[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail:
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]
Italiano

[Link to a series of help pages]
Help
[Link to the next level up]
Up
[Link to my homepage]
Home

This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Journal of Philology
Vol. 13, No. 2 (1892), pp213‑225.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p213 Pollice Verso

Some of the most disputed questions concerning the missio of the Roman gladiator have to do with the interpretation of certain vexed phrases. Especially to be mentioned are pollicem vertere, pollicem convertere, pollicem premere and pollex infestus. How radically our modern authorities differ as to the meaning of these terms is evident from the variety of opinions entertained as to the response made to the vanquished gladiator begging for his life. Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3d edition, vol. I, p917:a "His [the gladiator's] fate depended upon the people, who turned up their thumbs if they wished him to be killed. . . . There is no clear evidence that the wish that mercy should be shown was expressed by pressing down the thumbs: this was indicated rather by waving handkerchiefs." Baumeister, Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums, u. s. w., p2101: "Das Volk gewährte die Begnadigung oder Entlassung (missio) durch Schwenken von Tüchern, oder durch einen Gestus des Daumens (presso pollice), stimmte für Tod durch Wenden des Daumens nach untern (verso pollice)." Friedländer, Sittengeschichte Roms, 5th edit., vol. II, p345: "Von Seiten der Zuschauer war das Zeichen der Gewährung, wie es scheint, das Schwenken von Tüchern;1 das Wenden des Daumens nach unten bedeutete den Befehl zur Ertheilung des Todesstosses." Guhl and Koner, Life of the Greeks and Romans described from Antique Monuments; translated from the 3d German edition (p560): "In case the spectators lifted their clenched fists (verso pollice), the fight had to be continued; the waving of handkerchiefs was the sign of mercy granted." Falke, Greece and Rome: their Life and Art, N. Y., 1882; translated from the German edition (p289): "It stood in the pleasure of the people to grant them their lives, but usually they gave the sign of death by stretching out the hands with extended thumbs." Dyer, Pompeii, 3d edit., N. Y., 1871 (p228): "This signal was the turning down the thumbs," Dyer naïvely adding, "as is well known." O. Seyffert, Dictionary of p214Classical Antiquities, etc.; transl. from the German; revised and edited by Nettleship and Sandys; London, 1891: "The sign of mercy (missio) was the waving of handkerchiefs: the clenched fist and downward thumb indicated that the combat was to be fought out till death" (p254).b

Nor are the lexicographers more satisfactory. Lewis and Short (under pollex): "To close down the thumb (premere) was a sign of approbation; to extend it (vertere, convertere, pollex infestus), a sign of disapprobation." Georges, Ausführliches lateinisch-deutsches Handwörterbuch (7th edit.), under pollex: "Der Daumen, infestus, der gerade hingestreckte, als ob man Einen damit erstechen wollte; pollicem premere, den Daumen einschlagen: pollicem vertere, den Daumen gegen die Brust richten (ein Zeichen, dass das Volk einen besiegten Gladiator getödtet wissen wollte)." Forcellini (De Vit.), under pollex: "In pollice erat favoris, studiique significatio, nam faventes premebant, aversantes improbantesque vertebant retro et subrigebant."

In this mass of contradictory statements what are the ascertainable facts? Of what character was the response made to the appeal of the man who was hors de combat? What is the real meaning of the Latin terms used? Manifestly, any sure ground of belief must be sought in ancient authorities, literary and artistic, aided by auxiliary study of the general use of the words employed in describing the response made to the wounded gladiator.

We have seen that there is a large amount of disagreement and contradiction among scholars concerning several important terms and facts, so much so that there is reason for a new examination of the data and sources of our knowledge. What was the sign for missio? What the sign for death?

