What gladiators were really like

The discovery of the first confirmed collection of gladiator remains has allowed scientists to apply forensic analysis – such as seen in television dramas like CSI, except with real science and not just fluorescent sprays and swabs – to bones, providing startling new evidence of just how gladiators lived and died.

Instead of the all-out brawling of gladiators depicted in film, the injuries discovered on the remains suggest the fighting in a nearby arena was organised and refereed, with fights between pairs of evenly matched gladiators. These gladiators would have been trained, well fed and given regular medical attention.

The gladiator cemetery was found in 1993 by archaeologists from the Austrian Archeological Institute in Vienna. They stumbled upon it in Ephesus, now part of Turkey, while surveying the ancient route from the city to the nearby Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Ancient cemetery

Located 300 metres from the stadium where they fought for their lives, the gladiators’ mass grave was found to cover an area of about 20 square metres. In it experts uncovered a three-metre deep layer packed with more than 2,000 bones and 5,000 smaller fragments which are thought to have belonged to nearly 70 men.

“I think the balance of evidence suggests these people were gladiators: skeletal data, archaeological data – graffiti on wall paintings at Ephesus, tombstones of gladiators at Ephesus and historical documentation for gladiators at Ephesus,” comments archaeologist Charlotte Roberts from the University of Durham in England.

Historical sources tell us that Roman gladiators were mostly recruited from prisoners of war, slaves and condemned criminals, and were trained in specialised gladiator schools. There were seven main types of gladiators, each packing a different combination of armour and weaponry. These types were matched to fight in pairs with evenly balanced defence and attack weapons. The sources indicate there was no point system, and fights were pursued to a decisive outcome; generally injury, or even death, for one of the participants.

The first gladiatorial contests took place in Rome in 264 BC as a funeral rite, but they became increasingly popular as a public spectacle throughout the Empire around the time of Julius Caesar. Under the Romans, Ephesus was the capital of their Asian province. The Roman commander-in-chief Lucullus introduced the first gladiator fights to Ephesus in 69 BC and the stadium was then converted to an elliptical arena for the purpose.

Counting the dead

Now, anthropologists Fabian Kanz and Karl Grossschmidt, of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, are painting a picture of gladiatoral life as never imagined before. The pair have spent the past five years painstakingly analysing all the bones with forensic methods much like those used in modern homicide cases. They detail the technique in an article in the journal Forensic Science International.

“We’ve been able to prove theories about the weaponry and fighting techniques of gladiators based on wounds [on the bones and skulls],” says Grossschmidt. “Inscriptions on the tombstones also tell us that some gladiators survived 136 fights.”

To estimate the number of bodies in the grave, the researchers used the standard procedure for analysing mass graves; they looked at the skeletal parts that are generally best preserved, to count the minimum number of individuals in the grave.

Of the minimum of 68 individuals, all were men aged from 20 to 30, except for one young woman found with a gravestone that marked her as a slave and an older man, up to 55 years old. While the men were short by modern standards, their average height – around 168 cm – was within the normal range for the ancient population.

When the pair analysed the bones further, they found high bone densities, similar to modern trained athletes. Enlarged muscle markers on arm and leg bones also provide evidence of an extensive and continuous exercise program.

Intriguingly, the high bone density of the feet hinted that to Kanz and Grossschmidt that the gladiators fought barefoot in the sand rather than with their feet protected by leather sandals – a common Roman fashion accessory.

Green diet

The researchers expected gladiators would need a protein-rich diet to build muscle – however their analysis of the bones in fact suggested a vegetarian diet.

Plants contain higher levels of the element strontium than animal tissues. So, people who consume more plants and less meat will build up measurably higher levels of strontium in their bones. Levels of strontium in the gladiators’ bones were two times higher than the bones of contemporary Ephesians, according to research presented by Kanz and Grossschmidt at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Philadelphia, U.S., in April this year.

This agrees with some historical reports of gladiators eating a diet of mainly barley, beans and dried fruit, says Grossschmidt.

It would have given them a lot of strength, but may also have contributed to the tooth decay found in teeth in the cemetery and potentially made the men fat. However, a little extra weight could actually have had benefits in protecting vital organs from cutting blows during fights, argue the researchers.

Grossschmidt says that the gladiators also drank foul-sounding plant or bone ash solutions, acting as a kind of ancient isotonic sports drink. The mineral-rich drink may even have been a kind primitive painkiller, he says.

Expensive commodity

The large number of well-healed wounds found on the skeletons show us that the gladiators were better treated medically than they were with their limited menu. Some bones even show evidence of surgical intervention, such as amputations.

“Medical care and physiotherapeutical treatment were excellent for them,” says Grosschmidt, possibly because trained gladiators were such an expensive investment.

“As far as I can see, the treatment of gladiators (historical records) suggests they were well cared for because it was in the interests of their owners that they were healthy and ready for fighting,” agreed Durham Universitiy’s Roberts.

The most commonly healed wounds seen on the skulls were blunt force wounds to the front of the skull, which the researchers believe were most likely caused by repeated blows to a helmet just above the eyes. Other gladiators survived sharp wounds to the skull, such as that caused by the ‘gladius’, a thirty-centimetre sword used by most types of gladiators.

One skull struck the researchers as unusual, because it was the only skull with more than one deadly incision. The holes were five centimetres apart and consistent with stabs from a sharp, tapered weapon. These injuries show the same dimensions as a trident, a characteristic gladiator weapon. And a trident of these dimensions was found during excavations of the ancient harbour of Ephesus, and dated to the second or third century.

Death rather than retirement

In general however, the remains tended to lack evidence of multiple injuries or mutilation – unlike the excessive violence often seen on bones from mediaeval battlefield victims. This pointed to strict rules and refereed fights, not a free-for-all melee.

According to historical records, a losing gladiator’s fate rested in the hands of the games organiser, who appealed to the mood of the people in the stands. “Upon the cry of ‘iugula’ (lance him through), it was expected of the vanquished that he would set an example of the greatness of manhood … and would motionlessly receive the death thrust,” write the researchers.

“We found evidence for the final blow to the throat (cut marks on the vertebrae), the chest (lesions on the breastbone/sternum) and on the back (lesions and cut marks on the shoulder blade),” says Grossschmidt.

Given that gladiators wore helmets, it’s surprising that ten of the individuals had a single head wound that led to death. Four of the wounds were a round to square shape of nearly the same diameter, similar to a Roman hammerhead, rather than any known gladiator weapon.

Kanz and Grosschmidt conclude that this could be consistent with historical literature and artworks depicting a death blow administered to condemned gladiators by an arena servant dressed up as the death god ‘Dis Pater’ carrying a hammer.

After five years fighting, if a gladiator survived he could retire or become and instructor in the Roman army. “They were much sought after, afraid of nothing, and everyone was afraid of them,” says Grosschmidt.

Even though gladiators could retire after five years, the evidence shows that very few of them lived beyond the age of 30. The bones from Ephesus show one gladiator, out of almost 70 bodies, was able to survive the carnage and lived to old age.

Recent research, carried out this year for the BBC television’s Timewatch series proposed that the body of a 45 to 55 year-old man found in the mass grave could have been a retired gladiator who went on to become a trainer. Evidence to back this up included two major healed wounds on his skull and a tombstone dedicated to a gladiator trainer named Euxenius.

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