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Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Gladiators

The Gladiators
Culture I: Gladiators (

One cannot gloss over the bloody cruelty of Roman gladiatorial games, but the student of Roman civilization cannot afford to dismiss these contests simply because they offend modern sensibility. To avoid smugness, we must admit that the modern appetite for viewing violence is probably just as strong as the ancient. Any fan of American football knows that one of the sport’s primary attractions is its similarity to warfare. Its brutal violence is reflected in the martial language used to describe this game: aerial and ground attacks, blitzes, bombs, etc. Thanks to film, those of us so inclined are able to satisfy this all-too-human appetite by watching pretend-violence in movies, which today abound with bloody murders, explosions and car crashes.

Now let’s look at Roman gladiatorial combat in its ancient context. We should keep in mind Keith Hopkins' warning: "we are dealing here, not with individual sadistic psychopathology, but with a deep cultural difference."1 Attending gladiatorial contests in the amphitheater was an essential part of being a Roman. Rome was a warrior state that had achieved its large empire by military violence. War was a high-stakes proposition, both for the Romans and their opponents. Thousands of Roman soldiers died in Italy and abroad in countless battles. Roman treatment of the enemy could be very harsh, sometimes even involving the slaughter of non-combatants. In Spain, during the second Punic War, Scipio Africanus the Elder attacked the city of Iliturgi, which had gone over to the enemy, and his soldiers killed all armed and unarmed citizens alike, including women and infants (Livy 28.20.6). In Rome, prisoners of war were often executed in public. In order to ensure military discipline, Roman soldiers could be very harsh on their own kind, as is evident in the practice of decimation, in which one soldier out of every ten guilty of cowardice or dereliction of duty was chosen by lot to be bludgeoned to death by his fellow soldiers.

In such a cultural climate it is not surprising that gladiatorial games were immensely popular and a characteristic symbol of Roman culture for almost seven centuries. It may be no accident that the most dramatic increase in the popularity of gladiatorial games occurred during the first two centuries AD, when the Augustan peace throughout the empire provided little opportunity for citizens to participate in real warfare. If there were not enough real warfare to satisfy Roman tastes, then counterfeit warfare would have to do. Hopkins calls the amphitheater "artificial battlefields" where the Romans "created battlefield conditions for public amusement...War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death..."2 The crowd in the amphitheater not only a passive witness of this drama, but at its end became an active participant, when it was time to decide whether the loser should die or live. Like any other form of ritual, these contests were implicitly understood by the Romans to express a message important to their social order and that message involved violence, death, and power.

Early in its history the gladiatorial contest developed into a symbolic re-enactment of Roman military success. Different types of gladiators such as the Thracian, the Gaul, and the Samnite, used arms and techniques of foreign armies conquered by the Romans. Roland Auguet calls these contests "the fossilized image of Roman conquests."3 For example, in 310 BC the Campanians, after defeating the Samnites with the help of the Romans, staged games in which the gladiators had to use the arms of the defeated enemy that were left on the battlefield. Livy tells us that the purpose of this display was to express contempt and hatred for the Samnites (9.40.17). When gladiatorial contests were first exported to Rome, the ethnic designations for various types of gladiators (like 'the Samnite') carried a similar message, regularly reassuring the Romans of their military domination and throughout the empire reminding provincials not to challenge the rule of the Romans who watched bloody violence for fun. resulted in his view that gladiators in Rome should be like athletes

Of course, there were pagan Romans who did not approve of these contests. The historian Cassius Dio says that the emperor Marcus Aurelius took extraordinary measures to prevent bloodshed and death for gladiators (71.29.4):

Marcus' disgust with bloodshed resulted in his view that gladiators in Rome should be like athletes fighting without risk of deadly harm; for he never allowed any one of them to wield an iron sword, and the weapons they used had a blunt tip.

