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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Moral Influence of Gladiatorial Shows on the Roman People
By William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838–1903)
 
From ‘History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne’

THE GLADIATORIAL games form, indeed, the one feature of Roman society which to a modern mind is almost inconceivable in its atrocity. That not only men, but women, in an advanced period of civilization,—men and women who not only professed but very frequently acted upon a high code of morals,—should have made the carnage of men their habitual amusement, that all this should have continued for centuries with scarcely a protest, is one of the most startling facts in moral history. It is however perfectly normal, and in no degree inconsistent with the doctrine of natural moral perceptions; while it opens out fields of ethical inquiry of a very deep though painful interest.  1
  These games, which long eclipsed, both in interest and in influence, every other form of public amusement at Rome, were originally religious ceremonies celebrated at the tombs of the great, and intended as human sacrifices to appease the manes of the dead. They were afterwards defended as a means of sustaining the military spirit by the constant spectacle of courageous death; and with this object it was customary to give a gladiatorial show to soldiers before their departure to a war. In addition to these functions they had a considerable political importance; for at a time when all the regular organs of liberty were paralyzed or abolished, the ruler was accustomed in the arena to meet tens of thousands of his subjects, who availed themselves of the opportunity to present their petitions, to declare their grievances, and to censure freely the sovereign or his ministers. The games are said to have been of Etruscan origin; they were first introduced into Rome B.C. 264, when the two sons of a man named Brutus compelled three pair of gladiators to fight at the funeral of their father; and before the close of the Republic they were common on great public occasions, and, what appears even more horrible, at the banquets of the nobles. The rivalry of Cæsar and Pompey greatly multiplied them, for each sought by this means to ingratiate himself with the people. Pompey introduced a new form of combat between men and animals. Cæsar abolished the old custom of restricting the mortuary games to the funerals of men; and his daughter was the first Roman lady whose tomb was desecrated by human blood. Besides this innovation, Cæsar replaced the temporary edifices in which the games had hitherto been held by a permanent wooden amphitheatre, shaded the spectators by an awning of precious silk, compelled the condemned persons on one occasion to fight with silver lances, and drew so many gladiators into the city that the Senate was obliged to issue an enactment restricting their number. In the earliest years of the Empire, Statilius Taurus erected the first amphitheatre of stone. Augustus ordered that not more than one hundred and twenty men should fight on a single occasion, and that no prætor should give more than two spectacles in a single year; and Tiberius again fixed the maximum of combatants: but notwithstanding these attempts to limit them, the games soon acquired the most gigantic proportions. They were celebrated habitually by great men in honor of their dead relatives, by officials on coming into office, by conquerors to secure popularity, and on every occasion of public rejoicing, and by rich tradesmen who were desirous of acquiring a social position. They were also among the attractions of the public baths. Schools of gladiators—often the private property of rich citizens—existed in every leading city of Italy; and besides slaves and criminals, they were thronged with freemen who voluntarily hired themselves for a term of years. In the eyes of multitudes, the large sums that were paid to the victor, the patronage of nobles and often of emperors, and still more the delirium of popular enthusiasm that centred upon the successful gladiator, outweighed all the dangers of the profession. A complete recklessness of life was soon engendered both in the spectators and the combatants. The ‘lanistæ,’ or purveyors of gladiators, became an important profession. Wandering bands of gladiators traversed Italy, hiring themselves for the provincial amphitheatres. The influence of the games gradually pervaded the whole texture of Roman life. They became the commonplace of conversation. The children imitated them in their play. The philosophers drew from them their metaphors and illustrations. The artists portrayed them in every variety of ornament. The Vestal Virgins had a seat of honor in the arena. The Colosseum, which is said to have been capable of containing more than eighty thousand spectators, eclipsed every other monument of Imperial splendor, and is even now at once the most imposing and the most characteristic relic of pagan Rome.  2
