Ancient Gladiator Mosaic Found in Roman Villa

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Rome, Italy
for National Geographic News
May 7, 2007

A newly discovered mosaic might depict a "superstar" gladiator—a fighter who won the hearts of the people much like Maximus, the general-turned-fighter played by Russell Crowe in the 2000 film Gladiator.

Archaeologists discovered the image of the ancient brawler just outside Rome at the residence of Emperor Commodus. The movie version of Commodus, played by actor Joaquin Phoenix, was Maximus' enemy.

Researchers say the pictured fighter was probably a star gladiator fancied by the real Commodus, who was an enthusiast of blood sports.

Riccardo Frontoni, an archaeologist working with Rome's Department of Cultural Heritage, came across the mosaic while digging in a field near the remains of the Villa dei Quintili, Commodus' countryside residence. The dwelling is found along the Via Appia Antica, an ancient way that connected Rome to southern Italy. (Related: "Ancient Whale Fossil Uncovered in Tuscan Vineyard" [March 23, 2007].)

"It's a rather poor piece on the artistic side, black and white and not too detailed," Frontoni said.

"Historically it's noteworthy because it doesn't depict a fantasy or mythological scene, but real people from everyday life: a gladiator and a referee in the act of proclaiming him winner," he added.

"The inscription in the mosaic informs that the fighter's name was Montanus, probably a nickname, and the referee's name was Antonius."

The gladiator is shown wearing light leather armor over his left arm and shoulder, his neck, and the back of his head. He wields a trident and a net.

"It's the typical equipment of gladiators called retiarii. In combat games usually a retiarius fought against a secutor, a gladiator armed with a sword and a shield," Frontoni said.

"The presence of the inscription with the name—a quite unusual feature—suggests that Montanus was a famous gladiator, beloved by ancient Romans like [how modern sports fans idolize] today's football stars," he pointed out.

"Gladiators were living social contradictions," added Luciano Canfora, a historian and professor of classical philology at Italy's University of Bari.

"They shared a dangerous and humiliating job, but, on the other hand, low-class Roman people and even noblewomen hero-worshipped them."

Continued on Next Page >>


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