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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."

Bloodthirsty Emperor

Commodus, who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 180 to 192, was a well-known fan of gladiatorial combat. In fact, he loved to fight in the arena himself as a secutor, much to the scandal of Roman noble families.

"Members of Roman Senatus disapproved of him for such an inconvenient behavior," Canfora said. "On the contrary, the plebs—the-low class people—showed appreciation for the emperor's peculiar interest and loved to see him fighting."

Because of his title, opponents always submitted to Commodus. But he was still proud of his physical strength and fancied himself as the reincarnation of Hercules. (Related: "Sacred Cave of Rome's Founders Discovered, Archaeologists Say" [January 26, 2007].)

The bloodthirsty emperor, however, wasn't the one who commissioned the unusual mosaic.

"Commodus was born in 161 A.D.," Frontoni, the archaeologist, said. "The picture covers the floor of a bathhouse built around 130 A.D., and we think the mosaic is the same age of the building, so it was there before Commodus' birth.

"At the time, the Quintilii family owned the villa. They were friends of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus' father.

"I imagine that Commodus as a child used to visit Quintilii's residence and to admire the mosaic of Montanus. He probably knew and fancied the fighter."

Later, in 182, Commodus acquired the villa after having the Quintilii executed on a trumped-up charge of treason.

Ironically, the emperor died in 192—strangled in his bath by his personal trainer and gladiatorial sparring partner, Narcissus, who had been hired for the assassination by a group of senators.

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