Ancient Roman Statue Reveals That Fighters Have Always Dealt With Cauliflower Ear

While it’s obviously no secret that men have been fighting for the entertainment of others for thousands of years, it’s always pretty interesting to see the differences between the pugilists of yesteryear and our trained fighters of today. For instance, while today’s UFC stars are busy worrying about contracts and bonuses, I’m sure the fighters of Ancient Rome were more likely concerned with other trivial things like waking up tomorrow and not being slaves. Basically, it’s tomato and tomahto.

One thing that seems to be a constant for fighters throughout time, though, seems to be the treatment of cauliflower ear, as Manhattan’s Dr. Jeffrey Levine has discovered evidence of cauliflower ear treatment on the Ancient Roman statue, “Boxer at Rest.”

His face bears evidence of broken nasal bones, swelling and hematoma under his right eye, and multiple lacerations and abrasions to his nose, cheeks, and forehead. One secret I have not found mentioned in literature on this striking life size sculpture is evidence of medical treatment for hematomas of his ears.

The sculpture is made of bronze, and scholars date its completion between 350 B.C. and 50 B.C. It once stood in the Baths of Constantine – a bathing complex and cultural center in ancient Rome. His only clothing is a pair of elaborate boxing gloves and a leather strap on his foreskin to conceal his penis (kynodesme). Boxing was a revered sport in the ancient world, and there were few rules to the game. This statue may have had magical powers evidenced by areas of wear on the hands and feet caused by frequent rubbing over decades, perhaps in hopes of victory in the arena or healing from an injury.

The Boxer has evidence of multiple injuries that are skillfully rendered and anatomically correct. There is acute swelling from hematoma under his right eye that is indicated by an inlay of darker metal. But the ears exhibit not just swelling that could be both acute and chronic from prior fights, they also display clean wounds that may have been administered by an iatrós – the old Greek word for physician. There are inlays of copper alloy that emphasize these incisions and the blood dripping from his ears and onto his thighs.

At first glance, the ears look simply swollen and bleeding with what is commonly described as “cauliflower ear.” But if you look more closely there is evidence of freshly performed surgical treatment of hematomas sustained in the pugilist’s match. In Hippocrates’ work entitled “On Injuries of the Head,” he specifically prescribes incisions for healing:

“Incisions may be practiced with impunity on other parts of the head, with the exception of the temple and the parts above it, where there is a vein that runs across the temple, in which region an incision is not to be made.”

Other treatments of the day would include washing the incision with wine and stopping the bleeding with juice from a fig tree. (Via Levine’s website, H/T to Mixed Martial Arts)

Perhaps the most remarkable sign that this statue reveals is that even just reading about ancient artwork can make me as queasy as when I actually watch guys have their faces bounced off the mat like a fleshy basketball.

But I also hope to soon finish my own research on ring girls throughout history, as evidenced by this original version of the Venus de Milo…

(Banner via Dr. Levine, Venus via Alessandro Colle /