What was it like to be a gladiator? While the Roman arena may have hosted appalling brutality in the name of entertainment, a new study indicates that gladiatorial combat was not necessarily some gory free-for-all, as depicted in films like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Rather, forensic analysis of remains from a gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey, published in the latest issue of New Scientist, shows that real gladiators stuck to strict rules of combat.

Much of what is known about gladiatorial combat comes from Roman artwork. This suggests that gladiators were well matched in their capabilities, and followed sets of rules enforced by two referees. But did the gladiators actually stick to the rules? Karl Großschmidt of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria and Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute used forensic techniques to determine the causes of death of 67 gladiators discovered at Ephesus, the centre of power for ancient Rome’s empire in western Asia. The cemetery, identified by tomb reliefs of gladiators, was uncovered by archaeologists in 1993 and is thought to date from the second century AD.

Kanz and Großschmidt explain how they used CT scanning and microscopic analysis of bone injuries to identify whether the gladiators’ injuries had occurred at the time of death or earlier in their lives. They noted, in a paper set to be published in Forensic Science International, that injuries to the front of each skull suggested that each opponent used just one type of weapon per bout of face-to-face contact. They argue that the lack of multiple injuries and mutilation shows that the very strict nature of combat rules for gladiator fights was adhered to.

However, despite the fact that most gladiators wore helmets, 10 had died of a hammer-like injury to the side of the head. Was this injury inflicted after the fight, possibly by a backstage executioner who struck the doomed victim’s head, as has been suggested in artworks and literature? The researchers think so – believing that these tend to have been gladiators whom the crowd condemned to death but who were still alive when dragged from the arena, and were killed by a final hammer blow to the head from a backstage executioner

While this refutes the total blood-lust image of Hollywood, the findings also dismiss any theory that gladiatorial combat was a kind of martial-arts show in which death was rare.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 17. Click here to subscribe

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