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Victorious Gladiators Volume 60 Number 5, September/October 2007
by Sarah Yeomans

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(AP Photo/Plinio Lepri)

Sculptures from a first-century B.C. tomb escape the clutches of looters.

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Anna Maria Moretti, superintendent of archaeology in northern Rome (Sarah Yeomans)

After a three-year investigation, Italian authorities have recovered a dozen stolen frieze panels with superbly carved images of gladiators. Depictions of gladiators were somewhat common on funerary monuments of upper-class Romans in the later imperial period, but these document the gladiatorial games in the later first century B.C. They give scholars a rare look into the games while they were evolving from funerary rituals with great religious significance to events that promoted the political power and prestige of Rome's elite.

Authorities found the carvings hidden by thieves under a thin layer of earth near the modern town of Fiano Romano, site of the ancient settlement of Lucus Feroniae, about 25 miles north of Rome. "They were placed next to each other like dominoes," says Anna Maria Moretti, superintendent of archaeology in northern Rome. "The looters had placed them side by side with great precision...so as not to damage them and lessen their value."

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(Courtesy Ministero dei Beni Culturali)

The slabs, thought to have decorated a tomb, depict six pairs of fighters. "We can see a gladiator stepping on the hand of his opponent (right)," Moretti says. "The downed gladiator raises a finger in the typical gesture used to plea for mercy. Another scene shows a dying gladiator, falling on the ground with his shield lost (above)." The gladiator with his finger raised reflects the tradition of fighting ad digitum, that is, until one opponent raises a finger, signaling defeat. Musicians are shown flanking the combatants. One plays a curved horn or cornu, and two others play the tuba, a four-foot-long straight trumpet.

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(Courtesy Ministero dei Beni Culturali)

"The panels are especially important because of their quality, as well as the precision with which the weapons and armor of the gladiators are depicted," says Moretti. "They come from a period very early in Augustus's reign, before he instituted certain changes in the ludi [gladiator schools] and the style of gladiators' armor and weaponry. The images in these friezes depict much simpler battle dress and weapons than those that were created later in the Augustan age."

The friezes and the other artifacts were restored and initially displayed at Rome's Villa Giulia museum last January, but they were recently transferred to the Lucus Feroniae Museum of Archaeology, where they will be on permanent display. "While it was important to share this discovery with the public as soon as possible...it's appropriate that they be returned to the region of their origin," says Moretti. "We're lucky that they weren't gone for long." In the battle against the illegal antiquities trade, it seems these gladiators are the victors.

Sarah Yeomans, with additional reporting by Marco Merola

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© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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