Guardians of the threshold: the image of the gladiator and its protective function in Pompeii

Joe Sheppard (Washington University in St Louis)


This essay draws on recent archaeological research into domestic religion and magic throughout the Roman Empire in order to explain the significance of a handful of paintings and statues of gladiators in Pompeii from locations beyond the Amphitheatre. I demonstrate that these images are limited to transitional spaces – immediately next to front doorways or in the corridor leading to the apodyterium of the Suburban Baths – often in combination with a household shrine. Like the phallic, animal, and martial imagery decorating other entrances in Pompeii – or many less conspicuous rituals around Mediterranean doorways, which I briefly survey – I argue that these figures must be understood in the context of a desire to prevent intruders from crossing the threshold. The particular scene of the end of the gladiatorial combat was suitable for placement near doorways, as opposed to other images of gladiators, precisely because it implicated viewers in a moment of uncertainty. The protective power of these images was reactivated by pedestrians recalling past experiences at the arena, when the life of a gladiator had been spared – or not – and being briefly reminded, even if only subconsciously, of the potential for danger and threats ahead.

Keywords: Pompeii, gladiators, apotropaism, material religion, magic, protection

Full text: OAJ_ISSUE_10_6_Joe Sheppard_final (PDF 427KB).


Biographical note 
Joe Sheppard graduated from Columbia University in Spring 2019 with a dissertation entitled Mass Spectacles in Roman Pompeii as a System of Communication. From Fall 2020, he is a joint postdoctoral teaching fellow in Classics and Art History and Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also Assistant Field Director for the excavations at the Villa Adriana near Tivoli, Italy, undertaken by the Advanced Program in Ancient History and Art (Columbia University and La Sapienza – Università di Roma).