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 and 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 ancient roman sculpture of a left fist wearing a cestus! It would have been made at the time that gladiatorial fights were commonplace.The label indicated that it was probably sculpted to stand alone, perhaps as a votive offering (I could see it as having been a sign for a school or even an award of some sort). I've seen cestii roughly depicted in sculptures or paintings, but never life sized, and in such detail!

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

There's no question that this item features knuckle protection. There is a plate that covers the knuckles, probably with a strap on its inside for the boxer to hold on to. I have to note that in this sculpture, the thumb is oddly exposed over the knuckle protection. Perhaps the boxers actually used it this way, or perhaps the boxer posed for this sculpture in a relaxed position (the thumb at full extension as it is seems quite relaxed). Perhaps the boxer merely lent his cestus to the sculptor, and the sculptor used his own hand to pose, and guessed at the proper grip. Alternatively, it may be that without the thumb exposed, it was difficult to tell what the sculpture was supposed to be. Either way, I would assume that when used in combat, the thumb would have been balled firmly with 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 no way of knowing what the actual projection would have been 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, yet not necessarily break the skin. (I 'm guessing that the projection would have been cast of bronze or some similar metal due to the thickness of it in the sculpture).

It might have been based on a common street weapon carried for self defense, sans the knuckle protection, in the way that brass knuckles were, until recently commonly carried (and probably still are, in some parts of the world). It is interesting to notice on the sculpture how a string or thong runs down the back of the hand, to stop the deadly spike from being pushed down the fingers during the fight.