Gladiator's tombstone complains about bad refs 1,800 years ago

For as long as there have been sports, there have been fans complaining about referees whose terrible calls rob their team of victory. The oldest - and most brutal - example of this can be found on a gladiator's epitaph.

About a hundred years ago, a stone was unearthed in Turkey which served as a memorial for a gladiator named Diodorus, who had competed in the arena at the ancient Black Sea city of Amisus. Michael Carter, a historian at Canada's Brock University, has studied hundreds of inscriptions from various gladiator tombstones. But this one, he says, is unique in that it actually tells the story of the gladiator's death.

Here's a translation of the original inscription, which is written from the perspective of the deceased Diodorus:

"After breaking my opponent Demetrius, I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me."

For those not up on their gladiator terminology, the summa rudis was the referee, who might himself be a veteran gladiator. This means that those who prepared the tombstone for Diodorus - most likely his family or friends - felt that he had died as a direct result of crappy refereeing, predating by a good eighteen centuries the constant complaint of modern sports fans around the world.

According to Carter, most gladiatorial bouts weren't necessarily meant to be played to the death, although fatal wounds were all too common. He argues that there were some fairly specific rules in place for the fights. One key aspect of the fights was submission, in which the vanquished gladiator could appeal to the patron of the fight for mercy, and if approved could then leave the arena. That's along the same basic lines as the famous "thumbs up"/"thumbs down" decision at the end of a gladiatorial fight, which is the one "rule" you almost always see in movie depictions of the fights.

But another, less well-known rule was that if a gladiator fell down by accident - in other words, if it had nothing to do with the other gladiator - then the summa rudis could temporarily suspend the fight so that the gladiator could get back up and reclaim his weapons, at which point the fight would resume.

Carter thinks that rule - and, more importantly, the summa rudis's shaky enforcement of it - is what killed Diodorus. The epitaph includes a carving in which Diodorus stands above a fallen Demetrius. He's holding two swords, suggesting he had managed to gain Demetrius's sword after getting him on the ground. But the summa rudis apparently thought Demetrius had simply fallen over by accident, as Carter explains:

"Demetrius signals surrender, Diodorus doesn't kill him; he backs off expecting that he's going to win the fight. What the summa rudis has obviously done is stepped in, stopped the fight, allowed Demetrius to get back up again, take back his shield, take back his sword, and then resume the fight."

Demetrius apparently took advantage of this second chance - one that the makers of Diodorus's epitaph clearly thought he never should have gotten - and managed to inflict a fatal blow upon his opponent. It was a pretty ignoble death for the gladiator, but at least he lives on as the first known instance of refs being called idiots. And, considering its fatal iimplications, this summa rudis's mistake might still be the biggest screw-up in the history of officiating, with the possible exception of Jim Joyce.

Via LiveScience.