A well-preserved fresco recently unearthed in Pompeii—the Roman city razed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D.—depicts the final act of a gladiator fight: As one combatant begs for mercy, the victorious warrior awaits instructions on whether to kill or spare his opponent.
According to the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida, archaeologists found the painting while conducting excavations in Regio V, a 54-acre section of the site currently closed to the public. The scene was painted on the wall of a building that likely functioned as both a tavern and brothel.
In a statement, Massimo Osanna, director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, says the establishment probably proved popular among the city’s gladiators, who lived nearby. He adds, “We are in Regio V, not far from where there was a barracks for gladiators, where among other things, there was graffiti referring to this world.”
The three- by four-and-a-half-foot fresco features two types of gladiators: a murmillo armed with a short straight sword, curved shield and distinctive crested helmet and a thraex wielding a smaller shield and angled blade. The painting finds the thraex, who has dropped his shield and is seriously wounded, holding one thumb up in a plea for mercy.
“It is interesting to see the extremely realistic representation of the wounds,” Osanna says. “We do not know what the final outcome of this fight was. You could die or have grace. In this case there is a gesture that the wounded [thraex] makes with his hand, perhaps, to implore salvation; it is the gesture of ad locutia, usually done by the emperor or the general to grant grace.”
The new fresco is far from the only treasure unearthed at Pompeii in recent years. As Franz Lidz reports for Smithsonian magazine, the “Great Pompeii Project”—a $140 million effort funded chiefly by the European Union—has yielded finds including graffiti, human skeletons, a sorceress’s kit, and a saddled horse since its launch in 2012. Researchers have even found evidence suggesting Vesuvius erupted in October 79 A.D., not August as previously believed.
Among the team’s most impressive finds are the frescoes. Earlier this year, the park released images of a thermopolium, or Roman “fast food” counter, decorated with an elaborate painting of a sea nymph. And in late 2018, archaeologists reported the discovery of a risqué mural centered on the myth of Leda and the Swan.
The disciplined archaeological work happening at Pompeii is a point of pride for both the park and Italy. Less than a decade ago, the historic site was in poor shape, with excavated buildings falling into disrepair and looters running amok. In 2010, the Schola Armaturarum—a building featuring well-preserved gladiator frescoes—actually fell over.
Osanna’s arrival and the success of the Great Pompeii Project have revitalized the Unesco World Heritage site.
“A few years ago the archaeological site of Pompeii was known throughout the world for its negative image: the collapses, the strikes and the queues of tourists under the sun,” Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini, as quoted by artnet News’ Sarah Cascone, told reporters this week. “Today’s story is one of redemption and millions more tourists. It is a welcoming site, but above all we have returned to doing research through new digs. The discovery of the fresco shows that Pompeii is an inexhaustible mine of research and knowledge for today’s archaeologists and for those of the future.”