Pollice verso

Pollice Verso, 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum)

Pollice verso or verso pollice is a Latin phrase, meaning "with a turned thumb", that is used in the context of gladiatorial combat. It refers to the hand gesture or thumbs signal used by Ancient Roman crowds to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator.

The precise type of gesture described by the phrase pollice verso and its meaning are the subject of much scholarly debate.

Ancient Rome

The type of gesture described by the phrase pollice verso is unclear. From historical, archaeological and literary records it is uncertain whether the thumb was turned up, turned down, held horizontally, or concealed inside the hand to indicate positive or negative opinions.[1][2][3]

Juvenal in the Satires writes:

Quondam hi cornicines et municipalis harenae
perpetui comites notaeque per oppida buccae
munera nunc edunt et, uerso pollice uulgus
cum iubet, occidunt populariter

  1. ^ Juvenal, Satirae 3.34-37

These men once were horn-blowers, who went the round of every provincial show,
and whose puffed-out cheeks were known in every village;
to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying
whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay;[1]

  1. ^ Juvenal Satires, translated by George Gilbert Ramsay (1839–1921)

The notion of the pollice verso thumb signal was brought to popular attention by an 1872 painting by French history painter Jean-Léon Gérôme titled Pollice Verso (usually translated into English as Thumbs Down). It is a large canvas that depicts the Vestal Virgins signifying to a Murmillo that they decree death on a fallen gladiator in the arena. The picture was purchased from Gérôme by U.S. department-store magnate Alexander Turney Stewart (1803–1876), who exhibited it in New York City, and it is now in the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.

The painting had a strong influence on the film Gladiator. The producers showed director Ridley Scott a reproduction of the painting before he read the script; "That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked", commented Scott.[4]

Pollice Verso is also the title of a controversial 1904 drawing of the Crucifixion by Australian artist Norman Lindsay.[5]


Further reading

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