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N.S. Gill

Why Do We Believe Strange "Facts" About Gladiators?

By June 15, 2010

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Gladiators have been in the news recently, thanks to a burial site in York, UK (the city where Constantine became emperor) thought to be the site of the burial with honor of Roman gladiators 1800 years ago. Eighty skeletons have been examined. They are described as more robust than average Romans and the wounds, including teeth marks thought to be from a lion, suggest violence. See Lion bite helps solve riddle of York gladiator graveyard.

Everyone knows that the Roman emperor decided whether a fallen gladiator should die by giving a thumbs down or up to the other gladiator holding a sword at his opponent's neck, right? And those people who are actually interested in gladiators know that before the fight the gladiators addressed the emperor to say "Morituri te salutant" 'Those who are about to die salute you'.

The trouble is these aren't facts at all.

It appears that the blame for these urban legends can partly be laid at the brush of one talented and popular artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904), as Bingley points out in a forum thread on Morituri Te Salutant.


June 15, 2010 at 10:58 am
(1) Eric says:

Those crazy neoclassical idealists…

June 16, 2010 at 11:02 am
(2) John Kerr says:

How can “better muscled” be discerned on skeletons? Or was flesh preserved?

June 17, 2010 at 9:21 am
(3) ancienthistory says:

John – I changed the original post. I can’t get to the article I thought I paraphrased to verify. Other articles refer to the corpses as robust. I believe heavy exercise, which results in heavy musculature, translates into stronger or bigger bones, so although muscle may be a stretch, I don’t know if it’s much.

June 18, 2010 at 2:17 am
(4) 4Honesty says:

At John Kerr: I fell hard on concrete and broke my arm in 2006. My orthopedic surgeon was showing me the x-rays of my arm when I asked about old age and bone loss. He looked at the x-ray and looked at me, then he asked: “Were you a weight lifter?”

Yep – I was: between ages 13 and 18. It was over 40 years later and this doctor could still immediately detect the evidence of my above average “robust” body. So there’s no reason to doubt the report about gladiators’ bones showing evidence of heavier than average musculature.

Oh, BTW – I recovered 100% from the bone fracture: something the orthopedic surgeon says “never happens.” This is just the “dividend” I got from all that weight lifting and shot putting I did as a teen.

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