“Do You Like Movies About Gladiators?”

New Scientist reports this week on the work of archaeologist Steve Tuck of the University of Miami who suggests that the combat of gladiators in ancient Rome might have been all show, perhaps more WWE than a bloody fight to the death. Dr. Tuck examined the many examples of art from the period that depicted this combat and found that they resembled images in martial art guides from other periods and cultures. These step-by-step guides were used for the artistic expression of fighting skills rather than killing the opponent. Other lines of evidence include indications that gladiators at the time were too well paid to suffer real harm. Of course, not every expert agrees.

The modern historian uses science to learn what actually happened rather than relying on reports from often subjective contemporary observers. Like all scientific fields of inquiry, history has seen its own share of breakthroughs, surprises, and controversies of late.