Harena or Arena (sand) More Important than Food for the Starving People
NERO WAS EMPEROR and for two weeks the mob had been rioting uncontrolled in the streets of Rome. The economy of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen was coming apart like an unraveling sweater.
The cost of maintaining Rome’s gigantic armed forces, equipped with the latest catapults, ballistae, and fast war galleys, was bleeding the nation white and in addition there were the heavy subsidies that had to be paid to the satellite nations dependent on Rome for support. The impoverished government had neither the funds nor the power to stop the riots.
In this crisis, the Captain of the Shipping hurried by chariot to consult with the first tribune.
"The merchant fleet is in Egypt awaiting loading,” he announced. “The ships can be loaded either with corn for the starving people or with the special sand used on the track for the chariot races. Which shall it be?"
"Are you mad?" screamed the tribune. "The situation here has got out of control. The emperor's a lunatic, the army's on the edge of mutiny and the people are dying of hunger. For the gods' sake, get the sand! We have to get their minds off their troubles!"
Soon a special announcement was made by heralds that the finest chariot races on record would be held at the Circus Maximus. Three hundred pairs of gladiators would fight to the death and twelve hundred condemned criminals would be eaten by lions. Fights between elephants and rhinos, buffalo and tigers, and leopards and wild boars would be staged. As a special feature, twenty beautiful young girls would be raped by jackasses.
Admission to the rear seats, free. Small charge for the first thirty-six tiers of seats.
Everything else was promptly forgotten. The gigantic stadium, seating 385,000 people, was jammed to capacity. For two weeks the games went on while the crowd cheered, made bets and got drunk.
Once again the government had a breathing space to try to find some way out of its difficulties.
These Early "Sport" Excesses Diverted Attention from Social Problems
The games—as these incredible spectacles were politely called—were a national institution. Millions of people were dependent on them for a living: animal trappers, gladiator trainers, horse breeders, shippers, contractors, armorers, stadium attendants, promoters and businessmen of all kinds.
To have abolished the games would have thrown so many people out of work that the national economy would have collapsed. In addition, the games were the narcotic that kept the Roman mob doped up so the government could operate.
A performer named Pylades contemptuously told Augustus Caesar, "Your position depends on how we keep the mob amused." Juvenal wrote bitterly, “The people who have conquered the world now have only two interests—bread and circuses."
Is it possible that the Rome of that time and some countries of today have comparable social issues?
In a sense, the people were trapped. Rome had over-extended herself. She had become, as much by accident as design, the dominant nation of the world.
The cost of maintaining the Pax Romana, "the Peace of Rome", over most of the known world was proving too great even for the enormous resources of the mighty empire. But Rome did not dare to abandon her allies or pull back her legions who were holding the barbarian tribes in a line extending from the Rhine in Germany to the Persian Gulf.
Every time that a frontier post was relinquished, the wild hordes would sweep in, overrun the area and move just that much closer to the nerve centers of Roman trade.
So the Roman government was constantly threatened by bankruptcy and no statesman could find a way out of the difficulty.
The cost of its gigantic military program was only one of Rome's headaches. To encourage industry in her various satellite nations; Rome attempted a policy of unrestricted trade, but the Roman workingman was unable to compete with the cheap foreign labor and demanded high tariffs.
When the tariffs were passed, the satellite nations were unable to sell their goods to the only nation that had any money.
To break the deadlock, the government was finally forced to subsidize the Roman working class to make up the difference between their "real wages" (the actual value of what they were producing) and the wages required to keep up their relatively high standard of living.
As a result, thousands of workmen lived on this subsidy and did nothing whatever, sacrificing their standard of living for a life of ease.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter One, Part 2 is next.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents