Topic: Roman Society and the Games (2008) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper discussing the how Roman society regarded the Games was written by Debbie McCauley on 27 September 2008 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Blood curdling screams, live burnings, baited wild animals, mayhem, slaughter, torture, beheadings, gorings, blood, gladiatorial fights to the death, gambling, lavish displays of wealth, power, control and with the roaring and chanting of the sadomasochistic crowd who held the power of life and death in their thumbs. All these sights, the ancient evidence tells us, were freely available at the amphitheatres of ancient Rome. But how did the Romans themselves regard the games? Almost two thousand years later it is difficult to look into what captivated the attention of those of so long ago. This essay will examine some of the primary sources available and theorise as to how Roman society regarded the games.

Although the entertainments provided at the amphitheatres at first appear abhorrent to contemporary society, these judgements appear unfair when we scrutinize bull-fighting, boxing, foxhunting and the public hangings that not so long ago drew the crowds. This same herd instinct still permeates modern day riots and sporting events. This is comparable with visitors to the amphitheatres who followed one particular gladiator over another. Who are we then to judge a pastime that we know little about? There is limited evidence available from this time, and that evidence needs to be scrutinised as to its bias, validity and significance.    

It seems that the Emperor Vespasian, by commissioning the Colosseum, realised that the people needed a place to gather, a place to heal from the tyranny of Nero’s rule. If we look at Grant’s translation from Latin of Martial’s (40-c.104 AD) poem, this seems to exemplify this importance to the people:

‘On this spot, where now Colossus towers up 

towards the stars and podiums rise in the streets, 

the loathed imperial palace once stood proud, 

one single house taking possession of the entire 

city. 

Now a vast and marvellous arena stands 

where Nero’s squelching morass used to lie. 

Where we now see hot baths, built at great speed, 

there once lay a park that made poor wretches

homeless. 

Where now the Claudian portico throws its shadow 

the royal domain once had its outer limits. 

Rome has regained itself! Thanks to Caesar’s goodwill 

the people take their pleasure where once the 

tyrant did’ (Grant, as cited in Meijer, 2004, p. 101).

This poem also extols the goodwill of the Emperor and the pleasure that the citizens took in attending the games and how proud they were of the new building itself. The proliferation and positioning of amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire, by their very existence demonstrate how central the games were to Roman society. Perhaps one way to build a society is through collective ritual and sacrifice, a shared social event. An example of an almost perfectly preserved arena is the one unearthed at Pompeii whose remains were preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. 

The need to train fighters in the military skills required for the arena saw the establishment of gladiatorial training schools. It seems the Romans prized bravery and superior fighting skills, for a gladiator had a chance to be reintegrated back into Roman society of they were successful, while poor skills often resulted in death. This would seem to fit with the culture of an empire that had conquered widely throughout the world and now needed to maintain the military skills tradition. The population seem to have been used to hearing reports of Roman conquests and tales of battle. The entire society may have become so desensitised to violence that seeing it demonstrated in the arena became addictive and compulsive viewing which was considered normal behaviour. This is further discussed by St Augustine (354-430 AD) who describes the effects on his friend Alypius:

When he saw the blood, it was as though he had drunk a deep draught of savage passion. Instead of turning away, he fixed his eyes upon the scene and drank in all its frenzy, unaware of what he was doing. He revelled in the wickedness of the fighting and was drunk with the fascination of bloodshed. (St Augustine, as cited in the Open University, 2005, p. 100)

Cicero (104-43 BC) when writing about the gladiatorial games seems to have no opposition to the use of criminals in the arena. However, he may demonstrate the feelings of others when he voices his opposition to the use of free men as gladiators as in the following extract: 

I know that in the eyes of some people the gladiatorial combats are a cruel and inhuman spectacle; and perhaps they are not wrong considering the way in which the combats are given today. But in the days when it was criminals who killed one another, no lesson in how to endure in the face of pain and death could be more efficacious, at least among those addressed not to the ears but to the eyes (Cicero, as cited in Open University, 2005, p. 98).

Cicero is also discussing the upholding of law and order. How the sight of the punishments metered out in the arena could deter the population from criminal behaviour. The spectators holding the power of life and death over others seems to have been the ultimate in public decision making and public punishment.