There is no doubt that pollicem vertere or convertere (lit. 'to turn the thumb') was the sign for death made in answer to the appeal for mercy. This is clear from Juvenal 3.34‑37, and from a passage in Prudentius Clemens, contra Symmachum 2.1096: "et quoties victor ferrum iugulo inserit, illa delicias esse suas, pectusque iacentis virgo modesta iubet conversio pollice rumpi." But this does not touch the question as to what this sign, or turn of the thumb, was. Most of the modern authorities, including the commentators on Juvenal 3.36, tell us in an ex cathedra way that the spectator turned his thumb towards his own throat, or breast, as a sign that the victorious gladiator should dispatch his conquered antagonist. I have come to believe that there is small p215ground for this interpretation, and that, if not altogether impossible, it is very doubtful.

Let us examine more closely the Latin terms in dispute, hoping thereby to ascertain something as to the true signification of the phrases in question. The word vertere seems literally = 'turn, turn about, turn around.' Forcell. says: "Verto proprie ut in aliam partem converto, torqueo." If pollicem vertere = 'to turn the thumb upwards,' one is moved to inquire why we have no modifying adverb to define more accurately the direction. In case p. vertere = 'to turn the thumb downwards,' is there any reason why the adverb can be dispensed with? An examination of the use of vertere shows that it = 'to turn from the normal or existing position.' E.g. terga vertere, se vertere ('wheel about'), vertere solum bidentibus, or terram aratro verterearare. So vertereevertere 'overthrow, subdue,' etc. Pollicem vertere ought to be such a turn of the thumb as will throw it into a position different from the normal position. The natural position of the thumb, when the sitting spectator extends his hand, if not turned slightly upward, is stretched out towards, or in a line with, the fingers. Again, it is very evident that the thumb in this hostile gesture must have been somehow so pointed as to indicate the hostile or adverse feelings of the spectators.2 It stands to reason that the position of the thumb must have been so different from the normal position as to preclude any mistaken interpretation; that is, it must clearly indicate the will of the spectators as against any other gesture of the thumb declaring for missio. That there was a disposition to grant the missio to a gladiator who had fought bravely, we would infer from the fact that great gladiators were public favorites, like actors and the jockeys of the circus, and even the fallen gladiator would be apt to have many friends among the spectators, who would be glad to have him spared. p216That the missio was frequently given is clear enough from inscriptions, e.g. Orelli-Henzen 2571 = Wilm. 2615:

Flamma · sec · vix · ann. xxx

pvgnat xxxiiii · vicit · xxi

stans3 viiii · mis4 · iiii nat · Srvs5

hvi6 Delicatvs Coarmio fecit

The gesture for missio must have been of such a character as to render easy distinction between it and the normal position of the thumb, as well as between it and the sign for death. The Flavian amphitheatre especially was such an immense structure that a gesture of the hand, as seen by gladiators in the arena, could not be distinguished at all, except when made in a very characteristic way, or except as made by the spectators in the front rows. Where the combatants fought near the emperor's box and looked to him for judgment, the case would be simpler; but where the editor muneris, looking to the gestures to spectators for his direction (who might by no means be agreed in their opinion), or where the conquering gladiator looked directly to the spectators for his command, there must be no room for uncertainty of meaning because of failure to see the gestures actually made. It seems probable — almost certain — that the separate thumb and fingers of the outstretched hand of the majority of sitting spectators could not have been distinguished at all, thereby necessitating such a turn of the whole hand as to make clear the position of the thumb as seen from below by gladiator or editor muneris. This affords a presumption in favor of such a turn of both wrist and hand as to direct the thumb downwards, pointing to the fallen gladiator, as much as to say, "There he is! finish your work, gladiator, by plunging your sword into his breast or throat." In a place so vast, where the individual in the arena appears so diminutive as seen from the tiers of seats, and where the gesture of the individual spectator lost in the mass would be even harder to see clearly by the gladiator, the motion necessary to point the thumb towards the breast of the spectator is so slight, necessitating but a very little turn of the wrist, that it is hard to see how it could have served the end desired. Besides, as seen from below, the thumb, pointed towards the breast of the spectator would to the watching gladiator have been in many cases wholly hid behind the rest of p217the hand. Furthermore, is it likely, reasoning a priori, that the Roman, superstitious in a high degree, who, while he could look with pleasure on the death of poor wretches in the arena, so much dreaded to think of his own,7 would have used a gesture so realistic as to point at his own throat? Would not the pantomimic pointing of the thumb of the spectator at his own throat or breast seem to look — and absurdly — rather to the self-slaughter of the victor than to the killing of the fallen gladiator? Slight as this presumption may appear to be, I believe that in dealing with sign-language of this character we cannot afford to ignore it. In the above argument it is taken for granted that the pollex symbolizes the Roman sword, comparatively short and thick.8

