Analysis of remains from a gladiator graveyard has revealed new information about how the battling athletes had lived their lives.
It’s the first scientifically verified cemetery of it’s kind and is adding much to gladiator lore and legend, with new information on how they lived and died.
The site was first found about 5 years ago in Ephesus, a major Roman city in Turkey, and contained the mixed remains of some 67 individuals, nearly all of them under 30 years of age. Many showed signs of healed wounds.
For much of the past five years, two Austrian forensic anthropologists at the Medical University of Vienna have been studying and cataloguing the remains. Professors Karl Grossschmidt and Fabian Kanz have analyzed every bone measuring for age, injury and cause of death. The study’s results have surprised even them.
One of the skeletons showed signs of two major healed wounds to the skull, and tested as being much older than the others – 50 years of age at the time of death, a ripe old-age for Roman times. This evidence, along with a gravestone dedicated by two young gladiators to the memory of a trainer named Euxenius, suggests that the remains may be those a former gladiator-turned-trainer.
Gladiators were the professional athletes of ancient Roman times, battling each other, or even wild animals or condemned criminals, for the amusement of the masses in arenas spread throughout the Empire. Sometimes the battles were to the death.
Like today’s professional athletes, gladiators were venerated by the Roman populace, and celebrated in everything from mosaics to graffiti. Images of the sporting fighters grace nearly 1/3 of the oil lamps found in archaeological sites around the ancient empire.
But the adoration sometimes came at a price. Some of the corpses show signs of mortal wounds, such as blows to the head with three-pointed tridents.
"The bone injuries - those on the skulls for example - are not everyday ones, they are very, very unusual, and particularly the injuries inflicted by a trident, are a particular indication that a typical gladiator's weapon was used," Professor Karl Grossschmidt said.
Other scars indicate some sort of blunt hammer-like instruments were sometimes used, possibly by an assistant in the arena to relieve wounded battlers from their suffering.
"I assume that they must have been very severely injured gladiators, ones who had fought outstandingly and so had not been condemned to death by the public or by the organizer of the match, but who had no chance of surviving because of their injuries. It was basically the final blow, in order to release them," said Professor Kanz.
But some gladiators met other fates.
Written records tell that if the crowd was dissatisfied with a fighter’s performance or his lack of courage, demands for his death could be heard across the arena, and he would be expected to accept his fate with some semblance of dignity. Relief pictures from those times show a kneeling man being done in by having a sword rammed down his throat and into his heart.
Despite the gruesomeness of it all, the gladiators seemed to have been treated well in general. They were well fed especially before matches. Analysis of their bones show high levels of strontium, indicating a strict vegetarian diet, probably barley and beans. Strontium is also known to strengthen bones and speed-up the healing process.
"The Romans may have known more about the human body than we ever thought possible," said Dr Kanz.
Some of the corpses –including that of Euxenius- also showed evidence of high-level medical treatment, such as amputation and head surgery. Galen, considered the father of modern surgery, lived and practiced only 60 miles away, and was also known to have worked at a gladiator training school. Strong evidence of his techniques were noted on many of the remains Kanz and Grossschmidt examined.
Gladiators entered each match with about a 1 in 3 chance of surviving the battle, but if they lasted three years, they would win their freedom, and sometimes, like Euxenius, they would become teachers at the gladiator training school, and live out their lives quite comfortably.
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