We’ve discussed the Colosseum as a building, but we have not yet explored the ways the Romans put it to use. Today we look at the three main activities staged in Roman Amphitheaters around the Empire, animal hunts, prisoner executions, and gladiatorial combat. We’ll also consider their history and the reasons they were important for the actual and aspiring leaders of Ancient Rome.

Show Notes

This is our third podcast on the Colosseum, and in it we inch closer to what is most important but least undertaken, namely, a direct consideration of the morality of the bloody games held in the almost 200 amphitheaters around the Roman Empire. The relentless cruelty of these events appears to be a solid reason for condemning them and the society responsible for them, but let’s enjoy the luxury of a patient look at the history and events of the games before thinking directly about whether and how to judge the Romans’ enthusiasm for them.

We moderns appear to be fascinated by the games, and there are lots of books, websites, and articles on them. Some of these are by the best-known scholars of Ancient Rome, including Mary Beard and Michael Grant.

And yet none of the best Roman authors wrote a focused study of the games. Plutarch, Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca, Suetonius, Livy, and others all make important comments on the games, so they certainly had no aversion to mentioning them, but their comments are brief and infrequent: they give us only a fragmentary picture. Non-literary sources such as art and archeology help fill in the gaps, and so do inscriptions, such as those left at the burial places of gladiators. I wonder why we moderns are fascinated by the games, while the great ancient writers did not dwell on them.

Two ancient works appear to be exceptions to this rule. They are often referred to by the same title, “On the Spectacles,” and they do have the games foremost in mind. But both are brief, and both follow agendas that may lead them to distort their subject. The author of one is the poet Martial, whose most obvious goal is to flatter the Emperors Titus and Domitian for the games they hosted to inaugurate the Colosseum. The other is Tertullian, who seeks above all to save souls by warning Christians of the dangers of pleasure, including the pleasures afforded by spectacles of all kinds, such as gladiatorial games, the theater, and horse races.

It is eye opening to see the contrast between Martial’s rapturous praise and Tertullian’s denunciation, which gives us another nice indication of how different Christian morality was from its pagan predecessor. But neither author attempts a patient description and analysis of the games.

Remaining art includes large mosaics that offer memorable representations of the struggles of gladiators and animals alike. One of the best of these is in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, my favorite museum in Rome. Another draws visitors to Piazza Armerina, an isolated villa in central Sicily; the mosaics here also call attention to the logistical challenges of capturing animals in the wild and then transporting them in good health to Rome.

The surprisingly high number of inscriptions pertinent to gladiators is another ancient source of information, but these do not constitute a systematic history. Finally, there are the reports and physical ruins of amphitheaters around the Roman Empire. I stumbled by accident on Roman amphitheaters in Nimes and Arles in southern France, and there were perhaps another 150 or 200 spread around the Empire, so the enthusiasm for the games was both intense and widespread.

Games involving fighting and killing were held in Rome for well over 500 years, but the games’ purposes and procedures were not always the same. As Rome changed from a poor and austere Republic into a wealthy Republic with an empire, and changed again from a Republic into a Principate and Empire ruled by a single man, the games changed as well. And, since the Emperors varied greatly one from another, we should be skeptical when we read sweeping statements about what “the Emperors” did or did not do. The Emperor Tiberius curtailed the games, whereas Commodus promoted them, and even went so far as to fight in the arena himself. The Emperor Caligula had a man dragged from his seat in the amphitheater and then forced him to fight trained gladiators. To everyone’s surprise, he defeated two of them, but Caligula then ordered him to be executed. The Emperor Claudius was responsible for loosely similar depravities, but different emperors had different practices.

The main events on a typical day at the amphitheater included animal hunts in the morning, prisoner executions at midday, and gladiatorial combat in the afternoon. Less frequent events of a similarly violent nature included land or sea battles between large groups, which were staged in various venues. The Colosseum could not have been flooded for naval battles after the Emperor Domitian built the animal pens under the arena floor.

