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Roman gladiators are the stuff of legend and Hollywood movies. But newly discovered bones are finally revealing the truth about how these ancient heroes lived and died.

The tall gladiator had marched into the Ephesus arena earlier that afternoon, to perform before an audience of up to 25,000 spectators. He was among the lowest of the low in the gladiator hierarchy, which paired off opponents as evenly as possible to ensure contests lasted. As a retiarius, he carried no helmet, and his weapons were a trident and a net. Normally he would have been pitted against a secutor or a murmillo - both of whom had a visored helmet, a shield, greaves, a sword or a dagger, and a protected sword arm.

The profession of retiarius attracted the scorn of the contemporary writer Juvenal: 'What he hurls is a net, and he misses, of course, and we see him Look up at the seats, then run for his life, all around the arena, Easy for all to know and identify.' We will never know whether the Ephesus gladiator, who was between 18 and 25 years old, and 6ft tall - giving him an advantage as far as throwing his net over his adversary went - fought well or badly. But we do know how he met his end: a dagger blow of such violence that it split his head open with a gash that ran from the top of one ear, across the front of his face, under the nose, to the opposite cheek.

His badly mangled skull has survived to tell the tale of his death. Until now, what we knew about gladiators - those bloody icons of the ancient world - was derived from inscriptions on tombs, from the literature of the time, and from the decorations on columns that celebrated the triumphs of Roman emperors. But in Ephesus in western Turkey, a city so rich and thriving it was the New York of ancient Rome, a cemetery for gladiators is for the first time yielding bony evidence of not only how they died, but also how they lived, and how their injuries were treated.

Believed to have been inherited from the Etruscans, gladiator contests spread across the Roman dominions and were at first part of funeral celebrations for rich families. In 78BC, the death of the dictator Sulla was marked with battles fought by 6,000 gladiators. In time, the private and religious significance of these contests disappeared and they became shows put on as popular entertainment. The gladiators were tools of Roman rulers who believed, as the ancient formula said, that they could keep the plebs under control with 'bread and games'. Entry was free.

The fury of gladiatorial combat first came to Ephesus in 69BC, courtesy of Lucullus, the Roman army's commander-in-chief. The city was a vital centre, on a par with Alexandria in Egypt, or Antioch in Syria. Under the Emperor Augustus, it became the first city of the Roman province of Asia, and the residence of the proconsul. A political and commercial centre with a population of an estimated 200,000, it sat astride trade routes that ran from West to East, and from South to North.

To accommodate the contests, the eastern part of the Ephesus stadium built by the Greeks was converted into an elliptical arena. One of the biggest monuments of the city, the stadium was oval-shaped, about 330 yards long and 160 yards wide. Some 25,000 spectators - half the capacity of the Colosseum - could watch the athletic games favoured by the Greeks. Centuries later, people could watch chariot races, and the gladiator combats that began in the afternoon with the participants, right arms raised, hailing high officials, nobles and senators with the ritualistic words: 'Those who are about to die salute you.'

There was no mistaking the purpose of these fights: they were designed to impress people with the might of Rome, and they allowed the cities of the entire empire to show that they belonged to it. Significantly, the Ephesus contests were organised by the high priest who oversaw the worship of the emperor. In the amphitheatre, the audience embodied the Roman nation, the sovereign people of the Earth. It was the people, and not their ruler, who decided whether a vanquished gladiator had demonstrated sufficient fighting spirit and courage to obtain a pardon. The people could also decide to grant a gladiator freedom - most of them were prisoners of war, slaves or condemned offenders - just as they could call for his execution on the spot.

When a gladiator died, his body was carried only a short distance from the scene of his last stand. Some 300 yards away, off a covered passage built with huge limestone blocks, lay a cemetery. There, the body was placed in a sarcophagus that rested on the ground. No other objects were buried with the body. But the dead man was often honoured with an inscription that would guarantee him later recognition. Some epitaphs carried the word 'gladiator' in both Latin and Greek, and detailed the cities he had fought in and the victories he had won. One related how Pandos, from Asia Minor, had won 10 contests and that, even though he had had the sun in his eyes, he had managed to kill an opponent 'as if he were a donkey'.

The epitaphs were discovered in 1993, when archeologists stumbled across them as they tried to trace the path taken by holy processions from the centre of Ephesus to the Temple of Artemis - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - on the city's outskirts. The cemetery, now covered by an orchard and off a street where shepherds walk their sheep, yielded not only the inscriptions but also - much more excitingly - enough material to allow for the first mass autopsy ever performed on the bones of gladiators.

