UP UNTIL THE SECOND CENTURY A.D., there still remained some sense of fair play in the games. A gladiator had a chance to leave the arena alive. He could even insist that the lanista put a price on him and if he could raise the sum he was free.
An animal generally had a good chance to kill his human opponent, so the contest was often fairer than a modem bullfight. There was at least a pretence that the games were still contests—bloody, brutal and cruel but still retaining some idea of giving the contestants a sporting chance unless they were condemned criminals.
Gradually the games began to degenerate into spectacles of pointless massacre. People develop an immunity to scenes of cruelty and bloodshed and demand more and more ingenious methods to titillate their jaded interest.
A favorite trick was to pit an armed man against an unarmed man. Naturally, the armed man always won. Then he was disarmed and another armed men sent out to kill him. This routine would go on all day.
Seneca, the famous philosopher, said of these exhibitions: “All previous games have been merciful, these are pure murder. The men have no defense, their bodies are open to every blow and every attack is bound to be successful. Most spectators prefer this to the regular duels of skill. They would! Protection and training only postpone death, which is what the crowd have come to see.
Exhibitions like this began to take the place of the regular gladiatorial combats. Actually, a fight between! two trained and evenly matched swordsmen is about as interesting as a chess tournament. It can go on for an hour or more and there’s comparatively little action until the final thrust, each man conserving his strength and feeling out his opponent with light jabs and thrusts.
The early Romans were all swordsmen themselves and could appreciate the fine points of combat, but the mob wanted something faster and bloodier, much as modem sports fans want to see plenty of action in a wrestling bout whereas honest wrestling is a slow business and a man may take twenty minutes to break a difficult hold.
Also, the shows had constantly to be “bigger and better than ever.” Every emperor had to outdo his predecessors. Barnum and Bailey’s went through a similar period. I remember a time when there were seven rings all going at once and no one had the slightest idea what was happening.
By the end of the third century, there were a dozen amphitheaters in Rome, most of them in almost continuous operation. Some of the best known were the Circus Maxentius on the Via Appia, the Circus Flaminus near the Circus Maximus, the Circus of Caligula-and-Nero where St. Peter’s now stands, the Circus of Hadrian, the Circus Castrense (for the Praetorian Guard) and the Circus of Sallust.
There was also, of course, the Flavian Amphitheater or Colosseum. Emperors stamped their coins with the heads of famous gladiators rather than their own images, and politicians had the number of games they gave engraved on their tombs.
What did these things cost? They finally got so expensive that the government and the aspiring politician had to share expenses to pay for a big spectacle. We only know what the government contributed toward these big games as we have only the governmental records.
But it is almost impossible to translate the sums into modern currency. Today, labor costs are the principal factor in any enterprise, while in Rome all labor was done by slaves. Then, too, trying to compute the sums in modem purchasing power is very difficult. For example, King Herod of Judea gave a scries of games that cost him five-hundred gold talents.
Thomas H. Dyer in Pompeii (written in 1871) computes this sum as being equal roughly to $600,000. But Dyer wasn’t thinking of the modern forty-cent dollar. Even computing Herod’s five-hundred talents as being worth $1,200,000, the actual purchasing power of the money at the time was far more.
This doesn’t take into consideration slave labor, gifts of gladiators and animals from subject kings, and contributions from private citizens who needed to stay in with the administration.
Simply to name some figures as a rough estimate, Titus’ one hundred days of games which opened the Colosseum cost about eight million dollars, and the six days of Domitian’s games described here cost about $36,000 a day.
In 521 A.D., Justinian spent $910,000 on the games to celebrate his rise to power. Yet in 51 A.D. the total costs of all games for a year had been only $40,000. We know that the cost became a crushing one for any politician to carry. A magistrate named Milo exclaimed: “It’s cost me three inheritances to stop the mouth of the people.”
But the shows continued. Although originally only the emperor or some great noble was permitted the honor of presenting the shows, by the second century any rich man could present them to advance himself socially—just as fifty years ago many a rich man in Great Britain discovered that public philanthropy was helpful in obtaining a title. Some games were put on by rich cobblers and wealthy tailors.
Still, they continued to grow in magnificence. After the triumph of the Emperor Aurelian over Zenobia, the warrior queen of Palmyra, in 272 A.D., Aurelian entered the arena in a chariot drawn by four stags, with Zenobia chained to the wheels by golden chains. He had a guard of twenty trained elephants, and two hundred other tamed animals walked in the procession.
