Decades ago, the discovery of gladiator graves in western Turkey refined what we know about the infamous Roman fighters by providing indisputable evidence about their lives and deaths.
Ephesus, located in the Selcuk district of Izmir, Turkey, was one of the central cities of the ancient world as the capital of the Roman province of Asia.
Famous for its gladiatorial games, evidence of the gladiators of Ephesus was found in the form of ancient graffiti on the marble walls of the city’s great theatre and stadium where the public games, which included chariot races and death games, took place. Depictions and inscriptions of gladiators were also found on day-to-day items such as oil lamps.
In 1993, while excavating for the city’s necropolis alongside the Via Sacra (Sacred Street) of Ephesus, a team led by the then head of excavations Dieter Knibbe made an unusual discovery. For the first time ever, archaeologists had found an unequivocal burial ground of several gladiators.
Unlike other graves that are acknowledged to be of gladiators, the graves in Ephesus have tombstones that depict gladiators, and inscriptions that identify them. This constitutes conclusive evidence for the identity of the individuals that lie beneath.
While only some of the graves had tombstones to indicate that the person was a gladiator, the rest were deduced to be gladiators by the similarities in osseous evidence such as injuries or chemical examinations.
“We knew there were gladiators in Ephesos, then the excavation team found where some were buried, and the analyses of their bones matched what we knew about gladiators,” Martin Steskal, deputy director of excavations in Ephesus, told TRT World.
The discovery of the gladiator tombs constituted decisive evidence for the presence of gladiatorial fights and a gladiatorial school, known as ludus, in ancient Ephesus.
In the words of Steskal, “This graveyard gives us the unique opportunity to connect historical figures with their bones, and analyze the bones to see what their life looked like. It provides a very sound picture about gladiators.”
The funerary steles that were discovered in situ within the necropolis are from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Further evidence shows that the gladiatorial games in Ephesus date back to the 1st century BC.
According to information from the Ephesus Museum, figurines, pithos, clay oil lamps, and several other items were also found aside from the bodies of gladiators and funerary steles on the burial site.
The life of a gladiator
Gladiatorial games became increasingly popular over time, reaching their peak in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. During this time, Ephesus was the capital of Roman Asia.
In Roman society, gladiators were either condemned criminals, prisoners of war, slaves, or volunteers that were in it for the money. “Their legal status was extremely low, but their social status was different. They could become famous because of their abilities and be admired,” said Steskal.
Gladiators were trained in schools by experienced gladiators called doctor. In training, the fighters used ludis, non-lethal swords and shields made from wood.
Training took place after their classification in groups such as thraex, hoplomachus, murmillo, and retiarius. These groups defined the different types of gladiators depending on their clothing, weapons, and fighting styles.
A murmillo with the alias Palumbos, translated as “male dove”, was one of the gladiators of Ephesus. His grave and funerary stele were discovered during the excavations in 1993. His wife Hymnis had commissioned the stele to commemorate him in the 2nd century AD.
Examinations of the bones from the necropolis tell a detailed story about how the gladiators of Ephesus lived.
Palumbos and his fellow gladiators had a special diet that mostly consisted of plant-based food. They especially consumed barley and bell beans, along with other grains, legumes, vegetables, and dried fruits.
Gladiators also frequently drank a beverage of plant ash. This beverage is associated with a drink that Pliny the Elder mentioned in his work Naturalis Historia. The substance was believed to treat and strengthen the exhausted body, so it was served after fights.
Another striking discovery from the analyses of the gladiators’ bones was the presence of healed injuries. Some wounds were severe but not lethal.
This finding indicates that gladiatorial confrontations were not necessarily to the death. Instead, gladiators survived and received quality medical attention for their injuries from healers called medici.
“The gladiators were properties of the owner of their ludus. They did not always die in combat as movies insinuate, because their owners did not want their investments to be in vain,” told Steskal. Institutionalised gladiator fights were a booming business that promised plenty of money.
Moreover, osseous evidence suggested that the fights took place one-on-one. There were clear rules that regulated the fights, and a referee would be supervising. The gladiatorial games in Ephesus were more of a show business than a bloodbath.
The death of a gladiator
Along with the more absorbing evidence of healed wounds, examinations of some of the gladiators’ bones also showed traces of lethal blows.
This helped scientists conclude that once a gladiator was sentenced to death in the arena, the defeated fighter would kneel before his opponent to receive the death blow or lay face down, if he was incapacitated, to be stabbed in the back.
On the other hand, some of the bodies showed the marks of a heavy impact on the skull, possibly the fatal blow.
Scientists were able to match injuries with particular weapons used in the arena. For example, cranial injuries from a weapon identified as a trident, carried by a retiarius, was found to have dealt a final blow in one case.
Analyses of the bodies from the necropolis in Ephesus show that most of these individuals that lived around two thousand years ago were aged from nineteen to thirty-five when they died.
Gladiatorial games came to an end around 400 AD as the influence of Christianity increased in the Roman Empire, leading to the closure of gladiatorial schools.
Today, visitors who want to find Ephesus's gladiators in the site of the necropolis will find “nothing more than a fig garden” in the words of Steskal.
After the excavations for the necropolis were concluded in 1995, the trenches of the gladiator cemetery were filled back to protect the site.
However, traces of the gladiators can be found at the great theatre and stadium of Ephesus where they fought over two millennia ago. Their graffiti adorns walls around the ancient city, and the Museum of Ephesus is the new home to the artefacts that depict them.