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.

"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.


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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