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Real Old School: First pair of ancient Roman boxing gloves discovered

A pair of ancient boxing gloves have been discovered in Britain, the first such pair ever recovered by archaelogists

English: Boxing scene from the Aeneid (book 5), when the aged Sicilian champion Entellus defeats the young Trojan champion Dares. Blood spurts from Dares’ injured head. Entellus sacrificed his prize, a bull, by landing a great blow to the animal’s head. Both boxers wear cesti. Mosaic floor from a Gallo-Roman villa in Villelaure (France), ca. 175 AD.
Wikicommons, photo by Marshall Astor.

Unlike many of the other Ancient Greek games which were more popular in the Eastern, Greek influenced portion of the Roman Empire, boxing — or Pugilatus in Latin — was extremely popular throughout the Empire. We know of its prevalence and appeal through the numerous Ancient sources still available to us, both written as well as artistic depictions via statues, wall paintings, and vases. These sources tell us a great deal on the training methods used, the rules they were fought under, and who attended the bouts. The Emperor Augustus, for example, was apparently a big fan.

One thing modern eyes had never seen though, was an actual Roman era boxing glove. That’s no longer the case, as the Guardian reported the discovery of a pair of boxing gloves unearthed last year beneath the fourth-century stone fort of Vindolanda.

Vindolanda, located near present day Hexham, Northumberland, had been constructed on top of a previous military site. The gloves were discovered in some barrack that had been abandoned around 120 AD, just before construction began on the nearby Hadrian’s Wall. It was covered beneath a concrete floor that had been laid over it some 30 years later. This created an oxygen free environment that helped preserve the leather padded gloves from the usual ravages of time.

The gloves, or caestus in Latin, don’t look like our modern “mitts”, instead resembling leather padded bands that fit over the knuckles. They still served the same purpose though - to protect the fist (not the opponent) from impact. They apparently were prized enough by their owner that when one started wearing down it was repaired.

(It is not a matching pair though, which makes me ask if he was perhaps like me, and having lost a glove from two separate pairs was forced to use mismatched ones?)

The owner was very likely a soldier in the Roman army, based on where the discovery was made. Pugalitus was commonly practiced by Roman troops, who used it for fitness and promoting combat skills. They also often held competitions between different units, sometimes in front of large crowds of spectators. In this way, it resembled our modern US Army’s boxing program.

“Thermae Boxer”
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009)

Because of the softness of the gloves, archaeologist theorize they were used for sparring and not for professional competition. In the professional matches of the era, the caestus was usually made of hard leather strips. For fans of Gladiatorial combat, boxing matches in the arena would involve caestūs that were iron studded or fitted with blades or spikes.

In the Hellenistic East, boxing was often included in the athletic games that were held throughout the Mediterranean region. The Olympic Games of Olympia — which introduced boxing in 688 BCE — were the most famous, but there were literally hundreds of such games being held on a regular basis, many with material prize winnings such as olive oil or silver coins.

These were referred to as Chrematatic games versus the Stephanitic games, which offered symbolic prizes like a crown or wreath. A whole class of professional athletes, including boxers, wrestlers, and pankrationists, earned their livings traveling to and participating in these events.

There was less evidence of boxing’s popularity in the West and North of the Empire, though. This discovery shows how widespread participation in the sport was. It also adds a little more credence to the legend that the British boxing that sprang up in the 16th century was actually the offspring of Roman boxing, and thus worthy of the name pugilism.

While this last legend is still highly doubtful, who am I to get in the way of a good story?

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