Archaeologists in Turkey say they have discovered a Roman-era gladiator burial ground in Anazarbus (modern Anavarza) in the country’s southern Adana province. If true, this would be one of only a few known gladiator cemeteries across the ancient Mediterranean.
As previously excavated gladiator cemeteries reflect: The men and women who fought professionally in the Roman arena were simultaneously celebrated and made infamous. The rare discovery of a gladiator cemetery also provides the potential for digging further into how servitude, the games, and even infamy functioned not only on the sand of the arena but also within the spaces for the dead in antiquity.
Since 2013, continuous excavations at Anazarbus, located within the ancient Roman province of Cilicia, have disclosed a wealth of archaeological finds. The site goes back to the Hellenistic era, before being occupied and annexed by the Romans. It would continue into the Byzantine and Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia periods, until being destroyed by the Mamluks in 1374. The site sits at a pivotal inland crossroads that connected tradespersons and travelers to Syria, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. The large urban area had a stadium, theater, triumphal arch, baths, numerous late antique churches, and a wide Roman road decorated with impressively large columns. The only-recent discovery of the amphitheater by researchers from Çukurova University points to the use of gladiators in the area south of Anazarbus, beyond the city walls.
Lead archaeologist Fatih Gülşen told the Anadolu Agency (AA) that his team discovered the tomb near the amphitheater earlier in the summer. The archaeologists will continue excavations and expect to uncover human remains which they believe will be gladiators; however, such remains have not been securely unearthed or identified. The proximity of the necropolis to the amphitheater does suggest a possible gladiator burial ground, but secure identification of such a burial complex for the fighters is rare. And yet these important spaces, reserved for the dead, can tell us much about the experiences, diet, occupations, status, and social stigmas experienced in life.
If positively identified as a gladiator cemetery, Anazarbus would be only the second city in Turkey and one of only a handful of known gladiator burial grounds across the Mediterranean. In 1993, Austrian archaeologists working at Ephesus along a road called the Via Sacra found a gladiator necropolis dating to the 2nd and 3rd century CE. Ancient necropoleis were often placed along roads outside of cities, since Greeks and Romans — prior to the dominance of Christianity — buried their dead outside of urban areas, rather than within the confines of the city walls of the polis.
The mass grave at Ephesus disclosed 68 individuals. Of these remains, 66 were male and between the age of 20-30 years old. Two other bodies belonged respectively to a woman named Serapias and a man over the age of 50. Although more rare, women could also fight in the arena. Epitaphs with inscriptions that depict the various gladiator types allowed archaeologists to positively identify the space as a gladiatorial cemetery. As ancient historian Donald Kyle and others have noted, gladiators in the early Roman empire were predominantly enslaved and underwent intense injuries. The osteological (i.e. skeletal ) evidence at Ephesus revealed head traumas that were both fatal and non-fatal. This supports research that suggests that gladiators had a median lifespan of 27 years, but that only around 20% of fights in the arena within the early Roman imperial period ended in death. Many could end in ties or without a fatality. However, gladiator fatalities are believed to have increased to 50% in the later Roman Empire.
Gladiator cemeteries can tell us a great deal about the lived experience of fighters, most of whom were involuntarily enlisted to athletic unions called familiae, and owned as chattel by the emperor and local elites. A study of skeletal evidence from Ephesus indicated there was also extensive medical care for gladiators who were injured. Moreover, the Ephesus gladiators’ diets were not heavy on meat. It seems to have been predominantly barley and beans, along with a plant and bone ash drink used as a “dietary supplement.” Their teeth are also an important source of evidence
But Anazarbus and Ephesus are not alone. Other gladiator cemeteries have been discovered at Nîmes in southern France, as well as a possible one near York in England that unearthed 80 burials. The fact that gladiators experienced the legal stigma of infamia — from whence we get the English word “infamy” — means that although they had social cachet as athletes, they were often considered legally unprotected as persons and subject to violence without much legal redress. By law, any enslaved gladiators were legally property without the civil rights of Roman citizens. Ancient historian Valerie Hope’s long-standing work on the gladiator cemetery at Nîmes underscores their ignoble status as well. The Nîmes cemetery was removed from other civic cemeteries and, similar to the one found at Anazarbus, was just south of the Roman amphitheater.
Gladiator burial grounds often reveal the conflicted status of gladiators in Roman culture. These athletes were at once reviled and celebrated by millions in dozens of amphitheaters across the empire, not just within the Colosseum in Rome. Their epitaphs communicate the rhetoric of military victory and prestige; however, these were not honored soldiers. They were usually buried poorly, and in a space separate from others. The often enslaved, infamous status of many gladiators was frequently reflected in rather ignominious burials either in roadside pits or in areas removed from more high-status persons.
As new Roman amphitheaters continue to be unearthed in places such as Switzerland and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire, archaeologists will no doubt continue to be on the lookout for adjacent burial areas. These spaces and the gladiators within hold the promise of telling us more about athletes who, while glorified in film and in the popular myths of ancient Rome, were frequently forced to provide bloodshed and violence for popular entertainment — often before receiving an ignominious burial.
Editor’s Note, 08/19/22: An earlier version mistakenly suggested the area was under Ottoman control at the time of its destruction when it was in fact part of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.