Among the ruins of the city of Ephesus in Turkey, archaeologists believe that they may have found an ancient gladiatorial burial ground – something never seen before, even in Rome itself. A major city in the Roman empire, this Ephesian graveyard contained graves with thousands of bones as well as three gravestones with carved images of gladiators.For several years since the bones’ discovery, a team of pathologists at the University of Vienna have studied and catalogued the bones for age, injury, and cause of death. It appears that the graveyard contained bones of 67 individuals, almost exclusively between the ages of 20 and 30 years old. In addition, many of the individuals appear to have healed wounds – one body even showed evidence of surgical amputation, suggesting a high level of medical care that was rather unprecedented for the average Roman citizen.
A lack of multiple wounds on the bones also suggests that the individuals here were not involved in large, mass battles, but instead were participants in some form of controlled combat. Indeed, several bones showed evidence for mortal wounds, which would not be unreasonable in gladiatorial combat. Ancient written sources on Roman sports tell that in some cases, if the defeated gladiator had been a coward or unsportsmanlike in combat, the crowd would shout to have the losing party killed.
Relief depictions from Roman art show images of a kneeling man having a sword thrust down his throat, into the heart – evidently an efficient method of execution. Marks found on the vertebrae of several bodies from Ephesus show that this may have actually occurred to some of the individuals interred here. Some skulls were also found to have sets of three holes at irregular intervals, consistent with the possible damage done by a three-pronged weapon such as a trident. Other rectangular wounds may have come from a hammer.
If a gladiator survived three years of fighting in the arena, the ancient sources explain that he would win his freedom, and often these ‘retired’ gladiators became teachers in a local gladiator school. One of the skeletons from Ephesus was identified as the potential body of a retired gladiator, as he was middle-aged and appeared to have many healed wounds from previous fights.
Since gladiators had approximately a one in three chance of dying in each battle, the chances of survival for a gladiator was fairly bleak. It is therefore not unreasonable to consider the creation of cemeteries specifically for gladiators, though the graveyard at Ephesus is the first to be found.