There was a “great host” of captives, each group led by a man with a placard around his neck giving the name of the tribe. The loot was carried in oxcarts heaped high with gold and jewels or on litters borne by slaves. In the games that followed, eight hundred pairs of gladiators fought as well as ten “Amazons”, women fighters from some Middle Eastern tribe.
In 281 A.D., the Emperor Probus had “large trees torn up by the roots and fixed to beams in the arena. Sand was then spread over the beams so the whole circus resembled a forest. Into the arena were sent a thousand ostriches, a thousand stags, a thousand boars, one hundred lions, a hundred lionesses, a hundred leopards, three hundred bears and numerous other animals.
These were all killed in a great hunt.” (Vopiscus). Later, antelope were released and members of the crowd could amuse themselves trying to catch the animals. Sometimes naked girls were turned loose and any member of the crowd could keep anything he caught.
Other emperors used silk imported from China for the awning instead of wool, had the nets employed to keep the animals off the podium woven of gold cords, plated the marble colonnades with gold and put mosaics of precious stones on the tier walls.
Sadism, instead of being incidental to the games, became the order of the day. Claudius used to order a wounded gladiator’s helmet removed so be could watch the expression on the man’s face while his throat was being cut. Girls were raped by men wearing the skins of wild beasts. Men were tied to rotting corpses and left to die.
Children were suspended by their legs from the top of high poles for hyenas to pull down. So many victims were tied to stakes and then cut open that doctors used to attend the games in order to study anatomy.
Wholesale crucifixions in the arena became a major attraction, and the crowd would lay bets on who would be the first to die. As with every betting sport, a lot of time and trouble was devoted to fixing the business.
By bribing an attendant, you could arrange to have a certain victim die almost immediately, last an hour, or live all day. It the spikes were driven in so as to cut an artery, the man would die in a few minutes. If driven so as to break the bones only, the man would live several hours.
Occasionally, though, a victim would cross you [up. He might deliberately pull at the spikes to make himself bleed to death or even beat his brains out against the upright. You could never be sure.
As far as being exhibitions of skill or courage, the games became a farce. Of course, there had always been scandals. Back in 60 A.D., a young charioteer had gone flying out of the chariot when his team made their usual jackrabbit start from the stalls.
He was still given first prize. Still, the fact that he was the Emperor Nero might have had something to do with it. There was also the time when the Emperor Caligula had decided to auction off his victorious gladiators to a group of nobles. One man fell asleep and Caligula insisted on taking his nods for bids.
When the man woke up, he found that he owned thirteen gladiators costing him nine million sesterces. However, generally people frowned on that sort of thing. Yet in 265 A.D., the Emperor Gallienus presented a wreath to a bullfighter who had missed the bull ten times.
When the mob protested, the emperor explained via heralds, “It’s not easy to miss as big an animal as a bull ten times running.” Augustus had had to pass laws forbidding knights and senators from becoming gladiators, so eager were these men to show their valor in the arena. By the third century, no such laws were necessary. No one, patrician or plebeian, had any desire to climb into that arena.
For fifteen hundred years historians and, lately, psychologists have wondered why these games, which not only corrupted but bankrupted the greatest empire of all time, were such an obsession with the Roman mob. Orgies of death and suffering are forbidden today but we know they exert a strong fascination for most of us.
Crowds gather around an automobile accident, go to bullfights, and block traffic if there’s someone out on a high ledge threatening to commit suicide. Even the early Christians, who were themselves often sufferers in the arena, felt this intoxication with torture. St. Augustine tells of a young boy, Alypius, who was studying to be a monk.
Some friends dragged him off to the arena against his will. Alypius sat with eyes closed and his fingers in his ears until an especially loud shout Imade him look. Two minutes later, he was out on his feet yelling, “Give him the sword! Cut his guts out!” He became an habitue of the games and gave up all thoughts of joining the church.
St. Hilarion was such a devotee of the games that he could not stay away from them. He finally had to flee to the African desert where there were no circuses. Even so, in his dreams charioteers used to drive him like a horse and gladiators fight duels at the foot of his bed.
There is a definite connection between cruelty and sex, especially among weak, ineffectual people. Ovid remarked humorously, “Girls, if you can get a man to play with you while watching the games, he’s yours.”
