In today’s society, the killing of humans and animals usually means a jail term, and seeing someone die is not something people go and see for fun. Violence was glorified in Rome hundreds of years ago. All the crimes they committed were condoned, accepted and glorified.
There were four different genres of such entertainment in the games held in amphitheatres (Amphi-theatres are outdoor arenas. “theatres in the round”: Amphi- meaning “round” in Greek.) : Gladiatorial combat, the theatrical execution of foreigners, beast shows, as well as chariot racing. Watching someone or a beast kill another was applauded for the method, skill, or artistry used in the slaughter. The games themselves provided ways for Rome to demonstrate the power of their empire, as huge investments of wealth, time, and emotion was put into the games. Death became a spectator sport with the viewers and the viewed both contributing to a wild and gory performance. Already by the late Republic magistrates were spending huge amounts of money on these games. The Latin word for gladiatorial games is Munus which means obligatory offering. This reflects the origin of these games as funerary offerings to the dead. While magistrates in the Republic may well have put on games to gain popular favour, this was in their private capacity and not as magistrates. Only gradually did the gladiatorial shows come to be assimilated with the games put on by magistrates.
While the most popular games were ‘chariot racing’ and simulated naval battles, fights in the amphitheatres, shown in these mosaics include gladiator V gladiator, gladiator V animal (pic 2) and animal V animal, were a common feature. Less common, but not infrequent was the release of wild beasts from the pits into the arena where hundreds of criminals had earlier been positioned. These spectacles all deeming to be very entertaining to spectators.
Throughout the history of the Republic, there was a difference between the gladiatorial contests and other forms of spectacular entertainment. The Romans did not invent the concept of gladiatorial fighting; there is some uncertainty as to the exact source. One ancient source says it was the Etruscans, a non-Indo-European people who lived directly north of the Romans.
Games that the state sponsored were called Ludi and held quite frequently. They never involved armed single combat, were associated with the worship of a god and were paid for (in part) by the public treasury. The Gladiatorial contests (Munera Gladiatorial) were sponsored and paid for privately, held very infrequently and were associated with funeral rituals.
In A.D 70, the emperor Vespasian began construction on the site of a drained lake, of the largest amphitheatre in Rome, the Colosseum. The word Colosseum comes from a “colossal” statue of Nero that once stood near the stadium. The Colosseum could seat up to 50, 000 spectators, including the dignitaries, their guests, their slaves, a select number of common people, and “foreigners” (people who did not hold Roman citizenship). Commoners, slaves and foreigners were seated in the hottest place right under the canvas roof. After nine years of building by slave labour, the Colosseum’s opening ceremonies, including the Inaugural games, in A.D. 80 involved spectacles held for 100 days in which 9, 000 animals and 2,000 gladiators were killed, all for the delight of the crowd.
In such a cultural climate, gladiatorial games were immensely popular and a characteristic symbol of Roman culture for almost seven centuries. Adopted from the earlier Etruscans, perhaps by way of Campania, Gladiatorial Games / Munera were introduced to Rome in 264 BC, and originated in the rites of sacrifice due the spirits of the dead and the need to propitiate them with offerings of blood. The were the obligatory funerary offerings owed to important men at their death, the first time being when the sons of Junius Brutus honoured their father by matching three pairs of gladiators. Traditionally, Munera among ancient Romans, gladiators (usually slaves or captives trained for the purpose), fought, usually to the death with swords or other weapons at public “shows”. The more harm the gladiators inflicted the bigger hero he was, and the more respect he gained.
The first hunting of animals, called a venatio in Latin, meaning hunting took place in 186 B.C. Exotic animals that were hunted down, caught, and sold to the Romans who imported them for the games from as far away as Africa and India. The wild beasts included lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles, panthers, bears, hippopotami, rhinos and elephants, as well as next to harmless animals such as ostriches, giraffes and deer. Some species were wiped out due to over taking of the animals from the wild.
A letter from Cicero, written in 50 BC whilst governor of Cilicia (in southern Asia Minor), in response to a request from M. Caelius Rufus, who, as Aedile, had asked him to provide leopards (pantherae) for the games he was organizing:
About the panthers! The matter is being handled with diligence and according to my orders by men who are skilful hunters. But there is a remarkable scarcity of panthers. And they tell me that the few panthers left are complaining bitterly that they are the only animals in my province for whom traps are set. And therefore they have decided, or so the rumour goes, to leave my province and move to Caria.
