Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 14, Part 6 of 10

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

By the end of the fourth century, the games had fallen into the hands of promoters and the spirit of competition had virtually disappeared.

The charioteers had organized a powerful union and now demanded that a man had to be allowed a certain number of wins. A charioteer might race for the Blues in one race and for the Greens in the next. He did not know what horses he would have before he climbed into the chariot—a far cry from Diodes and his perfectly trained, teams.

The gladiator was finished as a highly trained professional. Obtaining sufficient wild animals for the games had become almost impossible; Europe, north Africa and Asia Minor had been swept bare. The Romans were even running out of Christians, Jews, and criminals for the spectacles.

A series of letters left by a senator named Quintus Aurelius Symmachus shows what a problem giving a series of games had become. Symmachus wanted to put on a week's games in honor of his son who had just been made an officer in the swagger Praetorian Guard and would run for praetor in 401 A.D. Symmachus started preparing for the games two years ahead of time.

Symmachus, in addition to being a senator, was a very wealthy man. He owned three palaces and had held nearly every high office in the state.

Being a devout man, Symmachus was greatly shocked at the growth of this new cult called Christianity, and he determined to put on some real old-fashioned games to impress the people with scenes of skill and courage in order to disgust them with the namby-pamby doctrines of the new religion.

The Master of the Games tried to talk the senator out of putting on anything but the usual run of stuff then current, but Symmachus insisted that he wanted the real thing.

Poor Symmachus ran into nothing but headaches. To get really well-trained chariot horses, Symmachus had to import them from Spain. The nags used in Rome by then were only good enough to go around the track in a fixed race and stage a few smash-ups for the crowd.

Eleven out of the sixteen horses Symmachus imported died before they reached the arena from bad handling on the voyage. The four left were so much better than the ordinary chariot horses that the race would have been a walk-away so the team had to be broken up. As a result, their charioteer quit. Four other charioteers were collected and more horses imported. Then it was discovered that the best charioteer was a Christian.

As the whole point of the show was to prove that the weak Christians couldn't compete with the manly adherents of the old Roman religion, he had to be fired. But as he was a member of the union, the union called a strike.

In a rage, Symmachus threatened to stage a race using dogs instead of horses because, as he said, the regular chariot horses were nothing but dogs anyhow. This caused a riot in which the Praetorian Guard had to be called out.

Meanwhile, Symmachus was trying hard to get wild animals for the games. He wrote to animal collectors, to friends in distant provinces, to officials, pointing out that they should cooperate in this great crusade to put on some really good shows to restore national morale.

He spent months trying to unscramble the red tape. As professional collectors were now scarce, he had to hire his own men. This meant that he had to get them trapping licenses, as lions and elephants could only be trapped by special permission of the emperor.

He had to get special permission to give the shows in the Colosseum. The customs officials charged him an import tax on the animals although, as Symmachus explained in letter after letter, this tax was meant only to apply to professional dealers who retailed their animals after arrival.

In spite of all this trouble, Symmachus couldn't get any lions, tigers, elephants, or even antelope (he wanted topi and impala especially). All that arrived were some "weak and starving bear cubs" and a few crocodiles.

The crocs hadn't eaten for fifty days and most of them had to be killed before the shows. Apparently the only animals that arrived in fit condition were some Irish wolfhounds.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 7 is next.

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