Link #149: Thumbs up Meant Death in Ancient Rome!

Thumbs up
Image Credit: kreg.steppe/CC BY-SA 2.0


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Link #149: Thumbs up Meant Death in Ancient Rome!

Thumbs up
Image Credit: kreg.steppe/CC BY-SA 2.0

If you read our last post, then you know that it’s possible to control your gag reflex by making a fist with your hand with your thumb inside pressing against your palm. This hand position is like the exact opposite of showing someone the thumbs up sign.

After all when you give someone the thumbs up, it means that your thumb is fully extended and upright. In the gag reflex control hand position, the position of your thumb is the exact opposite of an upright thumb. What does it mean to give someone thumbs up sign though?

It usually means something positive in the vein of ‘everything’s fine’, ‘you did well’, ‘that’s great’, ‘I agree’, etc. If you like gladiators, you might even say that the thumbs up sign is for ‘keep him alive’. However, you would be wrong. In ancient Rome, the thumbs up sign meant death!

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Did The Thumbs Up Sign Mean Death In Ancient Rome?

Jean Leon Gerome Pollice Verso
Image credit: Domain

You’re most probably thinking that if thumbs up meant death in ancient Rome, then why does everyone including films say the opposite. The reason the misconception that thumbs up meant life in the Colosseum of ancient Rome is a 19th century painting from Jean – Léon Gérôme called ‘Pollice Verso’.

The painting depicts a victorious gladiator being told by the Colosseum’s audience to kill his defeated opponent through the thumbs up sign. However, the painting is a gross misrepresentation. Police Verso is a Latin term that was used for the killing sign in ancient Rome.

The problem is that the term directly translates into the ‘turned thumb’. Gérôme misunderstood this term to mean downturned thumb as opposed to upturned thumb which would have been more accurate. When his painting got famous, his misconception became everyone’s misconception.

What Is The Origin Of The Positive Thumbs Up Sign?

This doesn’t mean that the positive meaning of the thumbs up sign is complete fallacy. While it may not mean life in ancient Rome, it still has positive meanings. There’re many theories focusing on the positive meanings of the thumbs up sign.

One of the most meaningful and coherent theories is that it was used in the middle ages by people striking a deal. They would lick their thumbs and press them together.

Why Did Thumbs Up Mean Death In Ancient Rome?

The thumbs sign meant death in ancient Rome because it signifies the upright sword. Another rendition of the same is that the upturned thumb is a symbol of impaling someone. The symbol was used because it was easy to make out in huge crowds.

Because the upturned thumb meant death, you may think that the downturned thumb meant life. However, that wasn’t the case either. There was no significant to the downturned thumb in ancient Rome.

When the public wanted a gladiator spared, they would raise their fists with their thumb inside. The same hand action that you can use to control your gag reflex. Maybe we’re telling our brain to spare us the pain of a gag reflex when we make that action. The best part is that our brain seems to be listening to us!

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