tall metal shoulder guard. His weapons consisted of a net, a trident, and a pugio, or dagger.

A trident, one of the weapons of a retiarius.

Surprisingly, this fighter was a new category that was introduced during the imperial period. He was a light fighter, and though he did not pit well against the heavy, military-themed fighters, he was sometimes pitted against them during the Empire. Most often, however, the retiarius met the secutor on the sands of the arena. Sometimes, he even fought against two secutores!

The pairing of a retiarius and secutor was a storyline, a tale of the fisherman against a sea creature(s). Sometimes a set or stage was erected on the arena floor for this performance, with a bridge, or pons, from which the retiarius could fight against his one or two foes. At times, they even fought over real water!

The helmet of a secutor. Note the small eye holes and covered ears.

The secutor, the opponent of the retiarius, was also sometimes called a contraretiarius.

This gladiator was similar to the murmillo, but was designed specifically to fight the retiarius. He differed from the murmillo in the type and shape of helmet that he wore. Not only did the helmet look like a fish or sea creature, but it also had small eye holes that were deliberately intended to protect the fighter against the points of the retiarius’ trident. His hearing and vision were severely hampered by the helmet, but his heavy protection evened the odds against his more agile opponent. The secutor was not a fighter to mess with!

Mosaic depicting various types of gladiators, along with a referee (second from the right)

Those were the main types or classes of gladiators that appeared across the Roman Empire and in the amphitheatres of Rome.

However, there were other types of gladiators such female gladiators who depicted Amazon warriors, as well as gladiators with regional variations in the provinces.

Some other types included the essedarius, or war-chariot fighter who represented Rome’s Celtic enemies, the dimachaerus who was a fighter with two swords or daggers, and the crupellarius who was a sort of super heavy-armed gladiator.

There was also the aquerarius, a sort of retiarius with a lasso or noose, and the saggitarius who, you guessed it, was an archer gladiator. Between bouts, or at the half-time intermission of the games, you might also catch a glimpse of the paegniarius who was not for fighting, but more for comic relief like the clowns during a half-time show or intermission.

A wild beast hunt in the arena.

The world of gladiatorial combat was vast and better regulated than we are led to believe in movies. We’ve but scratched the surface here. The combats were not only on sand between men, but there were also venatio (wild animal hunts), and naumachiae (mock naval battles) to entertain the masses of Rome and the Empire.

There is much more to learn about this bloody aspect of Roman society and sport. If you want to read more, two very accessible books are Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome edited by Eckart Kohne and Cornelia Ewigleben, and the Osprey Publishing ‘Warrior’ series book Gladiators: 100 B.C. – A.D. 200 by Stephen Wisdom and Angus McBride.

But we aren’t done with gladiators!

Very soon on the Writing the Past blog, we’ll have a special guest post from archaeologist Raven Todd Da Silva about the infamous ‘turn of the thumb’ in gladiatorial games. Make sure that you are signed-up to the Eagles and Dragons Mailing List so that you don’t miss Raven’s post or any others that are coming up!

For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the world of gladiators.

Thank you for reading.

The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre


The World of Children of Apollo – Part IV – Rome: Caput Mundi

Colisseum 3

Today we’re going back into the world of Children of Apollo.

The second half of the book leaves behind the dunes and swaying palms of Roman North Africa for Italy, particularly Rome, as well as Cumae and Etruria. For this fourth instalment of The World of Children of Apollo we will focus on Rome itself.

Rome was indeed the centre of the world during this period, the omphalos to which all roads led and from which all decisions flowed. It was the ultimate goal in Severus’ civil war with Niger and Albinus and, despite his favouritism of Leptis Magna, the jewel the Emperor knew he must hold with his massive, loyal Praetorian Guard and the legion he had stationed at Albanum, outside of Rome.

