Author: Bridget Bracken
Sub-editor: Sunnie Habgood
In modern popular culture, one of the first things to be associated with ancient Rome is the gladiatorial games. It’s no wonder that the combination of glorious spectacle and cruel violence draws in a modern audience as it once did in ancient times. While the gladiatorial games are seen as the epitome of normalized cruelty in ancient Rome, this should be viewed as a misconception. Ultimately, while gladiatorial games and chariot racing were two of the most influential and often discussed forms of regimented Roman violence, slavery was the epitome of normalised ancient cruelty.
There’s no doubting gladiatorial games were an essential part of Roman culture and continue to play an important part in our understanding of it today. Due to the game’s free entrance, they were one of the more popular forms of public entertainment available to the wider population. This popularity contributes to the modern perception that ancient Romans were bloodthirsty and thrived on the consumption of violence. As Toner stated, “to us violence has negative moral implications, but for the Romans it did not”. In the context of the gladiatorial games, it was less the violence that was key, and more the style in which said violence was executed.
Gladiatorial games traditionally took place in the wake of important military victories – often the gladiators were prisoners of war, if not local slaves. This context displays that the gladiatorial games were about showing off both the degree of power Rome held over its enemies, and the strength of its internal power structures. Emphasis is therefore well-placed on the cultural importance of gladiatorial games in comparison to the chariot races, as gladiatorial games played a crucial role in imperial propaganda. By blindly taking the gladiatorial games to be the most important – and therefore most cruel and violent – form of ancient Roman spectacle, this propaganda persists to this day; without questioning this, ancient Rome is still viewed the way which ancient Roman emperors wanted it to be.
Furthermore, any condemnation of the violence of the gladiatorial games had less to do with the actual brutality, and more to do with a disdain for the lower classes. Seneca betrays this perspective when he writes of that after “all niceties were put aside, it was pure and simple murder”. Cicero echoes this sentiment when he questions “what pleasure can a civilized man find when … a helpless human being is mangled by a very strong animal”. Evidently, Cicero and Seneca are not inherently opposed to the death of gladiators, as long as the appropriate conventions are observed; stylized violence is acceptable, but brutal, mindless violence is for the plebeians. This serves as a reminder that gladiatorial games were not intended to be sites of meaningless violence, but rather a carefully organized institution to reflect the power and hierarchy of ancient Rome.
The chariot races of ancient Rome, despite their greater popularity at the time, receive much less attention in popular culture today. When discussing Rome’s culture of violence and only addressing gladiator games, one is completely dismissing the races and their standing as the most crucial aspect of Roman violence, as they were just as (if not more so) bloody. Cicero exemplifies this when he graphically describes the way in which a charioteer is “thrown from his chariot, ground, lacerated and dashed to pieces”. The “intense excitement and fanaticism” associated with the chariot races, their larger audiences and their intense gambling culture also suggest that the chariot races were a comparatively more important form of public entertainment to the Roman individuals. This likely stems, as with the importance of the gladiatorial games, from the importance of the social hierarchy in ancient Rome. In this case the importance has to do with the races being a setting where traditional social hierarchies could become blurred. Charioteers were more likely to survive their performance than gladiators, and due to this and the intense attachment to factions and gambling the participants were able to gain a considerable degree of fame. The combination of slave – as the majority of charioteers were – and celebrity would have been uncomfortable to those in the higher classes, but this “ambiguous social position” occupied by charioteers would have been attractive to those of the lower classes. Therefore, to the individual the combination of luck and skill necessary to win a chariot race would have provided a much more apt, or at least more hopeful, metaphor for society from their perspective.
Despite what modern popular culture suggests, neither gladiatorial games nor chariot races were the epitome of normalized violence in ancient Rome, though both contributed to it. Slavery was absolutely crucial to the existence of ancient Rome – without it, ancient Rome certainly wouldn’t have become the powerhouse it did. There would have had no cause for spectacles such as gladiatorial games or chariot races; both of which were most commonly performed by slaves. From a modern perspective, the way in which Roman slaves were treated seems impossibly cruel. Even those that had it best, with a generous master or with slaves of their own, were viewed as less than human and mere property. Depending on their job, they might have been forced to work until they literally dropped dead, being “given no rest or break from their toil” resulting in “many die[ing] because of the excessive maltreatment they suffer[ed]”. Others were physically branded across their foreheads, ensuring they could not escape without being caught. The normalization of this violence against slaves is best exemplified by the law that if a slave murders their master, all other slaves within the household are put to death as punishment. Even when this rule was protested, senators maintained that the punishment had to be followed through on in order to maintain the stability of the rigid social hierarchy. This exemplifies how that slaves were treated as less than human in Roman society, with their lives being valued less than maintenance of the social order. Considering Roman society could not have functioned without the institution of slavery, and the foundational role slavery played in both the gladiatorial games and chariot races, it is clear that slavery more than deserves to be recognized as the epitome of normalized ancient cruelty.
That being said, why is the pervasive institution of slavery not recognized as being more cruel than gladiatorial games in an ancient context? Why is it that gladiatorial games and chariot races garner so much more attention in popular culture? Simply put, slavery is very difficult to glamourize, while spectacles lend themselves to modern glamorization with ease. Gladiatorial games would re-enact the most exciting events from history and mythology. Chariot races, with their factions and gambling, held the same excitement as supporting a modern sports team, albeit with more violence involved. Slavery was simply a mundane part of everyday life; an essential but not all that interesting aspect of society. Even when slaves managed to gain some notoriety within society, it was nearly always within a violent context. Slavery as an institution in Roman society not only upheld the violent spectacles that are recognized as the epitome of ancient cruelty today but caused more suffering unrecorded within ancient history.
It is not likely that the modern perception of ancient Rome as a violent, bloodthirsty empire will change anytime soon. The pervasiveness of the idea of gladiators as simultaneously the pinnacle of violence and entertainment is deeply ingrained in modern consciousness. To get an honest view of what history looks like, it is crucial to examine even those aspects that do not lend themselves to spectacles and glamorization. The necessary and pervasive role slavery played in ancient Rome, and the cruel policies that were accepted as a part of it, make it, upon examination, unquestionably the most normalized and least considered form of ancient Roman cruelty.
Still from the movie Gladiator, written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson, directed by Ridley Scott, 2000, photograph courtesy of Allstar/Dreamworks/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar.
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Roman Ludi: Arena. Parshia Lee-Stecum. 2020; University of Melbourne. Lecture.
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