As the mob gradually lost all interest in finding work, serving in the legions or taking any civil responsibility, the games became increasingly more brutal and lewd. Finally they were simply excuses for sadistic debauches.
The more intelligent Romans were perfectly conscious of this deadly trend but they were helpless to prevent it. Augustus tried to limit the games to two a year. He found it impossible. Marcus Aurelius, who defined the games as an “expensive bore,” passed a law that the gladiators had to fight with blunted weapons.
The popular opposition was such that he not only had to rescind the order but even ended by increasing the number of games from 87 to 230 a year. His annual bill for gladiators alone was $2,500,000. Vespasian, who was famous for being a tightwad and swore that he was going to put an end to this game nonsense, finished by building the Colosseum.
Curiously, the Roman philosophers were almost unanimous in their endorsement of the games. Cicero said, “It does the people good to see that even slaves can fight bravely. If a mere slave can show such courage, what then can a Roman do? Besides, the games harden a warrior people to sights of carnage and prepares them for battle.”
Tacitus couldn’t understand why Tiberius didn’t like the fights and quotes the emperor’s habit of turning away from scenes of slaughter as a sign of weakness in his character. Pliny speaks of the games approvingly and so do many other serious thinkers.
Almost the only Roman philosopher who came out openly against the games was Seneca, who lived at the time of Nero. He records a conversation he had with a spectator at a show.
“But,” my neighbor says to me, “that man whom you pity was a highway robber.”
“Very well, then hang him, but why nail him to a cross and set wild beasts on him?”
“But he killed a man.”
“Let him be condemned to death in his turn. He deserves it. But you, what have you done that you should be condemned to watch such a spectacle?”
Seneca was cordially disliked and finally committed suicide by order of Nero.
Originally only a few criminals of the worst type were killed in the arena but when it became obvious that the mob regarded these killings as the main attraction, holocausts of victims were arranged. Finding enough prisoners for these spectacles became increasingly difficult.
Probably the persecution of the Christians eventually became only another way of getting fresh fodder for the arena.
The first of the Christian persecutions were under Nero. According to Roman historians, Nero dreamed of turning Rome from a rabbit warren of twisting streets and wooden slums into a city of marble. He also wanted to clear away a large section in the center of the city where he could build a palace worthy of him—”The Golden House.”
Later, the Colosseum was built on the site of the Golden House as an apology to the people. Nero’s agents fired the city but popular resentment forced the emperor to find a scapegoat. He settled on the despised and suspected sect called Christians.
Tacitus tells us: “Nero had all admitted Christians seized. These informed on others who were also arrested, not so much for setting fire to the city as for their hatred of mankind. Everything was done to make their deaths humiliating.
They were dressed in animal skins and torn to pieces by dogs, crucified, or covered with pitch and used as torches to light the arena after dark. Although as Christians they deserved punishment, still people felt that they were being punished to satisfy the emperor’s love of cruelty and not for the good of the nation.”
Suetonius supplies some other details. Nero used to dress himself up as a lion or a leopard and attack the private parts of men and women tied to stakes in the arena. Afterwards, one of his freemen named Dory-phorus would enter the arena dressed as a venador and pretend to kill the emperor.
It was probably exhibitions like this that caused St. John to speak of the arena as the “mother of fornication … the church of sacred sanguinary.” Nero also spent large sums trying to locate a legendary Egyptian ogre who was supposed to kill and eat people. Nero wanted to exhibit him in the arena. The ogre never turned up.
Some of the most terrible persecutions of the Christians took place under Marcus Aurelius in 166 A.D. Marcus Aurelius was one of the most enlightened emperors Rome ever had, but he didn’t like Christians.
As pacifists, Christians refused to serve in the legions at a critical period when the barbarian hordes were breaching the defenses on all sides, they denounced wealth which made the Romans regard them as dangerous radicals, and they refused to sacrifice to the emperor’s genius—roughly equivalent today to refusing to salute the flag or repeat the oath of allegiance Scratched on a wall in Rome there is a crude drawing showing a donkey nailed to a cross with the legend below:
“All Christians are donkeys.” Marcus Aurelius decided to stamp out this vicious cult and went about it systemically.
