The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise. One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes. The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.
We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline. Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past! But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”
So the story goes. But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise? What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves? Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster. Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome. We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.” This shallow method will not cut it for Barton. She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.
Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past. The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation. We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road. If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.
For an example we have the Roman triumph. Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position. They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs. The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,
If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+
and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.
But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise. But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*
Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”
Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves. The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.** So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors. Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.
The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity. The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis. To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,
You have enlisted under oath. If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you. But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword. You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.
Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both. This in turn gave him license to become a new man. If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own. His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.
This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games. The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right. Seneca again comments,
I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself. You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know. And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity. Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle.
The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance. At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.
To glory in suffering is to become glorious. So even in death, the gladiator wins. He shows his exalted status by despising life. As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.” The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time. They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.
With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light. Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death. St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything. And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome. Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.
This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid. It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance. Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.” A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery. Who wants to see that?
This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism. In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going. A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity. He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more. He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.” It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former. J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame. That ability could include
- A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare. The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
- A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
- As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh. The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.
One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms. Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this. But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly. Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!” But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators. Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself. Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.
I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing. I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish. In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.” It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation. Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.
For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C. Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc. But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals. Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.
But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased. Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain. This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.
It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,
Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art. He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments? While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings
+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”
*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.” I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well. The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own. The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.
**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control. The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists. All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.
^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae. Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere. Certainly that helped. I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering. This should tell us that:
- Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
- Culture and religion trump politics. One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks. Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming. Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s. The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).