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In Ancient Rome, Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down Meant the Opposite of What Most People Think

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In today’s understanding, thumbs up and thumbs down have clear meanings. The former denotes approval, while the latter signifies disapproval. But in ancient Rome, where the gestures are said to have originated, they took on opposite meanings.

During gladiator fights in ancient Rome, audiences used the thumbs up and thumbs down gestures to decide the fate of the losing warriors. You would think that thumbs up meant they lived and thumbs down meant they died, but that is not the case.

The common belief is that a thumbs up means approval and a thumbs down means disapproval.

In ancient Rome, a thumbs down from the crowd meant ‘swords down’ or that the losing gladiator would live to fight another day. Some scholars also believe that the thumbs up gesture meant to thrust a sword up the heart and kill the losing gladiator. It was the audience that decided the fate of the losing warriors, as the judge listened to their cheers and jeers and looked at their gestures.

In ancient Rome, however, the gestures originally meant the opposite.

But how did the opposite meanings gain popularity? Experts believe they entered public consciousness with Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1872 painting titled Pollice Verso. The thumbs down gesture in his painting was interpreted by the 19th century public as signs of disapproval. The artist probably never intended this meaning since ‘pollice verso’ merely means turned thumb.

Because of a popular painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the wrong definitions for the gestures became the widely accepted ones.

Gérôme’s artwork became so popular that the wrong meanings for the gestures became the widely accepted definitions. This even though the thumbs down gesture really meant ‘throw your sword down.’ A 1601 translation of Pliny relates the gesture with ‘assent’ or ‘favor.’ John Dryden’s 1693 version of Juvenal’s Satires also explains the thumb being bent back, and not down, as actual gesture of death.

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