Records by the early church fathers tell us that Christians in the arena had red-hot plates of iron strapped to their bodies, their flesh was torn from their bones with hot pincers, they were chained in iron seats over fires, and roasted on spits. Eusebius tells of the death of Blandina, one of these martyrs. She was first forced to watch the death of her friends in the arena.
When that didn’t break her resolve, she was made to run the gantlet between two lines of men armed with whips and iron bars. She was then hung from a pole as bait for starved hyenas and wolves. Half-dead, she was cut down and forced to watch her little brother flogged, burned over a fire and finally flung to wild beasts—constantly told that if she would recant, the child’s life would be spared.
As Blandina still stood firm, she was finally put in a net and swung from the scaffolding of the arena for wild bulls to gore.
We have an eye witness account of these martyrdoms left us by two brothers, Felix and Verus Macar-ius. The events described took place on October 11, 290 A.D. under the Emperor Maximus.
“The stadium was crowded; Maximus also attended. A number of wild beasts being let loose, many criminals were devoured. We Christians in the stands kept ourselves concealed and were awaiting with great fear to see the martyrs brought forth.
The martyrs were Tharacus, Probus, and Andronicus. They were carried by other condemned people, having been tortured so they could not walk. They looked so pitiful that we wept, hiding our faces so the crowd would not notice.
They were tossed like refuse on the sand. Many people murmured and Maximus shouted to the soldiers, ‘Note those people. They’ll be down with those Christians if they’re so fond of them.’
“The wild beasts were let loose, especially a very frightful bear; then a lioness. Both roared fearfully at each other but did not attack the martyrs, much less devour them. The Master of the Games became enraged and commanded the spearmen to kill them. The bear was pierced through but the lioness made her escape through a door left open by some of the bestiarii who ran away in terror.
Then Maximus commanded the Master of the Games to let the gladiators kill the Christians and afterwards fight to the death among themselves. When this tragedy was over, Maximus before he left the podium ordered ten soldiers to mutilate both the martyrs and the gladiators so the Christians couldn’t tell them apart.”
It was usual for Christians to bribe the arena slaves for the bodies of the martyrs so that they could be given decent burial.
How many Christians were martyred we have no idea. Tacitus only says that Nero “killed a great multitude of Christians.” However, later we have a few statistics. During the persecutions under Maximus, nineteen hundred Christians were martyred in Sicily alone.
Diocletian killed seventeen thousand in one month. Eusebius says that during one of the persecutions, ten thousand men (not counting women and children) were killed in Egypt. The executioners blunted their swords and had to work in relays. Of course, compared to Hitler, who killed 2,500,000 people in concentration camps within a few years, this is pretty small potatoes, but the Romans did their best.
Very few of the Christians recanted, although an altar with a fire burning on it was generally kept in the arena for their convenience. All a prisoner had to do was scatter a pinch of incense on the flame and he was given a Certificate of Sacrifice and turned free.
It was also carefully explained to him that he was not worshiping the emperor; merely acknowledging the divine character of the emperor as head of the Roman state. Still, almost no Christians availed themselves of the chance to escape. Naturally, there were a few exceptions.
Polycarp tells of one man in a provincial amphitheater who held out until actually in the arena. Then he collapsed and begged to be allowed to sacrifice. The editor refused and demanded that the animals be released.
The only animal was a lion who had beer starved to make him savage. But the bestiarius had overdone it and when the lion was released, the pool brute just lay down and died. The martyr had to be burned at the stake.
By the end of the fourth century, the games had fallen into the hands of promoters and the spirit of competition had virtually disappeared. The charioteers had organized a powerful union and now demanded that a man had to be allowed a certain number of wins.
A charioteer might race for the Blues in one race and for the Greens in the next. He did not know what horses he would have before he climbed into the chariot—a far cry from Diodes and his perfectly trained, teams. The gladiator was finished as a highly trained professional.
Obtaining sufficient wild animals for the games had become almost impossible; Europe, north Africa and Asia Minor had been swept bare. The Romans were even running out of Christians, Jews and criminals for the spectacles.
A series of letters left by a senator named Quintus Aurelius Symmachus shows what a problem giving a series of games had become. Symmachus wanted to put on a week’s games in honor of his son who had just been made an officer in the swagger Praetorian Guard and would run for praetor in 401 A.D. Symmachus started preparing for the games two years ahead of time.
