We previously looked at the Colosseum as a major and impressive work of ancient architecture, and then reviewed the events the Romans staged in it. Today we raise the difficult but essential question of whether and how we can and should judge the Romans for their bloody games. Can one culture ever judge another, should the Romans be condemned on humanitarian grounds, are the games even more deserving of criticism for their degrading effect on the spectators? These are among the questions we take up.

Show Notes

Our first three podcasts on the Colosseum concerned the structure itself and the events held in it. Today we will think more broadly about the Romans and their violent games: Should we condemn them for their bloody approach to entertainment, and if so on exactly what grounds?

Most guidebooks are silent on such moral questions: they stick to the basic facts about the Colosseum’s structure and the events staged in it. I am tempted follow a similar approach for I find the question exceedingly difficult. But my hope in these podcasts is to stimulate thinking about Rome and the big questions it raises, not merely to convey information, so I can’t in good faith avoid raising such questions, even if I cannot answer them decisively.

It seems obvious that the place to start is with a condemnation of the Romans for their violent games. Cicero himself uses the words “cruel and inhuman” as a possibly sound way of describing gladiatorial competition, and there were also other Ancient Romans who found the violence of the arena a little too much to take. This is certainly my first reaction, and more than a few well-known authors do just this. Michael Grant, the most widely read Roman historian of the last generation, says on the very first page of his book on the gladiators that the Romans “bear an infinite load of guilt” for promoting these fights to the death. He even attributes to the gladiatorial games almost the “supreme degree of evil” that he locates in Nazism. Mary Beard, the most widely read Roman historian of the present generation, reports on the very first page of her book on the Colosseum that the International Olympic Committee dropped the Colosseum as its symbol because it is “a symbol of blood,” and she seems to agree with the Committee’s decision. There is a lot to be said for this critical point of view: most of us raised in the Modern West look with some horror at dog fighting and bear baiting, and perhaps at capital punishment as well, so when we enter the Colosseum, shouldn’t we be appalled at the slaughter of human beings and wild animals that took place in it and other Roman amphitheaters?

I’d say the default modern position is that the games were cruel and inhuman and that modern times are more humane. But to help stimulate our thinking on the matter, let’s first acknowledge another contemporary view that cuts in a different direction: it is that we can never judge the practices of another culture, and we encounter it more at universities than on the streets.

Called “cultural relativism,” the opinion that we should never make cultural and moral judgments is prominent for at least one good reason. We have a tendency to look around ourselves and condemn whatever is different, as though we had established by careful consideration that our own judgments were true and superior to all alternatives. Unthinking confidence that our own opinions are the best stops us from examining the possible superiority of opposed points of view, so in condemning cultural judgments, cultural relativism protects us against the bias of favoring the familiar.

The difficulty is that cultural relativism then takes a second step. It does not demand only that we doubt our knee-jerk judgments, which is excellent advice, it goes on to insist that we can never know the truth about right or wrong, noble or base, good or evil. But if it is lazy and chauvinistic to condemn everything foreign, is the remedy to condemn nothing? The race to judge without thinking deserves to be attacked as prejudgment, as “prejudice,” but the belief that nothing can be judged has buried within it the judgment that everything must be permitted, where “everything” ranges from the Romans’ games to Hitler’s holocaust: I’d recommend testing the charms of such relativism before concluding that it really helps solve our problems.

So far, here is where I am: the Roman games seem cruel, but I agree with the relativists’ first step: it is lazy to judge the past simply by the present, without considering how the Ancients saw things or what circumstances they faced. It does no good to simply apply a modern yardstick to Ancient Rome: we should think about the past to help us test the default modern position, not just to preach it.

I think there are at least three ways to dig a little deeper into the question of the morality of the Romans and their games. One maintains that violence comes in many forms and that the taste for it is universal, not exclusively Roman. The second argues that the bloody games were essential for the training of Roman citizens and soldiers. The third shifts attention from the suffering of the victim to the degradation of the spectator.

1) On the view that the taste for violence is universal, not merely Roman, I’m sure you have already noted that there is a certain similarity between the Romans’ games and some activities of other societies. We in the United States have our Ultimate Fighting and our football, whose appeal depends not only on its acrobatic catches but also on its violent hits. Spain has its bull fights, and boxing remains a big draw virtually everywhere. So could an ancient Roman—let’s name him Messala—respond to the modern humanitarian critique of the games by saying it is hypocritical for someone who tolerates Ultimate Fighting to attack the gladiatorial games?

I don’t think so. The carnage from the games was so extensive as to suggest a vast difference between the two sorts of entertainment. The modern humanitarian might be repelled by Ultimate Fighting too, but he could still say that it falls far short of the violence entailed in forcing men to slaughter one another, not to mention the added destruction of countless wild beasts. A vast difference in degree can amount to a difference in kind.

