Roman Gladiator Forensics


Painting of fighting gladiator from Merida amphitheatre, Spain; Wikipedia


A gladiator (Latin: gladiator, “swordsman“, from gladius, “sword“) was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their legal and social standing and their lives by appearing in the arena. Most were despised as slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalized, and segregated even in death. Irrespective of their origin, gladiators offered spectators an example of Rome’s martial ethics and, in fighting or dying well, they could inspire admiration and popular acclaim. They were celebrated in high and low art, and their value as entertainers was commemorated in precious and commonplace objects throughout the Roman world.


The origin of gladiatorial combat is open to debate. There is evidence of it in funeral rites during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE, and thereafter it rapidly became an essential feature of politics and social life in the Roman world. Its popularity led to its use in ever more lavish and costly games. The gladiator games lasted for nearly a thousand years, reaching their peak between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE. The games finally declined during the early 5th century after the adoption of Christianity as state church of the Roman Empire in 380, although beast hunts (venationes) continued into the 6th century.


Although their final outcomes may have been brutal, ancient Roman gladiators fought like gentlemen, according to scientific research.


Forensic analysis of remains from a gladiator cemetery in Turkey indicates that gladiators followed a strict set of rules, never letting the fight descend into the type of mutilation common on battlefields of the day. What’s more, the new findings suggest, is that when a gladiator was close to death, he would be put out of his misery by a backstage executioner with one swift hammer strike to the side of the head. Fabian Kanz from the Austrian Archaeological Institute and Karl Grosschmidt from the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, analyzed the injuries of 67 gladiators. All the men had been buried in a gladiator cemetery dating back to 2CE in the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey, which was then part of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists first discovered the cemetery in 1993. Fighters depicted on the tombstones gave it away as a burial ground for gladiators.


Using microscope analysis and CT scans of bones, Kanz and Grosschmidt were able to determine how and when the gladiators received their wounds. “Wounds that occur at or near the time of death are distinguished by lack of healing and [by] fracture margins characteristic of fresh bone breaks,“ Kanz said. By contrast, old battle scars in the bone have a more knitted-together appearance, because they had time to heal. All but one of the gladiators studied had only one wound associated with his death. In addition, injuries to the back of the head were rare. These findings back up ancient Roman accounts that gladiator fights had strict rules of combat, with no sneaky blows from behind. “It is wonderful evidence, and it reenforces what we know from other sources. Gladiators were not just beating each other into the ground,“ said Steven Tuck, a gladiator expert from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who was not involved in the study.


Kanz and Grosschmidt also describe evidence of 16 nonfatal injuries in their paper, which was published in the journal Forensic Science International. “Most of them showed excellent healing signs,“ Kanz said. The fighters, it seems, received excellent medical care if they survived their bouts and received particularly good care (better medical care, diet and massage) if they lasted one year or more. One gladiator had a distinctive double puncture wound to the front of his skull. The spacing of the holes perfectly matched that of a trident – a three-pronged, pitchfork-like weapon – found nearby in the cemetery. Art and literary sources indicate that gladiators normally wore helmets, but it seems that this unfortunate gladiator may have lost his protective headgear. “Perhaps there was a certain point in the fight where the organizer ordered them to take off their helmets, or else he just lost his helmet,“ Kanz said. Other gladiators had sharp, slice-like wounds, which the scientists think were caused by the dagger like gladius.


