Gladiators Played by the Rules, Skulls Suggest

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"It is wonderful evidence, and it reenforces what we know from other sources. These guys 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 is to be 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.

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 daggerlike 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.

Mercy Killings

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 percent of trained gladiators survived their fights.

Carbo-Loading

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.

And the food might not have been so bad either.

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.

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