The 'Dr Death' ministering to these remains works from a small office in the faculty of medicine at the University of Vienna. The screensaver on the computer of Karl Grossschmidt, an anthropologist and assistant professor, has grinning skeletons in sneakers jogging in all directions. A burly man with delicate tortoiseshell glasses and a ready grin, Grossschmidt is deadpan about his daily dealings with death: when he warns that the junction underneath his window is highly dangerous, he mentions that he once saw a student thrown by a car above a tram. Of the student's fate, he comments: 'Fresh bones.'

In May last year, the somewhat staler gladiator bones were turned over to Grossschmidt and his assistant Fabian Kanz. The age of the remains did not worry him: the work he is proudest of was on Neanderthal bones from Croatia, the youngest of which was 26,000 years old. When he arrived in Ephesus, Grossschmidt was taken to a huge warehouse where, stacked from floor to ceiling, were 300 blue plastic crates full of bones. He picked his way through them and selected the most promising relics. 'There wasn't much about these bones that suggested death,' he says, 'so I wasn't shaken by them at all. Not like Egyptian mummies. What with the eyes and the hair, you really do feel you have a corpse in front of you.'

Grossschmidt soon established that the bones had been mixed up, and that the remains of one single body were more often than not spread between different crates. Gradually he was able to put the skeletons back together again, although it was impossible to complete the task, as smaller bones, like the ones from the ribcage, are too similar to be attributed to a particular skeleton. The bones were not just of men - sometimes women and children had been buried with them, making it likely that these were family graves.

He estimated the remains were of some 120 individuals, and dated most of them to AD200-300. This was a time when gladiatorial combats reached their zenith. Some of the fighters buried in the cemetery may have performed under the emperor-gladiator Commodus, who took part in a thousand bouts, and enjoyed shooting sickle-headed arrows to decapitate ostriches. Commodus, who was assassinated in AD192, features in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. After his death, gladiator games became more and more popular, and in AD249, to celebrate the millennium of the foundation of Rome, 1,000 pairs of gladiators fought in the Colosseum. Thirty-two elephants, a dozen tigers, more than 50 lions and six hippopotamuses were among the animals that were sacrificed.

Of the Ephesus remains, the gladiator bones stood out. They are now the subject of an exhibition in the Turkish city - entitled Gladiators in Ephesus: Death in the Afternoon - which attracts half the visitors who come to the site, and which organisers hope will travel to Britain next year. The skeletons' hands and feet especially were extremely developed, with odd-looking swellings in certain places due to constant strain. Gladiators wore no sandals and walked barefoot on the sand that was spread across the arena to soak up their blood. Their feet had an abnormal bone structure, and marks on the bones showed that their tendons were also bigger than normal - much like the racket arm of a modern-day tennis champion can be an inch or two longer than his other arm.

But it was the damage to the bones that spoke the most. Many shoulder blades bore the mark of the belt that held the heavy shield many of them used. Other, more serious injuries found on the skeletons helped to reveal what kind of gladiators these were - in ancient Rome, they were divided into several categories, and rules determined what weapons they could carry and who they were paired against. The aim was to make it difficult to injure the adversary.

A lucky find allowed the experts to precisely match an injury with the kind of weapon that caused it. A bronze trident fished from the bottom of the harbour of Ephesus in 1989 matches exactly three jagged holes found in a skull from the cemetery. The holes, each 2in apart, form a neat line across the top of the skull, with the lowest one at the point where the fighter's brows met. The prongs are 81/2in long, and plunged into his brain. It was the last injury this man suffered, but not the first: between two of the holes was the mark of an earlier blow, which had healed but only after, as Grossschmidt puts it, 'he had bled like a pig'.

On the femur just above the knee of another skeleton, Grossschmidt found four odd-looking marks that form the outline of a square. The marks are believed to have been made by a four-pronged weapon that is depicted on a tombstone found in Romania. It is held by a retiarius, who also carries a trident, his dog at his feet. Until now, archeologists thought the four-pronged version was an artist's invention, an object with perhaps a religious significance, but the Austrian team believe they have shown that it really existed. They are in no doubt that the femur injury was suffered during fighting, as this part of the body was one of the least protected in gladiator combats. The gladiator, although not fatally injured, cannot have survived very long as, crippled, he could no longer avoid his opponent's blows.

Sometimes execution, when it came, was swift. For decades, the popular wisdom has been that a death sentence was ordered with a thumbs-down sign, but this is disputed by many historians who believe that the sign was only made once the gladiator had already been killed. The more common practice was for the public to cry: 'Iugula [Lance him through]!'

