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What is a Cestus?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 21, 2024
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Two articles of apparel are known by the name cestus, both belonging to ancient Greece and Rome. The word can refer to a weapon made of leather straps, worn as a gauntlet, and used by Greco Roman boxers and gladiators. It also can refer to a type of embroidered girdle once popular among the women of Greece and Rome. For the purposes of clarity, this article will refer to them as the cestus glove or belt, but no such distinction is generally made, and each item can be referred to simply as a cestus.

Ancient Greeks used the cestus glove when boxing to give their blows more power. They were made by wrapping a series of ox-hide thongs around the hand and tying them at the forearm or sometimes up to the elbow. Some were wrapped around closed fists, and others left fingers exposed, with no standardized configuration of straps and no single correct way to tie the gloves. Unlike modern boxing gloves, these devices were not worn to protect either the wearer or his opponent, instead functioning more like brass knuckles to increase the impact of a blow.

Early evidence of the use of cestus gloves dates back as far as 1500 B.C., on the island of Crete. Homer’s Iliad, which dates back to the eighth or ninth century B.C., makes reference to Epeius and Euryalus strapping on hand thongs of ox-hide before boxing. These earliest gloves were simple leather thongs with no metal attached, though many included a series of tight knots worn over the knuckles. Lead and iron were used in later designs, adding nails, studs and weights, so that by the time of the Roman gladiatorial games, the gloves were powerful weapons. A skilled boxer could inflict lethal damage wearing these gloves, and combatants often fought to the death.

The cestus belt is an embroidered girdle, commonly worn by the women of ancient Greece and Rome. It takes its name from the mythic girdle of Aphrodite, which Homer also mentions in the Iliad, citing its power to stir passion and desire. In fashion, the word is used today to refer to a wide belt, especially one featuring an embroidered design.

The word "cestus" has other, less common meanings as well. For instance, the cestus veneris is a type of ctenophore, an aquatic animal with similarities to the jellyfish. Star Wars&trade and Star Trek&trade aficionados might also recognize the name as belonging to planets in each of these fictional universes.

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Discussion Comments

By bythewell — On Dec 24, 2011

It's almost a shame they didn't use these gloves in combat. Back when war wasn't won by firepower alone, these could have really made a difference. A cestus glove could have been the weapon of last resort, if you ran out of arrows, and lost your sword, because it would be very difficult to get it away from someone.

And I imagine it would have been easier to train someone in fisticuffs than in swordplay.

By Mor — On Dec 24, 2011

@KoiwiGal - In the case of brass knuckles the difference is that the metal doesn't flatten out like real knuckles would (since bone and tendons are more flexible than brass) and so the force gets concentrated into a smaller area (the tops of the brass knuckles). It also protects the hand so someone could hit more often, with less damage and pain.

In the case of the Roman cestus, you've got hand protection and probably some concentration of the force as well. But I think mostly they added sharp bits like spikes to the gloves and that's what did the most damage. They were probably originally just meant to do what our boxing gloves do, and help to spread the force out so the blow isn't as bad. But once you add metal to the mix, it become another kind of deal.

By KoiwiGal — On Dec 23, 2011

Apparently the cestus gloves became more and more deadly and likely to inflict wounds until in the end they had to ban that kind of fighting all together. And this was in Ancient Rome, where they would regularly send men to fight against lions and other enraged wild animals.

It's similar to brass knuckles I suppose, which I know are banned in a lot of places because they make it too easy for people to carry around a deadly weapon.

I'm not sure why they make it so much easier to hurt someone though, because you'd think that metal wouldn't be that much worse than bone (as in the actual knuckles). They are both just a solid surface.

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