York Gladiators Redux

The BBC has a very nice little slideshow of some of the skeletons from that dig at York which are claimed to be of gladiating victims. There’s actually some good stuff here, and since I can’t really embed the slideshow, I do want to make some comments (the numbers refer to the slide):

1. 60 of 80 appear to have died violent deaths; the implication is that all sixty were gladiators?

2. The one arm longer than the other “being consistent with one-sided work from an early age …” I’m not sure how this fits in; I highly doubt we’re dealing with people ‘raised’ to be gladiators. If this is an indication they were non-Roman warriors or something, that could work.

3. Very impressive deep cut going upward; does seem consistent with a gladiator-fight-style wound …

4. Very impressive bite marks; it should be possible to identify the animal from these, no?

5. shackled burial; I really wish we’d stop getting this sensationalism like “yet he received a proper burial” … outside of tossing emperors into the Tiber, the Romans seem to have long allowed execution victims’ remains to receive a proper burial.

6. the ‘hammer’ victim … shouldn’t there be some ‘point of impact’ mark? And shouldn’t the cracks radiate therefrom? This looks more consistent with being hit with a large sword across the top of the head …

7. very nice vertebrae cut; They might be solid ground with this one, although the ‘dispatching’ cuts in gladiating situations tended to be down the windpipe toward the heart rather than across the neck, no? 50 of the 61 skeletons had been so dispatched. In some of the early coverage from this site, though, there was the suggestion that many of the marks indicate the cuts had come from ‘behind’.

Taken together, I think 3, 4, and 6 have me leaning toward the ‘gladiator’ theory. At the same time, though, I think we should remind folks of Anthony Birley’s theory from a few years ago, that these might be victims of Caracalla‘s ‘killing spree’ shortly after Septimius Severus‘ death in 211. This ‘killing spree’ is hinted at in the first three sections of Dio 78, but it’s not clear whether this ‘spree’ happened at York. The Historia Augusta hints similarly, but is far too compressed to be useful.  Again, I wonder aloud whether anyone has thought whether many of these victims might not be examples of decimation (although, of course, proving such would be difficult) Whatever the case, I think it safer to suggest that we’ve got a pile of execution victims … some of them might have died in the arena that hasn’t been found (yet?).

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One thought on “York Gladiators Redux

  1. markfdavidson says:

    On your point 1, they say that 80 skeletons were found, 60 were complete, and ‘many’ of those showed signs of a violent death.

    I would guess that these were criminals who were executed in the arena, rather than professional gladiators. The leg irons on one are an indication of that.

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