Gladiatorial Games in Ancient Rome

Little doubt the gladiatorial games at Rome’s Colosseum would have been blood-fuelled, brutal spectacles. The knowledge of the games has been left through stories, letters and poems of great Roman politicians and writers. This essay will briefly examine how various Roman writers responded to the games, and how those reactions were similar or different. The conclusion will identify reasons why these writers may have held their opinions about the games.

Seneca, a politician who died around 65 CE, has the same attitude as Cicero, displaying no satisfaction in the Roman gladiatorial shows. However, Seneca condemns the shows in a direct fashion. First, he declares no trust in one’s ability to retain their moral character when one is engulfed in a crowd. One’s moral character becomes damaged, becoming “more greedy, more ambitious, more self-indulgent…more cruel and inhuman.”[6] Second, Seneca proclaims that one does not find entertainment in the shows, only “sheer butchery.”[7] As any victor in one challenge is simply offered in the next fight, the shows teach lessons in cruelty to those who cannot benefit from it.[8]

Martial, on the other hand, glorifies the gladiatorial games. Martial lived from 40 -103 CE and might have been connected to Seneca’s family. Martial’s “On the Spectacles” exalts Rome’s Colosseum to the highest level, comparing its greatness to the wonders of the world, such as Babylon’s gardens.[9] Martial believes that the fallen in the arena have a just end as only guilty criminals or animals fall in the arena. “On the Spectacles” vividly describes the gore and encourages those from far away to witness the spectacle for themselves, almost like a tourist advertisement.[10]

Statius, who wrote around the same time as Martial, has a different view on the games in “The Tame Lion.” This poem mourns the death of one lion in the arena. So tragic is it that the king of hunters has been tamed that even Caesar sheds a tear for the fallen lion.[11] This directly contrasts Martial’s image of a “treacherous lion” that had dared to violate and harm his master.[12] Statius views the loss of the beast as tragic, Martial as deserved. “The Tame Lion” shows that Statius believes that the gladiatorial games diminish the glory of hunters.

In a letter to Valerius Maximus, Pliny the Younger praises the politician for putting on a great spectacle for the people of Verona. Pliny was a politician who lived from 61-112 CE. Pliny declared it a suitable event for a funeral tribute to Valerius Maximus’s wife.[13] Pliny’s attitude about the games is neutral, expressing neither dislike nor affection for the spectacles, which is unsurprising in a document addressed to one who holds the games. What the letter does reveal is that Pliny believes the games are necessary gestures of generosity when the public demands such events. Thus, unlike many of the other Roman writers, Pliny finds value in the games in that they satisfy the desires of the public.

St. Augustine lives much later than the other writers featured in this essay, between 354-430 CE. By this time Christianity had been accepted as a religion in the Roman Empire. St. Augustine was one of the great Christian philosophers. In “The Story of Alypius”, St. Augustine reveals a similar reaction to the games as Seneca’s reaction, that is, once surrounded in a crowd, one’s character will be irreparably damaged. In the story, Alypius attends the games believing he is strong enough to resist temptation of the cruel games. The problem, according to St. Augustine, is that Alypius trusted in himself instead of God, and he too falls prey to the savage games.[14] As St. Augustine was a Christian philosopher, there is little wonder that he declared those who viewed “the wickedness of fighting” as ones filled with “savage passion.”[15] St. Augustine would have linked the games with Rome’s Pagan past.

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