Museum discovers origin of rare polychrome gladiator relief

Recent archival research has revealed the previously unknown background of a 2nd century A.D. gladiator funerary relief with rare preserved polychrome paint.

The relief is now in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki but its origin was unknown. The serial number on the back — AG 1375 — does not match the museum’s inventory system. Museum staff recognized its significance as a gladiatorial relief with original color, and In 2017 embarked on an extensive search of the records to track the history of its discovery and they hit paydirt in the archives of a whole other museum, the Museum of Byzantine Culture. A record sheet matching the serial number notes that the relief was unearthed at an excavation on Konstantinou Melenikou Street near the eastern wall of ancient Thessaloniki.

“It is important because we have additional philological evidence that in Thessaloniki, as in other parts of the Roman world, the well-known duels and beast battles took place, a Roman spectacle that had come to all the eastern provinces of the Roman state,” [commented Archaeologist Angeliki Koukouvou, head of the Department of Exhibitions, Communication and Education of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.]

“The expenses were enormous and were always borne by the high priest of the imperial cult, that is, some very wealthy people with high positions, who were the great sponsors of the games and gave it as a gift to the people, who came to see them even from the countryside,” she added.

“Although not entirely intact, the excellent color preservation on the surface of the relief carries us to the vivid world of the arena and illuminates details of clothing and equipment that are difficult to distinguish in most stone reliefs,” notes the museum.

The relief depicts a gladiator holding a gladius (short sword) in his right hand and a scutum (curved rectangular shield) in his left. He wears a manica (a heavy linen arm guard) on his right arm and a greave on his left leg. On a pedestal stand next to him is his helmet, the smooth, round, full-coverage head protection with a fin-like crest that distinguishes the secutor (“pursuer”). The secutor’s helmet completely covered his head, front and back, leaving only small eye slits for visibility. It was by far the heaviest helmet of any of the gladiator types. Heavily armed and encumbered, the secutor was paired in the arena with the most lightly armed of gladiator types, the retiarius (“netter”), equipped with trident, dagger and weighted throwing net.

The background is blue and red stripes survive on the stand that holds the helmet. Red accents survive on the manica, the strap that ties it across his chest, in two stripes down his loincloth and in the thongs that tie the greave to his leg. His hair and beard are brownish red, and the fragment of an inscription that survives is filled in with red. The helmet being placed on the stand allows the gladiator’s head to be displayed in great detail, a rare feature in representations of secutors in figural sculpture, frescoes and mosaics. This was a gladiator monument, dedicated by family, friends, colleagues or wives to a fighter who died in the area. It was made to depict a specific person and the helmet on a stand allowed him to be identifiable while still honoring the profession that claimed his life.

The secutor relief is on display in the New Acquisitions / New Approaches exhibition in the museum’s reception area. The exhibition presents objects that have been recently acquired, or are being presented for the first time to the public or that were languishing in storage but are now newly restored or new information has been discovered about them.

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