Friday, June 8, 2012

The Cestus--a Roman Boxing Weapon, Close-Up

I was wandering around the Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City the other day. If you've never been there, well, you could spend everyday there for a week an still not see everything they have to offer.And I've heard what's on display is only the tip of the iceberg compared to their entire collection. Anyway, it;s a great place to spend some time.
The Greek and Roman galleries offer a great assortment of big and small items, from marble monuments through everyday items like bowls and jars, to helmets, swords, and armor. In one small display case I can across this delightful surprise:


Here we have a contemporary sculpture of a left fist wearing a cestus! The label indicated that it was probably sculpted to stand alone, perhaps as an offering (I could see it as having been a sign or even an award of some sort). I've seen such things roughly depicted in sculptures or paintings, but never live sized, and in such detail!

Now if you're a little lost here, let me back up and tell you what this is all about. The cestus is commonly described as a kind of early gladiatorial "boxing glove" or knuckle protection, but in fact, it is far more of a weapon. It would have been used in prize fights, and the kind of brutal competitions that the Romans loved.

There's no question that this item features knuckle protection. There is a plate that covers the knuckles, for sure, probably with a strap on the inside for the boxer to hold on to. In this sculpture, the thumb is oddly exposed over the knuckle protection. Perhaps the boxer used it this way, but more likely, the boxer posed for this sculpture in a relaxed position. Surely the thumb at full extension is quite relaxed. Maybe he didn't think to tighten his fist while he sat for the sculptor's sketches or clay model which would surely have been what the sculptor used to create this final bronze piece, or perhaps the boxer merely lent his cestus to the sculptor, and the sculptor used his own hand, or that of an apprentice, to pose. Either way, I would assume in combat, the thumb would have been balled firmly under the fingers, or at least under the knuckle-guard. Judging from the simple curve of this guard-plate, and it's thickness, it's very likely to have been leather.

But what is most fascinating about this sculpture is the projection extending from the boxer's middle two knuckles! This cestus is no mere hand protection. This is a potentially deadly offensive weapon.
Even though there's noway of knowing what this projection was made from it's still a very nasty bit of business. If it were made of hardened leather, it would leave punishing bruises on the opponent's body, and possibly break bones and even gouge out eyes. If it were made of bronze or some similar metal, It could easily break ribs and bones. Notice the scalloped striking edge of the projection, which would help the blow "dig in" even more than a flat surface, but yet not break the skin.


I would guess that the projection itself would have been cast of bronze or some similar metal, and might even have been a common street weapon, sans the knuckle protection, in the way that brass knuckles were until recently (and probably still are, in some parts of the world). It is interesting to notice on the sculpture how the string runs down the back of the hand, clearly to stop the deadly spike from being pushed down the fingers during the fight.