  In the provinces the same passion was displayed. From Gaul to Syria, wherever the Roman influence extended, the spectacles of blood were introduced; and the gigantic remains of amphitheatres in many lands still attest by their ruined grandeur the scale on which they were pursued. In the reign of Tiberius, more than twenty thousand persons are said to have perished by the fall of the amphitheatre at the suburban town of Fidenæ. Under Nero, the Syracusans obtained as a special favor an exemption from the law which limited the number of gladiators. Of the vast train of prisoners brought by Titus from Judea, a large proportion were destined by the conqueror for the provincial games. In Syria, where they were introduced by Antiochus Epiphanes, they at first produced rather terror than pleasure; but the effeminate Syrians soon learned to contemplate them with a passionate enjoyment, and on a single occasion Agrippa caused fourteen hundred men to fight in the amphitheatre at Berytus. Greece alone was in some degree an exception. When an attempt was made to introduce the spectacle into Athens, the cynic philosopher Demonax appealed successfully to the better feelings of the people by exclaiming:—‘You must first overthrow the altar of Pity.’ The games are said to have afterwards penetrated to Athens, and to have been suppressed by Apollonius of Tyana; but with the exception of Corinth, where a very large foreign population existed, Greece never appears to have shared the general enthusiasm.  3
  One of the first consequences of this taste was to render the people absolutely unfit for those tranquil and refined amusements which usually accompany civilization. To men who were accustomed to witness the fierce vicissitudes of deadly combat, any spectacle that did not elicit the strongest excitement was insipid. The only amusements that at all rivaled the spectacles of the amphitheatre and the circus were those which appealed strongly to the sensual passions; such as the games of Flora, the postures of the pantomimes, and the ballet. Roman comedy, indeed, flourished for a short period; but only by throwing itself into the same career. The pander and the courtesan are the leading characters of Plautus, and the more modest Terence never attained an equal popularity. The different forms of vice have a continual tendency to act and react upon one another; and the intense craving after excitement which the amphitheatre must necessarily have produced, had probably no small influence in stimulating the orgies of sensuality which Tacitus and Suetonius describe.  4
  But if comedy could to a certain extent flourish with the gladiatorial games, it was not so with tragedy. It is indeed true that the tragic actor can exhibit displays of more intense agony and of a grander heroism than were ever witnessed in the arena. His mission is not to paint nature as it exists in the light of day, but nature as it exists in the heart of man. His gestures, his tones, his looks, are such as would never have been exhibited by the person he represents; but they display to the audience the full intensity of the emotions which that person would have felt, but which he would have been unable adequately to reveal. But to those who were habituated to the intense realism of the amphitheatre, the idealized suffering of the stage was unimpressive. All the genius of a Siddons or a Ristori would fail to move an audience who had continually seen living men fall bleeding and mangled at their feet. One of the first functions of the stage is to raise to the highest point the susceptibility to disgust. When Horace said that Medea should not kill her children upon the stage, he enunciated not a mere arbitrary rule, but one which grows necessarily out of the development of the drama. It is an essential characteristic of a refined and cultivated taste to be shocked and offended at the spectacle of bloodshed; and the theatre, which somewhat dangerously dissociates sentiment from action, and causes men to waste their compassion on ideal sufferings, is at least a barrier against the extreme forms of cruelty by developing this susceptibility to the highest degree. The gladiatorial games, on the other hand, destroyed all sense of disgust, and therefore all refinement of taste; and they rendered the permanent triumph of the drama impossible.  5
  It is abundantly evident, both from history and from present experience, that the instinctive shock or natural feeling of disgust caused by the sight of the sufferings of men is not generically different from that which is caused by the sight of the sufferings of animals. The latter, to those who are not accustomed to it, is intensely painful. The former continually becomes by use a matter of absolute indifference. If the repugnance which is felt in the one case appears greater than in the other, it is not on account of any innate sentiment which commands us to reverence our species, but simply because our imagination finds less difficulty in realizing human than animal suffering, and also because education has strengthened our feelings in the one case much more than in the other. There is, however, no fact more clearly established than that when men have regarded it as not a crime to kill some class of their fellow-men, they have soon learnt to do so with no more natural compunction or hesitation than they would exhibit in killing a wild animal. This is the normal condition of savage men. Colonists and Red Indians even now often shoot each other with precisely the same indifference as they shoot beasts of prey; and the whole history of warfare—especially when warfare was conducted on more savage principles than at present—is an illustration of the fact. Startling, therefore, as it may now appear, it is in no degree unnatural that Roman spectators should have contemplated with perfect equanimity the slaughter of men. The Spaniard, who is brought in infancy to the bull-ring, soon learns to gaze with indifference or with pleasure upon sights before which the unpracticed eye of the stranger quails with horror; and the same process would be equally efficacious had the spectacle been the sufferings of men.  6
