Friday, June 5, 2009


"Morituri te salutamus!"
This cry - "We who are about to die salute you!" - was recited by ancient Roman gladiators to the highest-ranking official after they entered the arena and drew lots to determine opponents. The 1872 painting above by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) captures the excitment of the games, and in fact inspired film director Ridley Scott to make the Oscar-nominated Gladiator: "That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked." The name of the painting is "Pollice Verso," which in this context is the Latin phrase for the hand gesture used to indicate whether a defeated gladiator should be killed or spared. But there is some question about whether condemnation was signalled by thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The gladiator in the painting is a murmillo, as identified by the style of helmet he wore. Just such a helmet was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii and is the centerpiece of an exhibit that will be opening later this month at the Melbourne Museum.

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