Tag Archives: gladiator

Vivid gladiator fresco discovered at Pompeii

The fresco was uncovered in what experts think was a tavern frequented by gladiators. Image credits: Italian Culture Ministry.

The incredibly well-preserved fresco depicts two fighting gladiators (a murmillo and a Thracian), distinguished by their weapons and armor.

The “Murmillo” fighter wears a plumed helmet with a visor, and is equipped with a classic Gladius sword and a rectangular shield. The Thracian gladiator has a very short sword with a slightly curved blade called a sica, designed to maim the opponent’s unarmored back. The fight seems to be drawing close to an end, as the Murmillo seems to be winning.

“What is particularly interesting is the extremely realistic representation of the wounds, such as the one on the wrist and chest of the unsuccessful gladiator, from which the blood runs, wetting his leggings,” Pompeii‘s director Massimo Osanna said.”The Thraex is gesturing with his hand, possibly asking for mercy,” he said, adding that we don’t actually know how the fight ended.

The fresco was discovered on a wall beneath a stairwell at Pompeii, an ancient Roman city which was destroyed along with Herculaneum by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Although the cities were virtually destroyed by the eruption, their architecture was also preserved by a layer of ash and pumice, offering archaeologists a unique glimpse into the life of ancient Romans.

Image credits: Italian Culture Ministry.

The fresco measures 1.12 by 1.5 meters (3.7 x 5 feet) and lies in what was probably a tavern frequented by gladiators. These taverns would provide both accommodation and serve as a brothel for gladiators.

The building lies close to the well-known gladiators’ barracks in Regio V — an entire quarter designed for gladiators, which yielded impressive archaeological finds (but is still off-limits to the public).

The ruins of Pompeii are in remarkable shape. Image credits; ElfQrin / Wikipedia.

Other impressive frescoes have been discovered in the same area: a Roman fast food” counter (or thermopolium) was found in March, and another fresco depicting the mythological hunter Narcissus enraptured by his own reflection in a pool of water was discovered in February. Other findings (including the human remains or a woman and three children huddled together) have also been discovered in the area.

However, what is perhaps the most significant find in the area is an inscription which states that the city was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius after October 17, 79 AD and not on August 24 as previously believed.

It just goes to show how valuable Pompeii is as an archaeological site — it’s been studied for centuries, and it still continues to surprise through its excellently preserved artifacts. No doubt, this is not the last time we’ve heard from Pompeii.

Company wants to ressurect gladiators – with a modern twist

Imagine for a moment how it would be like to recreate a gladiator fight. I’m not talking about martial arts or wrestling or something like this – I’m talking about full on, man versus man gladiator fights. An Australian company wants to revive the tradition, while using futuristic carbon fiber costumes to avoid any real bloodshed.


The startup Unified Weapons Master wants to put the ‘glad’ back in ‘gladiator’ – they developed an awesome-looking suit which enable fighters to move freely, while also ensuring that they don’t get hurt and monitoring all the applied hits. Their purpose is to bring back this long gone arena battle and make it as safe as possible, while also keeping it interesting.

“For us it’s about honoring, preserving, and reigniting interest in weapons-based martial arts — arts that have sort of slowly drifted off of people’s radar since the invention of gunpowder and projectile weapons,” explains UWM co-founder and CEO David Pysden. “Since then, there’s been no forum in which to see weapons-based martial arts practiced, and we want to change that.”

“Our objective,” he says, “is to promote a new global combat sport with weapons. So the unified in Unified Weapons Master is about bringing all the different weapons arts from all around the world together in a single competition. There’s roughly 300 distinct martial arts practiced around the world, and of those styles, 96 of them are either entirely weapons-based, or have a significant amount of weapons-based training in their curriculum. What we want to do is bring all of those styles together in a competition, much like UFC did with mixed martial arts.”

Futuristic suits

Of course, you have quite a predicament when you want to preserve weapon-based martial arts – you don’t want anyone getting hurt. Fortunately, this is where technology steps in – UWM’s founders have engineered an innovative suit called Lorica – Latin for “body armor”.

