Gladiator graveyard reveals more secrets

Gravestone
Gravestones like this one—marking the final resting place of a gladiator named Palumbus—prove that gladiators, not soldiers, were buried at the graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey.

Wolfgang Pietsch, Austrian Archaeological Institute

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A spectacular new find—the recent excavation of a gladiatorial graveyard at Ephesus in Turkey—is shedding new light on the lives of the gladiators. It’s the first such graveyard ever discovered, and many of the skeletons show significant signs of trauma. Some wounds had healed, so victims recovered from those injuries to fight again. Unhealed wounds, however, must have been fatal. Many of these come from blows to the head—surprising, given that all gladiators except the retiarius wore helmets. Perhaps those injuries weren’t sustained during combat itself, but administered afterwards to defeated gladiators whose helmets were removed.

Why are we still so fascinated by gladiators?

Coleman says, “The phenomenon of institutionalized violence in any society raises important questions about man’s capacity to inflict, sustain, and witness suffering, about the concept of physical and moral bravery, and about the differentiation between classes whose status deems them either exempt from physical punishment or worthy of it. The professionalism of gladiatorial combat excited enormous admiration in Antiquity. The concept of staging violence as entertainment both repels and intrigues us today, and guarantees the perennial fascination of the gladiator and of the entire infrastructure that was invested in the dangerous enactments of the Roman arena.”