It is possible, too, although hardly likely in the case of a people so practical as the Romans, that just as they used the middle finger (digitus medius), the so‑called 'finger of scorn,' with which to make an insulting gesture, so the downward turn of the thumb may = ad inferos, i.e. 'to the lower world with him! death to him!'

Again, the word convertere was used interchangeably with vertere in the phrase pollicem convertere. Convertere is used not simply for vertere as it undeniably is in many cases, but it is apt to point to the terminus in quem. Cf. naves in eam partem c., ora ad aliquem c., ferrum in aliquem c. In the case of the gladiatorial pollicem convertere, the real terminus in quem would seem not to be the unknown spectator, but rather the chief object of momentary interest, i.e. the fallen and beseeching gladiator. Hence to him the pollex should be directed.

The interpretation above advanced for pollicem vertere and p. convertere is strengthened by a study of the phrase pollex infestus. It is well known that pollex infestus stood for the hostile gesture of the thumb in the case of the amphitheatre spectators. E.g. Burmann, Anthologia Latina 3.82.28;

Sperat et in saeva victus gladiator harena,

sit licet infesto pollice turba minax.

Though the etymology of infestus is not absolutely certain, there is a fair degree of agreement among scholars in referring it to some word meaning strike. Not to consider seriously the p218derivation of the word from festinandum by P. Nigidius Figulus, a grammarian of the time of Cicero,9 or from inferus (cf. the remarks as to ad inferos above), Roby (Grammar of the Latin Lang., §704, footnote) refers infestus to ferire, 'strike.' Georges derives the word from in and fendo (the primitive seen in defendo), as do Lewis and Short. It is hardly due entirely to graphical peculiarities that infestus and infensus are confused in MSS. We can scarcely doubt the infestus primarily = in ('against') + fendo ('strike').

That infestus has two meanings was recognized by Gellius:10 1. 'unjust, unsafe'; 2. (act.) 'hostile, dangerous, threatening.' Manifestly, in pollex infestus the adj. has the latter meaning. But 'hostile' or 'dangerous' to whom? To the fallen gladiator certainly, and not to the passive spectator. If the symbolism of the pollex counts for anything, why not that of infestus? Some uses of infestus are here to the point, showing that in its sense the adjective has a literal directive signification. So infesta hasta (Virg. Aen. 10.877), to which Servius says: "in vulnus parata, id est protenta." Here the hasta, like the pollex in p. infestus, is turned hostilely towards the object for which the hostile feeling is entertained. Cf. "infestis signis; Tarquinium infesto spiculo petit" (Livy 2.20.2); even in exercitu infesto and infestis oculis. In all these cases the adverse directive force of the adjective appears clearly enough.

