PIERCEBRIDGE, England -- Divers exploring a river near a former Roman Empire fort and settlement in Britain have found a piece of pottery that depicts the backside of a rather buff gladiator wielding a whip and wearing nothing but a G-string, according to British researchers.
The image represents the first known depiction of a gladiator in such revealing attire. It adds to the evidence that ancient Romans viewed gladiators not only as fearless warriors, but also as sex symbols.
Philippa Walton, who analyzed the object and is a finds liaison officer for the Cambridgeshire County Council, described the artifact to Discovery News. "The find is a small shard of pottery possibly from a drinking beaker made in Britain in the 3rd century A.D.," Walton said. "It depicts a man wearing a G-string and possibly holding a whip and is likely therefore to represent a gladiator."
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She added, "There are parallels for depictions of gladiators on drinking beakers — some quite pornographic! — but I cannot think of any depictions where the gladiator in question wears nothing but a G-string."
The shard was located in the River Tees in the town of Piercebridge, County Durham, England. Its discovery was announced by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is a British project that encourages members of the public to report archaeological finds.
Gladiators were trained warriors who fought to entertain the ancient Romans. Whips represent only one type of weapon that they used. Gladiators also wielded short, curved swords, nets, two-foot-long "stabbing swords," three-pronged spears and other weapons.
Most of the warriors were war prisoners, slaves and criminals, but some were freemen desiring fortune and fame. At a time without movie stars and pay-per-view, gladiators filled the public's desire for action, adventure and sex.
"A lot of film stars and celebrities like to show a bit of bum, so the Romans were no doubt the same or worse," Rolfe Hutchinson told Discovery News. He discovered the object with diving partner Bob Middlemass. "After all, they were the celebrities of the day."
On a wall in Pompeii, the phrase "the girls' delight" described one gladiator.
Although gladiator games were under state control, the entertainment format often gave popular warriors the chance to display not only their physiques, but also their power that could, at least in isolated moments in the arena, rival that of emperors and other state leaders.
At least one emperor, Commodus, decided in 192 A.D. to step into a gladiator-like role. Dressed in skimpy Hercules attire, the emperor scared away most of the viewing public, who thought he would re-enact the myth of the Stymphalian birds by shooting arrows into the crowd. The historian Cassius Dio (164-235 A.D.) documented what happened next.
"Having killed an ostrich & cut off its head, he came up to where we (senators) were sitting, holding the head in its left hand & in his right hand waving aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way."
The ancient Romans may have relished such dramatic displays of beefcake and power, but they also could be quite practical.
Near the site of the pottery shard, Hutchinson and Middlemass also found a copper razor handle, dating to approximately the same period. The handle was modeled into the shape of a Roman soldier leg and foot, the two-inch-high foot wearing a heavy wool sock stuffed into a sandal.
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