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Roman Gladiator's Gravestone Describes Fatal Foul

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An enigmatic message on a Roman gladiator's 1,800-year-old tombstone has finally been decoded, telling a treacherous tale.


The epitaph and art on the tombstone suggest the gladiator, named Diodorus, lost the battle (and his life) due to a referee's error, according to Michael Carter, a professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. Carter studies gladiator contests and other spectacles in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.


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This probably wasn't an isolated incident. For spectators to enjoy a combat, it must have gone on for some time. A short bout would have been very disappointing, and then again, the Romans liked to see fair play in munera, the entire reason that referees were present. The typical gladiators armour confirms this, being designed to ward off injuries but not fatal thrusts into the torso. No cuts above the eyebrows would stop the fight! Nonetheless, an injury that prevented further fighting was a disaster for the victim, for he was therefore compelled either to lose or more commonly, to raise his hand/finger in surrender.


You could probably imagine how the gladiator felt when his opponent was allowed to recover and continue, but then again, that was an expected part of the regime. It certainly wouldn't suprise the man and only if the judgement was clearly a bad call would he feel aggrieved. Such opinions were not allowed to cause controversy. A gladiator had sworn obedience unto death - that was his lot - and in any case, we are told by sources that even in failure, a gladiator will die with honour, allowing the fatal blow rather than suffer some ignomious and inevitable fate.


There does seem to be a streak of fatalism in this genre of fighting. Good friends in the same familia will readily fight and ultimately kill the other if called upon to do so. The inscription at Pompeii that tells "Take heed from my fate and show no mercy" warns others that either your former opponent could live to fight you another day, or that deliberately sparing your opponent might incur the wrath of the games editor who could easily command you to face a fresh opponent until he's satisfied that your performance or fate is sufficient.


In any case, the epitaph is always from those who buried the dead man. Friends and families who saw something they disagree with. In the same way that a referee in football is booed because the fans observed an event from a different light, the gladiatorial referee may have taken a different view than the aggrieved mourners.

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A fascinating interpretation, and while I have no doubt that it will be called into question, because it is only speculation, I agree with caldrail that such things must have happened. Referees today are human and can make errors; they were no different in ancient times. There have been instances of corruption in modern sport; it would have also happened in ancient times.


Could this tombstone mean that a summa rudis was bribed to rig a fight? We shall never know for sure, but I love the idea of it!

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