But there is a far different application of the phrase pollex infestus, an examination of which is not without value here. The phrase pollex infestus was used by the Romans to denote a certain kind of gesture used by some orators in making the opening remarks of a speech. The term p. infestus used of the orator is used evidently of something well understood, and, although having no hostile sense in this latter use, and being employed apparently to describe a peculiar gesture only, there is hardly reason to doubt that the position of the hand and thumb described by p. infestus in the one case is the same as that in the other. It is not to be supposed that a phrase apparently so characteristic would stand for two different things unless somehow qualified, in order to define more closely the peculiar signification in a given case. The passage of most interest in this connection, referring to this use of p. infestus, is as follows: Quintil. 11.3.119, Fit et ille habitus, qui esse in statuis pacificator solet, qui, inclinato in p219umerum dextrum capite, brachio ab aure protenso, manum infesto pollice extendit. The commentators throw no real exegetical light on this passage. Several things, however, may be noted. (1) Quintilian is not only speaking of gesture, but especially of bad or faulty gesture. (2) Without much amplification he refers to a considerable number of such gestures, the foregoing sentence, for example (which, by the way, is not undisputed as to MS. reading) containing several such references. (3) The fit et ille sentence has apparently no dependence on the former sentence. (4) The head being inclined to, or towards, the right shoulder, the arm is extended forward (protenso) from the ear, and the hand is extended with the thumb in the infestus position. As to the qui . . . pacificator solet there seems to be no archaeological help obtainable from existing remains. If we, interpreting the words of Quintilian literally, extend the arm from the ear, it may seem as if the most natural gesture were to half invert the hand and turn the thumb up. But when we do this, the position of the thumb will not be what is demanded by those who advocate the upward turn of the pollex. The thumb will not point to the throat or breast of the spectator, as those who favor this interpretation of p. vertere assume. It is not only too high to do so, but cannot be made to point in the right direction. Remember that infestus (infendo) apparently points to something. Moreover, if the pollex infestus be the upward turn of the thumb, why the necessity of describing a gesture or position so natural by a technical phrase which clearly points to something abnormal? (Quintilian, be it remembered, is describing awkward and ridiculous gesture.) If, on the other hand, we extend the arm from the ear as before, but do not invert the hand, the finger cannot now be made to point to the throat or breast, provided it be kept extended from the ear, any more than in the former case when the hand was inverted. But how easily does the thumb now point downward to the imaginary fallen gladiator!

One passage from Appuleius seems to throw a little light on this use of infestus. Metamor. 2.21.142, Effultus in cubitum suberectusque in torum porrigit dexteram, et ad instar oratorum conformat articulum; duobusque infimis conclusis digitis, ceteros eminentes porrigens et infesto pollice clementer subridens infit. Unfortunately, the passage is corrupt, such important words as conclusis and eminentes being in dispute, because of MS. differences. For eminentes some adopt the MS. reading eminens or eminus. Hildebrand reads eminuse manu. Baumeister (p590) p220cites this passage to illustrate another gesture altogether. But it seems to me impossible, for in the illustration which he gives (from a so‑called Dareios vase) the pollex is not in the position demanded by any theory of the pollex infestus. It is to be noted that the gesture here described is referable to the beginning of the orator's remarks. May not the phrase qui esse in statuis pacificator solet in the Quintilian citation refer to a gesture by which the orator about to begin his remarks would ask for silence? If so, the gesture of the Appuleius passage would seem to be intended to serve the same purpose and to be virtually the same gesture.

