Gladiator cemetery reveals many secrets

Analysis of remains from a gladiator graveyard has revealed new information about how the battling athletes had lived their lives.

Tough times for the losing gladiators: Pollice Verso. 1872 gladiator painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Tough times for the losing gladiators: Pollice Verso. 1872 gladiator painting by Jean-Leon Gerome. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
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.


Gladiators at Ephesus
BBC website story
Panoramic Virtual Tour of Ephesus
More photos of Ephesus
BBC Television press release

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

wow, very interesting topic. we should have exhibit about this...

posted on Sat, 05/05/2007 - 5:15pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

This game on the BBC website lets you "dress a gladiator"--pick out all his weapons and armor--and then send him into the area to fight.

My first gladiator only had two correct pieces of equipment. He lost the fight, but the emperor spared his life.

And this "web book, "You Wouldn't Want to Be a Roman Gladiator," was pretty fun, too.

posted on Mon, 05/07/2007 - 2:40pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Left-handedness is an attribute that appears frequently in written records of gladiators. This article on the BBC site says,

"A disconcerting advantage accrued to the left-handed; they were trained to fight right-handers, but their opponents, unaccustomed to being approached from this angle, could be thrown off-balance by a left-handed attack. Left-handedness is hence a quality advertised in graffiti and epitaphs alike."

posted on Mon, 05/07/2007 - 2:51pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

One more: I was particularly intrigued by the passing mentions of female gladiators in many of these articles.

They were rare, but they did exist.

posted on Mon, 05/07/2007 - 3:16pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The most recent National Geographic has a story about a gladiator mosaic recently unearthed just outside Rome, buried in the ruins of what was the Emperor Commodus' country palace.

The mosaic is noteworthy because, instead of showing a mythological or fantastic scene, it shows a real gladiator and a referee proclaiming him the winner. Also, the people in the mosaic are named--another rarity.

posted on Tue, 05/08/2007 - 9:28am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

And this article, posted to National Geographic on March 3, 2007, has more information on the gladiator graveyard. Cool story....

posted on Tue, 05/08/2007 - 9:30am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Hey, Mark.

A comment posted on your "Not a pretty site" thread (about the archaeological excavation of a Toltec sacrifice), got me thinking:

We're pretty comfortable saying that skeletons at this gladiator graveyard

"...showed evidence of high-level medical treatment, such as amputation and head surgery."

I'm assuming, though I'm not sure, that this graveyard dates to sometime in the second century? Galen might have been an incredible doctor/surgeon, and he obviously was able to help some of his patients, but I sure wouldn't want to be undergoing amputation or head surgery during his lifetime!

And while I don't believe that the Toltec site is evidence of ancient heart surgery, as the comment suggests, I find it interesting that I don't know anything about Toltec medical practice, even though it was happening hundreds of years after the Romans watched gladiators fight. At first I thought it might have something to do with a lack of written records by the Toltecs themselves.

But there's evidence that Cro-Magnons--early humans--were doing trepanning in some cases, and that's pretty widely known among the general public. (Trepanation is the practice of drilling holes in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain due to trauma or blood clots. It's still done by neurosurgeons today, but the practice is 40,000 years old) And certainly those early surgeons didn't have any written records!

So why don't we know more about medical practice that was happening in our own back yard and nearer to us, time-wise? Can we chalk it all up to bias? Are we just not seeing it? Or is just not juicy enough to make it onto the news or into pop culture? Anyone have any thoughts about that?

posted on Tue, 05/08/2007 - 10:10pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Liza - you bring up some very good points. But I don’t think it’s bias on our part. I think the reason we don't know anything about the Toltec medical practices is that there doesn't seem to be much knowledge about them at all out there. And what is out there is cloaked in so much mystery and mythologizing; it makes it difficult to sort it all out. You can claim our viewpoint has been skewed by the Spanish priests destroying much of the written records of Mesoamerican ancient history during the conquest, but even the few books that survived the burnings only refer to the Toltec in a mythological manner.

The Neanderthals left no written evidence at all but they did leave remains that seem to point to some sort of medical procedures. Nothing like this has been found with Toltec remains other than what has been interpreted (and rightly so, I think) as human sacrifice.

