Thumps Up for Roman Gladiators

Jean-Leon Gerome Pollice Verso.jpg

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.

All Roads Lead to Rome

 

The Appian Way, Rome’s ancient super highway

I’ve wanted to visit The Eternal City since I was old enough to think–when my days were filled with old Hollywood sandal-flicks and my first books consisted of illustrated Biblical scenes with bad guys wearing plume-y galea helmets. Growing up Italian-American, there is a sense of worship-fullness when it comes to Rome–it was the seat of the Roman Empire for centuries and, in generalized terms, my motherland. Rome was where the idea of an Italian was truly born (Quite literally with the Congress of Vienna and in 1871, Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy) and it’s history my own. I wanted to be Roman and feel the experience of thousands of years of living in one place in time all around me. In 2016, due to a sudden change in travel plans, I had only enough time in Rome to stand and marvel in front of The Coliseum and to take a quick walk to the Trevi Fountain before hopping into our rental car and cruising to the airport to fly back home. I’m excited to say that I will soon find myself back in less than a week. For, as they say, all roads lead to Rome–including my own.

”Here was Rome indeed at last; and such a Rome as no one can image in its full and awful grandeur! We wandered out upon the Appian Way, and then went on, through miles of ruined tombs and broken walls, with here and there a desolate uninhabited house: past the Circus of Romulus, where the course of the chariots, the stations of the judges, competitors, and spectators, are yet as plainly to be seen as in old time: past the tomb of Cecilia Metella: past all inclosure, hedge, or stake, wall or fence: away upon the open Campagna, where on that side of Rome, nothing is to be beheld but Ruin. Except where the distant Apennines bound the view upon the left, the whole wide prospect is one field of ruin. Broken aqueducts, left in the most picturesque and beautiful clusters of arches; broken temples; broken tombs. A desert of decay, somber and desolate beyond all expression; and with a history in every stone that strews the ground.”Charles Dickens [1]

So where does the idea that ‘All Roads Lead to Rome‘ come from, anyway? It’s an idiom that’s been passed down from generation to generation essentially meaning–doesn’t really matter how you do it, everything will arrive to the same conclusion. How inspired was this phrase and is there any truth to it?

Image result for paintings of rome

Giovanni Paolo Pannini The Roman Forum (1755)

If we go back far enough, we find the idea appearing in Medieval writings from Chaucer to theologians. Appearing nothing more than a stray observation by French theologian/poet Alain deLille in the 12th century: “Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam” or for those not fluent in dead languages, “A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome.” [2] And, of course, Chaucer being a poet of renown was sure to take inspiration in his work as well to include a mention of the Roman city–

And god wot, that in alle thise langages,

and in many mo, han thise conclusiouns ben suffisantly lerned and

taught, and yit by diverse rewles, right as diverse pathes leden

diverse folk the righte wey to Rome

-Geoffrey Chaucer, Treatise on the Astrolabe [3]

But even here, it seems the idea of roads leading to Rome is similar, in a sense, to my own experience that there is simply a calling to the city–one that many of us–as lovers of History, or food, or vibrant culture, or awe-inspiring art–cannot resist. And even through its long life–from kingdoms to republics, to empires and upheavals, from religious institutions to repeating the order of things all over again in tandem–as history has shown us, there has always been a sense of desire to reclaim the city as one’s own.

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The Milliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone

However, there may be some truth to the phrase as from Cassius Dio [4], Plutarch [5], Seutonius, and Tacitus–we do learn of a column that was commissioned by Augustus Caesar to serve as the convergence point of the Roman Empire. A point where all roads began from and all distances there-in were measured by it, linking the network of the Empire together like a spiderweb. So, in a sense, all roads in the Roman Empire certainly did lead back to Rome.

All roads pointed towards the Imperial City, and started from its Milliarium Aureum. [6]

Either way, I’m pleased to share that my journey once again leads me back to the beating heart of Italy. As with my other travels, I’ll be updating my blog daily with pictures and tidbits so stick around and hit that follow button if you want to keep up with my quick romp through Rome, Florence, and Venice–typically posted at unreasonable hours, of course.

And as the saying goes, I hope that one day, dear reader, your road leads you to Rome as well.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Cosmo, L. (2017). Rome: Poetic Guide to the Love City of Romulus. Lulu Press.