What was the corresponding sign of missio, or mercy? There is about as much difference of opinion here as in regard to the sign of condemnation. Most modern authorities assume that the phrase expressive of the sign for missio is pollicem premere. They explain it to mean that the thumb was simply turned downwards; that is, the opposite gesture to p. vertere, when standing for the death signal, expressed by an upward turn of the pollex. Mayor (Juv. 3.66) says that this downward turn of the p. premere was a signal that the conqueror was to drop his sword, raised to slay the vanquished gladiator. But is premere in this use equivalent to vertere? It stands to reason that, if p. vertere means, as I have sought to prove, to turn the thumb downwards, p. premere must stand for something different. Even if p. vertere meant to turn the thumb upwards, p. premere must mean something more than merely to turn the thumb downwards. If we inquire by appealing to the literal or radical meaning of premere, we find that it most naturally means to press or squeeze, not to turn. Press or squeeze the thumb how, or by what? If premere have a literal signification here, p. premere points to a literal squeezing or pressing of the thumb by the fingers, hiding the thumb in the palm of the hand, for the pollex can be squeezed only by the remaining fingers of the hand. Assuming that my notion of the gesture is correct, is any explanation forthcoming? Was it symbolic? If so, of what? Kiessling, in common with others, commenting on Horace, Epist. 1.18.66, refers to the passage in Pliny, H. N. 28.2.25, Pollices, cum faveamus, premere etiam proverbio iubemur. Other classical references — unfortunately but few in number — add a little. That the passage in Horace above mentioned (Epist. 1.18.65‑66) refers to the amphitheatre contests is clear (although the direct reference here is to a mock fight at a country-seat) from the technical word ludus, and from p221the allusion to the custom of matching the gladiators in pairs (see alterutrum v. 64) in the actual fight. The inference is that in Horace's time the pollex was used somehow to favor the victorious gladiator; that is, to declare in favor of the missio. Another passage is in Statius, Theb. 8.26, Fata serunt animas et eodem pollice damnant. (For serunt some MSS. read ferunt.) We may here presumably infer that as late as Statius (latter half of the first century A.D.) the pollex was used to indicate the spectator's wish for missio, assuming that the allusion is to the amphitheatre custom, which there seems no reason to doubt. Naturally, too, if the same thumb be used, the gesture must be very different in the one case from that used in the other.

Reverting to the Pliny excerpt, it is fair to say that we have no direct proof that the thing alluded to by him was the identical gesture used for the missio. It seems, however, more than probable. Pliny refers evidently to something that was old and well-established enough to have become proverbial. The use of the plural pollices is no more against it than the utroque . . . pollice of Horace, Epist. 1.18.66, cited above. There is no reason for understanding faveamus reflexively, or to doubt that the 'favor' refers to other persons than the subject. I can see no good reason for believing that Pliny refers to any gesture made with a view of warding off the evil eye, as Kiessling seems to think. As is well known, the Romans sought to offset and render abortive this evil influence by various charms designed to distract, or throw off its guard, the evil power by an imprecation, or by some scare-crow of a laughable or obscene character. The most common of all these charms was the fascinum11 or phallus. This was made on an emergency, by one who would paralyze the evil eye, by sticking the thumb between the index and the second, or middle, finger (digitus medius et impudicus), or by extending the digitus medius from the other clinched fingers. Kiessling evidently assumes (1) a real, or symbolic, resemblance between the fascinum and the p. premere gesture, and (2) that the Pliny passage refers to the gesture made against fascinatio, for he cites this passage and also says that the p. premere gesture had, properly speaking, an obscene signification, and served as a means of averting evil influences, like the evil eye, etc. If K. means that the p. premere gesture and the fascinum were identical, is either assumption correct? That the latter may have p222suggested the former is possible, but not, I believe, probable. The sign, or demonstration, against fascinatio looks to the protection or preservation of him who uses it. Reasoning a priori, is it likely that the same gesture would be used in so changed and objective a sense as to look to the preservation of another than of him who uses it, especially when there is no question of fascinatio involved? If the fascinum gesture was the p. premere gesture, which fascinum gesture, we must ask, for there were, as we know, two of them? if the digitus medius stretching from the clenched fist is meant, it is so like the p. vertere as to be practically useless in a great assembly. If the other fascinum be meant, in which the thumb was pressed and extended between the digitus index and the digitus medius, then, although the literal etymological demand of premere is satisfied, and though there is enough difference between the two gestures to preclude confusion, still we can see no connection between the gesture and the thing for which it is supposed to stand. If we could believe that Pliny's words refer to the fascination we might accept this interpretation, but there is no proof that they do refer to this, or, indeed, to the missio at all. Besides, if Pliny here refers to power against 'fascination,' it is strange that he does not plainly say so, as he has done in other places where he has spoken directly of the fascinus and of fascinatio,12 rather than speak of something apparently different. Why resort to a half-mythical explanation, when a more direct and natural one will suffice? If the pollex symbolized the short sword in the one case (p. vertere or convertere), the symbolism should hold good in the second case. If the p. vertere points the sword at the fallen gladiator, why should not the p. premere symbolize by the pressing and hiding of the pollex infestus the hiding of the sword within the sheath and the preservation of the appealing gladiator?

