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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.

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