Judgement was passed on defeated gladiators in the arena by using a thumbs-up gesture for mercy and life, thumbs-down for death.
The tension in the movie Gladiator is palpable, as the watching crowds – and other gladiators – wait to see whether the emperor Commodus will grant mercy to Maximus by giving him the thumbs-up, or sentence him to death with a thumbs-down.
At the urging of the crowd, whom Maximus and his fellow gladiators have won over, Commodus gives an unwilling thumbs-up, allowing the gladiators to live and fight another day. It makes great cinema – but were these gestures really used in Roman gladiatorial arenas?
Gladiators in the Roman arenas fought until one was considered to be defeated – usually because they had been disarmed and thrown to the ground, or were too wounded/exhausted to continue fighting.
Gladiators could indicate that they surrendered by making a gesture to the referee or official appointed to oversee the combat. It would then be decided by the nominated official – the Emperor if he happened to be present, otherwise someone else high-ranking – what fate would befall the defeated gladiator.
That their decision was communicated to the gladiators and crowd by a consistent and universally-recognised hand gesture is clear, but what did it actually look like?
Turning the thumb
The modern perception of the gladiatorial thumb-gesture appears to date from the nineteenth century, more specifically from a painting by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, his 1872 work Pollice Verso, or “The Turned Thumb”.
The painting shows a defeated retiarius (a gladiator fighting with a net and trident)asking for his life from the emperor, while the other spectators – including some Vestal Virgins – make their opinion known by widely giving the thumbs-down gesture. Although the accuracy of the painting was challenged within months of it being publicly displayed, this single work went a long way to popularising the idea of thumbs-up = life, thumbs-down = death in the gladiatorial arena, but there is little evidence from antiquity to back this up.
We can say with reasonable certainty that the gesture used in judgement of Roman gladiators had something to do with the thumb. Unfortunately, none of the Roman writers who refer to the gesture describe what it actually looked like – presumably reflecting an expectation that their readers would already be familiar with it.
The phrase used by Gérôme, “pollice verso”, is documented in the Roman world in the context of the gladiatorial games. Juvenal uses it when discussing the disreputable characters in Rome, including those who host (informal) gladiatorial shows (Juvenal, Satire 3.34-37):
These men once were horn-blowers, who went the round of every provincial show,
and whose puffed-out cheeks were known in every village;
to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying
whomsoever the crowd with a turn of the thumb [verso pollice] bids them slay
The Anthologia Latina adds further evidence that the gesture used to pass judgement involved the thumb, and that this became known as the “hostile thumb”, infestopollice (415, 28R.; quoted in Wiedemann 1992, p. 95):
Even a gladiator who has been defeated in the savage arena continues to hope, although the crowd threatens him with hostile thumb [infesto pollice]
This gesture appears to have been adopted by wider society due to its use in the gladiatorial arena, probably as an offensive gesture. Quintilian notes that it was also used by some orators to emphasise their point (Institutio oratoria 11.3.119), although frustratingly, he fails to describe what it actually looked like.
The thumb-gesture in detail
So although it is clear that the fate of gladiators in the arena was indicated by a thumb-gesture, it is far from certain what it actually looked like. The thumb-gesture used to pass sentence on defeated gladiators has been reconstructed in many different forms, from thumbs up and down (the favourite of modern popular culture), to thumbs held horizontally, within the hand, pointed, squeezed between other fingers, and pressing on top of a fist.
The thumb-gesture was almost certainly one-handed, as indicated by a combat between two gladiators, Myrinus & Triumphus, documented by Martial (On the Spectacles XX). Finding themselves evenly matched, the decision over the fate of the two men fell to the crowd, with half of them calling for Myrinus, while the rest supported Triumphus. The Emperor’s solution was to declare for each gladiator, one with each hand.
So what gestures seem the most likely in terms of granting a gladiator life or death? Due to the almost complete absence of visual evidence, there has been relatively little academic debate over what form the gesture took; although, it has been noted that there is no evidence from antiquity to suggest that thumbs-up and -down were used in the way Gérôme portrayed in his influential painting (Wiedemann 1992, p. 95).
Classicist Anthony Corbeill, a specialist in Roman gesturing, suggests that a thumbs-up gesture was used to condemn a gladiator to death – the opposite of modern perceptions – while a closed fist, probably with the thumb outside, was used to indicate that he would be spared (Corbeill 1997, p. 2004). Corbeill suggests that this gesture can be seen on a terracotta medallion from Cavillargues (France), in which the ruling official grants a reprieve for two fighting gladiators by holding up a fist with the thumb pressing down on the fingers.
This is one of the very few visual recordings of the gladiatorial thumb-gestures – indeed, none at all have yet been found which illustrate the “death sign”, only the one which granted gladiators life. In cases where gladiators were killed, visual representations were much more concerned with showing the death of the gladiator, not the symbol which had communicated the judgement (Wiedemann 1992, p. 96).
The lack of conclusive evidence from antiquity leaves us in an awkward position. We can say with relative certainty what gestures were not used, without being able to offer a conclusive answer for what gestures were actually employed. From the evidence currently available, it is still not certain what form the thumb-gesture used to pass sentence on defeated gladiators looked like – but there is little evidence to suggest that the popularised modern image of thumbs-up for life and thumbs-down for death was actually used in the arena.
In fact, it seems more likely that thumbs-up would have condemned a gladiator to death, the polar opposite of popular perceptions and Hollywood – so if Commodus really had given that gesture to Maximus in the arena, the rest of the film would have been very different (and much shorter).
- A. Corbeill, “Thumbs in ancient Rome: pollex as index”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997), pp. 1-21.
- A. Corbeill, Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (2004).
- T. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (1992).