Symmachus, in addition to being a senator, was a very wealthy man. He owned three palaces and had held nearly every high office in the state. Being a devout man, Symmachus was greatly shocked at the growth of this new cult called Christianity, and he determined to put on some real old-fashioned games to impress the people with scenes of skill and courage in order to disgust them with the namby-pamby doctrines of the new religion.
The Master of the Games tried to talk the senator out of putting on anything but the usual run of stuff then current, but Symmachus insisted ¦that he wanted the real thing.
Poor Symmachus ran into nothing but headaches. To get really well-trained chariot horses, Symmachus had to import them from Spain. The nags used in Rome by then were only good enough to go around the track in a fixed race and stage a few smash-ups for the crowd.
Eleven out of the sixteen horses Symmachus imported died before they reached the arena from bad handling on the voyage. The four left were so much better than the ordinary chariot horses that the race would have been a walk-away so the team had to be broken up. As a result, their charioteer quit.
Four other charioteers were collected and more horses imported. Then it was discovered that the best charioteer was a Christian. As the whole point of the show was to prove that the weak Christians couldn’t compete with the manly adherents of the old Roman religion, he had to be fired.
But as he was a member of the union, the union called a strike. In a rage, Symmachus threatened to stage a race using dogs instead of horses because, as he said, the regular chariot horses were nothing but dogs anyhow. This caused a riot in which the Praetorian Guard had to be called out.
Meanwhile, Symmachus was trying hard to get wild animals for the games. He wrote to animal collectors, to friends in distant provinces, to officials, pointing out that they should cooperate in this great crusade to put on some really good shows to restore national morale.
He spent months trying to unscramble the red tape. As professional collectors were now scarce, he had to hire his own men. This meant that he had to get them trapping licenses, as lions and elephants could only be trapped by special permission of the emperor. He had to get special permission to give the shows in the Colosseum.
The customs officials charged him an import tax on the animals although, as Symmachus explained in letter after letter, this tax was meant only to apply to professional dealers who retailed their animals after arrival.
In spite of all this trouble, Symmachus couldn’t get any lions, tigers, elephants or even antelope (he wanted topi and impala especially). All that arrived were some “weak and starving bear cubs” and a few crocodiles.
The crocs hadn’t eaten for fifty days and most of them had to be killed before the shows. Apparently the only animals that arrived in fit condition were some Irish wolfhounds.
Symmachus had even more trouble getting gladiators. He managed to purchase twenty-nine Saxon prisoners, supposed to be terrific fighters, but the prisoners never got out of gladiatorial school. They strangled each other until there was only one man left—and he beat his brains out against the wall.
What sort of games Symmachus finally did put on, I don’t know. We only have his correspondence trying to get the acts lined up. We do know that the seven days’ games cost him $456,750, and I’ll bet his son never did get elected praetor.
By the beginning of the fifth century, Rome found herself fighting for her life against the barbarian hordes along her frontiers. With the tremendous cost of the continual wars, it became increasingly difficult to pay for the games.
Yet they continued, always catering ¦ more and more to the mob. The emperors abandoned the royal box as being undemocratic and sat with the crowd. The patricians made a great point of eating the food thrown to the mob instead of leaving the amphitheaters for lunch or having slaves serve their own repast.
The chariot races were a joke. People threw wine jars in front of the horses’ feet and women encouraged their children to dart under the opposing teams hoping to make their team win. If the child was trampled, the indignant parents sued the racing stables for reckless driving.
The crowd still continued to call themselves Blues, Greens, and so on, even though they no longer knew anything about the horses or the men. A somewhat similar trend has occurred in modern big league baseball. 0nce every man on a team was a local boy; the crowds knew every player individually and turned out to root for friends.
Today, the teams are recruited from men all over the country and arc sold as commodities without any regard for community feelings. Pliny’s remark about the chariot factions would apply today: “The people know only the color.”
Yet with no political parties and no feeling of belonging to any specific group the people centered all their devotion on being a White or a Gold. People who were born Reds swore eternal enmity toward all other factions, supported the Reds under all circumstances, and considered a Green victory a national disaster.
With the economic and military position of the empire too hopelessly complicated for the crowd to comprehend, they turned more and more toward the only thing that they could understand—the arena.
The name of a great general or a brilliant statesman meant no more to the Roman mob than the name of a great scientist does to us today.
