Accounts of the day give many differing and even opposing opinions. Surprisingly for us, even the most humane and caring commentators of the time were generally favourable or acquiescent. Nero’s tutor Seneca was disgusted but seems to have been relatively isolated. Livy felt the Gladiatorial shows had lost their religious character. Cicero and Pliny approved. Juvenal was quite a fan but was quick to recognise the political value. Martial was very keen on them.
The Colosseum was a public structure linking the private life of citizens with the world outside the city walls
When we think of the Gladiatorial games we often think of them as something done “at home”, as something wholly born and contained within Roman society. Viciousness for the sake of it: get up out of bed, get dressed, have breakfast, go to see someone in anguish getting his guts spilt, go back home for dinner and bed. But changing the perspective we can possibly begin to grasp the logic, especially if we consider them as something which resulted from Rome’s interaction with the world outside, with other warring nations and the afterlife.
We should not forget the character of the Roman citizen. He (and I mean “He”) was not only a member of a family but first and foremost a member of a military clan which had to fight for survival and honour. Each Roman citizen was traditionally a soldier-fighter-citizen who had to spend a considerable amount of time abroad at war and in real danger of getting savaged by a barbarian. At least until Marius thought of having a professional army.
The Roman citizen was also deeply respectful of his deceased ancestors, performing morning rituals and prayers to the souls of his forefathers through puppets called “Lares” which were ever present in the household. The household fire would also be continuously alight in honour of the goddess Vesta. A phallic symbol over the doorway was not an uncommon symbol placed there to bring abundance.
The individual was first and foremost part of a military household and its ancestors, even if perhaps a little later the great wealth, luxury and Greek culture softened them up, which even in its day caused them much debate and concern.
The modern writer Camille Paglia suggested society sweeps death and disease under the carpet by relegating it to a hospital: Apollo-Man attempting to box in, subdue and control the hazards of nature in his fight for survival. Even Gottfried Richter saw in Apollo man’s evolution from creature of Nature and Chaos to creature of Sky-Cult and Order. I believe that this is probably true and suggest that the Romans, as the most advanced civilization of their time exhibited an extreme of this before breaking away from earth to sky.
We can only turn to the philosophy of De Sade in order to glimpse at the logic of a pre-Christian world where even peoples and cultures were governed by irrefutably Darwinist principles. Man was a product of Nature and as such has to obey and play his role in Nature according to how he has been created.
In this context, the Amphitheatre was a mini world replaying the reality outside. The Colosseum was a live model of the hazards and fears which beset Roman civilisation and every single individual within it. The very savagery of the munus-offering tells us something of the threat and fears which any human being living in those times had to deal with as part of life. Even if he or she lived in an “unconquered” part of the world. The emperors understood this and leveraged its political value as Juvenal recogised in his comment about “bread and circus”. They “subdued” the hazards of their world and existence by turning them into a game.
The emperors understood this and leveraged its political value as Juvenal recogised in his comment about “bread and circus”. Their very savagery tells us something of the threat which any human being living in those times had to deal with as part of life. Even if he lived in an “unconquered” part of the world.
The Greek theatre was closed off full-circle by the Romans. The world was shut out and the arena within it could be done up with the most extravagant scenery and filled with the most extreme savagery that peoples of those times contended with for survival. In order to make it a perfect model, the seating and public was arranged so that all the castes and classes of society were neatly laid out and brought together. Women and Slaves on the outer circles, Emperors, high priests and Patricians at the inner circles and everyone else neatly laid out in between.
Horrifying reality was all neatly boxed in so that they could watch it going on below, with them as Gods unscathed. The more it was gory the more they felt safe and above it. Rather the same gory attraction felt those who stop to catch a glimpse of a horrifying traffic accident. Or even more like a child bullied by his elders taking it out on other children.
The end of the Colosseum and gladiatorial shows
And then, as if by magic it all came to an end. When the mock world of the amphitheatre ceased to be of value and the barbarians were truly upon them and in the city gates the distressed Romans replaced the Amphitheatre with a new building: the Basilica-Church. The arch of the Amphitheatre was a door to the savage world of brutality and the Church with its internal Triumphal arch was a door to the world of spiritual salvation.
The Colosseum: | Amphitheatres in Ancient Rome| Structure of the Colosseum | The games at the Colosseum | Capital punishment | Organisation of the animal shows | Shows with Wild Beasts | Naval war games Naumachiae | Why the Colosseum? | Gladiators and Christians | Rise and Fall of the Gladiators | Pictures of the Colosseum |