The Debunker: Were Gladiators Condemned With A "Thumbs Down"?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Sentenced to Death with a “Thumbs Down”?

Do you like… movies about gladiators? A staple of the genre is the scene in which the crowd renders its verdict on the combat. If it’s thumbs-up, the bronzed, gleaming, sinewy muscleman lives to fight another day. Thumbs down, and he’s dog meat. In 1872, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme immortalized the scene in his painting Pollice Verso (“The Turned Thumb”, shown below) which cemented in the public’s mind the idea that thumbs-down = doom.

We do have several ancient sources attesting to the “turned thumb” or “hostile thumb” gesture to demand the deathblow at gladiatorial matches, but none of them actually described what the gesture might be. Pliny notes that “There is even a proverb that bids us turn down our thumbs to show approval,” suggesting that it might be a thumbs-up gesture that, ironically, means “you’re going down.”

Classics scholar Anthony Corbeill studied the question in depth for his book Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome and concluded that the most likely gesture to spare a gladiator’s life was pressing the thumb down on a closed first, while a thumbs-up gesture (resembling a drawn sword, I guess) was a death sentence. We may never know for sure, as camera phones were rare at the Roman Colosseum. But if we’ve been doing thumbs-up and thumbs-down wrong all these years — well, I’m just glad Siskel and Ebert aren’t alive to see this.

Quick Quiz: Ridley Scott’s decision to cast Oliver Reed in his movie Gladiator ended up costing the production an unexpected $3 million. Why?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.