Given the blood lust of Roman spectators, one might suspect the accuracy of Dio's claim, even about an emperor who had a life-long aversion to these contests. Dio, however, is a reliable historian, so perhaps it was only a temporary policy or more likely, was only in effect when Aurelius actually was present in the amphitheater. If that was the case, the Roman populace would have only had to put up with these sanitized contests infrequently. In fact he was absent from Rome for about eight of his nineteen years as emperor fighting invading barbarians in the north. If, on the other hand, the ban was in effect for his whole reign, perhaps his extraordinary popularity prevented him from losing the support of the people. At any rate, Aurelius' son and successor Commodus, whose passion for gladiatorial combat was unbounded (he often fought as a gladiator in the arena), had no such qualms about bloodshed.

Aurelius had sensibilities that were unusual for a Roman of any class. Other intellectuals who scorned gladiator contests nonetheless had no real objections to the violence and bloodshed as such. Mostly one hears complaints about the popularity of these games. For example, Tacitus made the following criticism: "Now indeed characteristic and peculiar vices of this city seem to me almost to be conceived in the womb of the mother: love of the theater and a manic zeal for gladiators and horses (Dial. 29)." Cicero points out the scorn that a friend of his had for gladiatorial contests (ad Fam. 7.1.3), probably because it was primarily entertainment for the lower classes. Cicero, however, makes no complaint about the bloodshed of gladiatorial combat, but laments the suffering of animals in the wild beast hunts (ad Fam. 7.1.3). Seneca complains about the bad moral effect of spectacles in general. He says that he returns from spectacles "more greedy, more aggressive, and more pleasure-seeking, more cruel and more inhumane (Ep. 7.3)." His complaint, however, is not against the regular gladiatorial contests, which were held in the afternoon, nor against the morning event in which men had to defend themselves against wild animals, but against the noon entertainments in which condemned criminals fought each other with swords Gladiatorial contests, however, were virtually impervious to criticism. As one might expect, Christian writers strongly objected to these contests, but at the same time they provide us with evidence that Christians were frequenters of the amphitheater, sometimes going directly from church to the games (Tert. De spect. 25.5). Tertullian is a good example of the Christian view of gladiator shows. He calls these shows "murder" and says that "innocent gladiators are sold into the games so that they may become the victims of public pleasure" (De spect. 12.3; 19.4). His main objection, however, is religious. Gladiatorial contests are tainted with idolatry (i.e., worship of pagan gods), since they originated in funeral contests in honor of the dead, whom the Romans deified as Di Manes ('defied shades') (De spect. 3.3; 6.3-4). Moreover, in the amphitheater, which he calls "a temple of all demons" could be found statues of the gods like Mars, the patron divinity of gladiators, and Diana, who presided over the venatio. Men dressed as the gods Mercury (escort of dead to underworld) and Dis Pater (god of underworld) were evident in the arena (De spect. 12.7; Apologia to the Roman Rulers, 15). Tertullian criticizes gladiator shows for the pleasure they evoke in the spectators: "No one comes to pleasure without ignoble desire; no one suffers ignoble desire without negative consequences" (De spect. 15.6). He also condemns the bad emotional effect that gladiator shows (and other spectacles like theatrical performances and chariot races) have on the spectators (De spect. 15.2 ):without the protection of a helmet or shield or faced . The winner of one of these contests would immediately have to fight other condemned criminals until he himself was killed. Seneca calls these combats "pure homicide" (Ep. 7.4).

God has ordered us to treat the holy spirit, inasmuch as it is tender and delicate in accordance with the good of its own nature, with tranquility and gentleness and quiet and peace, not to disturb it with madness, rage, anger, and grief.