The name Toltec translates from Nahuatl to “master builders”. And for a long time the Toltec were considered by their descendents as a superhuman and militaristic race of builders and artisans who practiced human sacrifice.

As I mentioned only a handful of pre-Conquest codices (books) survived destruction by Spanish priests or Aztec enemies. But these codices seem to deal mainly with the Toltec descendents, such as the Aztec. They only refer back to the earlier Toltec and their central religious figure, Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent) in mythological terms. The little remaining information of the Toltec pretty much comes from legends and folktales passed down. But their influence throughout Mesoamerica was huge.

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a Toltec priest/king who, according to some versions of the myth, ruled the city of Tula during a time of great abundance. He was benevolent and well-loved ruler who put a stop to the practice of human sacrifice during his reign (evidently not a good move in the eyes of the gods) and created the cult of the serpent. He was such a major religious figure, subsequent rulers would claim to be his direct descendents in order to give credence to their own reigns. One of the great legends is that Quetzalcoatl, forced to leave his kingdom by trickery, travels across Mesoamerica to the east, but vows to one-day return. When the Spaniard, Hernan Cortes, arrived in 1519 to conquer Mexico, his work was probably made a whole lot easier by the fact that the Aztec believed he was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl returning as promised.

Some of the images of gods that appear in what’s called the Grolier codex (dated to about 1230 AD) look to be drawn in a hybrid Toltec-Maya style and show similarities to images found on some of the wall reliefs in Chichen Itza. Speculation is that once the Toltec capital of Tula fell, the Toltec traveled 1800 miles to the Yucatan peninsula to intermingle with the Mayans there and build a new city at Chichen Itza. The two cities are almost exact duplicates of each other in their layout and structures.

Having said all that there does seem to be an oral tradition of Toltec “medical” practices that has survived, mainly in the mental health field. A whole industry of New Age methods is out there claiming to know the secrets of the Toltec way of life. Astrology books present “ancient Toltec wisdom” as an aid in countering the pressures of everyday modern life, and to show us the proper paths to follow for a healthy existence. Most of these methods seem to have gained popularity after the release of Carlos Castaneda’s book, “The Teachings of Don Juan” (which I enjoyed reading quite a few years ago). Don Juan is said to have been a Toltec shaman.

But I suspect it’s mostly just use of the Toltec brand name to enhance the self-help products than it is of actual Toltec wisdom having been passed down through the ages.

posted on Mon, 05/14/2007 - 11:45am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Interesting rewrite of the National Geographic article by Kate Ravilious, March 3, 2006. A few corrections: It's Ephesus not Ephasus and only Dr. Grosschmidt is from the Medical University of Vienna; Dr. Kanz is from the Austrian Archealogical Institute.

posted on Sat, 05/19/2007 - 11:22am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Nice catch on my misspelling. I actually did spell Ephesus correctly once, but must have blacked out when I wrote the other three. I have fixed those.

Regarding Dr. Kanz credentials: in his biography for the recent BBC documentary about the gladiator graveyard, he is listed as being affiliated with both the Medical University of Vienna and the Austrian Archaeological Institute (which by the way you misspelled), so I'm letting that stand.

posted on Sat, 05/19/2007 - 2:38pm
Thor's picture
Thor says:

Learned this cool gladiator stuff last night during training for our museum's new summer exhibit: "A Day in Pompeii."

The equivalent of the mayor of Pompeii banned gladiator fights at his city's amphitheater for ten years due to a huge riot that broke out between Pompeiians and gladiator fans from a neighboring city. According to artwork depicting the events from 56 A.D., the fights were as brutal in the aisles and outside the arena as what was being staged. Kind of makes our Minnesota Vikings/Green Bay Packers rivalry look pretty tame.

posted on Wed, 06/20/2007 - 9:11am
stokley's picture
stokley says:

this web site doesn't give you all the info you need on pompeii! :( ♥ ♥

posted on Tue, 12/11/2007 - 2:29pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Bummer. Is there something specific you were looking for? I'd love to know what we can help you with.

posted on Tue, 12/11/2007 - 2:35pm
Anonymous234's picture
Anonymous234 says:


posted on Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:27pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options