A gladiator typically took on a distinct persona – and the weapons to go with it. For instance, during the second and third centuries the retiarius-and-secutor gladiator pairing was the most popular. “The retiarius was the ?fisherman,’ who fought with a net, a gladius, and a trident [and was] protected with just a small shoulder shield,“ Kanz said. “His opponent, the secutor, was the ?fish,’ protected by a fishlike helmet with very narrow eye holes and a large shield, and fighting with a gladius,“ Kanz said. Ten of the gladiators had square holes in the sides of their skulls, validating the theory that very badly wounded gladiators were killed by a hammer-wielding executioner who waited in the wings. “This matches what we know from literary and other sources. The blow to the side of the head suggests an avoidance of eye-to-eye contact,“ said Latin professor Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite the bloodthirsty fights depicted in the movie Gladiator, for which Coleman was a consultant, it seems that real gladiators didn’t fight to kill. “The audience and the organizer of the games decided whether gladiators would live or die, but if two brave gladiators put up a good fight, they often both got out alive,“ study co-author Kanz said. Ancient fight records show that around 90% of trained gladiators survived their fights. While fighting as an untrained gladiator meant almost certain death, life as a trained gladiator may not have been so terrible – especially considering that the alternative for many gladiators (who were often criminals, slaves, or war prisoners) was a life of indentured servitude or even execution. Providing they survived their one-year of training, gladiators in established troupes were well fed and highly respected. After a few successful years, the fighters were often released from servitude to their troupes. For another yet-to-be-published study, Kanz and Grosschmidt have analyzed the chemical composition of the bones. Their results suggest that gladiators ate a diet rich in barley and beans. Gladiators “were nicknamed hordearii, which means ?barley eaters,’“ Kanz said.


Despite the harsh discipline, successful gladiators represented a substantial investment for their lanista and were otherwise well cared for. Their high-energy, vegetarian diet combined barley, boiled beans, oatmeal, ash (believed to help fortify the body) and dried fruit. Compared to modern athletes, they were probably overweight, but this may have “protected their vital organs from the cutting blows of their opponents“. The same research suggests they may have fought barefoot. Regular massage and high quality medical care helped mitigate an otherwise very severe training regimen. Part of Galen’s medical training was at a gladiator school in Pergamum where he saw (and would later criticize) the training, diet, and long term health prospects of the gladiators. For a time, Galen was the chief physician of Roman gladiators. To die well, a gladiator was not supposed to ask for mercy, or to cry out. A “good death“ redeemed a defeated gladiator from the dishonorable weakness and passivity of defeat, and provided a noble example to those who watched. For death, when it stands near us, gives even to inexperienced men the courage not to seek to avoid the inevitable. So the gladiator, no matter how faint-hearted he has been throughout the fight, offers his throat to his opponent and directs the wavering blade to the vital spot. (Seneca. Epistles, 30.8)


Some mosaics show defeated gladiators kneeling in preparation for the moment of death. Seneca’s “vital spot“ seems to have meant the neck Gladiator remains from Ephesus confirm this. The body of a gladiator who had died well was placed on a couch and removed from the arena with dignity. Once in the arena morgue, the corpse would have been stripped of armor, and probably had his throat cut to prove that he was dead. The Christian author Tertullian, commenting on ludi meridiani in Roman Carthage during the peak era of the games, describes a more humiliating method of removal. One arena official, dressed as the “brother of Jove“, Dis Pater (god of the underworld) strikes the corpse with a mallet. Another, dressed as Mercury, tests for life-signs with a heated “wand“; once confirmed as dead, the body is dragged from the arena. Whether these victims were gladiators or noxii slaves is unknown. Modern pathological examination confirms the probably fatal use of a mallet on some, but not all the gladiator skulls found in a gladiators’ cemetery. Kyle (1998) proposed that gladiators who disgraced themselves might have been subjected to the same indignities as noxii, denied the relative mercies of a quick death and dragged from the arena as carrion. Whether the corpse of such a gladiator could be redeemed from further ignominy by friends or familia is not known.


The average gladiator lifespan was short; few survived more than 10 matches or lived past the age of 30. One (Felix) is known to have lived to 45 and one retired gladiator lived to 90. George Ville calculated an average age at death at 27 for gladiators (based on headstone evidence), with mortality “among all who entered the arena“ around the 1st century CE at 19/100. A rise in the risk of death for losers, from 1/5 to 1/4 between the early and later Imperial periods, seems to suggest that mercy was granted less often. Historian, Marcus Junkelmann disputes Ville’s calculation for average age at death; the majority would have received no headstone, and would have died early in their careers, at 18-25 years of age. Historians Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard tentatively estimate a total of 400 arenas throughout the Roman Empire at its greatest extent, with a combined total of 8,000 gladiator deaths, per annum from all causes, including execution, combat and accident.



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