The image above is a painting made in 1872 by French artist Jean-Leon Gerome titled “Pollice Verso,” or thumbs down. It depicts a gladiator match with the victor standing over his defeated foe triumphantly, looking toward the crowd for the final verdict: should the winner take the loser’s life? The audience, per the painting, decides — thumbs down means the fallen gladiator’s life is spared; thumbs up, he is to die.
Which leads us to believe — correctly, it seems — that gladiatoral combat was not necessarily a fight to the death. We do not know for sure, as the rules of a “sport” from roughly two millenia ago are long lost to antiquity. But there is reason to believe that a combatant who was likely to lose could concede the match, perhaps by falling to the ground and handing his sword over to his opponent. Such a concession was not a guarantee of survival, however, as the weatlhy benefactor who sponsored the bout could order the winner to kill the loser regardless.
But importantly, one thing is clear: the loser of a gladiator bout did not necessarily die due to the battle — he could live to fight another day.
For a gladiator named Diodorus, this — combined with a questionable ruling by a match referree, called the summa rudis – turned out fatal.
According to LiveScience, a Canadian professor named Michael Carter, who studies gladiatorial combat, studied the tombstone of the gladiator Diodorus (seen here) and concluded that something was awry. Atop the tombstone is a depiction of a gladiator, holding both swords, standing over his fallen (but alive) foe. The inscription, concluded Carter, read “after breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately; fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me,” which he believes is more descriptive than the typical tombstones of the era.
What does that mean? Carter believes that Demetrius conceded the match to Didorus, but Didorus spared his life. However, the summa rudis — citing a rule where a gladiator who trips is allowed to retake his sword and continue fighting — (wrongly?) disallowed the submission and instead instructed the match to continue. Demetrius, argues Carter, likely rebounded to victory, and Diodurus ended up losing the match and ultimately dying. To Diodorus’s supporters, he was the victim of a referee’s blown call.
Bonus fact: The 2000 movie Gladiator won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Ridley Scott was nominated for Best Director as well. But Scott apparently was slow to join the production once offered and needed some convincing. Then-head of DreamWorks Walter F. Parkes convinced him to do the film by offering a gift — a replica of Pollice Verso, pictured above. Scott apparently became enthralled by the time period and bloodsport upon seeing it; according to Wikipedia, he remarked: “[t]hat image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked.”
From the Archives: In Utero Fight Club: These gladiators of the sea fight to the death — before they are even born.