Furthermore, it may be that during the empire a different fashion was set through court or other influence, and that missio was sometimes indicated otherwise than by the p. premere gesture. We have already cited Friedländer (see p213), who inclines to the belief that the desire for missio was indicated by the waving of mappae, or the holding up of a finger. Let us examine what grounds F. has for his double assertion. In his Sittengeschichte he gives no authority at all for his first statement, which is doubtfully made. But in his edition of Martial, commenting on 12.29.7‑8, p223he says: "Um die Entlassung eines Gladiators von dem Spielgeber zu erbitten, schwenkte man Tücher." The words of Martial are:

Nuper cum Myrino peteretur missio laeso,

subduxit mappas quattuor Hermogenes.

The onus probandi is evidently with him who would assume that mappae were waved, for no mention is made of the fact. Unless strongly called for by the context, it would seem utterly unscientific to infer this, more especially when based upon a single example. At first sight the context seems to require no such assumption. The brief period during which the missio was being demanded by the crowd for Myrinus would be one of great excitement — a fine opportunity for pickpockets! — and Martial may mean that Hermogenes used his time to such purpose that he actually purloined, not one, but four mappae. It would appear ridiculous to assume that he could on the sly (notice the sub-duxit) steal mappae from the very hands of people waving them, while the other interpretation appears natural. Let us, however, examine our citation in connection with the other parts of the epigram. Hermogenes, says Martial, was an inveterate thief, who stole as many mappae as Massa, who had plundered a province, had stolen sesterces. This hyperbolic style Martial, for a reason perfectly clear, keeps us through the entire epigram. He says, for example, that H. will find some way to steal your mappa if you hold his left and watch his right hand. Immediately following our quotation Martial says that, when the praetor in the circus was about to drop the mappa — the usual signal to the aurigae for starting — Hermogenes managed to steal it. Since no guest brought a mappa to dinner, because they knew their man, H. stole the table-cloth. When H. enters the theatre, although it may be extremely hot, the velarium is rolled back lest he steal it. Our passage seems to be the weakest illustration of the misdirected activity of H., if he only purloined four mappae — surely no impossible feat, if the demand for the missio required several minutes and the mappae were handkerchiefs carried on the person. If, on the other hand, we understand that these mappae played some part in the missio demand, that H. was sly and adept enough to get them away from the very hands of those who held them, as he stole the praetor's mappa and could steal yours though you held one of his hands and kept an eye on the other, the hyperbole is strong enough to serve Martial and no more extreme than the others in the epigram. A further examination p224of the epigram shows that the various things mentioned as the objects of H.'s kleptomania, actual or possible, are directly essential to the action, or are a part of the thing described, and not merely incidental, like handkerchiefs, e.g. the mappa of the praetor, the table-cloth at dinner, the velarium in the circus, etc. So the mappae in our quotation should have some direct relation to the demand for the missio which is mentioned. It is hard to see how mappae could be so used except by waving them and thus backing up the shout or clamor of the crowd. Still, there is a difficulty in this assumption. There seems to be no doubt that under the empire, even during Martial's own time, the pollex was used as a sign of favor. Cf. the passages already cited from Horace, Statius and Juvenal. Can the use of both means of declaring for the missio at the same period be explained? The populace would naturally defer to and appeal to the princeps for decision, when he was present at the games, rather than take the matter into their own hands. It is more than likely that court and fashionable demands would insist on one means of declaring for the missio when the crowd had the right to do so, and on something else when the people could only appeal to the princeps. I suspect that, if the waving of mappae were a sign of the missio-desire, it merely served to express the wish of the crowd that the emperor should spare the life of a vanquished favorite. It is to be noticed here (Mart. 12.29.7) that there is no statement that the people voted missio to Myrinus, but that they begged for him the official release. Cf. Liber Spectaculorum 29, Missio saepe viris magno clamore petita est. Here the princeps is expressly stated to have exercised the deciding power. Friedländer's second surmise, viz. that the finger of the spectator was raised as a sign for missio, rests apparently on even less substantial basis. There seems to be absolutely no proof from literature, or indeed from any source. Friedländer (vol. II, p346, footnote 1), quoting from the Bullettino dell' Instituto for 1853, refers to a relief found at Cavillargues, France, now in the museum at Nîmes, representing a combat between two gladiators. In this relief, according to Friedländer, appear four spectators, three men and a woman, who are said to hold the thumb upwards.13


