Thumps Up for Roman Gladiators

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Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Leon Gerome 1824-1904

The image of a Roman gladiator’s fate being decided by a thumbs up or down is iconic–one that can be recalled in many Hollywood films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the famous painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome. Many may find themselves familiar with the painting but might not know that the image above became the basis for our pop culture idea of a crowd of plebeians jeering and viciously stabbing their thumbs downward– signaling that they wished for the defeated gladiator to pay for his loss in combat with his life. It is also where Ridley Scott drew his inspiration while directing his movie epic, blessing us with one of the best Joaquin Phoenix performances before Joker danced his way down a flight of stairs.

But, like most beliefs cribbed from famous works–this one turned up false.

Joaquin Phoenix Commodus GIF - JoaquinPhoenix Commodus Gladiator GIFs

Histastrophe’s barometer of historical accuracy as determined by an ego-maniacal Hercules impersonator.

If one were to find themselves judging the outcome of a gladiatorial match in a Roman arena (look, I don’t know your life), it might be helpful to know that if you were to signal with a thumbs up that everything is cool and kosher and you totally don’t wish any ill-will towards the defeated combatant–you might be that idiot screaming in surprise when the loser ends up spurting blood everywhere because your poor judgment resulted in his swift execution. You just sentenced that dude to death, man!

According to Anthony Corbeill, Classics Historian and author of works such as Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, whomever was in charge of administering the judgment of death over the defeated combatant would use ‘the hostile thumb’ or infesto pollice and that it would have been turned upward rather than down. [1] We learn this from 1st c. AD orator/teacher Quintillian who wrote that:

“Even in the fierce arena the conquered gladiator has hope, although the crowd threatens with its hostile thumb.” – Quintilian, Book 11 Institutio Oratoria [2]

We have a couple of reasons to suspect what this would look like–there are a few examples in Roman works that describe orators using certain gestures that were thought of as somewhat obscene. This hostile thumb was also described by Apuleius in his aptly named Golden Ass “like an orator, shutting in the two lowest fingers, extending the rest straight out, and beginning calmly with the infesto pollice.” [3] Naturally, this sort of position would suggest the thumb would be pointing upwards rather than down. Go ahead and try it the wrong way–I’ll wait. Quintilian often remarks on orators who speak with an uplifted hand being rather fond of using the hostile thumb as well–similar to those who enjoy ‘flipping the bird’ which is another gesture that was well in use in the Roman Empire. Both the thumbs up and the middle finger represent phallic imagery and aren’t thought of as particularly kind things to do with one’s hand, least of all one that would denote mercy.

“…numerous examples attest to gestural language outlasting spoken language.” – A. Corbeill, Thumbs in Ancient Rome: ‘Pollex’ As Index. [1]

Interestingly, there’s a great deal of thought and attention in Roman writings put on the power of the thumb. In possibly the most Italian thing ever, the common belief in Rome was that gestures contained a stable essence. Many Roman writers waxed poetic on the thumb (pollex) and were quick to point out the similarity with another Latin word pollet which meant “has power”. Roman writer Macrobius believed the thumb had moral superiority over the other fingers like it was some sentient, Twitter hashtag activist simply because it didn’t take as kindly to ornamentation. Methinks Macrobius simply never found a decent thumb ring. Other writers thought the thumb held power and sway over the remaining fingers by this virtue alone. Some weirdos thought the thumb was somehow connected to sexual organs and thus had regenerative powers because that makes a whole lot of sense. But not as much sense as Pliny the Elder who prescribes the right thumb of a virgin in curing someone of epileptic shock. Basically, Romans were crazy about their thumbs and, oddly, the rest of the ancient world was pretty sure that the thumb was simply connected to the hand. You know, like a normal finger ought to be. [1]

“…the thumb, either as the primary agent or acting by itself, has complete control over grasping and controlling, as if it were the guide and moderator of all things.” – Lactantius [4]

With this kind of obsession, and it stands to reason that gestures survive in cultural context better than verbal language does, it should be no surprise that throughout the timeline of Italian history, there are mentions of an erect thumb pointing at objects or people as one of scorn–from Dante’s Renaissance all the way up to the 20th century–some form of the Hostile Thumb lived on. It’s not even uncommon in other neighboring countries to view the ‘thumbs up’ as a sexually offensive one and it wasn’t until World War II and the influx of American G.I.’s that the cross-contamination of the gesture changed in Italy. [1]

So if you wanted to save a gladiator, what gesture would you use?