From the evidence available we can surmise that the games appear to have had many purposes, not just torture and bloodlust. They seem to have been of central importance to the society itself with much money and time spent on arranging and staging the events. The games also seem to have been used as a distraction for the citizens, a way of keeping them warmly disposed towards their current leaders. Possibly by controlling the population with entertainment in the form of the ‘games’ they could be less likely to question the affairs of state. There is a criticism by Juvenal (c.60–c.130 AD) who protests that the people of Rome have sacrificed themselves to the free food handed out by the rulers at the arena and the addictiveness and depravity of the games themselves, to the neglect of other responsibilities. This wonderfully cynical comment encapsulates in many ways just what the level of demand was for the games in the general populace:  

... Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions - everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses. (Juvenal, as cited in Answers.com, 2008, p. 1)

Seneca (4 BC-65 AD) too discusses the negative effects on the crowds, and indeed on Roman society itself that seem to be caused by the games: 

I never come home with the same moral character I set out with. Some of the peace of mind I have achieved is disturbed, one or other of those things which I have banished returns... Indeed there is nothing so damaging to good character as to take a seat at a show, for then faults sneak up on us more easily through our enjoyment. Do you think I mean that I go home more greedy, more ambitious, more self-indulgent? Yes – and more cruel and inhuman because I have been among humans. (Seneca, as cited in the Open University, 2005, p. 98)

Maybe it was symbolic of the Roman Empire’s might that they could force captured enemies to fight in the arena or throw them in with wild animals to be ripped to shreds. Not all citizens rejoiced in this type of entertainment as demonstrated by Cicero when he wrote ‘what pleasure can it be to a man of refinement when either a powerless man is torn by a very powerful beast, or else a magnificent beast is spitted on a hunting-spear?’ (Cicero, as cited in the Open University, 2005, p. 97). This is sanctioned, authorised violence that could potentially reinforce the emperor’s power and military might in the eyes of the crowd. As discussed above, Juvenal, Seneca and St Augustine seem to abhor the effects of the games on society as much as Martial celebrates the games themselves. Juvenal, Seneca and St Augustine don’t seem to have issue with the cruelty of the games but the bad effects on the spectators and the addictive element to them.

Other evidence available illustrating the gladiators and the games in the arena are the beautifully wrought mosaics to be found in many places including Rome, Libya, Madrid, Tunisia and Germany. These give a visual depiction of the games. It is significant that many people chose to include these types of violent scenes in the decoration of their homes. The scenes include such things as wild animals devouring a man bound on a chariot, gladiator combats, arena hunting scenes and musicians playing during the entertainments. Although these mosaics were probably generic, rather than specific events, they still demonstrate how ingrained the games were, how socially acceptable, even as decoration. Other visual evidence includes stone carvings, graffiti advertising the games and the earliest representation of the Colosseum, a Bronze sesterce (coin) from around 80 AD. 

In conclusion it seems that different levels of Roman society regarded the games in different ways. For the top strata of society it was a way to keep the citizens focused and distracted by the entertainment in the arena, evidence of generosity and prestige, reinforcement of the might of the empire and a way to keep up military training skills. For the mass crowd it seems to have been an exercise in the bloodthirsty and addictive crowd mentality, also tinged with the fear that if they committed crimes or criticised the emperor or games, they too could end up as entertainment in the arena! And for the lowest level of society, the slaves, criminals and captured enemies (as well as the wild animals), it was an horrific way to die.

 

REFERENCES

Answers.com. (2008). Bread and circuses. Retrieved September 23, 2008 from http://www.answers.com/topic/bread-and-circuses.

Dutemple, L. (2003). The Colosseum. Minneapolis, USA: Lerner

Grant, M. (1971). Gladiators. London, England: Penguin.

The Open University. (2005). An introduction to the humanities: Block 2, the Colosseum (2nd ed.). Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: Author.

The Open University. (2005). An introduction to the humanities: Resource book 1 (2nd ed.). Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: Author.

  

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Connolly, P. (2003). Colosseum: Rome’s arena of death. London, England: BBC Books.

Meijer, F. (2005). The gladiators: History’s most deadly sport. New York, USA: Thomas Dunne.

Rodgers, N. (2007). Life in Ancient Rome: People and places. London, England: Hermes House

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