Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 01, Part 2 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

The wealthy class of Rome, living in palaces and eating banquets composed of such delicacies as thrushes’ tongues in wild honey and sow’s udders stuffed with fried baby mice, owed their riches to great factories where slave laborers produced enormous masses of goods by what we now call assembly-line methods.

The dispossessed farmers and unemployed workmen had one great cry: "Let the rich pay!" The government responded by increasing taxes year after year on the plutocrats, but there was a point beyond which they dared not go.

After all, it was the taxes paid by these rich men that kept the whole system going and the government did not dare to ruin them.

Attempts were made to abolish slave labor in the factories, but the free workmen’s demand for short hours and high wages had grown so that only slaves could be used economically.

Also, the big factory owners were politically powerful and fought every effort to break up their holdings by bribing senators, hiring lobbyists, and securing the support of unscrupulous labor leaders.

A Roman factory owner found it far more profitable to spend thousands of sesterces in such practices rather than lose his slaves. And the Roman freeman would far rather have his dole and games than work for a living.

To the Roman mob—caught in an economic tangle it could not comprehend and was unable to break—the circus was the only panacea for its troubles. The great amphitheaters became the ordinary man’s temple, home, place of assembly, and ideal.

As the games were ostensibly pious ceremonies given in honor of the gods, they gratified his religious sense. He was able for a few hours at least to inhabit an edifice more magnificent than the Golden Palace of Nero instead of a miserable, overcrowded tenement.

Here he was able to meet with other freemen, feel a sense of unity as he sat with his faction cheering a certain chariot team, and impose his wishes on the emperor himself for, as the Romans themselves said, "In the circus alone are the people rulers."

The Romans worshiped courage and every Roman liked to picture himself as a rough, tough fighter. In Rome, the "little guy" could identify himself with a successful gladiator as a moderm fight fan can identify himself with a famous prize fighter.

There were other attractions. Betting ran so high that fortunes were won or lost in the circus within a few minutes, and only by betting could the ordinary freeman obtain wealth.

Also, no matter how badly off a Roman might be, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was superior to the poor wretches in the arena.

Although few Romans cared for the low pay and rigid discipline of the army, they could still consider themselves real fighting men as they shouted advice and insults to the struggling gladiators below.

Nothing delighted the Roman mob more than to have some visiting dignitary from a satellite nation get sick during the games and have to rush from the amphitheater.

The freeman would say with great satisfaction, "Those effeminate Greeks, they can’t take the sight of blood like us Romans!" and turn to the next event with renewed relish.

The games—which eventually came to cost one-third of the total income of the empire and used up thousands of animals and humans every month started out as festivals no more bloodthirsty than the average county fair.

The first games in 238 B.C. featured exhibitions of trick riding, acrobats, wire walkers, trained animals, chariot racing, and athletic events. There was boxing with soft leather straps over the knuckles that took the place of gloves. The militia staged a sham battle and the crack cavalry corps, composed of rich young men mounted on thoroughbred horses and dressed in gold and silver armor, went through a drill.

There were also horse races in which the riders had to jump from one horse to another in full gallop. Occasionally a pageant was held, such as the Siege of Troy, in which a wooden mockup representing Troy was attacked by militiamen dressed as Greek soldiers and finally burned amid much blowing of trumpets and loud applause. An admission fee was charged by whoever was producing the show.

Later this sort of exhibition got much too tame for the Romans. The only one of the events to last was the chariot racing, which, like modern horse racing, was a perfect sport for betting.

However, even the chariot racing completely changed its character. Instead of being simply a race it became bloody and exciting enough to hold popular interest.

The Circus Maximus, the oldest amphitheater in Rome, was especially designed for chariot racing. Although in the early days the games were held in any open field convenient to the city and the chariots simply raced along a course marked off on the ground. I’ll describe the Circus Maximus races in about 50 A.D. to give an idea of the sport at its height.

Originally built about 530 B.C., The Circus Maximus measured 1,800 feet long by 600 feet wide—more than twice the size of the Yankee Stadium. It was shaped like a long U. At the open end of the U were the stalls for the chariots, with doors that could be thrown open at the same instant as in the start of modem horse races.

Down the center of the amphitheater ran a long barricade, called the Spine, and the chariots had to circle the Spine seven times—a total distance of about four miles.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 3 is next.

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