Medaillon de Cavillargues –  The inscription reads STANTES MISSI which means ‘released standing’. Depicting an act of mercy for both combatants signaled with a closed fist type gesture. [1]

Remember that the thumb has otherworldly powers, especially over the other fingers. There’s a whole thing from Pliny the Elder which discusses a ‘well-wishing’ thumb exists in proverb where one means to show approval when pressing down the thumb on something, like a hand or upon an enclosed fist. Because these are the Romans we’re talking about, of course pressing the thumb on things held a power in and of itself. Pressing a thumb on things might even cure you of pains and other ailments, and certainly pressing your thumb on your fist would save the life of a gladiator in the arena who maybe lost the fight because he ate too much garum sauce and was a bit sickly. Let him fight another day!

“Raising the hands and closing the fists, therefore, were expressions of power capable to concede life.” Michel de Montaigne [4]

Now, since we’ve gotten this far, I’m sure most of you are well and myth-busted and smartly know that the thumbs up is an ancient signal for death in the gladiatorial arena. For those left feeling a little skeptical still (I get it, magical thumbs are weird) I’d ask you to think on another well-known gesture you are already familiar with that similarly employs the hostile thumb.

How about the “You’re dead” gesture, cutting the throat with a thumbs up like a sword?

Image result for thumbs up cutting throat gesture gif

Yeaaaaaah–maybe rethink your thumbs ladies and plebes.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Corbeill, A. “THUMBS IN ANCIENT ROME: ‘POLLEX’ AS INDEX.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4238745.

[2] Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria. Book XI: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/11C*.html

[3] Apuleius, The Golden Ass: https://archive.org/stream/TheGoldenAss_201509/TheGoldenAsspenguinClassics-Apuleius_djvu.txt

[4] Corbeill, A. (2004). Nature embodied: gesture in ancient Rome. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Wonders Burn

Louise Belcher Evil Laugh GIF by Bob's Burgers

Eye-witness video of Herostratus circa 4th century BC.

People suck. I’m confident that this is a definitive statement I can make without stating any evidence or backing citations since we’re all constantly exposed to the same examples in our day to day lives that proves it, from mass murderers on the news to that dude in a pick-up truck who cut you off on the road earlier this week.

And while there might be some cases where our modern world may be to blame, I can assure you that since civilization has been a thing, people have been finding all kinds of ways to be various levels of bastards to one another. And perhaps the most disrespectful and shitty thing you could possibly do to everyone is destroying one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World just for the helluva it.

Enter Herostratus, whose name I’m annoyed to even know.

Therefore only an utterly senseless person can fail to know that our characters are the result of our conduct.Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics; Book III [1]

In 4th century BC, Ancient Greece was still very much a playground for heroic mythos celebrated as true accounts, from the rippling pectorals of Heracles to Achilles’ famous anger, despite how much Plato wanted to ruin the fun for everyone by telling them otherwise. So, it’s perhaps understandable that a desire to cement oneself in these cool new things called “History Books” was a real thing people worried about. I mean, an entire cult of worship amassing after your death and obsessively placing pottery in your name everywhere does sound kind of nice. The only trouble is, how does one accomplish such a magnificent feat without being either a King, really good at wearing a toga and going around harassing the youth with your incessant “why” questions, or immortalizing yourself in a war when everyone was too busy inventing things and getting ready for the arrival of the next big thing since fermented grapes?

And perhaps it was out of a subconscious resentment for this last one in particular, Herostratus decided that being remembered in infamy was good enough for him and that to accomplish this, he would set fire to The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus on the day of Alexander the Great’s birth on July 21st, 356 BC. [2]

A man was found to plan the burning of the temple of Ephesian Diana so that through the destruction of this most beautiful building his name might be spread through the whole world. –  Valerius Maximus (VIII.14.5) [2]

 

The people of Ephesus were not having any of this bullshit. Capturing Herostratus, torturing his ass until he admitted to his stupid reason for torching the only thing that put their city on the map, and executing the shit out of him, they also decreed it a capital offense to even mention his name, effectively inventing the phrase He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in an attempt to show everyone that pulling stuff like this would get you nowhere in history, god dammit.

Artemis Temple Illustration

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Unfortunately, his name still managed to survive and we know it today because those pesky ancient historians like Theopompus and Strabo [3] just couldn’t help themselves. Now we all get to hate ourselves for knowing it and, effectively, making sure that Herostratus came out of this whole ordeal as the winner.

You’re welcome.