[image ALT: A circular plaque carved in low relief with a depiction of gladiatorial combat, in which a more or less naked man on the left aims his spear at the greaves of the helmeted and shielded man on the right. To the right and somewhat in the background, a man in a short tunic stretches out his right arm, making a gesture with his fingers. In the distant background above the principal actors, small human figures are seen in various attitudes. It is a Roman terracotta plaque discussed in some detail in the text of this webpage, for the clues it may provide as to the gesture by which the audience at gladiatorial contests asked for, or commanded, mercy for a vanquished gladiator.]

For the details of this relief, you have a pair of options: a much larger copy of this same photograph; a drawing of the object in the Daremberg & Saglio article Gladiateur — that brings out, as drawings often do, what the camera lens has trouble catching.

The inscription on the p225relief fixes the meaning. The first letters are obscure, the remaining letters being tes missi. The obscure letters are likely stan, which would give us stantes missi, as F. supplies. The combat being a drawn one, the spectators are represented as asking that the missio be voted the combatants. All of which, even if to be fairly got out of the relief, would prove little, being but a single fact. But the relief will admit of no such interpretation. So far as I know, it has never been published. To the courtesy of M. Estève, Curator of the Archaeological Museum at Nîmes, I am indebted for a full-sized photograph of this relief, together with supplementary explanations. The relief is upon a circular piece of terra-cotta, with convex top, the concavity being 0.025 m. It served, when found in 1845 or 1847, as a cover to a mortuary urn. It is to be observed that each gladiator is accompanied by a lanista (?). The one to the right, who extends his arm and whose hand is represented with the four fingers bent down over the thumb, seems to corroborate in an unexpected way what has been said of the pollicem premere as a declaration for the missio. The position of the hand is not natural, and the abnormal position stands for something. The inscription proves that the relief is a representation connected in some way with the missio, and we cannot refuse to believe that the lanista, or backer of the secutor, or Samnite, as he may be, is asking for the missio for his man. Friedländer's four spectators, one of whom he says is a woman, and who hold the thumb up as a sign for missio, are at the very top of the relief. The slightest examination must convince any one that they cannot be spectators. There are several reasons which occur to me why they cannot be so regarded, only one of which will I mention now, viz. that of the four figures, (counting from the left) only the second and fourth are facing us, the first and the third being turned the other way. Of the four persons, only one, or possibly two, can be said to raise the hand in the air. Lastly, the work was originally so rough, or has suffered so much mutilation, that absolutely nothing can be inferred as to the thumbs of a single so‑called spectator. The second conjectural statement of Friedländer receives no support whatever from this relief, which seems to be his only authority.

Edwin Post.


The Author's Notes:

1 In a footnote F. adds: "Vielleicht auch das Aufheben eines Fingers."

2 There seems to be little reason to doubt that, in republican times, the decision lay sometimes, if not always, with the editor muneris. Even during the empire, after the decision for life or death was tacitly referred by the editor to the crowd, it is likely that he, taking his cue from the crowd, gave the signal to the victorious gladiator. Cf. Martial 3.99; Juvenal 3.34‑37; Horace, Epist. 1.1.4‑6; Seneca, Epist. 117.7 and 37.2. In the case of the games given by the emperor, it is likely that, as editor muneris, he reserved the right to decide the question of missio. In a munus of this sort it would appear that the people were not expected to indicate directly, but indirectly, their preference. Cf. Mart. Lib. spect. 29.