But the average Roman could tell you every detail of the last games, just as today the average man can tell you all about a movie star’s marriages but has only the foggiest idea what NATO is doing or what steps are being taken to fight inflation.
For an ambitious man to get anywhere in public life, he had to establish a tie-in with the games. The Emperor Vitellius had been a groom for the Blues. As a result, he was made governor of Germany by a politician who was a Blue.
After Vitellius became emperor, he had anyone killed who booed the Blues. The Emperor Commodus went to gladiator’s school and used to fight in the arena to win popular support. The Emperor Macrinus had been a professional gladiator. Even finding victims enough to be killed in the arena became a serious drain on the empire.
“We are sacrificing the living to feed the dead,” protested Caracalla, referring to the fact that the games were supposedly given to appease the souls of the departed. Yet the games kept on. Without them, the mob could not be controlled and by now the entire national arena was tied up with the great spectacles.
To have stopped them would have caused as serious a crisis as if our government suddenly abandoned dams, farm relief, and military spending.
Yet the end could not be postponed forever. Rome began to be overrun by foreigners. Thousands of Gauls, Germans, and Parthians were living in the city, brought there to bolster the weakening empire. These “barbarians” had no interest in the games which, after all required a rather special taste to appreciate.
A Parthian prince left the circus in, disgust, remarking, “It’s no fun seeing people killed who haven’t a chance.” The crowd yelled, “Burr-head! Why doncha go back to Parthia where ya belong?” but the savages gradually obtained the balance of power.
After all, the emperors depended on these foreign auxiliaries for support and placating the Roman mob became less and less important.
The Christian church was growing in power and did I everything possible to stop the games. In 325 A.D., Constantine tried to put an end to the games but they still continued.
Then in 365 A.D., Valentinian forbade sacrificing victims to wild beasts. He was able to make his edict stick, and that took all the fun out of the spectacles. In 399 A.D. the gladiatorial schools had to close for want of pupils.
Then in 404 A.D., a monk named Telemachus leaped into the arena and appealed to the people to stop the fights. Telemachus was promptly stoned to death by the angry mob but his death ended the spectacles.
The Emperor Honorius was so furious at Telemachus’ lynching that he closed the arenas. They were never reopened. The last chariot race was held after the fall of Rome by Tolila, a Goth, in 549 A.D. He was merely curious to see what the business looked like.
Yet so deeply had the games entered into the national consciousness that people still considered themselves as supporting the Red, White, Green or Blue faction—although many of these people had no idea what the colors meant. In 532 A.D.. riots broke out between me Blues and the Greens mat threatened to wreck what remained of the empire.
The Emperor Justinian had to call out troops to restore peace, and in the fighting over thirty thousand people were killed.
The only remaining relics of these titanic spectacles are some crude pictures scratched on the walls of gladiator barracks, a few cracked tombstones, references in the literature of the times and, here and there, the ruins of the amphitheaters.
The games followed the legionnaires as chewing gum follows American GIs, and wherever the legions were stationed there was sure to be a circus. Roman governors built stadiums as soon as they arrived in their province, confident that this was the only way to keep the population contented.
Many of their letters express amazement that the Greeks, Gauls and Britons seemed more interested in having enough to eat than in watching the games.
Establishing these amphitheaters was a difficult job. The Greeks fought them to the last (Plutarch describes the games as “bloody and brutal”) but in other countries the games slowly gained a following, although they never enjoyed anything like the popularity they had in Rome.
Egypt held out against them for a long time but at last had to yield—in every nation there is always a certain proportion of people who enjoy such sights. So all over the Roman world great amphitheaters appeared, hardly less magnificent than the ones in Rome itself:
at Capus, Pompeii, Pozzuoli and Verona in Italy; at Aries and Nimes in France; at Seville in Spain; at Antioch in Palestine; at Alexandria in Egypt; at Silchester in Britain; at El Djen in Tunisia.
Many of these amphitheaters still remain. You can sit in the “maenina” (stands) with a cold chicken and a bottle of wine and speculate out of which door the animals were released, where the inner barrier ran, and how they got the lions out of the “cavea” (interior) into the arena. As your guess is probably as good as anyone’s, it’s an interesting way to spend an afternoon.
The largest amphitheater remaining is, of course, the Colosseum. Although the prodigious structure has been used as a quarry for a thousand years and a large part of Medieval Rome was built with stone taken from it, much still remains, Byron wrote:
A ruin! Yet what ruin! from its mass
Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear’d;
Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass,
And marvel where the spoil could have appear’d.