A classic example of this Christian objection is Augustine's description of the first time his friend Alypius witnessed gladiatorial combat in an amphitheater (Conf. 6.8).4 Note the powerful effect that events in the arena had on this innocent and naïve young man:

Not abandoning the earthly profession constantly recommended to him by his parents, he [Alypius] had proceeded to Rome to study law and there was violently seized by an incredible enthusiasm for gladiatorial shows. Although he was hostile to and detested such things, certain friends and fellow students of his, when by chance he had run into them returning from lunch, led him, vehemently refusing and resisting, with amicable violence into the amphitheater on a day of those cruel and deadly games, This is what he said to them: “if you drag my body into that place, do you think you can direct both my mind and my eyes toward those spectacles? Despite my presence, I will be absent and thus I will prevail over both you and those sights." Having heard Alypius’ protestations, they nonetheless compelled him to go along with them to the amphitheater, perhaps desiring to test whether he could back up his words with actions. When they arrived there and occupied whatever seats they could, the whole amphitheater was seething with monstrous delights. Alypius closed his eyes so that the awful goings-on might not enter his consciousness, but if only he had stopped up his ears! For when one of the gladiators fell in combat, and a huge shout of all the spectators had powerfully resounded in his ears, overcome by curiosity, and as it were prepared to see whatever had happened and once it had been seen to disdain it, he opened his eyes and was struck with a greater wound in his soul than the gladiator whom he desired to see had received in his body, and he fell more wretchedly than that gladiator whose fall had provoked the shout that entered through his ears and opened up his eyes with the result that his mind, still bold rather than brave and much weaker due to its greater reliance on itself than on you [i.e., Christ], was struck and thrown down,. As soon as he saw blood, he drank in the savagery; and not turning away, kept his gaze fixed and absorbed the madness and delighted in the criminal combat, and was made drunk with bloody delight. Now he was not the same person that he was when he had first arrived, but one of the crowd which he had joined and a true companion of his friends who brought him there. Need I say more? He watched, shouted, became excited, and took away from the amphitheater a madness, which would bring him back not only with those friends who dragged him there in the first place, but also without them and dragging others. And from there, nevertheless, with a very strong and most merciful hand you [i.e., Christ] rescued him and you taught him to have confidence, not in himself but in you; but that happened much later.

Even among Christian apologists there was less concern about the killing5 that went on in the munus than would be the case today. The primary objection of both Tertullian and Augustine was the moral harm done to the spectator. Perhaps one important reason for this is that those who were killed in the munus were mostly from the dregs of society, e.g., slaves and criminals and therefore not worthy of consideration.

Despite these objections, Christian emperors tolerated gladiatorial contests, even Theodosius, whose closing of all pagan cults and sites brought to an end the long tradition of the relatively tame Olympic games. Some Christians, however, indulged in more than passive toleration. There were rich Christians who actively sponsored gladiatorial contests. A pope in the late fourth century AD (Damasus in 367 AD) even recruited gladiators to destroy his enemies. Honorius, Theodosius' son, finally decreed the end of gladiatorial contests in 399 AD.

Gladiatorial contests were not always characterized by capricious and bloodthirsty cruelty. Ideally, the decision of life or death was based on principle of justice. The audience expected a professional performance and rewarded with life those losing gladiators who fought well. An important concern of the spectators was how a gladiator faced death (Sen. Tranq. 11.4).

...we despise gladiators if they are willing to do anything to preserve their life; we favor them, if they give evidence of their contempt for it.

A less than brave gladiator risked the wrath of the spectators (Sen. Ira 1.2.4):

Why do the people get angry at gladiators and so nastily that they think it an injury because [the gladiators] do not perish willingly? [The people] believe that they have been scorned and in facial expression, gesture, and passion are turned from a spectator into an opponent.

From the Roman point of view, the worth of gladiatorial contests lay in the achievement of a high moral level of behavior - of fighting bravely and of dying nobly - one of the most precious ideals in the ancient world. One example of this occurred in a staged sea battle given by Claudius on the Fucine Lake between two naval squadrons, which involved 19,000 coerced convicts. They at first did not want to fight, but they soon began to take heart and display courage. Tacitus writes: although they were criminals, they fought with the spirit of brave men. (Ann. 12.56)." Their reward was exemption from the penalty of wholesale execution. By an a fortiori argument, the virtuous behavior of ordinarily contemptible men like criminals taught a lesson to Roman citizens: if such lowly men could fight nobly, a Roman citizen could do no less. As Pliny the Younger observes (Panegyricus 33.2):

We saw a spectacle then not enervating and dissolute, nor one to soften and break the spirits of men, but one which inspired them to noble wounds and contempt for death, because the love of glory and the desire for victory was seen in the bodies of even slaves and criminals.

