Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 14, Part 1 of 10

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

UP UNTIL THE SECOND CENTURY A.D., there still remained some sense of fair play in the games. A gladiator had a chance to leave the arena alive. He could even insist that the lanista put a price on him and if he could raise the sum he was free.

An animal generally had a good chance to kill his human opponent, so the contest was often fairer than a modem bullfight. There was at least a pretence that the games were still contests—bloody, brutal and cruel but still retaining some idea of giving the contestants a sporting chance unless they were condemned criminals.

Gradually the games began to degenerate into spectacles of pointless massacre. People develop an immunity to scenes of cruelty and bloodshed and demand more and more ingenious methods to titillate their jaded interest.

A favorite trick was to pit an armed man against an unarmed man. Naturally, the armed man always won. Then he was disarmed and another armed men sent out to kill him. This routine would go on all day.

Seneca, the famous philosopher, said of these exhibitions: "All previous games have been merciful, these are pure murder. The men have no defense, their bodies are open to every blow and every attack is bound to be successful. Most spectators prefer this to the regular duels of skill. They would! Protection and training only postpone death, which is what the crowd have come to see."

Exhibitions like this began to take the place of the regular gladiatorial combats. Actually, a fight between two trained and evenly matched swordsmen is about as interesting as a chess tournament.

It can go on for an hour or more and there's comparatively little action until the final thrust, each man conserving his strength and feeling out his opponent with light jabs and thrusts.

The early Romans were all swordsmen themselves and could appreciate the fine points of combat, but the mob wanted something faster and bloodier, much as modem sports fans want to see plenty of action in a wrestling bout whereas honest wrestling is a slow business and a man may take twenty minutes to break a difficult hold.

Also, the shows had constantly to be "bigger and better than ever." Every emperor had to outdo his predecessors.

Barnum and Bailey's went through a similar period. I remember a time when there were seven rings all going at once and no one had the slightest idea what was happening. By the end of the third century, there were a dozen amphitheaters in Rome, most of them in almost continuous operation.

Some of the best known were the Circus Maxentius on the Via Appia, the Circus Flaminus near the Circus Maximus, the Circus of Caligula-and-Nero where St. Peter's now stands, the Circus of Hadrian, the Circus Castrense (for the Praetorian Guard) and the Circus of Sallust.

There was also, of course, the Flavian Amphitheater or Colosseum. Emperors stamped their coins with the heads of famous gladiators rather than their own images, and politicians had the number of games they gave engraved on their tombs.

What did these things cost? They finally got so expensive that the government and the aspiring politician had to share expenses to pay for a big spectacle.

We only know what the government contributed toward these big games as we have only the governmental records. But it is almost impossible to translate the sums into modern currency. Today, labor costs are the principal factor in any enterprise, while in Rome all labor was done by slaves.

Then, too, trying to compute the sums in modem purchasing power is very difficult. For example, King Herod of Judea gave a series of games that cost him five-hundred gold talents. Thomas H. Dyer in Pompeii (written in 1871) computes this sum as being equal roughly to $600,000. But Dyer wasn't thinking of the modern forty-cent dollar.

Even computing Herod's five-hundred talents as being worth $1,200,000, the actual purchasing power of the money at the time was far more. This doesn't take into consideration slave labor, gifts of gladiators and animals from subject kings, and contributions from private citizens who needed to stay in with the administration.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 2 is next.

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