Cicero, Letters to His Friends
These animals were slaughtered all for the delight of the crowd.
The butchery is evoked in a panegyric to Stilicho written by Claudian, circa AD 400,
“beasts that are the joy of the rich amphitheatre and the glory of the woods. Whatsoever inspires fear with its teeth, wonder with its mane, awe with its horns and bristling coat–all the beauty, all the terror of the forest is taken.”
Panegyric to Stilicho, written Claudian
The animals added excitement to the proceedings; trap doors were strategically hidden in the wooden floor. One form of entertainment involving these creatures, was suddenly a trapdoor would spring open, releasing a charging lion or other savage animal, ready to attack any unfortunate who happened to be in the arena at that time. Yet even here the crowds could be moved to some sort of compassion. There are two famous examples of this. In 55 B.C., one of Pompeii’s games exhibited about 20 elephants, importing North African bowmen to kill them. The games spectacle however did not go as planned. Once the elephants figured out what was happening they tried to escape, and then finding there was no way to get out, they raised their trunks and bellowed in a gesture which the crowd took to be one of supplication. There was, however, no reprieve. The crowd was said to actually curse Pompeii.
Cicero, who was there, wrote to a friend that there were two animal hunts a day, which lasted for five days.
“The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure. Indeed the result was certain compassion and a kind of feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.”
The crowds were thrilled by this Ð”surprise attack’. Eventually, Gladiator fights were outlawed by Emperor Honorius in 404 A.D.; however, animal combats continued for another century.
The largest spectator venue ever, the Circus Maximus was built in the 6th century B.C, the time of the Etruscan Kings. This oval basin, nearly six hundred metres long, and one hundred and forty to one hundred and fifty metres wide, allegedly held up to 250,000 people. The structure was improved many times; Augustus adorned the brick structure with an imperial stage, which was rebuilt by Trajan, enlarged by Caracalla and restored by Constantine. The most popular events in Circus Maximus were the chariot races. Competing teams with vibrantly decorated horses and up to a dozen four-horse chariots crowded together through the dangerous turns, deadly for both horse and charioteer. Although the successful charioteers became some of the wealthiest people, they may have been amongst the charioteers who cheated by poisoning each other’s horses and breaking their legs.
Circus Maximus was also used because the Empire had trouble conveying information to an ignorant public without mass media at its disposal. The Circus Maximus allowed emperors an opportunity to announce new laws, taxes and inform the public on some of Rome’s Ð”hot gossip’.
These bloody forms of entertainment served an important political function, helping maintain the political status quo. The administration saw it as important, as it assisted in teaching the local Romans how to fight in preparation for visits outside their empire, and to display the strength and courage of the Roman citizen to unemployed visitors to the city of Rome. In the growth of Munera, political competition among aristocrats was an important factor.
Elections continued, and members of the ruling class continued to compete for the people’s affection through the offering of magnificent shows. The terms of competition were somewhat different. It was expected that everyone give games upon taking up office, and public funds were offered to help defray the cost both of purchasing gladiators from professional trainers and acquiring splendid beasts. But the magistrate was expected to add to this sum, and inscriptions were set up commemorating particularly splendid shows.
There was great pressure to make your Munus more impressive than the last. During the Republic, gladiatorial combats brought great popularity to the giver of the games, their aim to increase their votes at election time. Julius Caesar in 65 BC, the year of his Aedileship, planned to give a gladiatorial exhibition consisting of 320 pairs of fighters. Although this exhibition was a Munus in memory of his father, Caesar was seeking to win political favour for his candidacy for the praetor ship.
Although we know it was expensive to stage a gladiatorial show, no one has so far noted how expensive. Money had to be spent on prize money for the winners of these games (Gladiatorial Contests, Chariot Racing), or buying the animals for the shows.
The endless blood lust of the spectators, populus and emperors alike, the brutality of the combat, and the painful deaths of men and animals are seen as cruel today, but the administration had these games to show the public of their cities the culture of war, discipline, and death. The gladiator demonstrated the power to overcome death and instilled in those who witnessed it the Roman virtues of courage and discipline. Gladiatorial games in the amphitheatres and entertainment in Circus Maximus have major significance to the way the Romans ordered their lives. Like any other form of ritual, these contests were implicitly understood by the Romans to express a message important to their social order and that message involved violence, death, and power.