τὰς τῶν μονομάχων θέας οὐ μόνον ἐν πανηγύρεσι
καὶ θεάτροις ἐποιοῦντο ῾Ρωμαῖοι, παρὰ Τυρρηνῶν
παραλαβόντες τὸ ἔθος, ἀλλὰ κἀν ταῖς ἑστιάσεσιν.
ἐκάλουν γοῦν τινες πολλάκις ἐπὶ δεῖπνον τοὺς φίλους
ἐπί τε ἄλλοις καὶ ὅπως ἂν δύο ἢ τρία ζεύγη ἴδοιεν
The Romans used to put on gladiatorial spectacles not only at
their public games but also at private banquets, taking the custom
from the Etruscans. In any event, some people would often
invite friends for dinner and other amusements like seeing
two or three gladiator pairs …
Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 4.153f.
[c. 200 A.D.]
[Second in a series of two pieces on gladiators (the first one is here)].
Last time, in writing of the gladiatorial business as unconscionable, was I guilty of a disingenuous ahistoricism? Did I violate liberal canons of cultural relativism and diachronic multiculturalism?
A crisp and clear distinction needs to be made between, on the one hand, studying or trying to understand a given society’s (including our own) practices and institutions which one may at the same time find objectionable, offensive or even odious, and, on the other, exculpatory appreciation or tacit approval of them on the grounds that each society (i.e., its rulers) or self-defined subset thereof has a cultural right to violate other human beings and be as cruel to them as it wishes or thinks it needs to be in order to preserve itself.
The farcical and cynical behavior of certain participants at various U.N. conferences and pronouncement on Human Rights illustrates perfectly the grotesque absurdity to which a failure decisively to draw such distinctions commits us: Some governments (as opposed to many citizens of those governments) claim, in all seriousness, that the systematic repression of given groups of citizens and even their torture are part of local cultural traditions, and any attempt by Western democracies to interfere in these internal matters as a precondition to “foreign aid” or preferential trading status is unbearable arrogance.
Certainly Julius Caesar’s sponsorship of the Roman games in 65 B.C., for example, no less than that that of Nero during his reign a good century plus later, was prompted by a desire for obtaining and maintaining political power and control. Both leaders would have been puzzled by the modern Eurocentric notion that all children and adults of both sexes have inalienable human rights and that what was being done in the gladiatorial arenas was sinister, savage and sadistic.
Now, I admire many things about ancient Roman civilization – its architecture, its legal systems, its literature, its ecumenism, its glorious language – but I am no apologist for the gladiatorial enterprise. In its entirety it was integral to ancient Roman society precisely because it was an aspect of Roman entrepreneurial capitalism (I harbor no animus toward entrepreneurial capitalism as such) and the pivotal Roman institution of slavery. To deny this central fact or attempt to attenuate its horrific reality is an irresponsible, 19th-century kind of idealizing of the classical world worthy only of self-serving academics, cultural relativists and other political romantics.
The gladiatorial combats began some time in the third century B.C., presumably originating in Etruscan funerary rites. At first, during the Roman Republic, they were largely private spectacles put on by wealthy (or credit-worthy) individuals in order to curry favor with the people; by the time of the early Empire they had come increasingly under the exclusive control of the emperors. The appetite of the feral entertainment for ever more bodies to be blooded was voracious. Just as women captured in war tended to be hustled off to individual pimps or brothels, so male captives were sold either to a lanista (a sort of combined trainer-owner-booking agent of gladiators) or large investors of the type we find in Cicero’s good friend Atticus. Training the best prospects was capital-intensive in the extreme – a year’s worth of housing, food, trainers, weapons, exercise grounds, physicians (Galen, in the second century A.D., began his medical practice at a gladiatorial school in Pergamum in Asia Minor, becoming, not surprisingly, perhaps the most renowned and influential physiologist and anatomist of the ancient world) – since it did of course often result in the quick death of one’s investment and thus required new men, new training. Many prisoners of war were simply forced into the arena without any kind of training or armor, for the expressed purpose of expiring bloodily, and refractory household slaves might also be consigned to the arena (damnati in ludum) to die entertainingly. Any display of “cowardice” by those so situated could well result in a flogging; if the condemned survived one opponent, others were always on the ready, and exhaustion would eventually do its job. As capital punishment, (sometimes falsely) convicted criminals, especially if “regular” gladiators were in short supply, might also end up face to face with a professional killer in the local amphitheater.
It should be obvious, finally, that any resemblance – even metaphoric talk of “buying and selling” or “trading” players from one team to another – between American football and Roman gladiators is strictly coincidental and without any basis in fact. Here is surely an instance where a seemingly stellar analogy from an institution of antiquity throws about as much light on one in the modern world as the dying brilliance of a white dwarf.
Incidentally, congratulations to Coach Ferentz and the Hawkeyes for their great win last Saturday (3 September 2011)!