Bar brawl in Pompeii

Two gladiators wearing helmets with abundant, bristling crests are immortalised in paint in this Roman fresco, recently discovered at Pompeii. On the left, a murmillo stands tall and holds his large shield high in victory, while his vanquished opponent, a thraex (or Thracian), falls to the ground, blood pouring from gashes on his chest and wrist. The thraex’s fate is left hanging in the balance: is he about to be killed or will he live to fight another day? Clearly defeated, he holds out a hand making a gesture that is normally associated with the emperor or general addressing the army, but perhaps, in this case, is a way of pleading to be spared.

The murmillo and thraex were frequent opponents in gladiatorial contests, and depictions of the murmillo’s victory are found on other Roman objects, like oil lamps and canteens. This well-preserved, detailed painting of the familiar scene was unearthed during the Great Pompeii Project’s ongoing excavations in Regio V. It was found not far from the gladiators’ barracks, in a building that was probably a tavern they frequented. Framed with a line of red paint, the 1.5m-wide fresco has a slanted edge, as it adorned the wall beneath what was a wooden staircase. Only traces of the wood remain, but the stairs once led to an upper floor that is thought to have served as accommodation for the tavern’s owners or even as a brothel.

Text: L Marchini
Image: Parco Archeologico di Pompei
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