Friday, February 25, 2005

Bread and circuses

Sometimes the pessimists among us wonder if the human race is making any progress. Not scientific or technological progress - advancements in those areas are obvious - but moral progress. Are people today any better, any more civilized, than people of one thousand or two thousand years ago?

I think the answer is yes. If you doubt it, you should read Daniel P. Mannix's The Way of the Gladiator, also published under the title Those About to Die. (The book is available at Amazon, here.)

Relying largely on ancient historians, Mannix recreates the atmosphere of the Roman arena - the bloody sand of the Circus Maximus and, later, the Colosseum. His book is a recitation of grisly horrors that is at once difficult to read and impossible to put down.

The Roman "games" (ludi, in Latin) began as contests of athletic skill but degenerated into grotesque barbarism and unspeakably sadistic cruelty directed against criminals, prisoners of war, people out of favor with the government, and vast numbers of animals. The slaughter was horrific. The brutality was unbelievable. The crowd loved it.

Certain historians doubt the reliability of the ancient sources, saying that the writers of the time exaggerated. This is possible, but even if the reality was only half as bad as the accounts, it was still almost indescribable. Consider a few examples quoted almost at random from Mannix's book:

[There were] gladiators called andabatae, men wearing helmets without visors so they could not see. As soon as they reached the arena, these andabatae began to swing wildly around by chance to hit one another.... The crowd [roared] with laughter at the men's clumsy swings....

To keep the crowd amused during the noon hour, women were tied to bulls and dragged to death and little boys assaulted by men dressed as satyrs. A confessed Christian named Antipas was put in a bronze figure of a bull and a fire lighted under the image. The man's screams came out of the bull's open mouth as though the animal were bellowing. Chimpanzees were made drunk on wine and then encouraged to rape girls tied to stakes....

The Romans had a robust sense of humor. At the time of Caligula, a gladiator had his right arm cut off [in combat] so he was helpless. The crowd considered this uproariously funny....

A number of fast-moving novelty acts were introduced. Women were dragged behind chariots and the hounds set on them. "Legendary pageants" were staged showing the castration of Alys, Hercules being burned alive on a pyre, and Mucius Scaevola having his hand burned off. A prostitute and her pimp gave an exhibition of the various positions of sexual intercourse but in the middle of an embrace, [an animal trainer] set the Molossian hounds on the couple and they were quickly torn to pieces. A robber was crucified and bears encouraged to jump up and tear the dying man from the cross. A man representing Prometheus was chained to a rock and a trained eagle turned loose to pull out his liver. By the time the eagle was done with him, Martial tells us, "his mangled linmbs still lived although all the parts dripped blood and in all his body was nowhere a body's shape."

The crowd was driven to orgastic ecstasy by these varied tortures. Women would throw their jewelry and even their clothes into the arena. Fights would break out in the stands. Gangs of sexual sadists would bribe the arena staff so they could get close to the condemned prisoners, fondling them while shouting vivid descriptions of their impending fate.

Almost no one found this objectionable. Rome's emperors all attended the "games," and most of them were enthusiastic about it, although a few, notably Marcus Aurelius, were not. Rome's intellectuals had no moral or ethical qualms about what went on in the arena. They seemed to regard the "games" as a useful mechanism of crowd control, and even as a beneficial instruction in the art of facing pain and death.

Now, I ask you, could the "games" be held today?

Yes, there are still examples of animal cruelty - cockfights, dogfights, bullfights. And yes, there are boxing matches and footgame games and auto races that sometimes result in death or serious injury. But would a modern American crowd enjoy the spectacle of women being dragged to their death by bulls or raped by chimps, or men, women, and children being torn apart by vicious carnivores? I don't think so.

If the world has changed, what made the difference? Here it is interesting to quote another passage from Mannix. After observing that Rome's increasingly large population of Gauls, Germans, and Parthians had little interest in the "games" and thus reduced the attendance figures, he goes on to say:

The Christian church was growing in power and did everything possible to stop the games. In 325 A.D., Constantine [the first emperor sympathetic to Christianity] tried to put an end to the games but they still continued. Then in 365 A.D. [after the formal conversion of the Empire to Christianity], Valentinian forbade sacrificing victims to wild beasts. He was able to make his edict stick, and that took all the fun out of the spectacles. In 399 A.D. the gladiatorial schools had to close for want of pupils.

Then in 404 A.D., a [Christian] monk named Telemachus leaped into the arena and appealed to people to stop the fights. Telemachus was promptly stoned to death by the angry mob but his death ended the spectacles. The Emperor Honorius was so furious at Telemachus' lynching that he closed the arenas. They never reopened.

So it was mainly the advent of Christianity that stopped this fearsome, centuries-old exercise in sadism.

Today it is fashionable to mock Christianity as hopelessly "retro" and out of step with our modern, sophisticated, pragmatic and amoral world. Yet if we look at what the world was like before Christianity, we see the "games" - and the crowds who loved them.

Who says we aren't making progress?


Blogger Brins said...

I've read a few books on the gladiators and it's very true; the arena could be a brutal place.

Apparently, gladiatorial combat originated as a funeral event (I forget the name). Wealthy Romans would have their own slaves hand-picked to fight each-other to the death at their funeral, as written in their wills. Eventually it went to the arena for the masses.

It's been a while since I read it, so that might not be quite right. Still, it's another reason not to be a Roman slave.

March 02, 2005 8:58 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...


Thanks for your comment. I think you're right about the origins of the gladiatorial contests; at least, Mannix tells the same story.

"Still, it's another reason not to be a Roman slave."

Good point! And when we consider that the only people in Rome who had any real rights in the modern sense were adult male citizens (and even then their rights could be casually abrogated by the emperor), we realize how little freedom there really was. Minors, women, non-citizens (a huge number of people), and of course slaves had essentially no rights at all. The paterfamilias (head of household) could even put his children - or in some cases his wife - to death, if he pleased.

I comment more on the Roman world in my essay "Why I'm Not a Skeptic," at . We should all be glad we didn't live back then. The "glory that was Rome" had a decidedly ugly side.

Thanks again for commenting!

March 02, 2005 11:48 AM  

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