Nero's Suicide: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

The Roman Senate ruled that unless Nero chose the way of his own death he would be executed "in the ancient fashion" which meant he would be stripped naked, his head thrust into a wooden yoke and then whipped to death with rods.The gossip Suetonius has Nero prancing around at dawn, the evil hour forecast by astrologers, with a couple of daggers in hand, pricking at his throat but hardly drawing blood, proclaiming histrionically what an artist the world was losing.

Why the dagger in the neck? Why didn't Nero do the honorable Roman thing and fall on his sword like Marc Antony when he heard that Cleopatra had already had her famous encounter with the deadly asp and his enemy Octavian (later Augustus, the first emperor of Rome) was at the gates?

Although it means other things, some of them obscene, in different parts of the world, "thumbs up" is of course the universal sign of approval in the West. Ask just about anyone who goes to the movies about the origin of the gesture and they'll tell you it comes from Roman gladiatorial combat, where thumbs up from the mob signaled that it wanted the defeated gladiator spared and thumbs down that they wanted him killed.

Wrong way round, say historians. The Roman satirist Juvenal writes that the signal to kill was "verso pollice". However this means "turned thumb" not "thumb down". The scholarly consensus is that you requested a kill by turning up your thumb and making stabbing motions at your throat. The request for mercy was the thumb either inside, or pressed against, the closed fist. Thumbs down.

You can see where I'm going with this. But why off yourself with a stab in your throat not, say, your heart?

The answer is the ritualized way gladiators were executed in the arena. To ask for mercy the defeated gladiator was required to fall to his knees, grasp the thigh of the victor with his right hand and raise the index finger of his left hand while exposing his neck by tilting his head back to signal that he was a hero who was unafraid of death. It was at this dramatic moment, when the victor grabbed the loser by his helmet and stood poised to thrust his sword into his throat, that the mob indicated its preference to the Editor, the celebrity funding the fight, who would send the final signal.

This brings us back to Nero and his dagger, theatrically traipsing around in the cool twilight of dawn, proclaiming what a great artist the world was losing while he tried desperately to make a heroic exit.

It was only when he heard the hoof beats of the approaching cavalry and realized that the show was truly over that Nero gave himself the final thumbs up.

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Lucy Knipe