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The Expansionist
Friday, May 23, 2008
'Thumbs Up' Nonsense. AOL early today hilited a story about our completely misunderstanding the ancient Roman gesture by which a crowd supposedly indicated whether a gladiator should be killed or spared after defeat.
(I must wonder about the whole fite-to-the-death thing about gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. In the case of gladiators who were spared the death penalty if they agreed to fite in the arena, it is conceivable that Romans did pit criminals against each other, to the death. But other types of gladiators? I am certain that enemies of Roman paganism in the Christian church exaggerated the cruelty and barbarism of the pagan regime that preceded the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. The legend of gladiatorial fites to the death also conveniently plays into other groups' agendas, such as the Jewish insistence that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus (even tho the New Testament says plainly that the Jewish crowd demanded Jesus be killed even tho Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, wanted to free him, finding no guilt in him worthy of death). Protestants intent on maligning Roman Catholicism also love the idea of the Roman Church somehow being implicated in the supposed monstrous cruelty of ancient Rome. How much deliberate human death was ever inflicted in ancient Roman amphitheaters — NOT including the Colosseum, by the way — is probably not knowable. Even most of the writings of contemporary Latin authors are known only from copies from later times, made by Christian (anti-pagan) scribes.)
In any case, the AOL story asserts, with absolute certitude, that we have it all wrong. The thumbs-up gesture urged death; and there was no thumbs-down sign, only a closed fist with the thumb not extended. That sounded to me bizarre, in that the popular understanding is that thumbs-up represented a good thing, which is the way it is universally employed today in the West. So I checked Wikipedia, which, it turns out, may be the source of that (mis)information. In that article, the anonymous author(s) make the same assertion:
Actually, death to a gladiator was shown as a thumbs up whereas to keep the gladiator alive the people showed their fist with their thumb tucked under their hand — hidden.
Oh? Earlier in the very same article, this passage states plainly:
However, the type of gesture described by the phrase pollice verso and its meaning is unclear in the historical and literary record.
A footnote at the end of that sentence leads to James Grout: The Gladiator and the Thumb, part of the Encyclopædia Romana, which says plainly:
There is no clear textual evidence for the position of the thumb, and the Latin does not admit to precise understanding.
Yet, despite that express acknowledgment that the actual position of the thumb cannot be known from the existing texts, the author goes on to assert he knows that a thumb pressed against the fist, not pointed upward, indicated mercy. It is, in short, a complete fabrication to say that we know that thumbs-up meant death! Contemptible arrogance.
How about evidence from the use of the gesture today? Wikipedia says:
In Italy, in the right context, it can simply indicate the number one. Generally it is perceived as "OK".
So in ITALY, where ROME is and always has been located, thumbs-up means "OK". Are we to assume, then, that Italians, who speak a form of very-late Latin, and in many other aspects of culture are very much Roman, the popular culture has flipped the meaning of thumbs-up? Or perhaps we are to believe that "death" and "OK" are the same thing in Italian culture.
In Egypt, it means perfect or very good. It's widely common between people.

[By contrast,] "Thumbs up" traditionally translates as the foulest of gesticular insults in some Middle Eastern countries — the most straightforward interpretation is "Up yours, pal!" The sign has a similarly pejorative meaning in parts of West Africa, South America (except Brazil), Iran, Greece, and Sardinia, according to Roger E. Axtell's book Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World.
Egypt is in the Middle East, but was an important part of the Roman Empire, unlike, say, the Arabian Peninsula. Egypt is also a very traditional society, and in Egypt, thumbs-up is a very positive gesture.
With the exception of a very few pockets (noted above), the thumbs-up gesture has a positive meaning throughout the Western world. The entire West descends culturally from Rome. We are now, however, to believe that the entire Western world, some 1.25 billion people in Europe, the bulk of the Americas, and Australasia, somehow got it wrong. I don't believe it.
Let's go back to the Latin phrase about gladiatorial combat: "pollice verso" means, literally, "turned thumb". Now we need to do something all too few people seem to do: think.
Almost all of us have at least one thumb. So take a moment and look at your thumb(s). Start with your arms at your side. Which way do your thumbs point? Forward. Lift your forearm up into horizontal position, as to shake hands. Which way do your thumbs point? Upward. If you indicate the length of something with your outstretched hands, which way do your thumbs point? Upward.
When you type, or rest your hands on an armrest, your thumbs point sideways, toward each other. If you go to carry something, like a tray, or make a hand gesture while talking (such as to ask "What?"), the thumbs point outward.
Logically, wouldn't "verso" mean turned the opposite of the way the thumbs ordinarily point? In virtually all normal human activities, the one direction the thumbs do not ever naturally point is downward from the plane of the hand. Rotating an extended thumb downward is something of an unnatural exertion, which tends to force the elbows outward if the arm is bent, or is slitely uncomfortable if the arm is strate. The thumb naturally points forward, upward, inward, or outward, in almost every activity. The one direction the thumb almost never points is downward.
So what do you think "pollice verso" actually meant? It's clear to me it meant thumb pointing down, which is exactly the way that it is interpreted in the popular culture. Why, then, do some people insist on rewriting history to claim the opposite of what we all understand, just to be different?
We will never really know, with certitude, what "pollice verso" meant to ancient Romans attending a gladiatorial combat, unless someone from another culture, who felt it necessary to explain the gesture to his own countrymen, has written an absolutely unambiguous description in an authentic text in his own foreign language in a manuscript or engraving that actually dates to the time of the observation. Absent that, it is completely unreasonable to assert that we know now that thumbs-up actually meant kill, not spare the life of, a gladiator.
When will people stop trying to rewrite history on the basis of nothing but personal arrogance?
(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 4,080 — for Israel.)

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