The Gladitorial Games: Too Long a Lease of Life?

For all of its greatness as one of the first modern republics and as a vast empire, it is still almost impossible to imagine ancient Rome without also thinking about the spectacle of the gladitorial games; the two seem to have gone hand in glove. What most of us know about these games has been taught to us by books and Hollywood movies. We know a glamourized version of the gladiator; a slave fighting for his freedom in front of thousands of cheering fans in a large, packed stadium. The games were the ‘heartbeat of Rome’ and an integral part of hundreds of years of Roman history. However, it was also one of humanity’s most brutal and murderous forms of entertainement in the civilized world. The gladiator games were banned in 404AD and should have been banned much sooner.

There are always two sides to every argument and this is certainly a true statement when exploring the benefits and problems of the gladiator games. These games helped define popular culture in Rome at the time, no different from the World Cup today or any other modern large entertaining event that draws tens of thousands of fans to watch. And the Gladiators were the pop stars of the day, hugely popular figures even though they were slaves being forced to fight for their lives. The importance of these events could not be understated and they had their benefits, particularily from the Roman Senate’s perspective, because these contests were created as a means to distract the citizens from focusing on the hardship of life such as disease, taxes, starvation and the economy. At the same time, this also made a spectacle of watching slaves fight to the death and the people grew to love the games from a standpoint of amusement. As with any subject, it is important to explore the the history to gain a better understanding of how gladiators came to be an important part of ancient Roman life. The concept of gladiatorial games has roots with the Etruscans, who were the predecessors of the Roman Empire. These games originally took place at funeral ceremonies around 264 B.C, but over time they became a form of entertainement.

Typically, Gladiators mostly were slaves, outcasts and prisoners of war. Rome would use its defeated enemies to re-enact the batles they had faught and won. This helped for morale and portrayed the glory of Rome at home because most of these battles were fought so far away. This helped to keep the people in touch with the conquering Caesars and their armies. Although they were of lower class, Gladiators did become very popular amongst citizens, and would often move up to a higher class if they gained the favour of the Emperor in the arena. This potential for fame, glory and fortune was enough to entice people into volunteering to become gladiators, but the majority did so against their will. These warriors would capture the heart of the public, and make people want to attend the games to forget about their miserable existence. The winners would also often win their freedom and capture the hearts of many women; their popularity was evident by the graffiti and it gives an idea of the cultural importance of these games in ancient Rome.

The Gladiator in the Arena

The educated, the elite and those of higher class used the gladitorial games to subdue the public from focusing on real issues, and they served as mass entertainement for all classes alike. The higher class was not at all concerned about the lives of those in the arena, nor of the average person in attendance. But, they did use the games to manipulate the public through their popularity. The gladiators on the other hand gained more fans the more they won in the arena. This made Gladiators the sex icons or ‘pop stars’ of their day as they would often be swarmed by women trying to meet them or take them in. These women are now regarded as being some the first ‘ancient fangirls’, similar to what you would call ‘groupies’ for modern day athletes and rock stars.

How popular were the games?

To begin with, there were numerous large arenas or amphitheatres built for purpose to host these games throughout the Roman empire. These were major arenas built during this period with the use of slave labour to house the massive turn up to view the spectacles. The stadiums were the Emperor’s gift to the Romans and they became a symbol of power, majesty and pride amongst the Roman people. Roman arenas are circular or oval open-air stadiums with elevated seating. THis proved to be a truly versatile venue to be used for all sorts of different events such as gladiator combats, hunts, animal slaying, and important executions. The best example of this type of arena is the world-famous tourist site, the Roman Colosseum, also knows as the Flavian Amphitheatre. This arena was buit in 80AD and was the world’s largest amphitheatre at the time, and due to its extravagance, it is still one of the most visited toursit sites on Earth to this day.

Obviously, the gladiarot events were not all fun and games and an important rebellion was born from a Gladiator in Capua named Spartacus. The slave rebellion led by a group of gladiators cause the 3rd Serville War and almost brought Rome to its knees before the uprising was defeated by Pompey. The remnants of the rebel army were captured by Pompey’s legion, and thousands were crucified along the Appian Way leading to the capital as a warning to those who would rise against the might of Rome. This rebel uprising led by a few gladiators was important because it highlighted the fact that, other than the Roman elite, the people of the Roman Empire were not content with their lives and they were desperate for a change. Rome was built and run by slave labour and without these people, Rome would be no more. The 3rd Serville was was a reminder to the Senate just how delicate the balance was between a slave and a master. However, Rome took control and the gladiator events thrived for another four centuries.            A Hollywood depiction of Spartacus in the arena

While there were many reasons that led to the fall of the Roman Empire, I believe a decline in ethics and values were at the forefront. The value of life in Rome became cheap, in part due to the behaviours surrounding the gladiator games; bloodshed led to more bloodshed and extreme cruelty. The values, the ideas, customs, traditions and institutions of the Romans continued to decline into the 4th century AD. The basic principles, standards and judgments about what wa valuable or important in life also declined. Centuries of a total disregards for human and animal life resulted in a lack of ethics and warped view of what was right and wrong, good and bad. This was an opening for Christianity to finally take hold.

Around the 4th century AD, the popularity of the gladitorial games dropped as the Roman empire began to adopt Christianity as its religion of choice. The laws of Christianity most certainly did not agree with this brutal form of entertainement. The slavery, deprivation and overall abuse of people and animals in public are a perfect example of this. In 404AD, the gladitorial games were banned completely due to the killing of St. Telemachus, amonk who came over to Rome from Asia Minor. Telemachus attended one of these events and was appalled by the disgusting barbarity. He jumped into the arena nad broke ip a fight between two gladiators trying to take each other’s lives, resulting in the angered crowd stoning him to death. It is said that the sight of his death “turned the hearts of the people in Rome”. This event contributed to the eventual demise of the brutal games that pulled the strings of the Roman Empire and its people for so long.

In conclusion, I believe that the gladiator games should have been banned much earlier due to the way the higher classes would use and force slaves and captured warriors to battle one another for entertainement. In the end, it came down to rebellion, Christianity, and a monk to bring the games down once and for all. The entire era of the Roman Empire was one continuous human right violation with no real regard for the value of a life that was not upper class and the gladiator games certainly promoted this issue. The sooner the games were disbanded, the sooner society would be able to evolve and move forward to being a civilized society.

Alexandro Rinaldi, 3rd Form pupil

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