The vanquished were expected to act in accordance with the greatness of manhood and, motionless, await the death thrust. Rather than a public display of killing, according to the late Bristol university historian Thomas Wiedemann, gladiatorial combat should be seen more usefully as a demonstration of the power to overcome death. '[The loser] was expected to take the coup de grace without protest, and the ritualised way in which it was carried out will have helped many defeated gladiators to fulfil this expectation,' wrote Wiedemann in his book Emperors and Gladiators. 'In that sense, even the gladiator who died in the arena had overcome death. His death was certainly a consolation to those who watched it. They had assembled in order to be reminded of the death of a great Roman.'

At least one of the gladiators buried in Ephesus was executed with a single dagger blow to the throat. He may have been squatting on all fours at the time, exhausted; the sword smashed through his left shoulder blade, slipped through the upper aperture of the thorax and pierced the heart. Another was dispatched with a dagger blow to the front of the throat, echoing a report of the time that the Emperor Claudius ordered that defeated fighters have their throats slit, so that he could enjoy watching their faces as they died.

In Pompeii in the Gulf of Naples, a relief on a panel shows a similar episode: the loser holds onto the left knee of the victor, who pierces his throat with a sword. 'Of course,' Wiedemann observed, 'a gladiator who failed to accept his execution heroically would hardly have been remembered on a relief glorifying the generosity [of the games' organiser].'

The epitaphs found in the cemetery reveal that most of the gladiators died in the first year of their career. During that first year, the chances of survival were an estimated 3:1, and every second gladiator who was defeated in the arena was put to death. Those contestants who were sent into the arena armed with swords were usually given no prior training, and for them the first fight was a death sentence. It was truly, as Michael Grant wrote in his vivid little book Gladiators: The Bloody Truth, the nastiest blood sport invented.

But gladiators also lived to fight another day, and many more. Some fighters had 150 victories recorded on their tombstones. One 21-year-old had trained for four years, and died during his fifth fight. One 30-year-old had fought 34 times; he had scored 21 victories, and had been pardoned four times after being defeated. Gladiators could even live to very old age: the oldest in Ephesus died at 99, long freed and pensioned.

'If they were good, the gladiators became heroes,' says Professor Fritz Krinzinger, director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, which oversees the Ephesus study. 'They were the Schumachers of the ancient world. They were in danger every time they performed, and they were ready to give their lives for sport.' The gladiators exuded an aura of myth, glory, power and eroticism. Even children idolised them, as revealed by the discovery in Ephesus of graffiti of gladiators drawn in an infantile hand. Young women swooned at the thought of their prowess: one gladiator, Crescens, was notorious as 'the boss and healer of girls at night' and 'the girls' darling'. Probably to appease nervous husbands, the Emperor Augustus decreed that women, other than the six vestal virgins who were in any case sworn to chastity, could watch the games only from the seats that were furthest away.

Games were advertised in public places, fan clubs supported individual gladiators, and street hawkers sold souvenirs of the biggest contests. People believed that they could cure epilepsy with the warm blood of a butchered gladiator. The most expensive fighters were sold to games organisers for a sum equivalent to 15 times the yearly income of a legionnaire: provided the gladiator lived long enough to fight a couple of battles, the organisers could count on recovering their investment.

Apart from fame, one of the few perks enjoyed by the gladiators in Ephesus was medical attention so good it would impress even today's doctors.

A fracture on a radius, the thicker and shorter bone of the forearm, that was found in the cemetery had healed so perfectly with the help of physiotherapy that it is almost invisible to the naked eye. This is testimony to the skills taught by Galen of Pergamum, to the north of Ephesus, one of the most renowned doctors of his day, who had acquired vast anatomical experience by specialising on gladiators in Asia Minor, and had then become personal doctor to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. From writings of the time, we know that gladiators often had their own private doctor and masseur. The worst wounds, especially those inflicted by animals, were described and analysed at length in medical treatises.

The Ephesus remains also show that gladiators were heavily built: they ate heartily to increase body weight and to protect themselves against deep wounds, and were nicknamed 'barley eaters' because of their diet of pulses and barley porridge, rich in carbohydrates. Dr Galen, however, was concerned that the barley made their flesh soft. On the day before battle, they were given special meals to steel them for the task ahead.

The epitaphs that described the gladiators' feats did not guarantee them lasting respect. Some three centuries after their burial, their resting places were disturbed when the sarcophagi were opened and reused to bury more dead - sometimes without even removing the remains of the first occupants. The inscriptions were amended to bear the name of the latest arrival.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, gladiatorial games became fewer and farther between, replaced by cheaper animal hunts. The sport so many men had died for was itself killed off in AD404 by the Emperor Honorius, when he closed what remained of the gladiator schools. No longer would gladiators, in Byron's words, be 'butchered to make a Roman holiday' .