Arch of Septimius Severus - Forum Romanum

Arch of Septimius Severus – Forum Romanum

It would take a whole book to scratch the surface of Rome so this will only be a very brief look at some of the sites that are a focus of Children of Apollo. Rome is one of my favourite cities, if not for the food then for the history that awaits you around every corner, that towers over you, and lies beneath your feet. Before my first trip to Rome, the glory of Rome, the Empire, had only been something I had read about. It was only when I walked those streets and set foot in the Forum that the idea came fully to life. Even among the ruins of the Forum Romanum, the glory of this ancient capital is keenly felt, whether it is the paving slabs of the Via Sacra, the Arch of Septimius Severus or the temple of the Divine Julius where people still lay flowers.

Artist Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

Artist Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

When Lucius and Argus leave North Africa, they put in at Ostia, the Port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. It was here, at Rome’s port where most of the seaborne traffic headed for Rome came. The hexagonal port of Trajan was surrounded by warehouses where grain and goods from all over the Empire would be held. Beyond the warehouses, Ostia was full of well-decorated homes, and tabernae to serve residents and visitors in the prosperous port. Brothels, gambling establishments and fine dining all made for anything but a boring night out!

Forum Boarium and Temple of Hercules

Forum Boarium and Temple of Hercules

Those going on to Rome could have taken a barge up the Tiber, or travelled by land. When Lucius and Argus finally arrive in Rome, they find themselves in the Forum Boarium, the cattle market where a Temple of Hercules still stands. In the story, for various reasons, Lucius’ family’s home is now near this smaller forum where, in generations past, they used to live on the Palatine Hill.

In the early 3rd century A.D. the Palatine Hill was virtually one big sprawling Imperial palace complex, with various additions having been made by successive emperors. Severus was no different and built a massive new addition that jutted out from the southern edge of the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Front row seats for the chariot races! Looking down on the faint outline of the great circus, I could not resist writing an exciting chariot race scene in the book. The Circus could hold up to 250,000 spectators and their roar must have been deafening.

Severan Palace Complex from the Circus Maximus

Severan Palace Complex from the Circus Maximus

When walking about on the Palatine Hill, it felt peaceful, a world away from the busy fora of Rome. I imagine it was the same for members of the imperial family who could stroll about the gardens and palaces in peace to the cawing of peacocks and play of water in fountains. One of the main locations of Children of Apollo is the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where a crucial event of Lucius’ youth takes place. This temple, built by Augustus beside his palace, was only the second in the city dedicated to that god. If ever you get the chance to visit the Palatine Hill and the museum there, it is a definite treat, a world away from the busy streets below.

Forum Romanum

Forum Romanum

Septimius Severus left his mark in many ways on Rome and not only with his massive palace complex. Flanking the palace was a massive, decorative façade that was unveiled during the celebrations of his triumph. This structure, dubbed the ‘Septizodium’, was a huge wall ornamented with elaborate statuary where water flitted from section to section to dazzle spectators. Not much of it remains today but when it was unveiled, the populace must have been well pleased. The arch of Septimius Severus is one of the more impressive sites in the Forum and this can be seen directly in front of the Curia (Senate House) where he had it built as a reminder to the senators of Rome who the real power was. The artwork on the arch differs in style to others, the period heralding a gradual shift to what we recognize more as a Byzantine perspective.

Ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome

Ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome

All over Rome, there is so much to see and when there, I walked for days, never tiring of the sights that met my eyes, imagining what Lucius would have seen. From the mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus, to the Colosseum, the Ludus Magnus and the Temple of Venus and Rome where Lucius has an important rendezvous, Rome is a city where life, past and present, is meant to be felt and enjoyed. One of the great joys of writing Children of Apollo was being able to visit Rome again.

Ruins of the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus

Ruins of the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus

So, I do hope that one day, your road will take you to Rome where, with gelato in hand, you can experience the majesty of this wondrous city.

Be sure to catch Part V of the World of Children of Apollo when we will visit one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Etruria (Tuscany!).

Thank you for reading!