Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Historical Perspectives

(historical perspectives for a better understanding of Roman events in their arenas)

Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games by Roland Auguet

—Reviewed by John D. Haley, B.A., M.A., M.A.

When most people think about ancient Rome, they think about the Colosseum and the gladiators. This is understandable, for no other culture offers a suitable counterpart to the Romans and their ritualized slaughter of people for the sole purpose of entertainment.

Yet, few bother to consider the origins of these bloody spectacles and, more importantly, what they can tell us about the Romans and about human nature in general.

So far, no author has sufficiently examined both of these issues in one text, but Roland Auguet comes close in his book Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (New York: Routledge, 1994).

The first recorded gladiator fight occurred in ca. 264 B.C., but, in all likelihood, the roots of the contest date back to a much older tradition—an Etruscan tradition of sacrifice.

The Romans called the games munera (literally "duties" or "obligations"). This, along with other evidence, suggests that the first "gladiators" were really just slaves who were sacrificed at the tomb of a recently-deceased noble.

Auguet notes that, in many cultures, blood is believed to be the distillation of the life force. Thus, the sacrifice of slaves (or prisoners) at a funeral was essentially a ceremony through which the living gave blood to the dead.

It was only later (after the Romans decided that this practice was too cruel) that the slaves were armed and allowed to fight each other for their lives.

Again, archaeological evidence indicates that this was originally an Etruscan practice, but the Romans were no strangers to sacrifice either.

Since their city was built upon the Tiber River, it was not uncommon for people to drown while attempting to cross from one side to the other.

Of course, the Romans eliminated this problem when they built a bridge, but that would anger the gods, who were now being deprived of their natural prey.

Consequently, by throwing human effigies into the river, the Romans managed to appease the immortals and prevent them from sending a flood to snatch their victims off the streets.

In light of this revelation, one can reasonably assume that the Romans had little difficulty adopting sacrificial rites from foreigners, especially from the Etruscans, who ruled Rome at one time.

The Romans, however, were also a practical people who were quick to realize the political potential of the munera. By sponsoring the games and giving the people what they wanted, ambitious nobles could solicit votes.

There was only one problem: the games were still associated with funerals, and there was no guarantee that someone might die at the right moment (i.e., just before an election).

It was only a question of time before the games would be secularized

Julius Caesar was supposedly the first to break with tradition when, in 65 B.C., he held games in honor of his father, who had been dead for twenty years. After that, other statesmen followed suit, and the games gradually became a spectator sport and a state-sponsored event.

One change, however, usually leads to another. Watching two men fight to the death might be amusing for a while, but a number of successive duels would eventually become monotonous. Hence, the need for innovation.

They would have several men fight at once, and, when that ceased to be a novelty, they provided opponents with different types of arms and armor (Auguet lists at least 15 different categories of gladiators).

Wild animals were then added to make the games more exotic. By the time of Nero, there were even female gladiators in Rome.

Of course, the growing popularity of the spectacles probably demonstrated a need for a large, permanent theater, and construction of the Colosseum began under the emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.).

The innovation did not end there. This building was designed in such a way that it was even possible to stage mock naval battles in the arena.

While there is no doubt that the games were barbarous, sadistic, and, to say the least, reprehensible, it must also be admitted that they served their purpose.

By the dawn of the Empire, the Romans had relinquished almost all their political rights to an autocratic government.

This was the one place where they still had power; even if it was only over the life of one or a few miserable slaves. In a very real sense, then, the games served as a valuable outlet for pent-up frustrations.

Beyond that, however, the games had other uses. For one thing, they were still good PR. Even if the emperor did not approve of the munera, he rarely missed a chance to show his subjects that he was still one of them.

Moreover, one must not overlook the fact that these spectacles were an important stimulus for the economy. Many people profited from related occupations (e.g., trainers, doctors, animal handlers, vendors, prostitutes, etc.).

There were also certain "diplomatic" merits. For the provincials who visited the capital, the games were a vivid reminder of what can happen to those who challenge the Romans; a people who watch violence for fun.

Finally, the games could even be seen as an important lesson in valor. There was an art to dying in the arena, and, if a slave could die with honor, then surely a free man could do no worse.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents