Episode 18: Tacitus on the Games Held in the Colosseum
The famous Roman Historian Tacitus is critical of a Roman emperor and of the Roman people for their enthusiasm for the gladiatorial games held in Roman amphitheaters. We here explore his reasons, which turn out to be very different from those of modern critics of the Romans’ cruelty.
Episode 18: Introducing Tacitus on the Colosseum’s Bloody Games.
In last week’s episode, I offered a few thoughts on the bloody Roman games held in the Colosseum and in the other amphitheaters around the Empire. I wanted above all to avoid simple acceptance of the modern humanitarian condemnation of the games’ cruelty. It’s not that I don’t feel the lure of this position; I do. The Greeks had their tragedies that reenacted some bloody deeds, but they did so to represent deep contradictions in human life and perhaps to release such emotions as pity and fear. And, of course, none of the actors suffered for their efforts. By contrast, the Romans were delighted by “the cold negativity of naked murder,” as Hegel put it.
But because it is natural for us to embrace the opinions we hear expressed repeatedly, we should make a special effort to consider what those with a different view of things might say on their own behalf. Pausing to consider the Romans’ points of view helps us understand them better than if we race to condemn them and, more importantly, this approach gives us a better chance of understanding ourselves better too.
In short, I followed the principle that we should listen to the accused before rendering a guilty verdict, and I invented a certain Messala to help us consider a few of the several ways the Ancient Romans might defend themselves or even counterattack the Christian Romans and Moderns who came after them and looked down upon them. Messala’s rebuttal helped us detect other possible forms of cruelty in later ages, such as in religious wars or large stashes of nuclear weapons, and our Messala might have argued that the effects of Hollywood’s efforts to keep us excited by sex and novel forms of relentless violence, always enhanced by supremely clever special effects, are every bit as degrading of the morality and intellect of viewers as the games were. After admitting that the Ancient Romans depopulated jungles of their beautiful wild animals, Messala would certainly ask whether we think the modern age has come without high costs for natural habitats.
Once I finished muddying the waters by imagining Messala’s opinions, I said we would be returning in the next episode, today’s episode, to the very different world of Christian Rome and to the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in particular. This is the procedure we’ve been following for a while, moving from an Ancient Roman site, to a Christian Site, to a Modern site, and then repeating the cycle. I find this keeps things fresh and brings out the contrasts among the three Romes. But I hope you don’t mind if I sneak in this extra episode on the games. It occurred to me that a quick look at a few passages in Tacitus might help us get to know another ancient perspective on the Colosseum and the games held in Roman amphitheaters. As I admitted last week, I’ve been under his spell lately; and although the Romans’ destruction of their Capitol in 69 AD was far more complete than this week’s storming of our Capitol Building by supporters of the President, Tacitus’s descriptions of the Romans’ slide into chaos makes him seem an even more appropriate author for our times.
Tacitus was a real Roman, so I don’t need to invent him, and he is also someone I’d like you to meet for other reasons, since he is the best Roman historian of the early imperial period. If you want to learn something about the civil wars provoked by Nero’s neglect and abuse of his imperial responsibilities, or about the Flavians, who restored the peace, built the Colosseum, and rebuilt the Capitol, Tacitus’s Histories are an excellent source. But in this episode, I’ll limit myself to a few sentences he wrote that have a bearing on our immediate subject, the violence of the games.
Tacitus does not treat the games thematically, but his passing comments help us to see that he was not enthusiastic about the Romans’ passion for them, at least as it showed itself during the time of the Roman Emperors just after Nero. As I mentioned in the last podcast, his attitude is not the modern one, and—with one possible exception—he does not attack the games on humanitarian grounds. Rather, he treats them as an expensive and idle distraction from the serious business of ruling an empire.
Like the essays on the games by Tertullian and Martial, which I mentioned in Episode 14, Tacitus often refers to the games by the word “spectacula” or “spectacles,” for they were something to look at and came to have a theatrical component. A good friend of mine with good Latin called my attention to Tacitus’s uses of this word even when he is not writing about the games, and his use of the word thus links the games to other activities that are similarly theatrical. That is, to other events in which spectators do not feel themselves directly involved.
Here is an example: During the civil wars fought after Nero’s forced suicide, there was a bitter and costly battle at a town in northern Italy near Cremona. Forces loyal to two claimants to the throne clashed, and those of Vitellius defeated those of Otho, though neither of these would-be emperors was present at the battle. Otho’s defeat persuaded him that his cause was lost, so he then committed suicide, while Vitellius’s reaction to his victory was to enjoy some gladiatorial games sponsored by his victorious general. Upon seeing the games, Vitellius conceived the desire to see the battlefield where the decisive battle had been fought, and he was able to do so about one month after his troops had won their victory. Tacitus closely links Vitellius’s viewing of the gladiatorial games to his viewing of the battlefield by using similar language to describe both, including words related to the word “spectacle,” and by putting the two spectacles side-by-side.
Tacitus calls the battlefield “a hideous and foul spectacle” and describes it as being strewn with “mangled corpses, severed limbs, and the putrefying forms of men and horses” and adds that “the soil was saturated with gore” (2.70). A few of those who viewed this gruesome and heart wrenching scene were led to ponder the fickleness of fortune and were moved to pity and even to tears, but neither the common soldiers nor the Emperor belonged to this small group. To the contrary, Vitellius exulted at his victory and—like a voyeur—did not “shudder to behold the unburied corpses of so many thousands of his fellow countrymen.” It was a civil war, and the dead were all Romans, but Tacitus shows Vitellius—fresh from watching some gladiatorial games—as incapable of grasping the tragedy vividly displayed on the battlefield.
Perhaps the games themselves were inhuman, but Tacitus wants to show the greater inhumanity of the soldiers and the Emperor, who gazed at the battlefield casualties without comprehending the calamity for Rome. To them, it was just another spectacle and did not elicit deep feeling for their country and did not prompt them to reflect on the vicissitudes of life. The new Emperor proved to be as blind as he was insensitive, for he saw only his victory, when he should have been aware that another contender was waiting in the wings. In fact, in just six months there would be another battle in this very same area near Cremona, and this time Vitellius would be on the losing side. Soon thereafter he would be taunted, humiliated, and hacked to pieces in the Roman Forum.
To add to his critique of Vitellius and make it more plausible that he might gaze at those killed in a civil war in the same way he gazed at gladiators, Tacitus says in the very next lines that Vitellius followed his visit to the battlefield by attending another gladiatorial show, so the spectacle of battlefield is sandwiched between two trips to gladiatorial spectacles. Then the very next sentence adds that [quote] “the nearer the new Emperor approached to Rome, the greater was the license of his march, accompanied as it was by actors and herds of eunuchs, in fact by all that had characterized the [corrupt] court of Nero” (2.71). Tacitus does not complain that some of the Roman entertainments were cruel; he wants us to see what he considers a greater scandal, that events of the utmost seriousness were intermixed and confused with debased entertainment. Disgusted by this frivolity, he also presents it as having disastrous consequences for Rome. Vitellius and his army became confident that they now had complete control of the Empire, and Tacitus comments that they consequently “broke out into unbridled cruelty, debauchery, and oppression.”
The corruption that Tacitus here attributes mostly to the new Emperor Vitellius and his army, he elsewhere attributes to the Roman People in general. He makes his point by saying that the People approached momentous events in their political lives as if they were no more serious than gladiatorial games. In an earlier passage, for example, Tacitus had described the Roman people as calling for the death of the Emperor, this time one named Galba, “just as if they were demanding some spectacle in the circus or amphitheater.” He elaborates by charging that “they lacked both judgment and sincerity, for on that same day they would raise with equal zeal a wholly different cry. It was their traditional custom to flatter any ruler with reckless applause and meaningless enthusiasm” (1.32).
