Ancient Roman Civilization And The Gladiator Games Essay

Length: 8 pages Sources: 6 Subject: History - Ancient Type: Essay Paper: #65998199
Excerpt from Essay :


In ancient Rome, the gladiator games were a popular form of entertainment—but they were also much more than this and served multiple purposes within the Roman civilization. The games were used both by Roman authorities and by the slaves of Rome (the gladiators) as a tool, wielded for a different aim respectively. The Roman religious and the politicians used the games as well for their own ends. While the combats that took place in the arenas dazzled audiences, the violence and spectacle was really but one aspect of the contests, and an examination of the underlying social, political, religious and economic subtexts of the gladiator games reveals much about the nature of ancient Roman society. This paper will identify the four main purposes of the gladiatorial games in ancient Rome—the expression of political influence, the expression of religion, a means of emphasizing the Empire’s power, and grounds for slaves to have a reason to revolt—and show how these purposes were interwoven throughout the coliseums where these brutal contests were conducted.


The gladiator games were not a Roman invention but rather a tool that the Romans borrowed (like so many other tools in their society) from other cultures. In this case, gladiatorial contests were first found among the Etruscans and the Romans first incorporated them into their culture at the funeral of Junius Brutus Decimus in 43 BC. Though initially the games were exercised as a form of honoring the dead, the contests and their subtexts began to take on deeper meanings for all involved. A cult of celebrity grew around the gladiators themselves so that they resembled modern day rock stars or professional athletes, even though they lacked status and freedom. The gladiators had their fan clubs and admirers. Graffiti could frequently be found around the city of Rome honoring them and their deeds in the arena. Their popularity prompted some who were not even slaves to sign up as gladiators—after all, it was a career that did not go unnoticed by the public, and if one was good at his job, he could enjoy the celebrity and fame that followed. Out of this environment, however, multiple purposes for the games emerged, as politicians, Roman leaders, religious and slaves all took to using the games for their own ends.

Political Power

Politicians in Rome understood the power of the gladiator games and used their appeal to curry favor with the electorate. By hosting the gladiator games, which “fell outside the ordinary games and thus had to be funded by private individuals,”[footnoteRef:2] politicians could throw these lavish spectacles for the public and in turn they would obtain the patronage of the public at election time. As Philip Thomas notes, “the aristocracy paid gladly as this excluded the less privileged from a political career.”[footnoteRef:3] In other words, the games were used by politicians as a means of monopolizing political power: only those who could afford to host these lavish contests could woo the public’s favor—and if one hoped to have a political career in Rome, he would have to be wealthy. While tickets were political corruption—nonetheless, it was a common form. Cicero even tried to get the hosting of gladiatorial contests banned by politicians who aimed to run for office within two years’ time of the games being held.[footnoteRef:4] [2: Philip Thomas, “Gladiatorial Games as a Means of Political Communication During the Roman Republic,” Fundamina, 16(2), 193.] [3: Philip Thomas, “Gladiatorial Games as a Means of Political Communication During the Roman Republic,” Fundamina, 16(2), 193.] [4: Philip Thomas “Gladiatorial Games as a Means of Political Communication During the Roman Republic,” Fundamina, 16(2), 194.]

Though many politicians used the gladiator games to communicate a political message and win the esteem of the public, others felt this went against the time-honored tradition of the gladiator games—which was that they were to be held to pay respect to the memory of the dead. Tertullian describes the belief that the ancients held with regard to this matter: “The ancients thought that in this solemnity they rendered offices to the dead…for formerly, in the belief that the souls of the departed were appeased by human blood, they were in the habit of buying captives or slaves of wicked disposition, and immolating them in their funeral obsequies.”[footnoteRef:5] Out of this custom, the gladiator games emerged: “those, therefore, whom they had provided for the combat, and then trained in arms as best they could, only that they might learn to die, they, on the funeral day, killed at the places of sepulture.”[footnoteRef:6] The gladiator contests, in short, were meant to have a spiritual significance—but as time went on, politicians who could afford to pay for the events saw that the public could basically be “bought” by being given access to the contests, and thus the politicians secured for themselves a strong following that they deliberately linked to the spiritual dimension of the games. [5: Tertullian, “De Spectatculis,” Chapter XII, 1-2.] [6: Tertullian, “De Spectatculis,” Chapter XII, 3.]

There was also another way that politicians used the games to communicate their message—and that was through the seating arrangements within the Coliseum itself. The seating arrangements in the Coliseum essentially communicated the different aspects of power because of how the richer politicians and members of the elite class sat in a special area while ordinary, lower class citizens sat far away. There was a dominant social hierarchy projected by the system of seating with in the Coliseum, and the games thus helped to support this class structure. And, of course, inevitably, the politicians and their friends were the ones with the best seats—and were therefore the ones seen by all the rest of the citizenry and believed to hold all the sway and power. This design reinforced the concept that the politicians were the real movers and shakers in Rome, the real people of influence and power. Roger Dunkle notes that “not surprisingly, senators, the most prestigious class of citizens at Rome, were first to be singled out for priority seating at spectacles…[they] had the best seats, closest to the action, in the orchestra of the theatre or in the lowest part of the amphitheatre.”[footnoteRef:7] By being so visibly promenaded before the public, the politicians thus managed to perpetually appear larger than life, equal to the spectacle about to be displayed before the rest of the thousands of fawning fans. In this manner, the politicians of Rome communicated their own prestige, their own importance, and the main reason the ordinary citizens should look up to them: they alone had all the power. [7: Roger Dunkle, Gladiators, 263.]

Communication of Religion

Politics were not the only important theme conveyed by the gladiator games, however: the subtext of religion was also incorporated into them and made prominent so as to communicate the Roman religion to the people. Indeed, religious themes were everywhere within the games—from the gate of the Coliseum, which was called the Gate of Libitinaria (the goddess of Death) to the figure who would dress as Charon (the god of the underworld) to drag the dead bodies away, out of the…

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