May 2, 2007
The team examined the remains
Analysis of their bones and injuries has given new insight into how they lived, fought and died.
The remains were found at Ephesus in Turkey, a major city of the Roman world, BBC Timewatch reports.
Gladiators were the sporting heroes of the ancient world. Archaeological records show them celebrated in everything from mosaics to graffiti.
Motifs of gladiators are found on nearly a third of all oil lamps from Roman archaeological digs throughout the Empire.
But how much did they risk every time they stepped into the arena? Did they have much chance of getting out alive?
The discovery of what is claimed to be the first scientifically authenticated gladiator graveyard has given researchers the opportunity to find out.
The Ephesus graves containing thousands of bones were found along with three gravestones, clearly depicting gladiators.
Two pathologists at the Medical University of Vienna - Professor Karl Grossschmidt and Professor Fabian Kanz - have spent much of the past five years painstakingly cataloguing and forensically analysing every single bone for age, injury and cause of death.
They found at least 67 individuals, nearly all aged 20 to 30. One striking bit of evidence is that many have healed wounds.
To Kanz and Grossschmidt, this suggests they were prized individuals getting good and expensive medical treatment. One body even shows signs of a surgical amputation.
And the lack of multiple wounds found on the bones, according to the pathologists, suggests that they had not been involved in chaotic mass brawls. Instead, it points to organised duels under strict rules of combat, probably with referees monitoring the bouts.
But there was also evidence of mortal wounds. Written records tell us that if the defeated gladiator had not shown enough skill or even cowardice, the cry of "iugula" (lance him through) would be heard throughout the arena, demanding he be killed.
The condemned gladiator would be expected to die "like a man" remaining motionless to receive the mortal blow.
The pathologists discovered various unhealed wounds on bones that showed how these executions could have taken place. And these are consistent with depictions on reliefs from the time showing a kneeling man having a sword rammed through down his throat into the heart. A very quick way to die.
Tell-tale nicks in the vertebrae or other bones suggest at least some of the bodies suffered this fate.
A number of skulls were also found to have sets of up to three holes at odd intervals, consistent with a blow from a three-pronged weapon such as a trident.
"The bone injuries - those on the skulls for example - are not everyday ones, they are very, very unusual, and particularly the injuries inflicted by a trident, are a particular indication that a typical gladiator's weapon was used," says pathologist Professor Karl Grossschmidt.
But not all head injuries found were trident wounds. A number of the skulls showed rectangular holes that could not have been made by any of the known gladiator weapons. Instead, they suggest the use of a heavy hammer.
"One possible explanation, which is supported by a number of archaeologists, is that there must have been an assistant in the arena who basically gave the gladiator the coup de grace," says Professor Kanz.
"I assume that they must have been very severely injured gladiators, ones who had fought outstandingly and so had not been condemned to death by the public or by the organiser of the match, but who had no chance of surviving because of their injuries. It was basically the final blow, in order to release them."
The work of the Viennese pathologists has been independently reviewed for the BBC's Timewatch programme by Dr Charlotte Roberts of Durham University, a leading physical anthropologist.
"I've looked at quite a few hundred Roman skeletons. I've seen examples of head injuries, healed and unhealed. I've seen evidence of decapitations," she says.
"But this (new find) is extremely significant; there's nothing been found in the world at all like it. They've really dispelled quite a lot of myths about gladiators and how they fought."
If a gladiator survived three years of fighting in the arena, he would win his freedom. Those who did often became teachers in the gladiator school; and one of the skeletons found at Ephesus appears to be that of a retired fighter.
He was of mature age and the scientists were able to reconstruct nearly his entire body. His head showed apparent signs of healed wounds from previous fights but, clearly, none of them would have proved fatal.
"He lived quite a normal Roman lifespan," says Professor Kanz. "And I think, most probably, he died of natural causes."
Historical records suggest a gladiator's chance of survival was slim, with some estimates as low as a one in three chance of dying each time he fought. But it appears one of the Ephesus gladiators at least survived the odds and had a chance to enjoy his retirement from the arena.