A late Roman author says that emperors held gladiatorial games before military expeditions to prepare the Romans for war (Historia Augusta, Maximus et Balbinus, 8.7):

I accept as more truthful the tradition that Romans about to go to war ought to have seen battles and wounds and steel, and naked men contending against each other [i.e, gladiators], that they might not fear armed men or shrink from wounds and blood.

Seneca used the gladiator as a model for his Stoic wise man: just as the gladiator accepts death in the arena, when it is inevitable, the wise man must willingly surrender his life to the deity without hesitation (e.g., Ep. 30.8; Dialogi 9.11.4).

Thus gladiatorial combat, despite its bloody cruelty, was fraught with moral meaning for the Romans. Countless gladiators on countless occasions over a period of 700 years repeatedly displayed those moral qualities that both inspired the Roman people and helped explain to them the dominance of their empire, achieved by martial violence and virtue.


  • At 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The idea that a man should see war before he goes into battle makes sense when you look at the impact of such gladiatoral games and the way it affected people such as Augustine's companion, Alypius. Such an activity would no doubt heighten someone's lust for battle while triggering adrenaline and boost an overall excitement about war and bloodshed. The hisorian's account of Marcus Aurelius surprises me because it seems as though it would be very difficult to tell thousands of bloodthirsty Romans that their main source of enertainmnt is about to be censored with ease. Since Dio is a fairly reliable historian, it makes me wonder if there was much controversy with Aurelius' decisions. Another interesting thing that is mentioned in the blog is how when Rome was converted to Christianity, the bloodshed was still allowed by those who even ended the Olympic games. This activity even brought in people like the pope. I guess what makes sense is that the people who take part in the gladiatorial contests were very strong and willing to go through a lot more than common soldiers, thus giving reason why someone like the pope would want to use them to attack their enemies.

  • At 10:24 AM, Anonymous bittersweetaddiction said…

    Gladiator matches though graphically violent, appeased the populace. The Roman Empire based its entire empire on military gain. So the people in essence supported their culture and how their world worked. Just as present day America is a democratic country and it’s people support and back freedom in our culture. But though the Roman culture supported it, that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not gladiator matches were right, morally physically, and spiritually.
    It was stated that Christians objected the matches because of religious reasoning that the matches tied into paganism and idolatry. But regardless, paganism can’t be contributed to gladiator matches any more than Christianity can contribute against them. Modern day celebrations of Halloween and Christmas to an extent were brought about from pagan holidays and customs. Even Augustine took part in the spectacle crowd that is a gladiator match. It became to much for him to bear not to watch it. It was just a way for the Romans to revel in their culture and to pass the time. It could be questioned that Gladiator matches are just a form of temptation too tantalizing to bear away from.

  • At 8:31 PM, Anonymous kisstheconcrete said…

    It is really hard to determine whether the benefits of the gladiator matches exceed the detriments. As the blog states during this time Rome was a warrior nation. In a way the gladiator matches could be seen as a type of intermission for the Roman people. The gladiator matches provided entertainment in such a stressed out world, weighed down with war and least for the crowd anyway. I'm sure the gladiators still maintained a great deal of stress, but the matches provided a break for the majority of people and maybe even worked to raise their moral.

    I like how the article refers to gladiators as being athletes, with this comparison we can relate them more to the modern world. Today, sports are a major source of entertainment and in pop culture we have celebrity athletes.

    The article also mentions how the crowd sometimes had a say in whether the loser lived or died. It makes me think that they were trying to play God. Even though they are totally different concepts, this reminds me of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients and the religious entanglements that make a patient's right to die debatable.


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