Archeologists find fresco of battling, bloodied gladiators in 2,000-year-old tavern in Pompeii
A spectacular fresco depicting blood-soaked gladiators in combat has been found in the remains of a Pompeii tavern where the hardened fighters of the Roman Empire would have drunk wine and solicited prostitutes.
In an image that evokes Spartacus and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator film, the colourful fresco shows one of the gladiators begging for mercy in what could have been the final moments of his life.
His right hand is raised with a finger outstretched, the traditional way in which fighters in the arena appealed for clemency from the emperor or whichever Roman consul was officiating the gladiatorial contest.
The battle, for him, is clearly over – his shield has clattered to the ground and he cringes in fear from his muscular opponent, who clutches a stabbing sword ready to deliver the coup-de-grace. Blood pours from gashes in his chest and arm.
The gladiators are of two distinct types. The victorious one on the left is a “murmillo”, who was armed with a short sword, padded or metal guard on his sword arm, a rectangular shield and a full full-face helmet.
The gladiator on the right is a “Thracian”, specialists who traditionally wielded a curved, foot-long dagger and had a distinctive, wide-brimmed helmet, often decorated with a griffin – griffins were the companions of Nemesis, the goddess of impending doom.
These two types of gladiator were classic adversaries and frequently pitted against each other.
The fresco, which measures 3ft by 4.5ft, was found in what was probably a gritty tavern or cheap “thermopolium” snack bar, which were popular in Pompeii before the city was smothered in volcanic ash from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD79.
“Very probably the fresco decorated a place used by gladiators, perhaps a watering hole …frequented by prostitutes,” a statement from Pompeii said.
Its trapezoid shape was dictated by the fact that it was painted on a wall beneath a sloping staircase.
The fresco was found close to a gladiators’ barracks in an area of Pompeii known as Regio V.
“It is very probable that this was a place that was frequented by gladiators,” said
Massimo Osanna, the director general of the archeological site.
“Of particular interest in this fresco is the extremely realistic representation of the wounds, such as those to the wrist and to the chest of the losing gladiator, from where blood is pouring down his legs.
“We don’t know what the outcome of this fight was. He could have been killed or he could have been spared.”
The losing gladiator is holding up his finger to “implore mercy,” Prof Osanna said.
“The discovery of this fresco really shows that Pompeii is an inexhaustible source of research and knowledge for the archeologists of today and for the future,” said Dario Franceschini, the culture minister.
Pompeii has yielded a series of startling finds in the last two years, including an erotic mural of Leda, Queen of Sparta, having sex with Zeus, king of the gods, who is in the guise of a swan.
In August last year, archeologists came across a fresco depicting Priapus, the god of fertility, with his enormous penis resting on a set of scales – a common image in ancient Rome, often found in public baths and private homes.
Last October, they discovered a charcoal inscription which suggests that the eruption of Vesuvius happened in October AD 79 rather than August of that year.
As part of a €105 million, EU-funded project, Pompeii is undergoing its most extensive excavations since the 1950s, with archeologists removing tonnes of volcanic debris from long-buried areas of the city.
They have found graphically sexual graffiti, frescoed snack bars and an image of the Greek mythological figure Narcissus staring at his own reflection in a pool of water.
The Great Pompeii Project began in 2012 after years of neglect in which large parts of the site were closed off to visitors, stray dogs roamed the ancient Roman streets and fragile walls and villas occasionally collapsed, especially during rainstorms.
Around four million tourists are expected to have visited the site by the end of this year.
But nearly 300 years after the first serious excavations began at Pompeii, a third of the ancient city remains buried under pumice and ash.