Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 02, Part 9 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

By 50 B.C., the exhibitions were rough enough, heaven knows, but they were still fairly well controlled and on a comparatively modest scale. But in 46 B.C., a victorious general named Julius Caesar with political ambitions arrived in Rome.

In spite of his triumphs, Julius was in the doghouse both with the Senate and the people. They suspected him of wanting to be a dictator. Cicero warned him. "You are only a dwarf tied to a long sword. You have the army but the people will never tolerate you."

Caesar smiled. "Sulla, the dictator, tried to subdue the people by force and failed. I have other plans." Caesar knew the Roman mob. He put on the first of the really big shows in Roman history, rebuilding the Circus Maximus to hold them.

There was a hunt of four hundred lions, fights between elephants and infantry, evening parades of elephants carrying lighted torches in their trunks, bull fighting by mounted Thessalians and the first giraffes ever seen in Rome (Cleopatra sent him the giraffes as a present).

The chariot races alone lasted for ten days, from dawn to dark. There were also gladiatorial combats; how many isn't recorded, but the senators were so horrified that they passed a law limiting the number of gladiators any one man could own to three hundred twenty pairs.

Caesar may have bad a couple of thousand—practically a small army. He used them as a bodyguard when they weren't fighting in the arena.

The law limiting the ownership of gladiators didn't last long. The people went mad over these big games and didn't care if Caesar became dictator or not as long as he kept them amused.

But by now, a number of prominent men felt that the games were getting to be a danger. The people would elect anyone to office who gave them a good show. A group of wealthy men decided to give the public more educational entertainment.

They hired a troupe of famous Greek actors to perform some of the great classical plays. In the middle of the first performance, a man rushed into the theater to say that some gladiators were fighting in the circus. In ten minutes, the Greek actors were playing to an empty house. After that the reformers gave up.

Although Caesar had staged the games simply as a popularity getter, they gave him an idea. He said to Dolabella, one of his top, advisers, "This is a perfect way to try out new weapons and fighting techniques. Our legions will be fighting tribes from all over the world. Let's pit captives from different tribes against each other, each using his own weapons."

This opened up a whole new era in the games. Not just a few professional gladiators fought but whole battles were staged. Tattooed Britons fighting from chariots went out against German tribesmen; African Negroes with shields and spears took on Arabs fighting from horseback with bows and arrows. Thracians who used scimitars and had little, rough shields strapped to their left wrists engaged the heavily armed Samnites.

Once the entire arena was planted to resemble a forest, and a company of legionnaires, condemned to the circus for various military misdemeanors, had to march through it while Gauls in their native costume and with their native weapons, ambushed them.

An engagement was staged between war elephants and cavalry to get the horses accustomed to the big animals. Meanwhile, Caesar and his general staff sat in the imperial box and took notes. The winning side was generally given its freedom, which insured a good fight.

Julius Caesar might be called the father of the games because under him they ceased to be an occasional exhibition of fairly modest proportions and became a national institution. By the time of Augustus, the people regarded the games not as a luxury but as their right.

Under the old Republic, the games lasted for sixteen days: fourteen chariot races, two trials for horses, and forty-eight theatricals. By the time of Claudius (50 A.D.), there were ninety-three a year. This number was gradually increased to a hundred twenty-three days under Trajan and to two hundred thirty under Marcus Aurelius.

Eventually there were games of some kind or other going on all the time. In 248 A.D. the crowd didn't go to bed for three days and nights.

Augustus and several of the other emperors tried to limit the number, but it always produced mob uprisings. Marcus Aurelius disliked the games but in his official position had to attend, like a president opening the baseball season by throwing out the first ball.

He used to sit in the royal box and dictate letters to his secretaries while the games were going on. The mob never forgave him, any more than a modern crowd would forgive a president who sat transacting official business with the bases loaded and Mickey Mantle at bat.

Marcus Aurelius was one of the best emperors Rome ever had, but as a result of his contempt for the games, he was also one of the most unpopular.

Claudius, who was probably insane, was very popular. He loved the games and used to make a great point of pretending to add up the betting odds on his fingers (although he was an excellent mathematician) as did the crowd.

He also used to jump into the arena to berate the gladiators for not fighting hard enough, send people in the crowd notes asking what they thought of some particular gladiator's chances, and tell dirty jokes.

Both Caligula and Nero, probably the two worst rulers in history, were greatly mourned by the crowd because they always put on such magnificent games. Nero, who used to light the arena at night by crucifying Christians and then setting fire to their oil-soaked bodies, was especially beloved.

Even after he was forced to kill himself by the Praetorian Guard, the people refused to believe that he was dead.

For years opportunists kept cropping up, claiming to be Nero, and always got a following of people who remembered what wonderful games the insane emperor had provided.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Three, Part 1 is next.

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