“The armor itself is made out of a sort of sandwich of high-performance materials.” Pysden tells us. “On the outside there’s some impact- and penetrative-resistant materials such as carbon fiber, and beneath that there’s a bunch of polycarbonate material and elastomeric foam, which is impact absorbent.”

To say that the armor is impact-resistant is an understatement; a better way of putting it would be that you pretty much don’t feel the hits you get. The fighters are completely safe even as they are hit, stabbed or slammed around. Of course, any engineering or material failure can have dramatic consequences which nobody wants to happen; but the company is confident in their ability to keep participants safe.

“We deliberately over-engineered the suits, for obvious reasons,” Pysden adds. “Our chairman and co-founder, Justin Forsell, has tested the suit himself, and we’ve done that with world-champion martial artists. So in other words, we’ve put the best people available up against guys in the suits and had them attack with traditional martial arts and weapons-based martial arts, and the suits have passed with flying colors. They are very, very well built.”

But the real magic happens inside the suit – designing carbon fiber and impact-resistant foam is impressive, but it’s not groundbreaking. But it all goes Iron-Man under the hood. Lorica is fitted with a dazzling array of sensors which keep track not only of all the hits applied or received by the fighter, but also of the severity of the hits. All the data is collected in real time and transmitted through wireless to a computer which displays the score. The scoring system hasn’t been disclosed yet, but it has been revealed that it will mimic the damage received in real life. In other words, whenever a fighter receives a hit, the calculator will estimate how bad it would be in real life (without the suit), and when you drop out of “hit points”, you lose. It’s gonna be like an arcade fighter game… but real.

But to me, there’s something which makes the whole thing even more interesting – not only is the suit designed to protect you from all types of hits and stabs, not only is it recording all sorts of data and transmitting it in real time… but it does all this while maintaining the fighter’s freedom of movement – something which of course, is crucial in a martial arts fight. This is where the suit really shines.

“We had to solve a bunch of problems before we built the prototypes” Pysden explains. “People have been building armor for thousand of years, but what they’ve never had to do before is encase all of this technology in the armor and make it work. But more importantly, when the knights were fighting back in the medieval days, they weren’t throwing kicks to the head. They were generally on horses or on foot, and typically weren’t using martial arts as part of their combat. That’s the big difference here — we wanted to develop suits where you had the articulation and mobility to fight as you would in unarmed, unarmored combat, but to be able to do that with weapons.”

Fights in 2015

All this sounds so amazing it’s hard to believe this will actually happen, but it will… this year! The first prototypes are already set, they martial artists onboard with this idea… it’s time to test them out! Of course, you won’t get fights in huge arenas just yet, because the practical testing still needs to be passed. The company actually wants to host small events and use them as beta testing.

“From there, we want to slowly build things out,” he says, “and get feedback from those guys on the build, the scoring system, and how it all works. Then we want to slowly improve that until it’s ready to launch on a larger scale. Eventually, we want to hold competitions in countries all around the world.”

As for the gladiators… there’s already a lot of volunteers, especially from Europa. Getting the chance to test your metal against a worthy opponnent in a safe environment is a rare opportunity.

“We’ve got the historical European martial artists chomping at the bit to take on the various Asian styles, and we can’t wait to see who comes out on top there. We’ll have knife-fighting champions, sword-fighting champions, staff fighters — all those different styles will be able to compete against each other for the first time. What we eventually think will happen is certain styles and certain weapons forms will actually come out on top, but we won’t know that for sure until we start competition.”

So, what do you think about this? Is it technology put to good use? Are we witnessing the birth of a new sport? Or is it simply boys and their toys, trying to revive a barbaric, long gone tradition? What’s your take?

Roman Gladiators were mostly Vegetarian, Drank Sports Drinks from Bone and Ashes

Roman gladiators – some of the most feared warriors in history were mostly vegetarian, a new anthropological study has shown.

