Historians have long known that boxing was popular in the Roman Empire. The sport appears in mosaics from the period and pops up in literature like Virgil’s The Aeneid. Now, archaeologists have uncovered more evidence: a pair of well-preserved Roman boxing gloves.

A discovery like this is extremely rare. The gloves are made of leather, a material that typically would have decayed by now. Yet in this case, the artifacts survived because they were buried in an oxygen-deprived environment.

Researchers found the gloves buried under a concrete floor in at Vindolanda, an ancient Roman fort in Northumberland county, England. Romans laid that floor in about 120 C.E., around the same time that they built the nearby Hadrian’s Wall, named for the ruling emperor. As far as researchers at Vindolanda know, these boxing gloves are the only surviving ones from the Roman Empire (though to modern readers, they may look more like “hand protectors” than “gloves”).

(Credit: The Vindolanda Trust)
(Credit: The Vindolanda Trust)

David Potter, a professor of Greek and Roman history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says boxing’s history dates back at least 3,000 years. Boxing was a sport at the ancient Greek Olympics, and continued as a festival activity under the Roman Empire. But ancient boxing was more risky than the modern version of the sport.

“One of the big features of ancient boxing is there are no weight classes, and there are no time limits,” Potter says. “You just fight till one person’s incapacitated.”

Growing up in the Roman Empire, boys could learn boxing in school. Those who were good enough could become professional boxers, who traveled around the empire competing at festivals.  Both men and women could enter boxing competitions at festivals, though these were always segregated by sex (i.e., women couldn’t fight men). The prize money for winning was good—if you traveled to enough boxing matches per year, you “could certainly make a living doing it,” Potter says.

Boxing was popular throughout the eastern Roman Empire, which included Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. It was also popular in the empire’s North African region. But England, where the only known boxing gloves were found, isn’t typically associated with Roman-era boxing.

“We just have less direct evidence for those kinds of entertainments in the northern part of the empire,” Potter says. Given that researchers date the gloves to the early part of Vindolanda’s Roman occupation, he speculates that they might have been brought there by someone outside of England.

“I think what this find shows us is just how widespread sport is in every area of the empire,” he says. “It’s one of those finds that really puts us directly in touch with the lived experience of antiquity.”

In addition, it reminds us that “the sport was one of the things that helped bind the communities of the ancient world together,” he says.