War in the Amphitheatre and Blood in the Arena

Troy Vettese

Troy Vettese

This quintessential Roman past-time strikingly encapsulates the key facets of Roman civilization: hierarchy, nepotism and the experience of war. Given its “Romanness” it is not surprising that munera were ubiquitous in Roman society. They were present in literature, art, graffiti, letters, household objects and children’s games.1 As the gladiatorial games were such an important institution in Roman society, they are inevitably a well-studied topic but, as a review of the contemporary and ancient literature will demonstrate, several significant aspects of the games remain unsatisfactorily addressed. Why did the Roman elite burden themselves with importing exotic animals and foreign captives to the amphitheatres of the empire, only to have them destroyed? Why did professional gladiators mimic the costumes and fighting styles of Rome’s enemies? What was the link between the games and war? This article postulates that the Roman elite sought to recreate the atmosphere and experience of imperialism within the amphitheatres in Rome and across the empire. In a time of poor communication and transportation, the gladiatorial games allowed the state to demonstrate its power and to stimulate excitement for war and imperialism.

The interpretation of a phenomenon as complex and ingrained as the munera has vexed modern and ancient historians alike. It should be noted that it is possible for several authors to be correct since such a large and important social institution undoubtedly performed more than one function. One theory, that the gladiatorial games represented a form of human sacrifice, should be discounted immediately. The proponent of this idea was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, a prolific Christian writer in the late second-century BCE He argued that the gladiatorial games were of Etruscan provenance and a form of idolatrous human sacrifice, as the gladiators were killed to appease the soul of the dead.2 No other author did more than Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus to distort our understanding of the games. Historians, as late as the 1930’s, relied upon Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus in an uncritical fashion and were misled.3 Recent scholarship has shown that the games most likely originated from Campania, not Etruria, and were not a variant of human sacrifice.4 However, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus’ influence has not been entirely effaced. Donald G. Kyle believes that the games were a form of expiation for what he calls a “criminal and blasphemous miasma” in Roman society.5 Donald G. Kyle’s explanation seems to imply that the munera were a form of human sacrifice, which may represent a step backwards in the historiography.

The ancient authors did provide some insights into the nature of the games that continue to inspire present-day historians. Decimus Iūnius Iuvenālis’ explanation was one of the earliest and most famous: “now two things only do [the people] ardently desire: bread and games.”6 He suggests that the games helped keep the populace docile and apolitical; the modern historian Vera Olivová echoes this sentiment in her interpretation. She believes that the emperors used the games to mollify the underemployed urban poor.7 Fronto articulates a more nuanced interpretation: the munera were not simply a way to distract the people from their political impotence, instead, the games helped “conciliate […] the whole population.”8 How exactly did the spectacles fulfil this unifying and stabilizing function? Morris Keith Hopkins believes the games allowed the spectators to experience communal violence and tragedy, but “whatever happened in the arena, the spectators were always on the winning side.”9

Other authors argue that the spectators were not passively being manipulated by the emperors, but used the games as a stage for political action. The last popular assemblies and meaningful elections had been discontinued by Tiberius Claudius Nero’s time, and so the amphitheatre became an important conduit of communication between the emperor and ordinary people. At the games, the crowd enjoyed what ancient authors called the theatralis licentia (“permission of the theatre”) and could speak more freely than elsewhere in society.10 Alison Futrell and Thomas Wiedemann develop this idea, and note that the amphitheatre was one of the few places where people could voice approval or disapproval of the emperor, make petitions to the emperor and in turn expect the emperor to respond or face isolation and unpopularity.11 The theme of power could be applied on an empire-wide basis. The provincial cities held gladiatorial games — the quintessential Roman pastime — to show that they accepted Romanization. Louis Robert was perhaps the first to articulate this idea six decades ago12 and Leonard L. Thompson has done so more recently.13

In ‘Emperor and Gladiators’, Thomas Wiedemann expounds upon another thesis to explain the purpose of the games. He notes that usually (the Coliseum is the exception) amphitheatres were placed at the town’s edge, which is symbolic of its function housing the confrontations between civilization and disorder forces.14 The three events that took place in the arena, beast fights in the morning, executions at mid-day and gladiatorial combat in the afternoon demonstrated Rome’s dominance over nature, disorder and foreign enemies.

Many other historians, in addition to Thomas Wiedemann, emphasize the munera as a tool of control used the Rome’s elite. Michael B. Poliakoff compares the Greek games, which were an institution “for competition and self-express[ion],” with the gladiatorial games where the populace was inculcated with “the power and control” of the editor (the holder of the games), since he was an “arbiter of life and death.”15 Michael Hornum links the munera with the cult of the goddess Nemesis, a symbol of the state’s ability to inflict punishment.16 According to Roland Auget, the games turned the gladiators, who were criminals, slaves or prisoners of war, into objects, and their destruction demonstrated the state’s ability to maintain order.17

One of the most unique insights into gladiatorial combat comes from Carlin A. Barton; she juxtaposes the dual roles of the gladiator, as despised criminal or slave, and a brave soldier who has conquered his fear of death. This dichotomy fits neatly within the cherished Roman theme of redemption through self-destruction.18

Recent scholarship has done much to revise the antiqued notions of gladiators, by drawing the link between gladiators and the themes of power, control, contempt and veneration. Although the role of the games as entertainment cannot be overlooked, current interpretations stress the games’ symbolic and metaphorical value. This article argument relies upon a similar armature and argues that the games were an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of war and imperialism so that civilian population could share the experience with the conquering general. This does not necessarily contradict previous authors, as the munera fulfilled various roles, and not all of the games were associated with the military. For example, if it is true that killing people in the amphitheatre demonstrated the power of the state, why were criminals were simply executed (unless enrolled as professional gladiators) while prisoners of war were forced to fight? Some authors have stressed that the destruction of wild animals was important to reassure a predominantly rural society, as carnivores competed with humans.19 That does not explain the need to display and kill exotic animals that did not compete with Italian farmers. Was it a coincidence that professional gladiators imitated the fighting styles and armaments of foreign soldiers? Previous authors have not linked these three phenomena as an effort by the emperor, or powerful Republican aristocrats, to bring war from the battlefield into the cities, so civilians could also participate.

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