Fighting was a big part of the attraction, fights between hunters and wild animals, fights between different kinds of animals, and—the highpoint—fights between human beings with different sorts of weapons. The word “gladiator” means “swordsman,” for the “gladius” is Latin for the short sword used by Roman soldiers, but all trained fighters were all referred to as gladiators, even if they were armed with a weapon other than a sword.

All gladiatorial fights brought with them the risk of death, but those who fought well and with spirit might be spared even if they lost. I am tempted to say that sparing the life of a defeated gladiator shows the Romans’ admiration for toughness and courage in battle, but modern sources tend to stress that gladiators were expensive to train and maintain, so there was an economic motive not to kill them off rapidly.

In addition to fights, the games typically included the execution of prisoners, sometimes in large numbers and in unspeakably brutal and humiliating ways. These were slaughters, not fights. Christians who held firm to their faith could belong to this category, though current scholarship doubts the traditional claim that martyrs were regularly executed in the Colosseum. On the other hand, in Book 15 of his Annals, Tacitus gives us an unforgettable picture of Nero’s brutal treatment of Christians in another of Rome’s amusement parks.

Behind the gladiatorial games there is a long and complicated history. They were not suddenly dreamed up by a bucolic society accustomed to peace and tranquility: both Rome and her neighbors were always preparing for war and had to be.

Archeological and literary evidence suggests that peoples preceding and neighboring Rome staged gladiatorial games before the Romans did. In origin, these games were associated with funerals, which sometimes were occasions for killings or human sacrifices. This evidence is in general conformity with the great epic stories well known to the Romans, which show the combination of mourning, killing, games, and religious duties owed to the dead. In Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles sacrifices twelve young Trojans as part of the funeral of his beloved friend Patroclus, and then he hosts athletic contests in his honor. In Book 10 of Virgil’s Aeneid, at the funeral of Pallas, a prisoner grasps the knees of Pious Aeneas and begs for mercy, but Rome’s ancestral founder bends his neck back and drives his sword home, up to its hilt. Seven other youths are also sacrificed. The young men’s blood was then sprinkled on Pallas’s funeral pyre.

Even before the first gladiatorial contests, violence against enemies on the occasion of funerals seems to have been familiar in Rome, and far from opposing or restraining such slaughter, pagan religious duty seems to have called for it. Such events were called munera, or “duties,” duties performed by individuals to honor the dead and benefit the community. Much later, toward the end of the Republic, gladiatorial combat lost its association with funerals and came to be called ludi, or “games.” Since burial had to be outside the city’s religious boundary, the games could move into the city once they were untethered from funerals.

Livy wrote the first surviving report of gladiatorial combat in Rome, which mentions that the sons of an aristocrat staged fights at their father’s funeral in 264 BC, as the first Punic War was getting underway. Three pairs of gladiators fought to the death. Other reports suggest that such games increased slowly but steadily in both scale and frequency. As the games became more popular, and as new opportunities arose for powerful and ambitious men, sponsoring games became a way for an aspiring candidate to make a grand impression on the Roman people.

As might be guessed, Julius Caesar seized this opportunity and on two different occasions subsidized games on a vast scale. He justified his games as a munus or duty toward dead relatives, but the games bore the mark of a bid for favor. In his first set of games, his father had already been dead for 20 years; in the second, his daughter had been dead for eight years, so in neither case were the games really for a funeral. And the scale was truly caesarian: for his father, he had 320 pairs of gladiators fight in silvered armor, and pomp of all kinds surrounded the event. The games for his daughter were part of a package of gifts to the city that was even more grand.

Caesar also sponsored battles on both land and water by large groups of soldiers and sailors. For the latter, he built a lake in downtown Rome, armed two large fleets of ships, and set them fighting. His land battle included 500 infantrymen, 20 elephants, and 30 horsemen on each side. Nor did he neglect to produce battles between hunters and wild animals. In Caesar’s case, of course, gladiatorial combat was part of a much larger project to win the support of the people of Rome.

The political use of the games by Caesar and other powerful individuals was obvious to the Senators, so they tried to control it. They passed campaign reform laws against sponsoring games within two years of running for office, for example, and they limited the number of gladiators a single individual could own. But to pass laws is not yet to enforce them, and the power of individuals often proved a match for that of the Senate, which signaled the end of the Republic.

The slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BC gives an indirect measure of the increased scope gladiatorial combat and of slavery in the Late Republic, for it broke out at a school for gladiators. This dramatic revolt involved slaves of all kinds, not just gladiators, and it has been seized upon in modern times to honor resistance to oppression, as evidenced by Stanley Kubrick’s film and Arthur Koestler’s novel. Another sign of the gladiators’ numbers and recognized fighting ability is that strong men in the Late Republic recruited gladiators not just to put on public display but also to serve as bodyguards or soldiers in their private armies.

Gladiatorial combat during the Republic was primarily between pairs of men with matched weapons of the sort used by Rome’s military rivals. Thus, for example, one pair might be named and outfitted as Samnite soldiers, another pair as Thracians, and another as Gauls. This would have informed the Roman audience of the different kinds of fighters their armies had to face; perhaps it even helped some to learn the strengths and weaknesses of these different rivals. Since the gladiators were often captured soldiers from one of these groups, they would be assigned weapons with which they were already familiar.

After the Republic fell, the emperors became the hosts of the games, and the identification of gladiators as Samnites or Thracians ceased, perhaps because these groups were no longer enemies but had by then been incorporated within the Empire. Then the fighters became labeled by their weaponry or style of fighting, not by their nationality. Among perhaps twenty-five different varieties, the main combatants were the secutor or “pursuer,” the murmillo or “man with the fish on his helmet,” the hoplomachus or “heavily-armored fighter,” and the retiarius, or “net man.” Now, instead of fighting a rival with similar arms, one kind of weaponry was set against another. Apart from fighters who fought from horseback or a chariot, the most distinct kind of combatant was the “net man,” who was the only foot-soldier who lacked heavy armor and a sturdy helmet. He had to ensnare his rival in a net and then spear a vulnerable spot with his trident. Remaining artwork represents the net-men as often failing in this endeavor.

Notwithstanding occasional decrees to limit spending on the games, the emperors tended to increase their extravagance. They spent more on eye-catching armor, costuming, pomp, and bringing wild and exotic animals to Rome. It seems they often thought that their reputation and authority depended in significant part on their ability and willingness to feed and entertain the Roman People, as the phrase “Bread and Circuses” suggests. Marcus Aurelius was loudly criticized for working on his correspondence when he attended the games, so it appears there was pressure on emperors to attend and appear to enjoy the games, at least when they were in Rome. If the Emperors derived their principal support from the army, they were not indifferent to the backing of the People.

Held in the morning of game days, the wild animal hunts, called venationes, showed off the hunters’ varied skills, and when the animals were wild and dangerous, they showed the hunters’ courage as well. Some hunters took on lions, tigers, bears, boars, or even rhinos. Variety was part of the charm, and it was provided by all sorts of animals, weaponry, settings, and costumes. The floor of the arena was like a big stage, and new sets could pop up out of trap doors, as could different animals. The Romans imported exotic animals not only because they were fearsome fighters and conveyed the attraction of the exotic, but also because they were visible reminders of the vast scope of the Roman Empire, which stretched from lands of wild dogs, to lands of camels, to lands of elephants, and so forth.

The logistical challenges of stocking the Roman amphitheaters with wild game seem to me to be almost as difficult as the challenges of designing and building the Colosseum. The capture, transport, and maintenance of the animals demonstrates remarkable determination and abilities of different kinds, far beyond the wonders worked by Amazon and UPS. We are talking about very wild animals captured in very wild and distant places, and always without the benefit of tranquilizing darts to pacify the game. Then they must be penned up but kept healthy and transported a world away, and the number of animals involved is staggering.

After these great logistical challenges have been overcome, the killing begins. In Titus’s games of 80 or 81 AD, one report says there were 9,000 animals destroyed; another says 5,000. Either way, this one set of games destroyed many more animals than the total population of the Bronx Zoo. Trajan’s games reportedly resulted in an even higher number of animal deaths, 11,000. Augustus, who ruled before the Colosseum was built, boasts in his short autobiography that he staged hunts on twenty-six occasions, in which about 3,5000 wild African beasts were slain. The result was that after 500 years of such hunts, entire species were no longer to be found in their native habitat. The hippo had disappeared from Nubia, elephants from northern Africa, and lions from Assyria.

