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The Refs Are Killing Us: Gladiators Revisited

A recently decoded inscription on a gladiator's gravestone is a reminder that sometimes in sport that referees really can kill our chances of victory.

And us.

So it is with ill-fated Diodorus whose epitaph tells a sordid tale:

After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.

The summa rudis was an ancient referee and contrary to portrayals of gladiatorial combat in Hollywood and the popular imagination as no-holds-barred, always lethal affairs, he was instrumental in ensuring outcomes that highlighted the skill of the fighters, preserved the lives of the worthy, and guaranteed a well fought match. If not fairness, the summa rudis also guaranteed some degree of survivability and fair play. Equipped with a staff and often some fighting history in the circle of his own, he had the discretion to separate combatants, call for rests, and do a restart if a slip or equipment malfunction unfairly sabotaged one fighter's chances. These weren't dumb blood sports (though there were famous excesses), but expositions of martial skill meant to illustrate courage and craft in a world where fighting and your society or family's preservation were directly linked.

One interpretation of the gravestone is that the gladiator Diodorus pummeled his opponent, disarmed him, and while he stood waiting for submission in keeping with practice and the gladiatorial code (and subjecting himself to the whim of the sponsor who might object to Diodorus executing his property), the summa rudis intervened and ruled that his opponent be rearmed and the fight should continue. Perhaps it stemmed from treachery and a desire to manipulate the outcome - either from the referee or the sponsor's machinations, but, perhaps equally likely, the inscription is merely sour grapes from Diodorus' camp (gladiators had fans, groupies, and hangers-on that would make a NBA All-Star nod knowingly) who objected to a referee's defensible decision to restart the match after Demetrius slipped or had his sword shatter.

In either event, Demetrius then dispatched Diodorus and we're left with a mystery 1800 years old. Among many others on the subject.

The Reality of Gladiatorial Combat

That gladiators might have lengthy careers with several losses and draws is the first surprise for most when learning about the subject. We know this because many gladiator gravestones list their records. One of the most famous gladiators of the ancient world was a man named Flamma (Boy Named Sue theory in action here - name your kid "the Flamer") and his Sicilian gravestone is clear evidence of this fact:

Flamma, secutor, lived 30 years, fought 34 times, won 21 times, fought to a draw 9 times, defeated 4 times
a Syrian by nationality.

Dead by age 30, Flamma was a grizzled veteran who had fought 34 times, but only slightly over 60% of his matches ended with clear victory. He went 21-9-4. A record suggestive of just how fickle combat can be. We know his level of acclaim because of the ancient graffiti proclaiming his greatness (I've seen graffiti in Ephesus deriding the prices of ticket scalpers - nothing is new under the sun) and the fact that he was awarded the rudis four times in his career. The rudis is the greatest honor of gladiatorial achievement - a wooden sword which grants the gladiator freedom and complete emancipation from his enslavement. That he rejected this freedom to continue fighting is also evidence of the appeal of the gladiatorial lifestyle for its greatest practitioners. Popular gladiators were valued for sex by noble women (their bottled sweat was considered an aphrodisiac), were well paid, had throngs of adoring fans, and in terms of adrenalin, one can only imagine the high of facing your own mortality three or four times a year in front of thousands of screaming fans.

It's equally telling, though, that freedom and retirement was the gladiator's greatest ambition. A famous slave is a slave still and they were treated with brutality. And few gladiators survived more than 10 matches. If you didn't die in the ring, sepsis from your wounds often did the deed. Apparently cauterization, coating a wound in dust and olive oil, or the spells of a Gaulish witch aren't as effective as antibiotics.

The mechanics of a loss are interesting. Gladiators could, of course, be killed. The winner and loser are clear enough there. But more often, one fighter would disarm, batter, wound, entrap (sometimes literally with a net), or exhaust another fighter into submission. A losing fighter could raise a finger ad digitum and request a ruling from the editor or sponsor of the matches.

Now, think for a moment of the strategy here. If you've fought well, but are now exhausted and can feel yourself giving in, a quick submission to judgement is your best survival strategy, though you're still putting yourself at the mercy of the whims of the crowd or sponsor. You might also receive mercy if it's clear that you're totally outclassed but fought bravely. This would be an error of the matchmaker, not the fighter. But if you lost heart, ran, or nerves get to you and you give an unsatisfying performance, you might find your fighting career quickly over. Your last moment on earth will be kneeling in the dust, the hot sun beating on you, a crowd jeering, with a sword piercing into your spinal column.

The notion of draws is also interesting.

It doesn't require much imagination - particularly if you've ever boxed or wrestled - to contemplate the level of fatigue that gladiators fighting in the sun of Italy, North Africa, or Asia Minor could experience. Unarmed combat is exhausting - now imagine yourself draped in armor and wielding heavy weapons against an equally matched opponent. Anaerobic and cardiovascular exhaustion came quickly even for the most skilled practitioners. Within minutes, you're also likely to have broken bones (a shield to your nose or orbitals, a helmeted head butt in the clinch, a foot stomp, fingers on your weapon hand crushed in the clash), multiple bleeding lacerations, and a body racked with lactic acid. Also factor in that gladiators, though in great fighting shape, tended towards bulky. The added weight gave them the strength to wield their weapons, dominate a clinch, and bully an opponent, but more crucially it covered their organs with an extra layer of fat. A half inch of pinch could be the difference between a lacerated liver or a superficial wound. They weren't Kenyan marathoners.

After several minutes of quality fighting with no clear advantage, a smart sponsor would allow both fighters to live and fight another day.

A gladiator who fought well could lose, and, if he didn't die from his wounds or a killing blow, had a reasonably high probability of having his life spared. However, that was also dependent on what time period he fought in. It's interesting that as Rome declined, gladiator mortality also substantially rose. I contend that the degradation of Roman culture was not evidenced by gladiatorial combat in and of itself, but in the shift from valuing skill and "manly qualities" to valuing blood and spectacle; mirroring the stagnation of Roman society as a whole.

Indeed, one of the great sources of discontent that Romans had with Caligula was his willingness to kill quality gladiators sine missione irrespective of their performance and in direct defiance of popular sentiment to spare the skilled and brave or the young and inexperienced.

If that's not enough to attack our popular conception of gladiators, exactly how an emperor or sponsor ordered their mercy is also unknown. The famous thumbs down or thumbs up is merely one interpretation - ancient sources reveal that life or death hinged on "a showing of the thumb", but it may have been a stabbing motion, a sawing motion, or even involved both hands. Hitchhiking, a Fonzi motion, or a complex 1-2-3-4-I-declare-thumb-war gestures are just as likely as our popular conception.

Now tell me: were you not entertained?

Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?