Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Terme Boxer’s trauma

Seth Judson
Los Angeles, California, United States

Terme Boxer or Boxer at Rest
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

The cavernous eyes of the Terme Boxer look at me with the same anguish and exhaustion that has intrigued archaeologists and art historians since the boxer was first unearthed in Rome over a century ago. Experts date the bronze sculpture back to the third century BCE, and many have written about the bronze boxer as a classic specimen of Hellenistic Greek sculpture.1 Housed in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome, the boxer continues to tour the world as a champion. I inspected the sculpture during its tour at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, only a few miles from my medical school. As I viewed his lacerated face, swollen ears, and afflicted expression, I could not help but see the boxer as a patient and wonder, what medical problems does he have?

With closer inspection and some speculation, one can arrive at a medical problem list and several diagnoses for the Terme Boxer. The burly, barbate boxer sits nude except for the wrappings on his hands. His ancient boxing gloves are known as “sharp thongs” (ίμάυτες), which have a firm strip of leather interlaced across the knuckles, designed for cutting opponents.2 The lacerations on the boxer’s face reveal their wounding capabilities. His lacerations are inlaid with copper, depicting blood. His right cheek is swollen and discolored, likely from a hematoma. The artist probably used different tin levels to depict the discoloration from the swelling of blood inside his cheek.3 His nose is indented and deviated, suggesting a nasal fracture. His ears are swollen and deformed, most likely from former auricular hematomas leading to cauliflower ears, a well-known injury of boxers.

Along with the finely sculpted details of the boxer’s facial wounds, the expression and gaze hint at a deeper trauma beneath his bronze façade. Twisting to the side, his face is a mixture of suffering and confusion. Repeated blunt trauma to his head from his opponents’ fists have probably led to changes inside his brain, contributing to his confusion. For almost a century there has been a well-known syndrome associated with boxers who have similar neurological decline—dementia pugilistica, also known as punch drunk syndrome. Memory loss and imbalance are common symptoms of dementia pugilistica,4 perhaps explaining why the boxer is sitting in turmoil. A similar syndrome has been identified in football players today: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. As players continue to go to battle with opponents on the field or in the ring, they share much in common with the ancient Terme Boxer and his suffering.


  1. Arenas, Amelia. “The Boxer.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, no. 1 (1999): 120-126.
  2. Murray, Steven Ross. “Boxing gloves of the ancient world.” Journal of Combative Sport(2010): 1492-1650.
  3. Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellinistic World. J. Paul Getty Museum.
  4. Tarazi, Apameh, Charles H. Tator, and Maria Carmela Tartaglia. “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and Movement Disorders: Update.” Current neurology and neuroscience reports5 (2016): 1-8.

SETH JUDSON studies the art of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles and explores the medicine in art at the nearby Getty Center. He would like to thank Greek art historian Jody Maxmin for inspiring his study of the boxer.

Spring 2018



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