The ancient world was a tough place and was often void of entertainment and leisure time activities that we are accustomed to enjoying today. In ancient Rome, the two main spectator sports were chariot racing at the Circus Maximus and Gladiatorial combat at the Flavian Amphitheatre, named after the dynasty of Emperors who ruled during its construction (70-80AD) and early years. Today it is known as the Colosseum, this term comes from the Greek term Colossi meaning large statue and is one of the most famous sites in the world. It was located right in the centre of the Roman world, a short distance from the forum (city centre) and Palatine hill where the emperors lived. The imperial apartments were located on the Palatine hill, this is where we get the word palace from.
The significance of the Colosseum in the Roman world cannot be underestimated. Games were issued for a multitude of reasons such as to celebrate a victory where famous battles were re-enacted, this is what was happening in the film Gladiator when the battle of Zama between Rome and Carthage was re-enacted. Another reason would be to try and win public opinion, the plebs enjoyed the games massively and were free to attend happy so in times of unpopularity Emperors put on games to try and change public opinion. The emperor Commodus is a prime example of this and even went as far as to portray himself as Heracles and Romulus in the arena in what turned out to be a hugely unsuccessful PR campaign due to megalomaniac tendencies.
At the time of writing this, I had just returned to my hotel room after visiting the Colosseum and remembered one of the most common misconceptions about what actually happened in the Colosseum. When I was there I saw people taking photos with their arms outstretched and thumbs pointing either up or down, like we do in everyday life to gesture if something is good or bad. It is the common belief that the gladiator’s fate was decided by the editor of the games with a thumbs up or down, up meaning ‘live’ and down meaning ‘kill’. This was not what the Romans did, I repeat this is NOT what the Romans did and if I see one more person doing I will lose my Sh*t (yes group of 40+ Japanese tourists I’m talking to you).
Now I’ve calmed down a bit I’ll tell about why people think this was what the Romans did and to be fair it’s not a massively important subject in the grand scheme of things but luckily for you, I like this stuff (and ya boi is wicket smhaat) so I’ll tell you about it. The first culprit is a French historical painter and sculptor called Jean-Leon Gerome who painted the picture below called Pollice Verso.
This painting clearly shows a gladiator looking to the crowd to see if he should kill or let his opponent live. This is an incorrect representation of the procedure in the event of a defeated, but not dead gladiator. It was the editor of the games’ (generally the most senior person in attendance) choice whether or the defeated gladiator lived or not, that being said due to the nature of the games the crowd had great influence and usually got the outcome they wanted otherwise there was always a chance they would riot. Rioting over sporting outcomes not going your way isn’t really a thing anymore unless you’re a Vancouver Canucks fan, you stay classy Vancouver.
On a more serious note appeasing the mob of plebeians was a big deal and unless emperors felt extremely secure they did everything to keep them on their side. In Pollice Verso the crowd are pointing their thumbs down and look like they want the gladiator to be killed, it is from this that we assume that giving the thumbs up means to live…seems looks like quite an assumption right? Not to mention the fact that most gladiatorial fights actually didn’t end in death, these there the prize athletes of their day and it just wasn’t in the best interests of anyone for them to be killed on a regular basis. However, it was common practice for gladiators to fight against an inferior opponent in an unfair fight. Criminals condemned to death and captives from various wars usually filled these roles. While Gerome has quite a good reputation for depicting historical events accurately in his work although it’s an extremely attractive piece of work is not accurate and has contributed to the misconception of the thumb signal.
My second culprit is Ridley Scott, director the 2000 film Gladiator starring Russell Crow, for the record, I heckin love this film, but it has to be said Scott totally butchered the use if the thumb gesture, badly, very very badly. Interestingly Scott actually said that the Pollice verso painting served as inspiration for the film Gladiator.
“That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked”
Here you can see Commodus sentencing a Gladiator to death by giving a typically over-dramatic Hollywoodesque thumbs down, this happens not once but twice in this film (earlier in the film he gave an equally dramatic thumbs up). Ever since this film we have automatically assumed that this is what happened. Now to be fair to Scott its not like he was trying to accurately portray the events of Commodus’ reign. Nevertheless, this is the main cause of the misconception the thumbs up and down gesture in popular culture, but he made one epic film so I guess I’ll let him off this once. At least he didn’t direct a film based in Medieval England have actually had a scene with an aeroplane in it…oh wait.