But the Romans’ success in overcoming the many challenges of staging such events only raises the moral question more forcefully: How can these emperors boast of having sponsored such slaughters? Can the mere amusement of a crowd even begin to justify such brutality? But these are questions for our next podcast on the Colosseum.

The excitement of watching these venationes must have depended in great measure on the hunters’ skill, courage, and determination, for it is not easy to kill a lion or a boar with a spear, and artistic representations of the hunts show that the human hunters were very much at risk. The hunts of some animals, such as ostriches, may have posed little risk, but they still required great skill, so it is wrong to think of the hunts as simple bloodbaths, at least in most cases.

Animals were also sicked on one another. Martial wrote that the inaugural games in the Colosseum included a fight between an elephant and a bull, for example, and I don’t doubt it, even though I do doubt Martial’s claim that the victorious elephant then, without a command, recognized the divinity of the Emperor Titus, and bowed down to him. Not every written word about the games should be trusted.

At midday on gamedays, Roman amphitheaters were used as public venues in which to punish the guilty. The punishments were sometimes horrendous, including the use of wild animals to maul and devour defenseless victims. Bears were common agents of execution, but bulls, boars, and large cats were also used. Martial stresses the guilt of these victims but seems to think he adds to the attraction by saying of one that “his mangled limbs quivered, every part dripping with gore.” To make such punishments even more of a spectacle, the Romans sometimes reenacted violent scenes from ancient mythology. Of these, Martial mentions Prometheus (whose innards were feasted upon by a bird of prey), Orpheus (who was ripped to shreds by Thracian Maenads), and Pasiphae (who was sexually assaulted by a bull). The world’s best-known Martial scholar, Harvard’s Katherine Coleman, takes these stories with the utmost seriousness, refers to them as “fatal charades,” and explores them in detail. I won’t.

In addition to morning animal hunts, midday executions, and afternoon gladiatorial fights, a day at the amphitheater in the time of the Emperors sometimes included added novelties, such as chariot fights, land or sea battles, or, again according to Martial, theatrical performances with beautiful and unclad swimmers as sea goddesses.

Under the Emperors, the games became a public institution, not a private duty to honor a deceased family member, and they increased in splendor. The gladiators changed accordingly. They had at first been captives or prisoners chosen on an ad hoc basis; now they were still mostly slaves or captives, but they became trained and paid professionals, and they were rewarded by gifts or even their freedom if they fought well. Some achieved reputations that extended over large parts of the Empire. Amazingly, some free men volunteered to become gladiators, which, together with other evidence, seems to support the view that the mortality rate for gladiators declined over time.

I don’t doubt that the survival rate increased, but the games remained horrific. Even after three hundred years of games under the Empire, twenty Saxon prisoners chose to strangle one another rather than enter the Colosseum as gladiators. Some gladiators survived, earned money, got married, and even enjoyed a measure of fame, but it was a risky business.

So what should we think of this? Was the Romans’ enthusiasm for spectacles involving death tied to the core of what it meant to be Roman? Or, was it a more or less natural interest, stemming from the same source as our attraction to Ultimate Fighting, horror movies, or bloody video games? If the excesses of the arena mark a real difference, a horrible difference, between ancient barbarity and our modern respect for individual rights and our common humanity, do we have any moral blind spots that might be analogous to those the ancient Romans suffered? And is it fair to note in this context that the ancient Athenian idea of a great festival entailed competition by such tragedians as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and by such comedians as Aristophanes, certainly not by large scale fights to the death? And yet we lump Athens and Rome together and speak of them as “classical antiquity.”

These are hard questions, so I have followed standard scholarly practice and dodged them, but my time has run out, and we will face them as best we can in the next podcast. I am led to hope that doing battle with difficult questions is as deserving of mercy as is fighting vigorously in gladiatorial combat, even if defeat is the result in both cases. I hope at least that this exercise deepens our encounter with the iconic monument of Ancient Rome.

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