Roman gladiators took part in one of the most brutal sports in history, many dying by traumatic brain injury during their matches. A medical study published in Forensic Science International examined the skulls of deceased fighters, discovered in a gladiator graveyard from Turkey, and reveals exactly how they died and even what weapons delivered the fatal brain injury.
The graveyard was discovered by archaeologists in 1993 but this study is the result of applying modern forensic medicine, which more typically attempts to discover the cause of death by looking at human remains after a crime, to the ancient bones.
Gladiator matches were not free for alls. Each gladiator had a certain attack and defence weapon combination, and these were matched between pairs of fighters so none had an unfair advantage. Men of equal, speed, strength and skill were also matched together to ensure a fair fight.
Since no point system existed, fighting was always pursued until a decisive outcome, which could be any of the following alternatives: defeat through death, defeat due to injury preventing further combat, defeat due to exhaustion, a win, with the bestowal of a palm branch or a laurel crown, or a draw, with both opponents being allowed to depart the Arena alive. This was the most unlikely case, since the superiority of one fighter had to be proved to enable the public to reach a verdict.
The final decision of the loser’s fate resided within the hands of the games‚Äô organizer. To this end he appealed to the mood of the plebs. Upon the cry of iugula (lance him through), it was expected of the vanquished that he would set an example of the greatness of manhood (exemplum virtutis) and would motionlessly receive the death thrust. The turning down of the thumb signified to the spectators, not that the gladiator should be put to death, but rather that the gladiator was dead.
After the final blow, arena servants carried the combatant on a stretcher into the carcass chamber and gave the twitching body a deathblow. It is not known exactly how this execution was performed. The executor, a costumed arena servant, associated with the Roman god of death ‚ÄúDis Pater‚Äù or the Etruscan counterpart ‚ÄúCharun‚Äù carried a deadly hammer accompanying the gladiator on his last journey.
The first task of the investigators was to work out whether the damage to the skulls was due to an earlier blow the fighter survived, the death blow, or whether the bones had been damaged since the fighter was buried.
Living bone contains fluid-filled vessels, grease, and collagen fibres, which makes it more durable, flexible and, most importantly, it doesn’t splinter when broken. This allowed the research team to work out which skull fractures happened at the time of death. Furthermore, any sign of fracture healing shows that the gladiator survived the injury.
Once this had been established the researchers could start to match up the deadly fractures with the types of weapon they knew existed at the time.
Two examples of skulls are on the right, with the likely weapons that delivered the final blow illustrated in the white boxes underneath – one a hammer and the other a trident. These were identified by looking at the unique damage patterns caused by the impact of specific weapons.
Out of the 10 skulls with deadly fractures, the cause of death in 7 was a puncture wound from weapons such as a trident, javelin, pointed hammer or sword, and, interestingly, three were caused by being hit by the blunt force of a shield.
Deadly blows were either over the frontal area (above the eyes and forehead) or the parietal area (above and slightly behind the ears), whereas all the blows that the gladiators survived were at the front of the skull.
The researchers suggest that this is because death blows were usually given after the gladiator had been beaten and so were more likely to be from behind, whereas survivable blows were more likely to occur in training where less deadly weapons were used.
Link to PubMed entry for ‘Head injuries of Roman gladiators’.