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Gladiator fresco found in Regio V, near Pompeii. Credit: Pompeii Archaeological Park

Gory Fresco of Gladiator Fight Found in Sleazy Pompeii Tavern


Archaeologists in Pompeii have unearthed a well-preserved fresco in a gladiators’ tavern illustrating the end of a fight in gory detail.

The fresco of two gladiators fighting was discovered beneath a stairwell at Regio V, a 21.8-hectare (54-acre) site to the north of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii’s archaeological park. Two different types of gladiator are illustrated: the first is a murmillo class who emerged in the early Imperial period to replace the Gallus - the warriors of Gaul, and the second was a Thracian, who generally fought with a small shield and sica, a short sword with a gently curved blade.

Thumbs Up Or Down?

An article in The Guardian quotes Massimo Osanna, the director general of Pompeii’s archaeological park, who believes the fresco was found on a wall in what is thought to have been a tavern “frequented by gladiators”. The building was equipped with upper private accommodation which the gladiators may have used to ‘retreat’ with prostitutes and according to Osanna, in Regio V there were gladiators’ barracks with graffiti referring to day-to-day activities.

What is of particular interest to archaeologists is that the detailing on the fresco is so well preserved that they can discern different wounds. For example, the gladiator who lost has slash wounds on one of his wrists and another on his chest. However, even with these two potentially fatal wounds it is unknown whether the defeated fighter was given the thumbs up or down.

The thumbs down is given. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

The thumbs down is given. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

Red Hot Irons and Whips

Let us now cut away any glimmer of glamor which you might associate with gladiatorial battles, for since the very first gladiatorial contest in Rome in 264 BC, these brutal spectacles contained one underlying theme - death. Each gladiator is tasked with the single and clear goal of killing his opponent and, if like in the fresco a gladiator was wounded, the sponsor or the crowd gave the thumbs up or down, for mercy or death.

According to a ThoughtCo article, most gladiators were criminals and slaves trained to fight with armor and from chariots with lassoes and nets and a gladiator who killed scores of opponents might win his release from the arena with considerable fame. But on the opposite side of the coin, if a man showed fear or reluctance to fight, they were driven into the blood-fest gladiatorial arena with red-hot irons and whips.

The Italian Heritage Hero

The nearly 2,000-year-old ruins have long been the subject of international concern: an August 2013 Guardian article alarmingly covered UNESCO’s threat to place Regio V on its list of world heritage sites “in peril”, which inspired Italian authorities to fund excavations which now attract almost 4 million visitors a year.

Italy’s current culture minister, Dario Franceschini, the former secretary of Italy’s Democratic party (the party of the prime minister, Matteo Renzi) said that while a few years ago the archaeological site of Pompeii was known throughout the world for the collapses, strikes and queues of tourists, today’s story is “one of redemption and millions more tourists” and he added that they have returned to doing research through new digs. He told press that the new fresco established Pompeii as an inexhaustible mine of research and provides “knowledge for today’s archaeologists and for those of the future.”

A Man Against the Mafia

Italy has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country in the world, but after decades of short-lived governments, corruption and bureaucratic wrangles, many museums and historic sites have been seriously neglected. In recent years, Pompeii’s walls collapsed and many of Rome’s museums have almost become relics in themselves and are extremely outdated compared with those in other European capitals.

It seems that Franceschini, the culture minister, has been given the task of rejuvenating the way that cultural and heritage issues are managed in a country still trying to recover from its financial crash.

It’s not just bureaucracy and budgets that Franceschini has to fight, for over the last decade, thousands of artifacts have left Italy illegally and the minister says it is probable that organized crime groups take part in the illegal trade. The problem “is identical” he said, for a piece of heritage being robbed, “is always a loss” for the state and for humanity.

Top image: Gladiator fresco found in Regio V, near Pompeii. Credit: Pompeii Archaeological Park

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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