A gladiator who fought 1,800 years ago may have died because of a bad call from a ref.
Archaeologists have long puzzled over a line in the epitaph of Diodorus the gladiator’s gravestone. It reads, “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.”
The summa rudis was a referee who oversaw gladiator games. Unlike what we see in the movies, real gladiator fights were highly ritualized and had strict rules. One rule was that if a man pleaded for mercy, it was up to the sponsor of the fight (a local bigwig or even the Emperor) to decide if the defeated gladiator should live or die. Another rule was that if a gladiator fell without being pushed down by his opponent, he was allowed to get up and retrieve his weapons before the match continued.
Now gladiator expert Prof. Michael Carter says he knows what this inscription means. His theory is that Diodorus knocked down his opponent and backed off, waiting for the sponsor’s orders to either kill him or let him go. The referee, however, ruled his opponent fell down on his own. He was allowed to pick up his weapons and fight on. . .and ended up killing Diodorus.
Whoever wrote Diodorus’ epitaph seems to have believed the ref did it on purpose. We’ll never know for sure, but it just goes to show that among the countless dusty old inscriptions preserved in museums and archives, there are stories of real people and how they lived, and died. So next time you’re shouting at a ref for making a bad call, think of poor Diodorus and remember that some bad calls are worse than others.
The gravestone was originally found in Turkey and is now in the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium. The best place to see where gladiators fought and died is, of course, Rome, where the Colosseum has opened its underground tunnels to show where gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals waited their turn to entertain the crowd. There’s also a well-preserved amphitheater in Mérida, Spain.
[Photo of gladiator grave courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No photo of Diodorus’ grave was available at press time, but you can see a photo of it here.]