Like any modern metropolis, the ancient city of Pompeii was not without its vices, and its inhabitants were certainly no strangers to sex and violence before their untimely deaths in 79 CE. Giving a glimpse into the spicier side of life in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, archaeologists have just uncovered a graphic fresco depicting a brutal gladiatorial battle, in the basement tavern of what may well have been a brothel.
Measuring about 1.5 meters (5 feet) in width and height, the image depicts a Murmillo gladiator – identifiable by his plumed helmet and rectangular shield – defeating his Thracian opponent. Dripping in blood, the loser is making a thumbs-up gesture, known as adlocutio, as if to implore the watching emperor to spare his life.
“We do not know what the final outcome of this fight was,” explained Massimo Osanna, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in a statement. “You could die or have grace,” depending on whether you were given the thumbs up or thumbs down.
The remnants of a wooden staircase next to the fresco suggest that it was housed in a basement, which archaeologists believe was probably used as a tavern or a store. It is thought that the upper floors were likely to have housed the innkeeper, while also providing a workspace for local prostitutes.
The discovery was made in an area known as Regio V, which Osanna says is “not far from the barracks of the gladiators,” making it highly likely the tavern, and the women working upstairs, would have been frequented by these fierce competitors when they weren’t busy ripping each other to shreds for the amusement of others.
The city of Pompeii was encased in a pyroclastic flow that erupted from Mount Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago, instantly killing everyone in its path. This cataclysmic event also ensured that the city remained wonderfully preserved, allowing archaeologists to explore a snapshot of Roman life, frozen in time.
Given their love of gore and violence, the slain inhabitants of ancient Pompeii can at least take solace in the fact that many of them died unfathomably gruesome deaths as the intense heat of the eruption caused their body fluids to vaporize and their skulls to explode.