Gladiators Played by the Rules, Skulls Suggest

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
March 3, 2006

Although their final outcomes may have been brutal, ancient Roman gladiators fought like gentlemen, according to new 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 A.D. 2 in the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey, which was then part of the Roman Empire.

(Related photos: ancient Rome.)

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.

Fair Fights?

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.

Continued on Next Page >>


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