3 Vid. P. J. Meier, De gladiatura Romana, Bonn, 1881, p46 sqq.

4 Missus.

5 Syrus.

6 Huic.

7 Cf. the many euphemistic phrases for 'die' rather than the blunt morior.

8 The symbolic use of the fingers precluded their use, besides there is peculiar significance in the use of the pollex. Cf. etymology of pollex (potis and valeo). "Pollex nomen ab eo, quod pollet accepit," Macr. Sat. 7.13.14, citing the grammarian Ateius Capito.

9 Aulus Gellius 9.12.6.

10 9.12.2.

11 Porphyr. ad Hor. Epod. 8.18.

12 E.g. H. N. 28.3.39.

13 The new edition of Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, mistranslating Friedländer, represents the woman only as raising her thumb, which, if the fact, would prove no more than a possible difference of opinion among the spectators. Meier (De gladiatura Romana, p47, n1) says: "Femina in altiore suggestu sedens digitoque sublato gladiatores mittens depicta est in anaglypho, de quo Henzen bull. d. inst. 1853, p130, conferatur."


Thayer's Notes:

a Post quotes the latest edition of Smith's Dictionary (1890 — which would be the last). Had he written a few years earlier, he would have found the dictionary article unexceptionable, if uninformative: the 2d edition (1875), online on this site, had been much more cautious (Gladiatoresq.v.).

b In Daremberg & Saglio's Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, a few years after our article, Georges Lafaye follows Friedländer and writes:

Le droit de grâce (missio) appartenait à l'editor, et, autant qu'il semble, à lui seul ; aussi en réalité ne dit‑on pas qu'il fait tuer les vaincus, mais qu'il les tue (occidit), le vainqueur n'étant que l'instrument de sa volonté ; cependant il est probable qu'en général il se conformait au désir exprimé par la foule.1 Si l'empereur entrait dans sa tribune au moment où le sort d'un vaincu était en suspens, celui‑ci avait la vie sauve par le fait même.2 Les spectateurs qui souhaitaient qu'on accordât la grâce levaient un doigt en l'air,3 ou bien ils agitaient une pièce d'étoffe (mappa),4 en criant "Missum !" Leur geste, répété par l'editor, donnait au vaincu5 le droit de sortir aussitôt de l'arène. Si au contraire sa prière était repoussée, les spectateurs, et après eux l'editor, baissaient le pouce vers la terre (vertere pollicem),6 en criant: "Jugula !"7 Dès lors il n'avait plus qu'à tendre la gorge pour recevoir le coup mortel (ferrum recipere)8 de la main du vainqueur.

s.v. "Gladiateur",
Tome II, vol. 2, p1595, col. 2.

The right to grant mercy (missio) belonged to the editor and, as far as we can tell, to him alone; thus in fact it is not said that he has the losers killed, but that he kills them (occidit), the winner merely being the instrument of his will; in general, however, it is likely that he followed the wish expressed by the crowd.1 If the emperor entered his tribune at the moment when the fate of a loser hung in the balance, the loser's life was spared ipso facto.2 Spectators who wished for mercy to be granted raised a finger in the air,3 or waved a piece of cloth (mappa)4 and shouted "Missum!" Their gesture, repeated by the editor, gave the loser5 the right immediately to leave the arena. If on the other hand his plea was rejected, the spectators, and following them the editor, turned their thumbs toward the ground (vertere pollicem),6 and shouted "Jugula!"7 At that point all that remained for him to do was to offer his throat to receive the death blow (ferrum recipere)8 from the hand of the winner.

(my translation)


[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 15 Aug 07