The Roman Games
The Roman Games, renowned for its brutality and bloodthirstiness, has played a significant role in the Roman culture. The Roman games were originally part of religious festivals. However, as time passed, it began to assume an increasing social and political importance, overshadowing its religious significance. Roman Games were treated as part of a political tool for the Emperor to make his subjects happy, divert them away from political intervention and unrest and to impress the populace the awe of the Rome power and virtue during the Imperial days.
The Colosseum, a majestic monument of architectural and engineering wonder was built as a gift from Emperor Vespasian, to his subjects to fulfill this role which embodies both the grandeur and cruelty of the Roman world. The variety of the games ranged from gladiatorial combats, to criminal executions , to beast shows. In this essay, I will discuss the different types of games held in the Colosseum and their underlying reasons for such practices. Then, I will sum up with my opinion towards such practices.
Gladiatorial combats and chariot races are parts of the games that involved human against human. The gladiators included slaves, Christian martyrs, criminals or prisoners of war, whose lives were already condemned in the eyes of the spectators. All fought for their own reasons. Some, for the possibility of social rebirth to the brave and a chance to live, while others, for fame and glory. The gladiators underwent rigorous training programs in specialized schools to help facilitate quality performance involving different weapons fought in various styles as the Roman spectators loved excitement.
The last thing that they wanted to see was unskilled fights. The fights were well-received by the spectators as the community enjoyed the manipulation over the fates of the gladiators to spare the life of the loser with the wave of their handkerchiefs or the turn of their thumbs. As such, brave gladiators might be released or even granted freedom. Wiedemann suggested the concept of collective responsibility where punishment was extended to the actual carrying and witnessing.
Similarly, decision to pardon brave gladiators was also a collective one. Hence, ‘there was ultimate democracy’ (Resource Book 4, C11, pg 106) Some gladiators were the heartthrobs of women from all classes. They were so popular that even emperors and empresses had erotic obsessions with them. Another factor for the popularity of such brutal games was gambling. Spectators could place their betting on any gladiator and win from it. Execution and punishment of criminals by either man or beast was also carried out in the arena.
An abductor may be executed by burning, pouring molten lead into the throat, while cheats faced body part/s amputation, nailed to a table and humiliated in a public parade. (Resource Book 1, C13, p. 109 – 112) Some criminals may be executed through a staged hunt of wild animals where reproduced from a scene in famous mythological tales where the “actor” would die either being mauled by the beast or burnt alive. According to Wiedemann, a condemned woman may be coerced into copulating with a bull by ‘smearing her genitalia with the vaginal secretions of a cow’ as a form of punishment. Resource book 1, C16, pg 117).
To them, a criminal is one who has forfeited their rights and place in the society should be excluded from any protection from the human society from the power of nature and deserve death. These brutal public displays of punishments served as an assurance to the public that proper social order is in place as the criminal’s exercise of rights was taken away from him. It is a reminder for people to think twice before committing a crime and hence, it helped to keep law and order in the country.
The beast shows ranged from spectacular displays of exotic beasts (Resource Book 1, C15 , p. 114) to fights between animals such as tiger against lion (Resource Book 1, C1, 10, p. 93). Sometimes, the Romans resorted to strange combination of animals like the hippopotamuses, hyenas and seals to break from the norm. Fights between men and beasts and animal hunts shows by man were also staged to demonstrate man’s almighty power over even the strongest of beasts. Animal fights put on by emperors were viewed as heroic deeds because animals such as lions were perceived as dangerous.
Hence, the citizens were grateful that through these contests, cultivable land of dangerous animals could be cleared, thus freeing them from fear. To them, killing the wild beasts was an act to protect mankind and emperors were proud to rid them and establish civilization. Some emperors such as Emperor Commodus, even appeared in the arena to kill them. In Wiedemann’s article, we are encouraged to understand why the Romans did not see these acts as cruel and think of ‘the arena as a place of punitive control’ where there is ‘ultimate democracy’ (pg 106).
However, in my opinion, I feel that an element of unfairness still existed even though judgments were made collectively. Some gladiators might be spared because of his popularity while others might not be pardoned from fighting in the next rounds even if they were the winners. All in all, biasness is still involved and that defeats the true meaning of ultimate democracy. The Games were part of the Roman’s society and no matter how gory and unacceptable it is to our moral standards today, they represented a great deal of Roman culture at that time and that was what added colours to the Roman history.
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