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Forensic Sci Int. 2006 Jul 13;160(2-3):207-16. Epub 2005 Nov 14.

Head injuries of Roman gladiators.

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  • 1Center of Anatomy and Cell-biology, Medical University of Vienna and Austrian Archaeological Institute, Schwarzspanierstrasse 17, Vienna A-1090, Austria.


Gladiator remains from a recently unearthed cemetery in ancient Ephesus (Turkey) offer a unique opportunity for proving common theories involving the weaponry and techniques of gladiator fighting based on the evidence supplied by cranial bones. This mass grave is the first of its kind to undergo a thorough osteological and forensic examination. A minimum number of individuals (MNI) analyses revealed that at least 68 individuals. All individuals found turned out to have been males aged between 20 and 30 years, except for one female associated with a female slave gravestone, and one male aged 45-55 years, had been buried in this area of the cemetery. The male mean body height was 168 cm (S.D.=5 cm), which lies inside the normal range of height for Roman populations at those times. Eleven (16% of MNI) individuals exhibit a total of 16 well-healed antemortal cranial traumata. Five of the 11 individuals showed multiple trauma. Ten (15% of MNI) individuals exhibited a total of 10 perimortal cranial traumata. This is a surprisingly high frequency of deadly head injuries, taking into account that most of the gladiator types wore helmets. A possible explanation could be the frequently reported deathblow technique used by the hammer-carrying death god "Dis Pater". The gladiator weaponry is well known through historical sources. At least one injury per known type of offensive weapon could be identified, as well as evidence for the most popular, the gladiator trident, which was found to be represented by one perimortem and two antemortem injuries. Overall the reportedly very strict nature of combat rules for gladiator fights could be confirmed by the absence of multiple perimortal traumatized individuals, showing a lack of the excessive violence commonly observed on medieval battle ground victims. This graveyard gives the opportunity to confirm historical aspects and to check the reliability of forensic methods for identification of antemortem, perimortem, or postmortem bone lesions. Typical examples for these kinds of lesions and injuries are presented. The colour of the margins of the traumata proved to be the most distinguishing feature for postmortal lesions.

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