A more promising argument for our Messala would be to maintain that even if modern and Christian societies show their humanity by their banishment of the gladiatorial games, they should not be too quick to congratulate themselves, for wanton cruelty and violence still rear their heads in other forms. The early Christian Romans stopped the games, but at different moments in the later history of Christian Europe, the Crusades were launched, extensive bloodshed was employed to convert new worlds to the old faith, intense religious wars raged, and the Inquisition maintained orthodoxy by violent methods. Messala would say that compared to these events, the violence of the games was small beans.

As for our modern liberal practices, our Roman spokesman would find it impossible to attack them as cruel in their intention and difficult also to attack them as being cruel in their effects. Many millions were killed in the political violence of the 20th century, but the extreme political Left and Right were much more responsible for this than the liberal center of the Modern West, unless Messala would wish to fault the Western democracies for their slowness in arming against the growing menace of Hitler’s Germany and their acceptance of the ongoing political woes of the Third Word.

Messala would at least be tempted to call attention to the potential violence represented by the proliferation of nuclear and other powerful weapons in our time. For now, we enjoy the great blessings of many modern technologies, but he might suggest the popularity of dystopian novels and films stems in part from widespread awareness that the vast power of modern technology may have cruel effects as well as kind ones.

Nothing I’ve said so far defends or excuses the violent displays the Romans staged in their amphitheaters. My point is only to say that if we are going to condemn the ancient games for inhumanity, it makes sense to keep an eye out for other signs and forms of inhumanity in other times. When it comes to cruelty, the Ancient Romans take the lead in confusing it with entertainment, but an ancient perspective like Messala’s can help us find it in both Christian Rome and the Modern Period.

2) Messala might go further and actually defend the violence of the games rather than apologizing for it. He could do so by maintaining that they were an essential and ineradicable part of Ancient society. Could it be that they were not a mere amusement but actually helped the Romans to develop and promote the qualities they needed for their own security?

The daily lives of the early Romans were not like ours, Messala might say: they were harsh and always in danger. The Ancient Romans had to face not only heat, cold, famine, and disease, but also frequent wars against established and strong peoples, such as the Etruscans, Sabines, and Samnites. These peoples were always ready for war, and some of them also staged fights to the death between their prisoners. Since war was an essential element of their lives, they were familiar with violence and were convinced that their political survival depended upon it. It was their daily bread.

The philosopher Montesquieu mentions several reasons the Roman army became so strong: one of them was that the gladiatorial exhibitions accustomed the Roman soldiers to the sight of blood. His brief comment does not settle the matter, but it should help us to ask what qualities a good army requires in different periods of history and how they might be cultivated. If soldiers must learn how to kill and to die, and to do so in hand-to-hand combat, what school will be best at teaching such lessons?

Messala could argue that gladiators could even be moral examples for Roman citizens, as Cicero suggested in several places. The gladiators, he says, learn how to bear pain and would rather be wounded than act basely. They are so obedient to the call of duty that they heed it even when they are covered with wounds. Cicero’s goal seems to have been to help his readers fortify themselves by the visible examples of the gladiators. He enlarges the question of the games and invites us to ask whether it is good for all citizens, not just soldiers, to be hardened against pain and the fear of death, so they can face both, not live their lives in a fruitless attempt to avoid them.

Messala would surely point out that the violence of Rome’s wars far exceeded the violence of her games, and he would be proud to add that his fellow Romans were nevertheless able to sustain great losses and yet not lose their fighting spirit. At the Battle of Cannae, for example, Hannibal wiped out a Roman force of 50 or 60,000 soldiers, so Rome lost in a single day about as many soldiers as the United States did in ten years of fighting in Vietnam, and of course Rome’s population base was tiny compared to that of the United States. I repeat: Rome lost in a single day about as many soldiers as the much larger United States did in ten years of fighting in Vietnam. And yet Rome did not quit. Somehow, she managed to collect herself and go on to win the war. Nor was Cannae the only battle in which Rome suffered dearly or the only one from which she came back determined to be victorious. Could watching violent games have helped prepare Roman soldiers to endure such bloodshed? Would Rome have survived without this ability?

Several scholars make a point that might add to this line of argument. They insist that the gladiatorial fights were not primarily bloodbaths. Rather, they were tests of skill and courage, even if violent ones in which death was a risk. That is, the games drew their interest not primarily from whatever frisson might come from watching a healthy man be killed but also from seeing on display the skill, courage, and the desperate determination of two men fighting for their lives.

Thus a certain morality—call it “Roman morality”—was guided and supported by the games. In the games, the best route to being spared was to fight courageously and with the utmost determination; and while the crowd learned to admire and reward the fighting spirit, it also overcame any tendency it might have had to pity the weak. For a gladiator, to beg for one’s life was to lose it. The only chance of living was to fight valiantly: pity was reserved for the strong, not extended indiscriminately to the weak. Admittedly harsh, the games taught qualities that were characteristically Roman and contributed to Rome’s political achievements. Or so Messala would argue.

