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Pollice verso was the gesture used to indicate death by roman crowds in the arena. However, wikipedia notes some debate over the exact gesture indicated by the phrase.

Has there been any relevant scholarship in regards to this gesture that satisfies the ambiguity?

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Question inspired by chat over in the rpg stack. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 15 '12 at 18:57
+1 Nice question. Welcome to the site Brian. – Sardathrion Feb 16 '12 at 7:48

This page on the University of Chicago's website goes into some detail and is well sourced. It appears that there is no definite answer as to which way the thumb points or even the gesture in general. Also a more technical article from the same collection. According to that article; mercy was granted by waving handkerchiefs.

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