Monday, January 24, 2011

Gladiators: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

The sweat soaked gladiator looks up to the editor who will make the call--cut the throat of his downed opponent or let him live. The crowd yells and makes dramatic hand gestures, trying to sway the stony-faced editor.

"Mitte!" (Let him go!) scream some.
"Iugula" (Kill him!) roar others.

The editor extends his hand and dramatically lifts his thumb. Will the downed gladiator live or die?

Most Americans say, "He will live!" After all, the thumbs-up sign is a positive thing. It's how we encourage our friends and silently show approval. But to the ancient Romans, a thumbs up mimicked the upward thrust of a sword through the heart. It meant, kill.

A thumbs-down meant "put your sword down."

So where did this confusion about thumbs come from? Many blame the painter Gerome, whose Pollice Verso (1873) painting (above) still has the power to capture our imaginations. But look closer:

Gerome wrongly interpreted Juvenal's description of the killing sign as thumbs down, confusing the rest of us ever since.

In the meantime, that painting is pretty remarkable, isn't it?  I love Gerome's work so I give his paintings a thumbs-up. Oh, wait. I mean, a thumbs-down.

Oh, never mind!


Narukami said...

Of course Hollywood has reinforced this mistake.

In fact, director Ridley Scott cites this very painting as the inspiration for his film Gladiator. That his film is a direct re-make of the 1964 epic Fall Of The Roman Empire seems to have slipped his mind.

Amalia Dillin said...

Ha! This was a great post-- I am kind of ashamed to admit that I did not know any of this!

and that painting definitely is remarkable!

I guess this is just like the association between Perseus and Pegasus. Those artists just confuse everything!

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

OMG - absolutely incredible!! :) e

Unknown said...

Was Gerome really making a mistake or depicting a crowd wishing a fighter be spared? The title of the painting itself is a clue that Gerome knew about the descrepancy, calling it 'Thumbs turned' as opposed to 'thumbs down'

It woudl be inetresting to source some primary documents of Gerome's work on this painting.

Also, the transformation into of up=good, down=bad has an ovelap with Christian theology that is rarely mentioned.

@Narukami: the Scott flick made him a lot of cash because it was action oriented, not a melodrama as the 1964 movie is. Just because they share a depiction of the same events(lifted from Gibbon et al) does not make it a 'direct remake' in any sense


Gabriele Campbell said...

Gladiator gave me the first laugh when they fought in that monoculture wood with no undergrowth. Had the German forests been like that in Roman times, Varus would have had half the trouble he did and proabably made it back home. ;)

It just went downhill from there. And chariot races in the Coliseum, really. *shakes head*

Narukami said...

Perhaps the term "direct re-make" is a bit strong, but re-make it is and I will stand by that. (In the same way Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto is a remake of Cornel Wilde's film The Naked Prey)

In both films Marcus Aurelius is murdered (he died of a long suffered illness, possibly cancer).

In both films he favors a loyal general over his "playboy" son (in fact he made his son, Commodus, his heir-apparent, and they ruled jointly for several years.

In both films Commodus dies fighting as a gladiator (when actually he was poisoned by his concubine Marcia and, when that failed to kill the Emperor, a young athlete named Narcissus, strangled him to death).

Gladiator was a hit, and is credited with reviving the Ancient Epic as a viable film genre, this despite the fact that Gladiator lost $20 million.

There is a fascinating comparison of costs between Gladiator and Ben-Hur on page 324 of the book George Lucas's Blockbusting.

Many find Gladiator great entertainment -- no argument there, but as history, or even a fair depiction of the Roman Empire, it is practically worthless.

Of course, I am reminded of director John Sayles and his most cogent remarks: "If historical accuracy were the thing people went to the movies for, historians would be the vice presidents of studios. Every studio would have two or three historians."
(Past Imperfect c1995, p22)

Perhaps it is a good thing the studios don't. Too bad though, I could use the work.

Unknown said...

@Narukami - I love that Sayles quote! It reminded me of the furore that ensued when the movie 300 was released.

Most that did know it was based on a graphic novel loved the visual style of the film and weren't fussed by the many liberties taken, others were in outcry against its wild innacuracy as a depiction of an historical event!

In instances like that, I always recommend a google trends search - people will see a movie and not walk away thinking "wow! that is exactly what happenned!" Most will wonder what actually happened and spend some time web surfing or looking things up in books.

After HBO's Rome, google search volume for 'Suetonius' peaked, after 300 it was 'Thermopylae' and 'Leonidas' and after Gladiator it was 'Commodus' >> which you can view the results of here

Movies and art are great sources of inspiration for the study of history :) Many modern archaeologists will cite the Indiana Jones films as a formative experience, for example.

Kind Regards

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

What a fascinating discussion, guys!

Narukami, I didn't know that Ridley Scott cited this painting, nor that it was a direct remake of the '64 film (which I will have to check out.

Hasan, that is an interesting question about whether Gerome was actually depicting a "kill" sign. One brief discussion that I've read says, "yes," he meant the scene as capturing a moment before the ordered kill. Dramatically, it makes sense. But, as you know, I am no art historian.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Re: the Sayle's quote--brilliant! People want to be entertained, period. I love your point, Hasan, that for some, a movie like that is a launching point.

However, as you point out David, the problem is that so many of these "purely entertaining" films transmute, in the common consciousness, as "the truth."

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Amalia, now I'm curious--is there a painting that confuses Perseus and Pegaus? Wow, I'd love to see that (I can't even imagine it, actually.) Thanks for commenting.

e, I thought you would like this painting!

