Which aspects of the Roman games are the most difficult for someone living in the twenty first century to understand

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Looking at the Gladiatorial games from a twenty first century perspective and sensibilities it may not be to difficult to think that the games that took place were horrific acts of carnage for the sole purpose of entertainment, but this was not the only reason for the games. To have more of an understanding what these games actually meant to the Romans we must first look at those that took part. The Gladiators came from various different backgrounds, enemies who had been captured in battle and would not submit to Roman occupation, or deemed to dangerous to be allowed to join their new society.

Citizens the courts had found guilty of heinous crimes such as murder or arson. Once condemned, these men were physically still alive but socially dead and would be viewed as dead men when fighting expected to die as punishment for their crimes against the state ‘we who are about to die salute you! Remarkably some could redeem themselves, if they fought bravely enough and the community were suitably impressed, they could be given back their lives and in some cases freedom.

Yet some gladiators were born free men, they had given up their normal lives to pursue fame and fortune, or had become socially unacceptable after scandal or legal losses and could used this desperate measure as a chance to live again. The fighting skills used in the arena were regarded by society as a noble art, whilst stories of great battles would be displayed in the arena to educate and show the strength of Rome making the population feel secure. The games also acting as a deterrent, gladiators were viewed as hardened criminals condemned for terrible crimes.

The message being delivered to the audience was simple; anyone who broke the law would be dealt with. The animals were also used in the games, whilst today it seems they were slaughtered for entertainment the games at the Colosseum involving animals were not just for amusement. The animals we consider dangerous were a real threat to safety for those living on the edge of towns or in rural communities. The state had a duty to protect its citizens therefore these animals were captured and taken to the arena.

The inclusion of wild animals in the games was to show the people that this problem was being dealt with by the state, and the people in return were grateful. A Greek poet wrote “you no longer tremble at the lions roaring in the desert; for Caesar has caught a vast number of them in nets”. While the removal of lions from North Africa gave the population a chance to expand and use newly acquired ground for agriculture in areas previously thought inhospitable due to the wild animals.

Whilst according to Claudius Galen, physician to Marcellus Aurelius, physicians such as he dissected the dead animals and studied their anatomy, while artists such as Pasitales studied the shape and form; therefore great medical and artistic advances were made. Perhaps the hardest thing for our western pre-dominantly Christian culture to accept is the killing of the early Christians in the arena. Romans stoicism meant they accepted the material world with its limitations and an inevitable death.

But the Christians believed in one god who controlled their destiny, unlike the multiple Roman deities. They were saying to the establishment you have no control over my life only God does. This was seen as very dangerous to the authorities, individuals questioning the rule of the state. The Christians further upset the authorities when being sentenced to death accepted it as a form of martyrdom and gods divine will if they should live or die, not the will of the emperor.

They would have been seen as fanatics or a dangerous cult that threatened stability and order. These however tended to be the extremists who denied the validity of the secular state, and this behaviour in the eyes of the Roman authorities threatened their very civilization something the Romans spent a great deal of time building and protecting. The Christians were not initially thrown to the lions because they had a different faith, but because they started speaking out against those in charge.

Yet not all Christians were thrown to the lions some even went to watch the gladiator shows. St Augustine wrote in his confessions that he became obsessed with a craving for gladiatorial shows, while the Christian emperors such as Constantine continued the use of the Colosseum for animal hunts and executions. What is sometimes difficult to understand is that the morality of the Roman people was very different from our, as Thomas Wiedemann states The Romans did not see what went on in the amphitheatres as something wicked.

It is also seems a popular misconception that all Romans approved of the blood sports, Cicero mentions in a philosophical discussion, “I know that in the eyes of some people the gladiatorial combats area cruel and inhuman spectacle” and a letter from Seneca states that when watching a midday show “now the frivolities are banished and we are offered sheer butchery” This last statement is saying that when the games sent a message through re-enactments or well matched gladiators fighting it was so much more death and gore, but it is the images of this butchery that have stuck in the minds of those in the twenty first century.

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