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Thumbs-Up: A Historical Mistake

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Long time ago I read a historic article that was pretty impressive and have realised that just a few people know this, therefore, I would like to share it with you :)

We accept that a thumbs-down gesture means boo, hiss, no, bad, wrong that sort of thing. The thumbs up means good, great, yes, OK, perfect. We agree? So back in history when gladiators fought and the crowds cheered or boo’d they also used the thumbs up or down gesture to communicate with the gladiator.

I learned in that article that the thumbs-down gesture means that a gladiator kills another. I, come on, we, have watched it on hundreds of films! But, the problem is the real signal that decides the fate of wounded gladiators is the thumbs-up signal. No way I hear you cry!

This is a misinterpretation that comes from the work of the French artist Léon Gérôme who’s titled work roughly translates the Latin "pollice verso" (turned thumb) to “turned down” (when in fact in meant “turned up”), and therefore in his painting Pollice Verso (1873), he presents the death sentence with the thumbs-down gesture!


Look at the painting, you can see a victorious gladiator standing over the lifeless body of his opponent while the crowd delivers a wave of down​turned thumbs!

The first line of the jeering crowds you can see the "Vestals", always virgins, supporting the crowd gesture. Were they in favour of the human death?

What do you think?

I believe a misunderstood title and a cover painting seen with tainted eyes is the trigger of a historical fact confusion where the cinema has become main supporter of this miss truth.

The gesture to spare a given gladiator’s life is to hide your thumb inside your fist, forming a gesture known as pollice compresso, “compressed thumb” (or thumbs-down) that signified swords down (sheathed). And if death was desired, the thumb had to be up like a drawn sword.

Nowadays we fully understand that a thumbs-up gesture is a signal for approval, it is in British Sign Language. It comes from the hand of Christianity: thumbs-up gesture pointing to heaven, this means the good and salvation, and a thumbs-down gesture pointing the hell, means evil or death.

So... keep this in mind the next time you give someone the “thumbs up” sign. Swords drawn anyone? :D


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