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics; Book III. Retrieved: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.3.iii.html

[2] Valerius Maximus, Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium; (VIII.14.5) Retrieved (Also Google Translate): http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Valerius_Maximus/8*.html#14.ext.5

[3] Smith, William, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Retrieved: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DH%3Aentry+group%3D11%3Aentry%3Dherostratus-bio-2

Taking the Bull by the horns

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Ladies and Gentlemen, this is called a ‘Rhyton’.

This isn’t an ordinary ornament (heh.) in which one displays their manly prowess on the mantel after wrestling with the beast ala Commodus Hercules.

No.

This is for drinking folks. Well, actually, more so it was used in ceremonial pourings of wine in honor of the dead much like modern traditions. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these were made for good ol’ party times. So toss out your German Beersteins! THIS is the way to do it!

Congrats, Knosses, on your badassery.

Ancient Egypt: The Miracle of Contraception Part 1

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Ahhh, contraception. One of the most well conceived scientific conceptions of all time…see what I did there?

Women have been trying to wrestle control back from their ovaries since the dawn of civilization. What with a near consistent almost worldwide patriarchy and, if Game of Thrones is to be believed, the hourly struggle for a dude to keep his breeches laced up, the threat of unwanted pregnancy has always haunted the female psyche. Sometimes a woman wants to do other things, guys. Like be a super Senet master or…uh…something else. Nah, but for real, as hard as it is to believe, contraception and preventing pregnancy has been around longer than the idea that women’s purpose is to marry and baby-make.

Even though the debate rages today on just how much freedom a woman is “allowed” to exert over her body, know that if ever one so much as uses the word “tradition” to explain why any form of birth control should be prevented from a modern day and supposedly educated populace, swift kick that fool in the jugular, yah get me?

Because if they don’t already know, the Egyptians have been getting down for ever. I mean, really, what else is there to do on the Nile’s off season?

The Ancient Egyptian recipe for preventing pregnancy (Because frak you, Isis!):

First of all, ladies, in the off chance that your conservative minded government prevents access to the methods I will describe below or if you get stuck with a “blessing from God” in the disguise of a sex crime, you’ve got the best natural and free birth control possible–Breastfeeding!

Women were known to extend their breastfeeding for many years! During lactation, progesterone fails to build up like in a normal menstrual cycle and thus ovulation can be prevented by keeping that kid dependent on the boob! Side note: Perhaps this is why royalty had wet nurses? Not just for social standing implications but to encourage every opportunity of producing an heir?

If the thought of childbirth turns you off though, luckily we have a papyrus from 1850 BC known as the “Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus” which details other means of birth control. (Check it out here)

“Another prescription hin of honey, sprinkle over her womb, this is to be done on natron bed.”

This was a substance mixed with honey and sodium carbonate which was applied inside the vagina. Couldn’t find any modern opinions on if this one in particular worked but than again I admittedly didn’t look hard enough.

One other substance they did use was an acacia gum which was also placed inside the vagina. This does, in fact, contain spermatocidal properties. Compounds of the substance produce lactic acid anhydride which is today used in some preventive jellies. Point goes to Egypt!

The most interesting and somewhat shocking suggestion given by the papyrus for a pessary (for those without a vagina, doctorate, or a girlfriend–a pessary acts as a physical barrier between the cervix and any invading sperm) is as follows:

“For preventing […] crocodile dung, chopped over HsA and awt-liquid, sprinkle […]”

Ignore the jumbled untranslated Egyptian text because, yes, that says crocodile dung.

As I try not to imagine dealing with that whole business, science at least puts my mind a little at ease with why anyone would consider such a thing.

It has been suggested by some modern historians that not only would the feces most likely effectively block seminal fluid at the os of the cervix but that it could also change the pH level.

Not good enough an excuse?

Well, John Riddle puts forth the suggestion that inserting feces into a woman’s vagina would, in fact, be an excellent form of contraception because…well, it would keep the boys away, wouldn’t it?

There’s also the idea that such a practice may refer to an incident in Egyptian mythology where the deity Set attempted to harm Isis while she was pregnant. He was typically associated with a crocodile (Not to be confused with Sobek) so, crocodile =/= pregnant.

Either way, I guess they had their reasons.

Any of these sound good to you, ladies? D:

Fact check it, yo!

Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. John Riddle. 1994.

Economic Transformations and General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth.“Historical Record on the Control of Family Size.” Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, Clifford T. Beker. 2005.

Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus. 1850 BC. http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/med/birthpapyrus.html