And then a little later, when the bloody civil war entered Rome itself and a battle was raging on the streets of the city, Tacitus returns to this same comparison, saying that “the populace stood by and watched the combatants; and, as if the conflict were a gladiatorial game, they encouraged first one party and then the other by their shouts” (3.83). He adds to his attack—not on the games, but on the Roman People—by adding that they took the opportunity of the fighting to loot the city themselves. The horror of the scene for Tacitus is not simply the carnage but the moral fact that the Roman People were less distressed by the destruction of their neighborhoods than they were excited by the opportunity to loot them. All they saw was a kind of entertainment and the prospect of immediate personal gain.
I observed in Episode 14 that ancient authors did not make the Colosseum and its games the main subject of focused studies, as modern authors often do; and I wondered why. For Tacitus, at least, I think the reason is that he thinks the general condition of the empire and of the Roman People is a subject of far greater importance. Whether the Colosseum was ever used for sea battles and how the wild animals were caught and transported to Rome are subjects about which we are curious, but neither is as grave or important as the challenge of documenting the shared depravity of the Roman People and their emperors.
Tacitus may or may not have felt pity for those killed in gladiatorial shows. I don’t know. I also don’t know what he might have said about the games during the period of the Roman Republic, when they were less elaborate and the people were also soldiers. But with regard to the Roman People of the imperial period, he uses the games to help him advance his main thesis, that the Romans had become morally degraded, incapable of ruling themselves, and unworthy of ruling their empire. He is not categorically against republican government or empire, but the rulers—that is, the People—must have qualities that the Romans came to lack and that, once lost, are not easily recovered.
To explain how a horrible murder went both unpunished and unrewarded, Tacitus comments, “among so many terrible crimes committed in this age, this one was overshadowed by others more heinous” (2.16). And when commenting on fires that burned down much of Turin, he says, “This disaster, like so many others in the war, has been obliterated by the greater calamities which befell other cities” (2.66). In short, the most heinous crimes and the greatest disasters distract attention from lesser ones and allow them to pass unnoticed. In Tacitus’s view, at least as I see it, the events of the arena are of minor importance as compared to the horrors of the civil wars of 69 AD. The moral degradation of the Roman people and their rulers is Tacitus’s great theme, and the blood of the arena does not distract him from it.
It’s almost time to leave Tacitus, but he has a few other references to the games that make points slightly different from the one I have been stressing. Two such references occur in connection with Vitellius’s downfall and death.
About five months after their bloody victory near Cremona in April of 69, Vitellius’s troops suffered a bloody defeat in about the same place. After his victory, Vitellius gloated over the rotting corpses on the battlefield; after his defeat, he tried to save his life by hiding in some nook or cranny of his palace (3.84). He was discovered, however, dragged out, and, with his hands tied behind his back, led through the Roman Forum in tattered robes, where no one pitied him and most shouted insults.
Tacitus now describes Vitellius as a “spectacle,” and adds an adjective meaning “foul,” “revolting,” or “detestable.” This is the exact phrase he had used to describe the corpse-strewn battlefield that Vitellius had enjoyed looking at, but now he himself has become the foul spectacle. Having earlier been a spectator of others’ suffering, he has now become a spectacle of suffering and humiliation, and the Roman People delight in his pathetic downfall just as he had enjoyed seeing the rotting evidence of his victory: neither he nor the People felt pity, and neither grasped the gravity of their situation.
So Vitellius ends his life as a “foul spectacle,” and so as not to face his humiliation, he hangs his head, but those around him use the tips of their swords to force him to hold his head up and gaze upon the insulting behavior that surrounds him. Again a spectator, he now sees his images torn down, sees sites where his rivals had been killed, and then sees the place where several rivals’ dismembered bodies had been thrown. At this point, he was savagely beaten and killed, and as Tacitus says, “the mob reviled the dead man with the same heartlessness with which they had flattered him when he was alive” (3.85). Keep this spectacle in mind when you visit the Roman Forum, even though there is no physical monument to help remember it.
Tacitus never offers a direct moral analysis of the games held in the Colosseum and the other Roman amphitheaters, but he does not hesitate to offer scathing criticisms of the Roman People as of 69 AD, and not just for cruelty but for a whole array of vices, including their incomprehension of themselves and their situation. And, he seems to link these vices, not cruelty in particular, to the bad government that had begun to weaken Rome, and which brought forth a succession of still graver consequences that lasted centuries and were felt throughout the Empire.