[2] Alain de Lille, Liber parabolarum (c. 1202AD)

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer: A Treatise on the Astrolabe (c. 1391 AD)

[4] “Now all this was done later in commemoration of the event; but at the time of which we are speaking he was chosen commissioner of all the highways in the neighbourhood of Rome, and in this capacity set up the golden mile-stone, as it was called, and appointed men from the number of the ex-praetors, each with two lictors, to attend to the actual construction of the roads.” – Cassius Dio, Book 54, paragraph 8, line 4

[5] “With the remark, then, that he had bought an old house and wished to show its defects to the vendors, he went away, and passing through what was called the house of Tiberius, went down into the forum, to where a gilded column stood, at which all the roads that intersect Italy terminate.” – Plutarch

[6] Schaff, P. The Ante-nicene fathers / the apostolic fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. (1993). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

FINAL days in Italia! 🇮🇹

Alright, so I’ve been home for a few days already and I apologize for the late update. There are a few reasons for this, one being that obviously it’s hard to write the last one because this means it’s all over. Two, our last night included no sleep as we arrived and stayed at the airport for 9 hours before our layover flight to Amsterdam. Because of this and a now weakened immune system, I picked up a nasty chest cold during the flight and returned home with the inability to do much of anything aside from sleep and cuddle my puppies.

So now that I’ve recovered a bit, here’s the last bit of my Europe extravaganza trip!


Our last day in Cosenza was a bit more uneventful–our relatives were busy working as it was no longer a string of holidays in Italy (All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day) and so we spent our final night packing, shopping for last minute trinkets, and eating some really good pizza.

One thing I didn’t dedicate myself to, was a real try at accidentally stumbling across the tomb of Alaric I and his treasure. For those unaware of Alaric’s achievement of sacking Rome…that’s probably for the best. By the time Alaric hit Rome, it was already a crippling mass limping to collapse. What he served to do, however, was prove that Rome was vulnerable and not invincible–he opened the door to further turmoil and attacks until the Western seat of the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. After sacking Rome, Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, sailed off with his spoils and headed south where he intended to bombard Africa because he was clearly on one helluva a winning streak. What happened instead was not an epic ransacking maneuver ala the game of Risk. On the way, his fleet was run aground by a storm forcing Alaric and what remained of his army to try and catch their breath in Cosenza. Alaric caught more than that, however, and died of a fever leaving the Visigoths to shrug themselves off to Spain. Legend has it, that Alaric and his treasures were buried somewhere in Cosenza with his gang temporarily diverting the Busento river to hide his burial. Obviously, I’m no Josh Gates of Expedition Unknown (Josh, if you miraculously receive a Google Alert and are reading this–TAKE ME WITH YOU!) but I certainly entertained a day dream or two where I stumbled across the find and jump started my career as Indiana Jones.

Once we left Cosenza without any Roman treasure to speak of, we headed up to the actual Rome where we’d eventually be flying out and returning home. We arrived late in the afternoon and were unfortunately unable to tour the Colosseum which was closing when we made it.

The Colosseum is about as marvelous as you can imagine. It’s massive–able to seat well over 50,000+ guests and certainly makes you gap in awe at it and not because of all of the weird Gladiatorial battles you can picture having caked the ground inside. I would love to come back and get a proper tour–mostly so I can be pointed out where our favorite jockstrap Emperor Commodus attempted to slumber nude during his reign of idiocy.

After walking around the amphitheater and waving at the Arch of Constantine as we passed, we ducked into a local restaurant to feast on our last Italian meal before walking about what we could of Rome before heading to the airport.


One thing I didn’t expect of Rome is how much of it is STILL in ruin. Everywhere we turned, there was an excavation or a reconstruction occurring and I can say with confidence that I hadn’t seen this in any other city we had visited in Italy. Rome’s history has a city is obviously extensive, and the amount of layers that exist under your feet as you walk is a bit overwhelming to imagine. I can’t wait to see what everything looks like once it’s completed (if ever though, honestly)


Night had quickly fallen and our rental car was due for return, so we quickly headed off to visit the Trevi Fountain before leaving. The fountain itself is a more modern marvel, having been completed in 1762. But sooooo worth it, even at night when it is all lit up. Unfortunately, pictures can’t do it justice.


All in all, my trip was a blast! If you’ve been following me since the beginning, then you know there was a lot of things missed in our travels but what we did get to see was 3 weeks of French and Italian country that is hard to get with an exclusive stay in a big city. We were exposed to all kinds of people and experiences, and I can now say I’ve been all across France and Italy. Our trip serves as a sampling snapshot of two wonderful and storied countries and when I return, I’ll know where and how to see the things I’ve missed on this particular trip.

The other main event of this trip was meeting our Italian relatives and that’s something I’ll never forget. They were warm and welcoming, taking it upon themselves to show us the sights of their home cities and making sure that our stay was fruitful and full of plenty of wine and pasta. They’ve empowered me to take up learning Italian here at home so that I can communicate with them better one day and join our local cultural center as well. One thing that will stick with me always was when I was embraced and told, “To use imagination is most beautiful. Write! Never stop writing!”

I promise to follow this advice for the rest of my life.

Thank you for following along with my adventures in Europe and I hope these have been informative and entertaining. If you enjoyed hearing from me, stick around and I’ll be updating this blog with history musings like before but with a special emphasis on some of the things I’ve experienced or seen on my travels now that I have a reliable internet connection and access to JSTOR.

Grazie e io scriverò presto! 🇮🇹