Hollywood's take on gladiatorial combat as a bloodbath in which no holds were barred is an insult to history, say scientists, who believe the fighters of ancient Rome played by a clear set of rules.
Austrian experts carried out a painstaking forensic analysis of 67 gladiators whose remains were found in a cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey, the Roman empire's hub of power in west Asia.
They used modern techniques of microscopic analysis and computed tomography -- the "CAT" scan which provides a cross-sectional image of body tissues and bones -- to try to determine cause of death, New Scientist reports.
They found that the gladiators had a remarkable lack of multiple injuries and mutilation, which suggests the fighters were restricted to only one type of weapon per one-on-one bout and were barred from savaging their wounded opponent.
Even though most gladiators wore helmets, 10 of the 67 had died from a squarish hammer-like injury to the side of the head -- a blow that appears to have been inflicted by a back-stage executioner.
Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator" depicts the arena as the place for savage violence and mutilation in which the defeated gladiator was slain after being condemned to death by a baying crowd.
But Roman artwork and literature suggest that gladiators were well-matched in their capabilities and followed sets of rules enforced by two referees, New Scientist says.
And the latest evidence suggests that mortally wounded gladiators were still alive when taken from the arena before being put out of their agony by a massive blow to the skull.
The report is carried in next Saturday's issue of the British science weekly.
The research, led by Karl Grossschmidt of the Medical University of Vienna and Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, is to be published in a specialist journal, Forensic Science International.
The gladiators' cemetery, uncovered in 1993, is thought to date from the second century AD, when Roman power was at its zenith. The site was identified thanks to tomb reliefs of gladiators, denoting the fighters' special status in Roman culture.
There's also a Reuters version of the story ...