Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, 1872

The scene is set in the Roman Colosseum during the days of the Roman Empire. The emperor watches from a golden throne at the action. The reigning gladiator looks to the Vestal Virgins for guidance as to whether or not he should bestow mercy on his fallen competitor. The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth and protector of Rome. In the painting they point their thumbs downward (pollice verso) indicating that the fallen gladiator should lose his life. It is unknown whether or not the pollice verso was used in ancient Rome, although Gérôme remained adamant and even published a 26-page pamphlet on the subject. This painting inspired the use of the hand gesture in the 2000 film Gladiator, where Commodus spares Maximus’ life with a thumb’s up.

Leave a Reply