  We now look back with indignation upon this indifference; but yet, although it may be hard to realize, it is probably true that there is scarcely a human being who might not by custom be so indurated as to share it. Had the most benevolent person lived in a country in which the innocence of these games was deemed axiomatic, had he been taken to them in his very childhood and accustomed to associate them with his earliest dreams of romance, and had he then been left simply to the play of the emotions, the first paroxysm of horror would have soon subsided, the shrinking repugnance that followed would have grown weaker and weaker, the feeling of interest would have been aroused, and the time would probably come in which it would reign alone. But even this absolute indifference to the sight of human suffering does not represent the full evil resulting from the gladiatorial games. That some men are so constituted as to be capable of taking a real and lively pleasure in the simple contemplation of suffering as suffering, and without any reference to their own interests, is a proposition which has been strenuously denied by those in whose eyes vice is nothing more than a displacement, or exaggeration, of lawful self-regarding feelings; and others, who have admitted the reality of the phenomenon, have treated it as a very rare and exceptional disease. That it is so—at least in its extreme forms—in the present condition of society, may reasonably be hoped; though I imagine that few persons who have watched the habits of boys would question that to take pleasure in giving at least some degree of pain is sufficiently common, and though it is not quite certain that all the sports of adult men would be entered into with exactly the same zest if their victims were not sentient beings. But in every society in which atrocious punishments have been common, this side of human nature has acquired an undoubted prominence. It is related of Claudius that his special delight at the gladiatorial shows was in watching the countenances of the dying; for he had learnt to take an artistic pleasure in observing the variations of their agony. When the gladiator lay prostrate it was customary for the spectators to give the sign with their thumbs, indicating whether they desired him to be spared or slain; and the giver of the show reaped most popularity when, in the latter case, he permitted no consideration of economy to make him hesitate to sanction the popular award.  7
  Besides this, the mere desire for novelty impelled the people to every excess or refinement of barbarity. The simple combat became at last insipid, and every variety of atrocity was devised to stimulate the flagging interest. At one time a bear and a bull, chained together, rolled in fierce contest along the sand; at another, criminals dressed in the skins of wild beasts were thrown to bulls, which were maddened by red-hot irons or by darts tipped with burning pitch. Four hundred bears were killed on a single day under Caligula; three hundred on another day under Claudius. Under Nero, four hundred tigers fought with bulls and elephants; four hundred bears and three hundred lions were slaughtered by his soldiers. In a single day, at the dedication of the Colosseum by Titus, five thousand animals perished. Under Trajan, the games continued for one hundred and twenty-three successive days. Lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, even crocodiles and serpents, were employed to give novelty to the spectacle. Nor was any form of human suffering wanting. The first Gordian, when edile, gave twelve spectacles, in each of which from one hundred and fifty to five hundred pair of gladiators appeared. Eight hundred pair fought at the triumph of Aurelian. Ten thousand men fought during the games of Trajan. Nero illumined his gardens during the night by Christians burning in their pitchy shirts. Under Domitian, an army of feeble dwarfs was compelled to fight; and more than once, female gladiators descended to perish in the arena. A criminal personating a fictitious character was nailed to a cross, and there torn by a bear. Another, representing Scævola, was compelled to hold his hand in a real flame. A third, as Hercules, was burnt alive upon the pile. So intense was the craving for blood, that a prince was less unpopular if he neglected the distribution of corn than if he neglected the games; and Nero himself, on account of his munificence in this respect, was probably the sovereign who was most beloved by the Roman multitude. Heliogabalus and Galerius are reported, when dining, to have regaled themselves with the sight of criminals torn by wild beasts. It was said of the latter that “he never supped without human blood.”  8
  It is well for us to look steadily on such facts as these. They display more vividly than any mere philosophical disquisition the abyss of depravity into which it is possible for human nature to sink. They furnish us with striking proofs of the reality of the moral progress we have attained; and they enable us in some degree to estimate the regenerating influence that Christianity has exercised in the world. For the destruction of the gladiatorial games is all its work. Philosophers indeed might deplore them, gentle natures might shrink from their contagion; but to the multitude they possessed a fascination which nothing but the new religion could overcome.  9
 
 
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