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Was a Gladiator's Fate Actually Determined by a Thumb?

Updated on May 25, 2017
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Daniel has a bachelor's degree in history and likes to focus his research on military history as well as Ancient Rome and Greece.

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Introduction

Gladiatorial games are the most commonly known form of entertainment concerning the Roman Empire as popular culture emulates these games of combat in forms such as films, novels, and games. However, popular culture has caused many to unknowingly believe certain stereotypes, myths, and fallacies concerning gladiators, predominantly the gesture of a spectator or emperor pointing his thumb down to condemn a defeated gladiator or up to signify mercy. These stereotypes are a source of contention among historians in the field of ancient Roman entertainment and can prove to be problematic in discerning the truth of the fate of a gladiator. The root of the interpretation problem is the Latin phrase Pollice Verso, which is mentioned by ancient authors in regards to deciding a gladiator’s fate because it is scarcely referenced in ancient works and can be interpreted with different meanings.

Before the gestures to either spare or kill a gladiator were given, there had to be a victor and a loser. Gladiatorial fights were not entirely the bloody and brutal fights most people think of; studies done on the skeletons of gladiators indicate that they followed set rules of combat [1] and that the first gladiator to wound his opponent [2]. The wounded gladiator would then raise his hand to the crowd and emperor, or presiding official, for them to determine his, or her [3], fate. The crowd would then yell and gesture and the emperor or presiding official would make the judgement which was almost always based off of the audience’s reaction [4]. This process is well known among many and is not debated among historians. However, the contention appears in what the gestures for mercy or death actually were.

Thumbs Up?

It is commonly agreed upon by historians that the gesture for death was in some way involving the thumb. The ancient Romans declared that the thumb (pollice) had power (pollet) because it is used the most when compared to other fingers, especially in producing medicines, as well as the fact that to the Romans it represents a phallus which was also a prominent sign of power [5]. The main question, however, is what exactly the gesture that gave the thumb the power of life and death was. Juvenal writes in his Third Satire “…uerso pollice uulgus cum iubet, occidunt populariter” which translates to “with a turn of the thumb bids them slay” [6]. Juvenal’s description of the gesture is commonly seen as the quote which led many to believe that a thumb pointed downwards symbolized death. On the other hand, Anthony Corbeill uses this quote from Juvenal as evidence that the thumb was actually extended upward to condemn the gladiator, which would be loosely supported by Pliny the Elder who wrote that they would turn down their thumbs to show approval [7] [8]. However, conscientious of the unclarity, Corbeill also makes mention that the “turned thumb” may also refer to being extended towards one’s breast or downward [9].

A victorious gladiator awaits the decision of his opponents fate while the Vestal Virgins give their answer with a thumbs down. Are they asking for mercy or death?
A victorious gladiator awaits the decision of his opponents fate while the Vestal Virgins give their answer with a thumbs down. Are they asking for mercy or death? | Source

The uncertainty of the gesture is noted again by Corbeill in his article “Thumbs in Ancient Rome: Pollex as Index” in which he mentions that historians had interpreted the gesture as the thumb being “lifted up, pointed down, hidden in the hand, directed at the chest, and squeezed between the middle and index finger” [10]. Despite historians attempts to clarify the uncertainty, the famous 1872 painting Pollice Verso, translated to “with a turned thumb”, by Jean Léon Gérôme condemned the modern masses to believe the stereotype that a thumb pointed downward meant death to a fallen gladiator. The picture depicts a gladiator standing above his wounded opponent looking onto the audience for them to decide his fate, while the first row of spectators is filled with Vestal Virgins pointing their thumbs downward with what some might say would be a look of concern on their face [11]. At first glance the viewer would imagine that the Vestal Virgins, as well as other spectators, are demanding the gladiator be slain, which is what many agreed upon and is why many still believe that a downward thumb meant death. However, a simple look at the virgins faces would be cause to think otherwise, as their expressions do not look like that of those willing to condemn a man to death. The 1904 article “The Passing of Jean Leon Gerome” even mentions that it is known among academics that the gesture of pointing a thumb downward did not mean slay the fallen gladiator, but mentions that some have even attempted to make the argument that the downward thumb could mean mercy as it symbolized the victorious gladiator placing his weapon down [12].

