Phoenix Art Museum/Bridgeman Art Library

Standing over his stricken opponent, a gladiator looks up at the Vestal Virgins as they signal their decision about the loser’s fate: thumbs down, meaning death. Pollice Verso (“Thumbs Down” in Latin) is the title of this 19th-century painting, by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. The gladiator’s animal strength, the pathetically outstretched hand of his victim—who pleads in vain—and the harsh verdict of the Vestals, Rome’s holiest women, make a powerful statement about the cruelty of the Roman Empire. Gérôme’s painting has influenced a number of Hollywood filmmakers, among them Gladiator director Ridley Scott; for instance, in one scene from the movie, the pose of the hero Maximus (played by actor Russell Crowe) distinctly resembles that of Gérôme’s gladiator.