Thumbs up or thumbs down?

We don’t need Facebook to know that Thumbs Up means “I like!” (Curiously, I believe in some cultures it’s a vulgar gesture.  Not sure how FB handles that, but if anyone knows, please do tell…)

Is it possible that Thumbs Up derives from the Roman arena and the judgment of gladiators?

Not likely.

We do know that gladiators did not always fight to the death .  When one was clearly too wounded – or exhausted, or afraid – to continue, he would raise an outstretched finger and plea for mercy.  It was then up to the presider over the games, following the prompting of the crowd, to decide if the loser should be allowed to live, or be executed on the spot.

We also know that the crowd expressed their opinion with shouts – and with a gesture.  Condemnation was shown with a pollice verso, which means a “turned thumb.” 

Unfortunately, we do not know what this gesture was.

In the famous painting by Gerome, titled Pollice Verso, the Vestal Virgins give a thumbs down – the vanquished gladiator must die.  Gerome himself knew that there was already some academic discussion about what pollice verso meant, and he didn’t claim to get it right.  Sure makes for a successful painting, though, and ironically our current ubiquitous use of thumbs up or down probably derives from him.  Says something about the power of art!

Pollice Verso, oil on canvas, 1872

So what was the “Turned Thumb”?  One thing to consider is that in a packed arena, the gesture couldn’t be very subtle.  Even a thumbs down might be difficult to discern from just a few meters away. 

Probably it was a more active gesture, involving a motion of the whole arm.  It is possible that they pointed their thumbs at their own breasts in a stabbing motion.  Or drew their thumbs across their throats. 

Certainly adds a bit more drama to the scene!  If we imagine the thumb indicates the sword, pointing or pushing it downward may actually have meant “lay down your sword – and let him live!”

It may be that Thumbs Up was never used at all.  If you wanted to show that the fallen fighter should live, you may have raised a fist, with the thumb on the outside.  A gesture which has since come to mean solidarity, a demand for justice – and Black Lives Matter. 

Curious how history turns…

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