As far as being exhibitions of skill or courage, the games became a farce. Of course, there had always been scandals.
Back in 60 A.D., a young charioteer had gone flying out of the chariot when his team made their usual jackrabbit start from the stalls. He was still given first prize. Still, the fact that he was the Emperor Nero might have had something to do with it.
There was also the time when the Emperor Caligula had decided to auction off his victorious gladiators to a group of nobles. One man fell asleep and Caligula insisted on taking his nods for bids. When the man woke up, he found that he owned thirteen gladiators costing him nine million sesterces.
However, generally people frowned on that sort of thing. Yet in 265 A.D., the Emperor Gallienus presented a wreath to a bullfighter who had missed the bull ten times. When the mob protested, the emperor explained via heralds, "It's not easy to miss as big an animal as a bull ten times running."
Augustus had had to pass laws forbidding knights and senators from becoming gladiators, so eager were these men to show their valor in the arena. By the third century, no such laws were necessary. No one, patrician or plebeian, had any desire to climb into that arena.
For fifteen hundred years historians and, lately, psychologists have wondered why these games, which not only corrupted but bankrupted the greatest empire of all time, were such an obsession with the Roman mob.
Orgies of death and suffering are forbidden today but we know they exert a strong fascination for most of us. Crowds gather around an automobile accident, go to bullfights, and block traffic if there's someone out on a high ledge threatening to commit suicide.
Even the early Christians, who were themselves often sufferers in the arena, felt this intoxication with torture. St. Augustine tells of a young boy, Alypius, who was studying to be a monk. Some friends dragged him off to the arena against his will. Alypius sat with eyes closed and his fingers in his ears until an especially loud shout made him look. Two minutes later, he was out on his feet yelling, "Give him the sword! Cut his guts out!" He became a habitué of the games and gave up all thoughts of joining the church.
St. Hilarion was such a devotee of the games that he could not stay away from them. He finally had to flee to the African desert where there were no circuses. Even so, in his dreams charioteers used to drive him like a horse and gladiators fight duels at the foot of his bed.
There is a definite connection between cruelty and sex, especially among weak, ineffectual people. Ovid remarked humorously, "Girls, if you can get a man to play with you while watching the games, he's yours."
As the mob gradually lost all interest in finding work, serving in the legions, or taking any civil responsibility; the games became increasingly more brutal and lewd. Finally they were simply excuses for sadistic debauches.
The more intelligent Romans were perfectly conscious of this deadly trend but they were helpless to prevent it. Augustus tried to limit the games to two a year. He found it impossible. Marcus Aurelius, who defined the games as an "expensive bore," passed a law that the gladiators had to fight with blunted weapons.
The popular opposition was such that he not only had to rescind the order but even ended by increasing the number of games from 87 to 230 a year. His annual bill for gladiators alone was $2,500,000.
Vespasian, who was famous for being a tightwad and swore that he was going to put an end to this game nonsense, finished by building the Colosseum.
Curiously, the Roman philosophers were almost unanimous in their endorsement of the games. Cicero said, "It does the people good to see that even slaves can fight bravely. If a mere slave can show such courage, what then can a Roman do? Besides, the games harden a warrior people to sights of carnage and prepares them for battle."
Tacitus couldn't understand why Tiberius didn't like the fights and quotes the emperor's habit of turning away from scenes of slaughter as a sign of weakness in his character. Pliny speaks of the games approvingly and so do many other serious thinkers.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 4 is next.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents