Sept. 29, 1997

Story by Roger Martin, (785) 864-7239


LAWRENCE -- Everybody knows how a crowd in ancient Rome told one gladiator to kill another -- by the thumbs-down gesture.

But then everybody may be wrong, Anthony Philip Corbeill figures.

The University of Kansas associate professor of classics, having slogged through hundreds of references to ancient Roman thumbs in literature and art, has concluded that the thumbs-up gesture was the kill signal.

Moreover, Corbeill thinks that the raised thumb was probably in motion, reminiscent of gangsters ordering someone out of a room or of modern umpires declaring a runner out rather than safe.

When the crowd wanted to spare a gladiator's life, Corbeill said, its members closed their fists and pressed the thumb down on the index finger.

Corbeill, who is writing a book on ancient gestures, reports his findings in a paper he has been invited to submit to the Memoirs of the Ancient Academy in Rome.

In 1994-95, after he had received the Rome Prize, he researched ancient thumbs in both Rome and Munich, Germany. In Munich he consulted a dictionary of the Latin language, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. It's been in the works now for a hundred years.

Corbeill also has examined ancient artworks to grasp the thumb as the Romans understood its meanings. In summer 1997, with help from a KU Hall Center for the Humanities grant, Corbeill did more library research in Rome. He also traveled to southern France to study a medallion from the second or third century A.D.

The medallion is crucial evidence for Corbeill's contention that the thumb pressed against the index finger of a closed fist signified a crowd's desire to spare a gladiator's life.

The medallion shows two warriors who've quit fighting. A referee stands nearby pressing a thumb against his closed fist. An inscription above the scene reads, "Those standing should be released."

Where did the positive message of the thumbs-up sign come from? Anthropologist Desmond Morris discovered that it arrived in Europe during World War II, along with American G.I.s, Corbeill said.

Corbeill's work demonstrates that the thumbs-up sign had a hostile meaning in the first century A.D.; in the time of the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote "The Inferno"; in 18th-century Naples, Italy; and in 20th-century Italy.

"We confuse the American thumbs-up gesture with the Italian one and mistake the meaning of the audience at gladiatorial contests," Corbeill said.

While the thumb was obviously the pre-eminent digit in ancient Rome, the lesser ones are not without meaning, Corbeill said.

The index finger is for pointing, he said. The middle finger -- well, the ancients believed that veins led from it to the genitals.

The ring finger was also the ring finger in antiquity, and the idea was that veins from it led to the heart.

The pinky is a bore, Corbeill said. "You stick it out when you drink tea," he said. "It's like a declaration that you don't even need it."


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