I mentioned above that there is one passage in which Tacitus may show a trace of the modern humanitarian horror at the events of the amphitheater. It is the best-known passage in all his writings, especially to Christians. In it, Tacitus records the first persecution of Christians in Rome. The Colosseum had not yet been built, but Nero had taken over a racecourse that had been built by Caligula and called it the Circus of Nero; although little is left of it today, it was a once a substantial stadium where large numbers of Romans could gather to watch spectacles of various kinds. Its central feature was an ancient Egyptian obelisk, the very obelisk that, in 1586, Pope Sixtus V and Domenico Fontana moved from its old location to its current location, about 275 yards away, in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. This obelisk, as is often said, witnessed the martyrdom of many Christians, and perhaps St. Peter was among them.
Now in the center of Piazza San Pietro, this obelisk used to mark the center of the Circus of Nero
In Book XV of his Annals, Tacitus describes the Great Fire of 64 AD (15.38-44). He not only mentions the now-famous rumor that Nero had played his fiddle and sung of the destruction of Troy while Rome burned, but he also reports another rumor, that Nero himself had ordered the fire to be set. This incriminating rumor led Nero to search for scapegoats on whom he could pin the rap of starting the fire, and he settled on a small, hated, and hence vulnerable sect, the Christians, which Tacitus describes as followers of “a most mischievous superstition.” But Tacitus’ labeling of Christianity as a superstition did not keep him from being appalled at Nero’s treatment of the group. He reports that Nero pinned the guilt for the fire on the Christians and then “inflicted exotic punishments” on them. He first arranged for a few to confess and then had them accuse others. The number of the guilty thus swelled, mostly because they were hated, not because they had anything to do with the fire. They were killed, of course, but their punishment was also turned into a spectacle. As Tacitus puts it, “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” Modern scholars generally deny that Christians were martyred in the Colosseum, but here on the other side of town, they were.
That Tacitus is neither a modern liberal nor a modern humanitarian is made clear by his conclusion, in which he volunteers that it might have been good to punish the Christians in some other way and on grounds related to what he considers their novel and pernicious beliefs; but he remains disgusted by Nero’s having falsely blamed the Christians for the fire and for turning their punishment into a public spectacle, a spectācŭlum.
The result, Tacitus says, was that “there arose a feeling of compassion [for the Christians]; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
I hope this serves as a useful introduction to Tacitus and at least to these three main points:
First, Tacitus’s example confirms that some Romans were every bit as capable of criticizing their version of mass entertainment as we are. Not all Romans thrilled at the events of their amphitheaters.
Second, Tacitus’s criticisms focused more on the moral, political, and intellectual degradation of the viewers than on the violence suffered in the arena. This is a standard that we might consider even regarding entertainment that does not spill blood.
And third, for Tacitus, the political problems faced by the Empire were more worthy of study and emphasis than the games per se. They were more complex, and they brought with them grave, widespread, and lasting consequences.
And now, as I said last week, we will return in the next episode to the very different world of Christian Rome and to the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica in particular.
Most of us raised in the Modern West easily recognize the Basilica as a magnificent structure, just as we do the Colosseum. As for the events it was built to house, they became a controversial subject in modern times even as the magnificent church was being built, every bit as controversial as the games staged in the Colosseum. The charges are different, of course, but they are equally serious. First came Martin Luther and his bitter attacks on the pope, whom he called the Antichrist, and on the Catholic Church, which he called the Whore of Babylon. Then came the Enlightenment and its attacks on revealed religion more generally, which we began to see way back in Episode 2 on the Statue of Giordano Bruno. These attacks were not made primarily in the name of humanitarianism versus cruelty: their goal was to defend Reason as higher than Faith. But for next week, we will look especially at what Bernini and others achieved in building and decorating the basilica. This should also prepare us for a return to the struggles among world views in later episodes.