WootBot


quality posts: 15 Private Messages WootBot

Staff

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.

cfalgas


quality posts: 4 Private Messages cfalgas

He died of a heart attack during production and he had to be added into several shots using CGI.

sunnyx0r


quality posts: 9 Private Messages sunnyx0r

One other interesting thing to point out, which I can't say for sure but I think is true, is that gladiators were rarely purposefully killed like this. Someone spent all that time and money to acquire and train them, they don't want their investment dying on them.

sunnyx0r


quality posts: 9 Private Messages sunnyx0r

Also one explanation I've heard for "thumbs down" meaning "spare him" was that the thumb driven down symbolized driving the sword into the ground. Not sure why that makes more sense than driving the sword into the person, but there you go.

Slydon


quality posts: 18 Private Messages Slydon

Staff

Because Oliver Reed ran up a three million dollar bar tab on the first night of filming, as was his custom.

Hi, I'm one of the writers. My powers are limited but I'll do what I can.

sprkmaker


quality posts: 4 Private Messages sprkmaker

Yep - last mill went straight up the nose...

Slydon wrote:Because Oliver Reed ran up a three million dollar bar tab on the first night of filming, as was his custom.



coloradosteve


quality posts: 1 Private Messages coloradosteve

Another interesting thing to consider - most of the gladiators were not jacked muscular guys. They were probably large, but they also carried quite a bit of fat on them. This was intentional and resulted from their diet of almost complete simple carbohydrates with very little protein. The extra fat provided a level of protection for the vital organs when cut and also made a 'better' fight because shallow cuts to the fat would allow the fighter to continue and bleeding from many cuts made a more spectacular fight.

More information here:

http://archive.archaeology.org/0811/abstracts/gladiator.html


sunnyx0r wrote:One other interesting thing to point out, which I can't say for sure but I think is true, is that gladiators were rarely purposefully killed like this. Someone spent all that time and money to acquire and train them, they don't want their investment dying on them.



timrobbins


quality posts: 0 Private Messages timrobbins

I thought it was July (for Julius Caesar) and August (for Augustus) that were added later by the Romans.

ColsHub


quality posts: 0 Private Messages ColsHub

The way I hear it "thumbs down" meant Put your weapon down and the "Thumbs up" was dragged across the throat meaning Off with his head.

bmxjimp


quality posts: 38 Private Messages bmxjimp

A history teacher I had explained the thumbs up/down differently. She said, and cited a source I cannot remember, that the Romans were in love with the sport so a thumbs up meant "we want more" (kill him) and thumbs down meant "the fight wasn't entertaining enough" (let him live). Exactly the opposite of what we'd expect thumbs up/down to mean. I don't know if my history teacher was right, but the explanation stood out in my mind all these years.


My username didn't change to jimp for my birthday, but I understand. Thanks, we're good!

chuckf1


quality posts: 2 Private Messages chuckf1

While Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, as Ken Jennings pointed out, are very sadly no longer with us, I remember Ebert saying during a film review, it may have been for "Gladiator", that it was Hollywood movies which helped perpetrate the thumbs up (gladiator lives) and thumbs down (oopsies), myth.