A retiarius (“net fighter”) with a trident and cast net, fighting a secutor (79 AD mosaic). Image credits: Wiki Commons.

Gladiators fought to entertain audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations; they fought each other, wild animals, and convicted criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked not only their social standing, but also their lives, but most of them were actually slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalized and even as they were admired for their fighting prowess, they were still despised as inferior citizens. But even as gladiators themselves were marginalized, the idea of a gladiator was immortalized in pieces of art, from commonplace objects to magnificent pieces of art.

You’d expect someone with such a brutal “profession” to have a pretty brutal diet – eating lots of meat, living for the moment, feasting as much as possible. But a new study on gladiator bones revealed that gladiators enjoyed a diet of mostly grains and meat-free meals, suggesting that even athletes relying on their strength and speed can thrive with a vegetarian diet.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern and the bones came from Ephesos (today’s Turkey), being dated at 2nd and 3rd century B.C. At the time, Ephesos was the Roman capital of Asia, with a remarkable population of over 200,000.

Image from Ephesus. People gathered in the colosseum theater to watch gladiators fight.

Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii–literally, “barley men” – and there is more true to that statement than initially thought. Karl Grossschmidt, a paleo-pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc. By checking what chemical elements their bones have, you could reverse trace what they ate – and Grossschmidt found that they ate much more vegetables than animal protein. But they didn’t do this due to a personal belief or because they weren’t allowed to eat meat. Gladiators, it seems, were pretty fat – that’s what their bones indicate anyway. They ate a lot of carbohydrates, which helped them in two ways: it gave them strength and protected them from wounds.

 “Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” Grossschmidt explains. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.” Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds “look more spectacular,” says Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.”

But this diet had a big drawback – it left gladiators with a calcium deficit. If you don’t have enough calcium in your bones, they can simply snap, or at the very least, not support your muscles properly. But here’s the kicker: the gladiator bones had “exorbitant” levels of calcium compared to the general population. So this almost certainly means one thing – in order to compensate for this deficit, they drank vile brews of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium.

“Plant ashes were evidently consumed to fortify the body after physical exertion and to promote better bone healing,” explains study leader Fabian Kanz from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna. “Things were similar then to what we do today — we take magnesium and calcium (in the form of effervescent tablets, for example) following physical exertion.”

The clear formula for the drink is not clear, but whatever they used, it worked. In a way, gladiators pioneered the usage of sports drinks.

 “Many athletes today have to take calcium supplements,” he says. “They knew that then, too.”

If anything, this is yet another indication of how rough the gladiator life was. Compared to most of the world, life in the Roman Empire had some obvious perks, but not for gladiators. The crowds loved them when they won, artists revered them, but in day to day life, they were outcasts who risked their life on a regular basis with little recognition outside the arena. Wounds were also quite common.

“The proportion of wounds to the skull was surprising, since all gladiatorial types but one wore helmets,” says Harvard’s Coleman. Gladiators usually fought one-on-one, with their armor and weaponry designed to give opposite advantages

The existence of the four-pointed dagger (replica pictured here) was known from inscriptions, but its function was a mystery until this crippling quadruple knee wound was identified. (Courtesy Karl Grossschmidt)

There were different classes of Roman gladiators, and a fight usually comprised of warriors from different classes. For example, an agile lightly armored helmetless retiarus with a net and trident would be pitted against a plodding murmillo wearing a massive helmet with tiny eye slits and carrying a thick, long shield. Some match-ups were more common than others. The retiarius was traditionally pitted against a secutor or, possibly on rare occasions, a murmillo. Despite significant differences in armor and weaponry, modern analysis and reconstructions showed that the different type of gladiators were balanced – no class had a decisive advantage over another class, as bone wounds of all types have shown.

Journal Reference: Sandra Lösch, Negahnaz Moghaddam, Karl Grossschmidt, Daniele U. Risser, Fabian Kanz. Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) – Implications for Differences in Diet. PLoS ONE, October 15, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110489