Where Did We Get The Thumb Gesture?

Despite the great diversity and controversy over the gestures and position of the thumb, some historians have come to a consensus that the gesture for death was most likely the spectator extending their thumb and pointing it at their breast to symbolize the victorious gladiator thrusting his sword into his opponent’s heart [13]. Corbeill uses Quintilian’s use of the phrase averso pollice [14] which describes the thumb being pointed at an object in accordance with the phrase infesto pollice, or hostile thumb, to support his argument that a hostile gesture symbolized by a thrusting motion towards the heart was to signify that the fallen gladiator was to be slain. However, despite the small number of historians in agreement, some historians still refute this idea, such as Edwin Post who offers a rather reasonable explanation in why the gestures were most likely not done with fingers. Post argues that because of the large structures that the games were held in, especially the Flavian Amphitheater, and the enormous crowds that attended the games, a gladiator would not be able to see a hand gesture from his position at the bottom of the arena, let alone be able to distinguish which way a spectator’s thumb was pointing. Post also mentions that the Romans were very superstitious people and would not point their thumb at their breast to symbolize a sword being thrust into a heart because they would be pantomiming their own death [15]. Instead, Post offers the argument that the spectators would simply yell and chant phrases that had to do with killing the loser, which correlates with the work of Martial who records spectators chanting their condemnations onto the wounded gladiator and instructing the victor to finish his work [16].

The gesture of mercy is as ambiguous as the one for condemnation, however, it is generally agreed among historians that it was not the classic gesture of pointing a thumb upward as shown in popular culture. A number of historians agree that a clenched fist, with the thumb either pressed against the other fingers or hidden within the fist, was offered in support of mercy for the defeated gladiator [17]. These gestures have some possible validity with the reasoning that the thumb symbolizes power or the “hostile thumb” symbolizes malicious intent so they should be hidden when offering mercy. Another explanation for the merciful gesture is that thumb and forefinger are joined together [18], which the logic of the thumb alone symbolizing power or hostile intent can also be applied since the thumb is accompanied by a finger, possibly representing a sword being placed back into a scabbard. However, both of these possible gestures fall victim to Post’s argument that a simple hand gesture would be nearly impossible for the gladiators to see. Post offers another possible gesture that is rather popular among some historians. With his knowledge of Martial and his reasonable explanation of the poor visibility of the gladiators in the enormous arenas, Post argues that spectators waved cloths or handkerchiefs to signify their wish for mercy. Based on Martials work that mentions the use of handkerchiefs [19], other historians mentioning the same [20], and Posts argument and explanation the use of handkerchiefs or cloths seems to be the most probable gestured used to signify mercy and spare a wounded gladiators life.

While he is deciding whether to point his thumb up or down, historians are deciding if an emperor would even use his thumb.
While he is deciding whether to point his thumb up or down, historians are deciding if an emperor would even use his thumb. | Source

Fate of the Thumb is Undecided

In conclusion, due to the lack of definite evidence from Ancient Rome historians are left with the controversial problem of differing opinions, explanations, and even evidence that prove to be problematic in determining how the spectators at gladiatorial games decided the fate of a defeated gladiator. Some historians offer very persuasive reasoning in favor of certain gestures such as the ability of the gladiator to see the gestures to the symbolism, mythology, and superstition of those attending the games. Even the ancient sources differ in their explanation over the fate of gladiators. Therefore modern historians are bound to find problems in the field of Roman entertainment, and are left to choosing which sources they believe are the most reliable as well as forming opinions of their own. The modern world may never have a definite understanding of just how a defeated gladiator was either pardoned or condemned, but are left with differing evidence and explanations.

Notes

[1] Gladiators Played Fair. (2006). Current Science, 91(16), 13. Showed that the skeletons of multiple gladiators had few wounds, indicating that specific rules were in place regarding injuring or killing an opponent.

[2] Allan, Tony. Life, Myth, and Art in Ancient Rome. (Los Angeles: Hudson, Christopher, 2005), 84.

[3] Suetonius Domitian 4 mentions that females could also be gladiators. Females were officially banned from competing as gladiators by official edict in 200AD.

[4] Suetonius Titus 8 shows how influential the audience was over the fate of a gladiator that Titus declared that their fate was not in his hands “but on those of the spectators”.

