How Did Gladiator Fights End?

Did Thumbs Up Mean the Fallen Gladiator Didn't Have to Die?

Vintage colour lithograph from 1881 after the painting by Gerome of Gladiators in the ancient Roman Arena
This famous 19th century image did much to confuse people about how gladiator games were resolved. French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).

 duncan1890 / Getty Images

The fights between gladiators in ancient Rome were brutal. It was not like a football game (American or otherwise) where it would be assumed that both sides would go home with just a couple of bruises. Death was a fairly common occurrence at a gladiatorial game, but that doesn't mean it was inevitable. One gladiator might be lying prone in the blood-absorbing sand of the arena, with the other gladiator holding a sword (or whichever weapon he was assigned) at his throat. Instead of simply plunging in the weapon and consigning his opponent to death, the winning gladiator would look for a signal to tell him what to do.

The Editor Was in Charge of the Gladiator Fight

The winning gladiator would get his signal—not from the crowd as illustrated in the famous 19th century painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904)—but rather from the referee of the game, the editor (or editor muneris), who might also be a senator, emperor or another politico. He was the one to make the final decisions about the fates of the gladiators in the arena. However, since the games were meant to curry public favor, the editor had to pay attention to the wishes of the audience. Much of the audience attended such brutal events for the single purpose of witnessing the bravery of a gladiator in the face of death.

By the way, gladiators never said "Morituri te salutant" ("Those who are about to die salute you"). That was said once to Emperor Claudius (10 BC–54 CE) on the occasion of a staged naval battle, not gladiatorial combat.

Ways to End a Fight Between Gladiators

Gladiatorial contests were dangerous and potentially fatal, but not as often fatal as Hollywood would have us believe: Gladiators were rented from their training school (ludus) and a good gladiator was expensive to replace, so most battles did not end in death. There were only two ways that a gladiatorial battle could be ended—either one gladiator won or it was a draw—but it was the editor who had the final say on whether the loser died on the field or went on to fight another day. 

The editor had three established ways to make his decision. 

  1. He might have established rules (lex) in advance of the game. If the fight's sponsors wanted a fight to the death, they had to be willing to compensate the lanista (trainer) who had rented out the dead gladiator. 
  2. He could accept the surrender of one of the gladiators. After having lost or cast aside his weapons, the losing gladiator would fall to his knees and raise his index finger (ad digitatum).  
  3. He could listen to the audience. When a gladiator went down, cries of Habet, Hoc habet! (He's had it!), and shouts of Mitte! (Let him go!) or Lugula! (Kill him!) could be heard.

A game that ended in death was known as a sine remissione (without dismissal).  

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Thumbs Sideways

But the editor didn't necessarily listen to any of them. In the end it was always the editor who decided whether a gladiator would die that day. Traditionally, the editor would communicate his decision by turning his thumb up, down, or sideways (pollice verso)—although modes changed as did the rules of the gladiatorial arena over the length of the Roman empire. The problem is: the confusion over exactly what thumb direction meant what is one of a longstanding debate among modern classical and philological scholars.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Thumbs Sideways for Romans
Latin Phrase Meaning
Signals from the Editor  
Pollices premere or presso pollice The "pressed thumb." The thumb and fingers are squeezed together, meaning "mercy" for a downed gladiator.
Pollex infestus The "hostile thumb."  The signaler's head is inclined to the right shoulder, their arm stretched out from the ear, and their hand extended with the hostile thumb. Scholars suggest the thumb pointed upward, but there is some debate; it meant death to the loser. 
Pollicem vertere or pollicem convertere "To turn the thumb." The signaler turned his thumb towards his own throat or breast: scholars debate about whether it was pointed up or down, with most picking "up." Death to the loser. 
Signals from the Crowd The audience could use the ones traditionally used by the editor, or one of these.
Digitis medius Up-stretched middle finger "of scorn" for the losing gladiator. 
Mappae  Handkerchief or napkin, waved to request mercy.

It's complicated. But fear not, educators, the cultural icons in your elementary school classes of thumbs up, thumbs down, and thumbs sideways are perfectly clear to your students, regardless of what the Romans did. A wave of the mappae would be an acceptable response.  

When a Gladiator Died

Honor was crucial to the gladiatorial games and the audiences expected the loser to be valiant even in death. The honorable way to die was for the losing gladiator to grasp the thigh of the victor who would then hold the loser's head or helmet and plunge a sword into his neck.

Gladiator matches, like much else in Roman life, were connected with Roman religion. The gladiator component of Roman games (ludi) appears to have started at the start of the Punic Wars as part of a funeral celebration for an ex-consul. To make sure the loser wasn't pretending to be dead, an attendant dressed as Mercury, the Roman god who led the newly dead to their afterlife, would touch the apparently-dead gladiator with his hot iron wand. Another attendant, dressed as Charon, another Roman god associated with the Underworld, would hit him with a mallet.

Sources and Further Reading