You can crawl through the “enormous skeleton” with a copy of J. H. Middleton’s The Remains of Ancient Rome and go nuts trying to find all the places he mentioned. You can see the huge traventine blocks used in the construction, some seven feet long, and held together with iron clamps as mere mortar couldn’t carry the fantastic strain put on them.
In the Middle Ages when iron was desperately needed, people dug thousands of these clamps out of the stone, a murderously laborious job. Although as late as 1756, a French archeologist computed that there was still 17,000,000 francs (roughly about $80,000) worth of marble remaining in the Colosseum, almost all of it is now gone.
However, you can still see many of the, carved marble curule chairs used by the patricians on the podium. They’re in Italian churches being used as episcopal thrones.
Next to the Colosseum, the largest of the remaining amphitheaters is in Verona, Italy. It is 502 feet long by 401 feet wide and 98 feet high. It held about thirty thousand people and is still used for the mild Italian bullfights.
The next largest remaining circus is in Nimes, France. It measures 435 by 345 feet and held about twenty thousand people. It is two stories high with 124 entrances. The Pompeian amphitheater is comparatively small but interesting because it is so well preserved and the gladiator barracks are nearby.
In the Middle Ages these amphitheaters were regarded with superstitious awe. People living in Pola, Italy, thought the amphitheater there must have bee built by supernatural beings as no mortal man could accomplish such a task.
They claimed that the stadium was a fairy palace, built in a single night. They explained the fact that the building had no roof by saying that a cock was awakened by the hammering and crew: the fairies thought it was daybreak and left without finishing the job.
Many of the amphitheaters were used as fortresses during the Middle Ages. Some of them were used as barns and crops were planted in the arenas. The farmers were astonished at how well the crops grew, not knowing that the soil was well fertilized.
The ludi, as the Romans called the games, were not, of course, games in our modern sense. Nor were they merely spectacles or shows as we understand the terms. They were a vital and integral part of Roman life and psychology.
The closest modem parallel would be the Spanish bullfight which to a Latin is an emotional experience rather than a sport or an exhibition of skill. For over five hundred years the ludi continued in one form or other. Hundreds of generations of Romans were born, grew up and died under their influence.
At last, they came completely to dominate the life of the average inhabitant of Rome. His one interest —almost his one cause of living—was to attend the ludi.
The growth, character, and final degeneration of the ludi closely paralleled the growth, character and degeneration of the Roman empire. In the old, simple days of the republic, the games were simply athletic contests.
As Rome became a conquering power, the games became bloody, ruthless and fierce, although still retaining a conception of fair play and sportsmanship. This was the era when Augustus had to pass law forbidding patricians from jumping into the arena and fighting it out with professional gladiators, and a young noble would challenge a victorious German prisoner to a fight to the death.
When Rome finished her con quests and became merely a despotic power, the games became pointlessly cruel. Toward the end, they were nothing but sadistic displays. Shortly after this period, the empire collapsed.
Any modem promoter who cared to put on a series if shows duplicating the Roman games would easily be able to fill the house. Mickey Spillane could be Master of the Games.
Bullfights, cockfights, dogfights, and the Indianapolis Speedway (our closest approach to the chariot races) are all popular. I even find it hard to believe that all boxing fans are primarily interested in the fine points of the sport rather than in seeing two men half kill each other. If they knew that one man really would be killed, they’d enjoy it all the more.
The most popular programs on TV are the Westerns showing men shooting each other. The next most popular are the gangster films. Of course, the men don’t actually kill each other—if they did you couldn’t get people away from their sets.
The Roman games were probably the biggest argument against “spectator sports” that can be advanced. As long as the Romans were themselves a nation of fighting men, there might have been some truth to the beliefs of Cato and Pliny that the games encouraged manly virtues.
But there is a big difference between tough fighting men, appreciatively watching a struggle between equally matched opponents, and a depraved crowd gloating over scenes of meaningless cruelty.
The same tendency can be seen today in rough sports. The spectator who hollers, “Murder the bums! Knock his teeth out! Kill him!” is usually a meek little guy in a rear seat who has just got a bawling out from his boss and had to sneak out of the house when his wife wasn’t home. He wants to see somebody else getting hurt . . he doesn’t care who.