Thumb Movements


Pollice Verso is a painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme that features the famous thumbs up or thumbs down gesture given to decide the fate of a defeated gladiator. In this case, the secutor has defeated the retiarius, two different types of gladiators that are often pitted against each other. The victor looks up to a group of vestals who are not voting in the pleading defeated’s favor. In the shadows, you can see the emperor sitting among other nobles, and past them there is a huge crowd of people.

Pollice verso is a Latin phrase that means with a turned thumb, and has been used in historical records specifically discussing the thumb symbol used during gladiatorial combat. Unfortunately there is debate on whether the signal was pointing the thumb up, down, or to the side. Either way, Gérôme’s interpretation of gladiators is so vivid, and striking, that it popularized the idea of using thumbs up for a positive signal, and thumbs down for a negative one. It also inspired the scene that inspired the movie Gladiator, where Commudus raises his thumb to let Maximus live.

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