Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 14, Part 7 of 10

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

Symmachus had even more trouble getting gladiators. He managed to purchase twenty-nine Saxon prisoners, supposed to be terrific fighters, but the prisoners never got out of gladiatorial school. They strangled each other until there was only one man left—and he beat his brains out against the wall.

What sort of games Symmachus finally did put on, I don't know. We only have his correspondence trying to get the acts lined up. We do know that the seven days' games cost him $456,750, and I'll bet his son never did get elected praetor.

By the beginning of the fifth century, Rome found herself fighting for her life against the barbarian hordes along her frontiers. With the tremendous cost of the continual wars, it became increasingly difficult to pay for the games. Yet they continued, always catering more and more to the mob.

The emperors abandoned the royal box as being undemocratic and sat with the crowd. The patricians made a great point of eating the food thrown to the mob instead of leaving the amphitheaters for lunch or having slaves serve their own repast.

The chariot races were a joke. People threw wine jars in front of the horses' feet and women encouraged their children to dart under the opposing teams hoping to make their team win. If the child was trampled, the indignant parents sued the racing stables for reckless driving.

The crowd still continued to call themselves Blues, Greens, and so on; even though they no longer knew anything about the horses or the men.

A somewhat similar trend has occurred in modern big league baseball. 0nce every man on a team was a local boy; the crowds knew every player individually and turned out to root for friends. Today, the teams are recruited from men all over the country and are sold as commodities without any regard for community feelings.

Pliny's remark about the chariot factions would apply today: "The people know only the color." Yet with no political parties and no feeling of belonging to any specific group, the people centered all their devotion on being a White or a Gold.

People who were born Reds swore eternal enmity toward all other factions, supported the Reds under all circumstances, and considered a Green victory a national disaster.

With the economic and military position of the empire too hopelessly complicated for the crowd to comprehend, they turned more and more toward the only thing that they could understand—the arena.

The name of a great general or a brilliant statesman meant no more to the Roman mob than the name of a great scientist does to us today. But the average Roman could tell you every detail of the last games, just as today the average man can tell you all about a movie star's marriages, but has only the foggiest idea what NATO is doing or what steps are being taken to fight inflation.

For an ambitious man to get anywhere in public life, he had to establish a tie-in with the games. The Emperor Vitellius had been a groom for the Blues. As a result, he was made governor of Germany by a politician who was a Blue. After Vitellius became emperor, he had anyone killed who booed the Blues.

The Emperor Commodus went to gladiator's school and used to fight in the arena to win popular support. The Emperor Macrinus had been a professional gladiator. Even finding victims enough to be killed in the arena became a serious drain on the empire. "We are sacrificing the living to feed the dead," protested Caracalla, referring to the fact that the games were supposedly given to appease the souls of the departed.

Yet the games kept on. Without them, the mob could not be controlled and by now the entire national arena was tied up with the great spectacles.

To have stopped them would have caused as serious a crisis as if our government suddenly abandoned dams, farm relief, and military spending.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 8 is next.

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