[5] Corbeill, Anthony. Nature Embodied: Gestures in Ancient Rome. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 7.

[6] Juvenal Satires, translated by George Gilbert Ramsay (1839–1921)

[7] Pliny the Elder Natural History XXVIII.25

[8] Corbeill’s article “Thumbs in Ancient Rome: “Pollex” as Index” also makes note that until the twentieth century many societies, including ancient ones, regarded an upward thumb as a gesture of disapproval or insult while a downward thumb was one of approval.

[9] Corbeill, Anthony. Nature Embodied: Gestures in Ancient Rome. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 62-63.

[10] Corbeill, A.. (1997). “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: "POLLEX" AS INDEX”. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 42, 1.

[11] Jean Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, 1872, Phoenix Art Museum

[12] Glessner, R. W.. 1904. “The Passing of Jean Léon Gérôme”. Brush and Pencil 14 (1). 56.

[13] Allan, Tony. Life, Myth, and Art in Ancient Rome. (Los Angeles: Hudson, Christopher, 2005), 84. , Corbeill, Anthony. Nature Embodied: Gestures in Ancient Rome. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 64.

[14] Quintilian Institutes of Oratory 11.3

[15] Post, Edwin. 1892. “Pollice Verso”. The American Journal of Philology 13 (2). Johns Hopkins University Press: 216-217

[16] Martial Spectacles X

[17] Corbeill, A.. (1997). “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: "POLLEX" AS INDEX”. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 42, 21. Simmonds, Andrew. 2012. “Mark's and Matthew's "sub Rosa" Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd”. Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (4). Society of Biblical Literature: 745-746.

[18] Allan, Tony. Life, Myth, and Art in Ancient Rome. (Los Angeles: Hudson, Christopher, 2005), 84

[19] Martial Spectacles X

[20] Christ, Karl. The Romans. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 115. While Christ states that handkerchiefs were used to demand a pardon, he also follows the stereotype that a raised thumb could also mean mercy while a thumbs down would mean death.

References

Ancient Sources

Juvenal Satires, translated by George Gilbert Ramsay (1839–1921).

Martial Spectacles X

Pliny the Elder Natural History XXVIII.25

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Suffolk: Penguin, 1957.

Quintilian Institutes of Oratory 11.3

Modern Sources

Allan, Tony. Life, Myth, and Art in Ancient Rome. (Los Angeles: Hudson, Christopher, 2005)

Christ, Karl. The Romans. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984)

Corbeill, Anthony. 1997. “Thumbs in Ancient Rome: "Pollex" as Index”. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42

Corbeill, Anthony. Nature Embodied: Gestures in Ancient Rome. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

Gladiators Played Fair. (2006). Current Science, 91(16)

Glessner, R. W.. 1904. “The Passing of Jean Léon Gérôme”. Brush and Pencil 14 (1).

Jean Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, 1872, Phoenix Art Museum

Post, Edwin. 1892. “Pollice Verso”. The American Journal of Philology 13 (2). Johns Hopkins University Press: 213–25

Simmonds, Andrew. 2012. “Mark's and Matthew's "sub Rosa" Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd”. Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (4). Society of Biblical Literature: 733–54


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    • Daniel17White profile image
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      Daniel White 6 months ago

      Yves, I am glad you liked this. Gladiators are very interesting especially considering they started as a ceremony during a funeral and soon became the prime entertainment of Rome. Also interesting is their lives, like you said most were miserable but we do have evidence that some gladiators volunteered for this profession, some became widely renowned celebrities and some slaves even won their freedom. Lastly, the most interesting to me is the fact that these fights and games were not always to the death. In fact most were determined by the first to draw blood, wound, disarm, or otherwise beat their opponent without killing them. Nero is actually criticized for not having enough gladiators be killed in his games!

    • savvydating profile image

      Yves 6 months ago

      Very interesting. It appears that the downward thumb might be a sign of mercy. But on the other hand....hmmm. I am actually quite baffled. My guess is that the gladiator listened to the jeers of the people and went from there.

      Either way, what a miserable life. I've read about gladiators. 99.9 % of them had wretched lives. However, some of them were popular with women----at least.

      Great hub. I found it fascinating, truth be told.