So what did the Romans actually do
The subject of what hand gestures meant what has had a lot of scholarly debate with lots of different opinions being offered. While researching for this article I read numerous articles with ‘experts’ often differing in opinion and unable to come to a conclusion. The fact remains that we cannot know for sure what they did, however, we can use the evidence available to us in order to formulate an informed opinion.
One thing that we often overlook when examining history is the fact that over time the meaning and representation of things changes over time. It is crucial to recognise these things when thinking about history as it allows us to think about how people thought in the past. While the exact gesture that was used isn’t clear it is accepted that the thumb was involved and has significance in Roman society. I’m going to talk about the significance of the thumb in Roman society (bear with me I’ll make it interesting I promise).
In Roman times the thumb or ‘Pollice’ represented power, aggression and the male phallus. To hold your thumb up like the common modern-day gesture was the Roman equivalent of giving them the middle finger and was called the infestus pollex or a hostile thumb. One of our best sources of the use of the thumbs was 1st century AD Roman poet Juvenal who wrote, ”with a turn of the thumb bids them slay”, this is where the term Pollice Verso or ‘turning of the thumbs’ comes from, the turned thumb referred to turning the wrist 180 degrees thus pointing the thumb downwards. The thumb would rest on the top of the fist rather than downwards like the modern day gesture. However, when we take into account the meaning of the thumb in Ancient Rome it seems very plausible that the turning of the thumbs was done in an aggressive, stabbing like motion with the thumb representing the sword of the gladiator thrusting into their opponent. This repeated gesture along with cries of ‘Iugula!!’ meaning kill him was used to sentence a man to death. Again, we cannot be sure this is the case but from my research, it seems to be the most plausible suggestion.
While the thumbs down signal was at least used in the Colosseum the thumbs up was definitely not used for pleading to spare someone’s life, as we have previously covered it was an offensive gesture. Instead what the Romans used instead was called the Pollice Compresso or compressed thumb. This was where a fist was made but the thumb was tucked inside the hand and the hand was held up and held in a stationary position. In contrast to the Pollice Verso where the thumb is used as a representation of the Gladiators sword, the Pollice Compresso is the exact opposite, meaning put your sword away as the thumb is hidden. The crowd would have chanted ‘mitte!’ which means let him go!
Thinking practically for the editor of the games to distinguish between thumbs pointing up and down would have just been impractical, remember that the Colosseum had a capacity of at least 50,000 people. It would have been easier to distinguish the difference between pointed thumbs and a closed fist. It’s for this reason that some scholars (myself included) have come to the conclusion that there was no universal thumb gesture used to signal death. Rather simply by presenting an infestus pollex or hostile thumb, you were signalling death, simply put any type of thumb gesture mean death and a closed fist means let him go or mitte. If you really think about it no way is anyone going to be able to count or tell the difference in numbers of thumbs and fists of 50,000 people anyway unless it was a massively one-sided vote. It’s much more likely that the editor made his choice based on the chants of mitte and Iugula from the crowd.
So there you have it, the gestures the Romans actually used were a closed fist with the thumb inside the fist which represented putting your sword away and a thrusting, stabbing like motion with the thumb representing the blade stabbing their opponent.
While the subject of this article does not have the historical significance of previous events that I have mentioned or that I will mention in upcoming posts (in the world of the media I believe they call what I did there a tease) does not mean it is without significance. By learning about the small things that everyday Romans would have thought and done brings us closer to understanding them as individuals like you and me.
Oliver J. Hallett
Corbeill, Anthony. 1997. “Thumbs in Ancient Rome: “Pollex” as Index”. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42
Corbeill, Anthony. Nature Embodied: Gestures in Ancient Rome. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)
Glessner, R. W.. 1904. “The Passing of Jean Léon Gérôme”. Brush and Pencil 14 (1).
Juvenal Satires, translated by George Gilbert Ramsay (1839–1921)