Gabriele, it's either very bad or very good that I don't get too caught up in the details of certain movies. Perhaps it's because I don't expect them to get it right? Cynical, I know. But still, I think it's that I'm so enamored of watching the ancient world recreated on screen that I'm willing to forgive their many sins in order to try to lose myself in the story.

Narukami said...

As we have often discussed on the Roman Army Talk web site, even bad films about ancient Rome are better than no films about ancient Rome (although the film Last Legion stretched that concept to the breaking point).

You are quite right Hasan (if I may) that these films can serve as an inspiration to further study and indeed the Roman Army web site always enjoys a spike in new members after these films are released.

As a piece of cinematic art, 300 is an amazing achievement in its fidelity to the original graphic novel. As history it is almost completely worthless. Of course, those familiar with the book know that Frank Miller based his book, in large part, on the 1964 film The 300 Spartans. In fact, his early drawings had the Spartans dressed in the correct armor, but it did not look right to Miller's artistic eye and he instead rendered them in the now infamous "leather speedos."

Thus we have a film based upon a graphic novel based upon a film based loosely on history.

What bothered me about 300 was its use by Dr. Victor Hanson (and others) as a prime example of the struggle between the noble West and the decadent East, and then relating the film to the then current struggle in Iraq. (There has been some talk of this same comparison to Iraq with regards to the films Centurion and the soon to be released Eagle Of The ninth.) I find such comparisons to be both over reaching and over ripe, to say nothing about being poor history.


That's me and I may be in the minority on this point.

Sometimes it is best not to look too deeply into a movie, but rather take the attitude as expressed by William Hurt's character in the film The Big Chill. When asked repeated questions about the film he was watching on late night TV Hurt responded, "You're so analytical. Sometimes you just have to let art flow over you."

Indeed so.

Thanks for the spirited discussion and the link to the Google Search Results ... Fascinating.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The Last Legion was so far off history that it was some cheesy fun to watch. Just look at that neo-Norman castle Vortgyn lives in. *grin*

I have more problems with movies that stay just close enough to history for me to notice what they got wrong, and it's not always the facts. What bothered me most about Rome was the un-Romen behaviour and way of thinking of some characters.

I also would have enjoyed Bruckheimer's Arthur movie as cheesy fun if he had not called it a movie 'staying true to the history of the real Arthur'. And then put Sarmatians in. In the 5th century AD, for crying out loud. Plus, people belive that nonsense. I can't talk one of my online acquaintances out of the Artorius Castus = Arthur thesis that's floating around on the net because of that movie. "Well, surely they didn't make it all up." *rolls eyes*

Luke said...

Great Post ancient Roman Gladiators were very fierce warriors, and of course had to be since they were fighting for their lives, One legend who came from the arena was Spartacus. very informative! :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

David, what a fantastic quote--so true! "Sometimes you have to let the art wash over you!" Thank you for posting that. And so true, too.

Gabriele, maybe we should look at all of these movies as "cheesy fun" even while our "historian" brains calculate all the little things they got wrong! What is that phrase? "Suspension of disbelief." I think I love classical-set movies so much that I'm willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the errors.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Luke, thanks for stopping by and commenting! I will probably have more posts on gladiators. They ARE fascinating!

Margaret said...

Oops! Makes you think twice about giving someone thumbs up :) I think the film Gladiator (my husband's favorite movie - he'll be crushed to learn of yet another historical inaccuracy in the film) certainly played an important role in perpetuating this myth. I loved this post, by the way! It will be featured in this month's Art History Carnival, which will be posted tomorrow on

Anonymous said...

The confusion about the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" gestures is a result of ignorance about how defeated gladiators were executed in the ancient Roman arena.

This was usually via an upward thrust into the neck that severed the carotid artery - the way Nero attempts to kill himself as described in ancient sources and my novel The Nero Prediction. Nero, physical coward that he was, only pricked at his neck with the daggers (two are mentioned, presumably one for each branch of the carotid). It took his freedman Epaphroditus to finish the job.

To get back to the arena, a stab at the neck with your extended thumb indicated you wanted the gladiator to get the traditional fatal neck wound while your thumb turned down indicated you wanted the gladiator spared. Ask your doctor.

Grant said...

Margaret, your husband will have to accept sooner or later that no movie is without its historical inaccuracies. Every movie has some form of creative liberty applied. Like Vicky said, "the problem is that so many of these 'purely entertaining' films transmute, in the common consciousness, as 'the truth.'"

And that is indeed the problem, because people start believing -- both intentionally and unintentionally -- that this is history as it happened. Donnie Brasco, another "true story," should be considered to be fiction as much as Gladiator is. I even saw a documentary on the topic which added events which never occurred. By using the term, "based on a true story," the filmmakers have free rein to make up as much crap for the sake of entertainment as they see fit.

If one wants detail and more accuracy than inaccuracy, read a book. However, one can look to movies to get an introduction on a topic and follow-up researching to find the truth. For example, the Camp Chapman incident in Zero Dark Thirty, I didn't know many details about it. The movie piqued my interest so I looked it up and found that, of course, the movie added its own spin on the events that took place to suit its medium. But it stirred enough interest to look it up and find the truth for myself (as much of it that's accessible).

A movie is a good way to stimulate an interest in a topic which might have otherwise been deemed uninteresting. Its also a good way to relax and try to get a semblance of the ambience of the times by letting it flow over you, like the William Hurt quotation above suggests.