This line of thought is plausible enough to shake me out of the default modern view, which is simply appalled at the violence of the games, but I don’t fully believe it. I agree that Rome needed the fighting spirit; I suspect that all political societies need it, and that if indiscriminate cruelty is one risk, softness is another. But I would add at least two qualifications.

The first is that this defense of gladiatorial combat does not apply to the slaughter of defenseless prisoners and convicts, which came to be an important part of the events staged in the amphitheaters around the Empire.  Here there was no invitation to fortitude or reward for it; nothing was asked of the victims but to suffer and die in a spectacular manner. While capital punishment can be defended as a necessary support for the rule of law, what purpose did it serve to have prisoners play the role of mythological or historical figures who died gruesome deaths? How did it educate a loud crowd to witness a substitute Orpheus being ripped to shreds by “Maenads” or a substitute Prometheus having his entrails feasted upon by birds of prey? The poet Martial refers to one of these “fatal charades,” as Harvard’s Katherine Coleman calls them, saying of the prisoner that “his lacerated limbs lived on, dripping gore, and in all his body, body there was none.” Did such ghoulish executions really serve a useful purpose?

So if the need to train soldiers in suffering and inflicting violence might have been a reason to promote some kinds of gladiatorial combat, it would not have explained a lot of the other goings on in the Colosseum, at least as I see it.

Because Rome changed radically when it came to be ruled by a single man, a second clarification is needed. Games that might have been useful for training the citizen soldiers of a warlike republic would not have had the same function in an imperial capital of citizens who left the fighting to others.

Under the Republic, the audience included many soldiers who had to be ready to fight, kill, and die for Rome. Like the gladiators, they regularly put their lives on the line, and they needed the skills and toughness of the gladiators. They did not only watch gladiators; they also trained in the arts of war and needed to develop their own readiness to face death in combat.

But would this argument have held for the Romans of the Imperial Period? The games got bigger, more elaborate, and more spectacular, while the crowd became increasing idle, passive, and removed from the risks and challenges of the soldier. Perhaps the Roman People could still admire the fighting spirit, but they no longer needed to cultivate it in themselves. They were not warriors, ran few risks, and did not acknowledge any pressing reason to cultivate the old Roman virtue of fortitude. Nor, I think, did they display such virtues.

I am currently under the spell of Tacitus’s Histories, which are set about a century into the imperial period. He is an acute observer of men and events, but he is also a toughminded admirer of the old Roman virtues. His Histories mention gladiatorial games or amphitheaters about a dozen times, and he always refers to them as a corruption, not only for the Roman people, but also for the army. He never praises them for helping to make better soldiers—or for anything else. Interestingly, he does not level the modern charge and blame them for their inhumanity: he presents them instead as an idle and lavishly expensive distraction from pressing political and military problems, so he several times lumps them together with the theater and chariot races. He writes about dark times and finds it unseemly that the very leaders of the Roman state busy themselves with such distractions when the whole Roman world is falling apart. One might say they play games while Rome burns.

We so far have several big questions to carry with us when we visit or think about the Colosseum. One is whether it is always taboo to judge the practices of another culture. I recommended caution in judging others very different from ourselves, but not abstention from all judgment. A second is whether a natural taste for violence justifies indulging it, whether in football or bloodier games; related to this is whether the games show the ancients to have been more cruel than Christian or modern society. Messala noted that cruelty and violence may show up in various forms and may, in the form of nuclear weapons, hang over the head of modern society like a sword of Damocles. A third is whether the games served the militarily and politically useful purpose of toughening the Roman People, as Messala argued. Perhaps, I think, but only in the early Republic.

Let me add one final question. Should we distinguish between the deaths of the victims and the moral effect on the spectators, as Tacitus does? There was terrible violence on the floor, and many lives were lost. These are the reasons that animate the humanitarian horror at the games. But what about the spectators? They lose no blood, but are they not degraded? Can we watch them hoot and howl at the evisceration of others without concluding that entire populations can become decadent?

Frederick Douglass wrote an autobiographical narrative of his life as an American slave, and one of its great achievements was to show well the brutalizing effects of slavery on masters as well as on slaves. Similarly, I think, the events staged in ancient amphitheaters did not just kill people; they also reflected and deepened the moral depravity of the Roman People.

If this criticism of the games has any traction, it should lead us to think also about our own entertainments, for even if they leave little blood in the sand, the question of their effect on the audience remains. If we had the chance to discuss the matter with Messala, they would likely respond to our criticism of their entertainments by asking us to examine our movies, video games, and reality TV. No one gets killed, but what is their effect on viewers? I find it undeniable that the Roman People became depraved and incapable of governing themselves. For this, they deserved to be condemned, but this is also a reason to study them. By what steps, I wonder, does a population once capable of ruling the world come to be incapable of restraining itself?

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