Neither Roman spectators calling for the death of the gladiator, nor Roman Emperors authorising one, ever gave a thumbs down. In fact, the Romans did not use a “thumbs down” at all. If death was desired, the thumb was stuck up – like a drawn sword. For a loser’s life to be spared, the thumb was tucked away inside the closed fist – as with a sheathed weapon. This is expressed in latin as pollice compresso favor iudicabatur, “goodwill is decided by the thumb being kept in”.
Before Ridley Scott agreed to direct “Gladiator”, Hollywood executives showed him the painting “Pollice Verso” by the 19th-century artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the painting, a Roman gladiator waits while the emperor stretches his thumb down to give the death sentence. Scott was captivated by the image, and decided on the spot that he must direct the film.
Little did Scott know that the source of his inspiration was utterly wrong. The painting is single-handedly responsible for one of the greatest fallacies of the last two centuries, namely that “thumbs down” indicated death.Historians agree that Gérôme wrongly assumed that the Latin pollice verso – “turned thumb” – meant “turned down” when in fact in meant “turned up”.
If further proof were needed, in 1997 a Roman medallion of the 2nd or 3rd century AD was discovered in southern France. It shows two gladiators at the end of a battle and a referee pressing his thumb against a closed fist. The inscription reads: “Those standing should be released”.
Ridley Scott was eventually told about the “thumbs down” fallacy but felt obliged to have Commodus give the “thumbs up” when sparing maximus, in order “not to confuse the audience”.