If you think sporting events today are intense, try being a gladiator during the days of the Roman Empire. The top athletes of their day, the gladiators were celebrities who were often depicted in colorful frescoes. And now one such fresco has been uncovered in Pompeii in near perfect condition.
Buried under ash in 79 AD, Pompeii had been a flourishing city before Mount Vesuvius cruelly struck it down with a pyroclastic flow. For hundreds of years, the ruins of Pompeii remained preserved under the ash until archaeologists helped it rise again as a prime example of an ancient Roman city.
Many discoveries have since been unearthed by researchers, including a recent find of charms and gems belonging to a larger treasure trove discovered in the famed House of the Garden of Hercules that may have belonged to an enslaved sorceress.
“They are objects of everyday life in the female world and are extraordinary because they tell micro-stories, biographies of the inhabitants of the city who tried to escape the eruption,” Archaeological Park of Pompei General Director Massimo Osanna said in a statement. “Interesting is the iconography of objects and amulets, which invoke fortune, fertility, and protection against bad luck. And the numerous pendants in the shape of a small phallus, or the ear, the closed fist, the skull, the figure of Harpocrates, the scarabs. Symbols and iconographies that are now being studied to understand their meaning and function.”
In addition, there just so happens to be at least ten unexploded World War II-era bombs that are still uncased in the ash waiting to be found and removed safely from the site.
But a fresco uncovered in the Regio V section of Pompeii, the same section where the aforementioned charms and gems were found earlier this year, is no longer waiting to be gazed upon for the first time since the volcano erupted nearly 2,000 years ago.
Located in the basement of a structure near the Alley of the Balconies and the Street of the Silver Wedding close to the gladiator barracks, it may have functioned as a tavern and a brothel. The beautiful fresco is nearly five feet in length and depicts two gladiators in combat wearing classic Roman gladiatorial armor and wielding weapons. One of the gladiators is bleeding from wounds sustained in the fight and appears to be gesturing for mercy.
“It is very probable that this place was frequented by gladiators,” Osanna said in a statement in reference to the structure where the fresco resides. “We are in the Regio V, not far from the barracks of the gladiators.”
“In this fresco, it is interesting to see the extremely realistic representation of the wounds on the wrist and chest of the unsuccessful gladiator,” he continued. “We do not know what the final outcome of this fight was. You could die or have grace. In this case, there is a gesture that the wounded trace makes with his hand, perhaps, to implore salvation; it is the gesture of ad locutia, usually done by the emperor or the general to grant grace.”
Frescoes are watercolors on plaster, which absorbs the liquid and sets, preserving it. Clearly, this fresco was made to stand the test of time just like the legend of the gladiators, who are still figures depicted in pop culture to this very day.
The most famous gladiator, perhaps, is Spartacus, who is the main character of the American television series of the same name that aired from 2010 to 2013 on Starz.
Taken as a prisoner of war, Spartacus was forced to attend gladiator school, where he became an incredibly skilled gladiator and became a crowd favorite. Soon, however, Spartacus led a revolt of slaves and gladiators against the Roman elite, terrifying them in the process.
For two years, Spartacus and his army ran roughshod over the Roman military, making the Third Servile War the only such war that directly threatened Roman Italia.
In 71 BC, nearly 100 years before Mount Vesuvius would bury the fresco, Spartacus fell at the Battle of the Silarius River near Petelia, though his body was never found. His remaining forces were captured by Roman General Marcus Crassus and crucified along the Appian Way, which had to have been a brutal sight to witness considering 6,000 suffered this fate.
Gladiators, however, are not always depicted accurately by Hollywood, if at all.
For instance, gladiators were not all slaves. Many volunteered in an effort to gain glory for themselves and their families. Successful gladiators were revered by the public and even endorsed products just like top athletes in the present. Think of the top gladiators like the Michael Jordans and Tom Bradys of their day.
In addition, gladiators did not always fight to the death. We may not know the outcome of the fight depicted in the Pompeii fresco, but it’s entirely possible the bleeding gladiator received mercy from the emperor or top general in attendance at the time. And the thumbs down gesture that Hollywood movies depict as a death sentence, may have actually been the opposite.
When we think of the gladiators, we often think of the Roman Colosseum completed just a year after Pompeii was buried in ash, but the gladiatorial bouts were occurring long before the iconic and historic structure was built. Gladiators fought in amphitheaters of all sizes in cities and towns across the empire.
The popularity of the gladiatorial games would only continue until 399 AD when Emperor Honorius put an end to them. One final fight would occur in 404 AD before the gladiators passed into history once and for all.
Gladiators may no longer exist today, but they remain one of the most fascinating features of the Roman Empire and continue to capture our imaginations. Finding absolutely stunning frescoes like this one in Pompeii only makes that fascination grow, and makes us wonder what other secrets the city ruins will show us in the future as researchers continue excavations.
Featured Image: Wikimedia