Link #28: Romans Believed That Gladiator Blood Can Cure Epilepsy!

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Link #28: Romans Believed That Gladiator Blood Can Cure Epilepsy!

Ave Caesar!
Image credit: Peter Adam cc2.0

Blood is seen to be a lot of things. It is a symbol of life as well as death. It can be a source of great physical strength as well as a source of great weakness. Pregnant mothers and babies who have to cope with Rh disease will call it a great weakness. In contrast, James Harrison, whose blood ended up saving them, will say that it is wondrous.

However, if we could ask ancient Romans about blood, we would’ve got some shocking responses. We described how James Harrison saved the lives of more than 2 million babies in our previous post as an example of how someone’s blood can save others.

If ancient Romans knew about Harrison, their strange belief would be strengthened. You want to know why? Well, it’s because they believed that a fallen gladiator’s blood could cure epilepsy!

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How Gladiators Became Popular

The emperor starts the games
Forestier: The emperor starts the games by Mike Bishop cc2.0

In order to explain why the ancient Romans had such beliefs about a fallen gladiator’s blood, we need to know how gladiatorial battles began in the first place.

As you most probably already know, ancient romans liked their gladiators. Some were even respected for being especially strong and capable. The actual gladiatorial battles were ritualistic before they were held on a grand scale at the Colosseum.

Initially, gladiatorial battles were held as a part of Etruscan funeral rites. This means that every time someone important died, the family would get slaves or convicted criminals to fight to the death at the funeral.

The belief behind this was that the fallen blood of these men would cleanse the soul of the individual who had passed away. From this, Julius Caesar adapted the gladiatorial battles to be held in the Colosseum. Soon enough, the battles and contests themselves became popular as entertainment.

Morbid Magic of Ancient Times

Gladiators. The end of the combat
Forestier: Gladiators. The end of the combat by Mike Bishop cc2.0

The source of the belief that a fallen gladiator’s blood can cure epilepsy possibly comes from the intention of cleansing the soul, an idea that existed in older funeral rites. While there is no clear evidence of this, historians suggest that gradually the actual idea was adapted to mean cleansing the body of disease. This disease was epilepsy.

Another explanation that historians give for this belief is that of coincidence. They say that temporary improvement in epileptic symptoms could’ve made people think that a fallen gladiator’s blood had such powers.

Such was the strength of this superstition that after the gladiators fell in battle, their blood would be sold to people. In fact, some writings suggest that the gladiators’ blood was so fresh that it was still warm when it was being sold.

When Gladiator Contests Were Banned

The Borghese gladiator, a replica in bronze
The Borghese gladiator, a replica in bronze, Whitby Abbey Visitor Center and Museum, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England. By Spencer Means cc2.0

About 400 AD the gladiatorial contests were banned. What happened to these beliefs then? They morphed to suggest that the blood of an executed individual held properties that could cure epilepsy.

Romans would throng such executions to take the fallen individual’s blood for people who had epilepsy. In fact, there is written evidence that this practice continued into the 19th century and even into the first decade of the 20th century. There are accounts of people who have tried to steal or even beg for the blood of an executed person in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany.

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