A Lesson From Roman History
“IF, LIKE men, I have fought with wild beasts at Ephesus.” Some think that those words, recorded at 1 Corinthians 15:32, mean that the apostle Paul was sentenced to fight in a Roman arena. Whether he did or not, fights to the death in arenas were common during that time. What does history tell us about the arena and the events occurring there?
As Christians, we desire to mold our consciences according to Jehovah’s thinking, which can help us to make decisions about modern entertainment. For example, consider God’s thinking about violence, reflected in the words: “Do not become envious of the man of violence, nor choose any of his ways.” (Proverbs 3:31) Early Christians had that counsel available to guide them when many around them became excited over Roman gladiatorial contests. In considering what occurred at such events, let us see what lesson is clear for Christians today.
Two armed gladiators face each other in a Roman arena. At the first blows of sword on shield, the frenzied crowd yells encouragement to their favorite. It is a desperate fight. Soon, wounded and unable to continue, one throws down his arms and kneels, thus recognizing defeat and appealing for mercy. The clamor rises to a crescendo. Some of the crowd shout for clemency, others for his death. All eyes are fixed on the emperor. He, attentive to the whims of the masses, can free the vanquished warrior or with a thumbs-down order his death.
The Romans had a passion for gladiatorial spectacles. You might be surprised to know that such fights were initially held at the funerals of important personages. It is believed that the contests had their origin in human sacrifice among the Oscan or Samnite peoples of what is now central Italy. The sacrifices were to appease the spirits of the dead. Such combat was called a munus, or “gift” (plural, munera). The first recorded games in Rome were held in 264 B.C.E. when three pairs of gladiators fought in the ox market. At the funeral of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, 22 duels were fought. At Publius Licinius’ funeral, 60 pairs faced one another. In 65 B.C.E., Julius Caesar sent 320 pairs into the arena.
“Aristocratic funerals were political acts,” says historian Keith Hopkins, “and funeral games had political overtones . . . because of their popularity with citizen electors. Indeed, the growth in the splendour of gladiatorial shows was largely fuelled by political competition between ambitious aristocrats.” By the reign of Augustus (27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.), the munera had become lavish gifts—for the entertainment of the masses—that wealthy officers of state offered to further their political careers.
Participants and Training
You may ask, ‘Who were the gladiators?’ Well, they might have been slaves, criminals condemned to death, prisoners of war, or free men drawn by excitement or the hope of fame and wealth. All were trained in prisonlike schools. The book Giochi e spettacoli (Games and Spectacles) reports that gladiators in training “were always watched by guards and subject to rigid discipline, the severest of rules, and particularly harsh punishments . . . This treatment often led to suicide, mutiny, and revolt.” Rome’s largest gladiatorial school had cells for at least a thousand inmates. Each man had a specialty. Some fought with armor, shield, and sword, others with net and trident. Still others were trained to face wild beasts in another popular type of show, the hunt. Might Paul have been referring to just such an event?
Show organizers could turn to entrepreneurs who recruited and trained 17- or 18-year-olds to be gladiators. Trafficking in human lives was big business. One exceptional show that Trajan offered to celebrate a military victory fielded 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals.
A Day at the Arena
Mornings at the arena were dedicated to hunts. Wild beasts of all kinds might be forced into the arena. The audience particularly appreciated the pairing of a bull and a bear. Often the two were bound together to fight until one died, then the survivor was finished by a hunter. Other popular matches set lions against tigers, or elephants against bears. Hunters displayed their skill in slaying exotic animals brought from every corner of the empire, with no expense spared—leopards, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, giraffes, hyenas, camels, wolves, boars, and antelope.
Scenic effects made hunts unforgettable. Rocks, ponds, and trees were used to mimic forests. In some arenas, beasts appeared as if by magic, delivered by underground elevators and trapdoors. Unpredictable animal behavior added interest, but what seems to have made hunts especially fascinating was cruelty.
Executions came next in the program. Efforts were made to render these with originality. Mythological dramas were presented in which actors really died.
During the afternoons, different classes of gladiators armed in distinctive ways and trained in contrasting techniques fought one another. Some of those who dragged out the corpses were dressed as the god of the underworld.
Effect on Spectators
The crowds’ lust for action was insatiable, so reluctant fighters were egged on with whips and branding irons. Crowds would shout: “Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die [willingly]? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” Roman statesman Seneca writes that during an intermission came the announcement: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!”
Not surprisingly, Seneca admits that he returned home “more cruel and inhuman.” That spectator’s frank admission merits our serious thought. Might spectators at some of today’s sports events be similarly affected, becoming “more cruel and inhuman”?
Some might have thought themselves fortunate to return at all. When one spectator made a witty remark at the expense of Domitian, that emperor had him dragged from his seat and thrown to the dogs. A lack of criminals for execution led Caligula to order that a section of the crowd be seized and thrown to the beasts. And when stage machinery did not work to his liking, Claudius commanded that the mechanics responsible fight in the arena.
Spectator fanaticism also led to disasters and riots. An amphitheater just north of Rome collapsed, and thousands reportedly died. A riot broke out during a spectacle in Pompeii in 59 C.E. Tacitus reports that clashes between the home crowd and rivals from a nearby town began with an exchange of insults, then stones, and finished with the use of the sword. Several were mutilated or injured, and many were killed.
A Clear Lesson
A recent exhibition (Sangue e arena, “Blood and Sand”) in the Colosseum in Rome suggested modern parallels to the munera. Significantly, it showed video clips of bullfighting, professional boxing, horrible crashes in auto and motorcycle races, wild fighting by athletes in games, and riotous fighting by spectators. The presentation ended with an aerial view of the Colosseum. What do you think visitors were to conclude? How many would learn the lesson?
Dogfights, cockfights, bullfights, and violent sports are common in some lands today. Lives are risked to thrill enormous crowds in motor sports. And think of daily television shows. Studies in one western land showed that the average TV-viewing child might witness 10,000 murders and 100,000 acts of aggression by the time he reaches the age of ten.
The pleasures of the spectacles were “not compatible with true religion and true obedience to the true God,” said third-century writer Tertullian. He considered those who attended them to be accomplices of those doing the killing. What about today? One might ask, ‘Am I entertained by the spectacle of blood, death, or violence on television or on the Internet?’ It is worth remembering that Psalm 11:5 states: “Jehovah himself examines the righteous one as well as the wicked one, and anyone loving violence His soul certainly hates.”
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Fights to “Appease the Dead”
On the origin of gladiatorial combat, third-century writer Tertullian says: “The ancients thought that by this sort of spectacle they rendered a service to the dead, after they had tempered it with a more cultured form of cruelty. For of old, in the belief that the souls of the dead are propitiated with human blood, they used at funerals to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor quality whom they bought. Afterwards it seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. So after the persons procured had been trained in such arms as they then had and as best they might—their training was to learn to be killed!—they then did them to death on the appointed funeral day at the tombs. So they found comfort for death in murder. This is the origin of the munus. But by and by they progressed to the same height in refinement as in cruelty; for the pleasure of the holiday lacked something, unless savage beasts too had their share in tearing men’s bodies to pieces. What was offered to appease the dead was counted as a funeral rite.”
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Ancient gladiatorial helmet and shin guard
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Ancient Christians found violent entertainment unacceptable. Do you?
Boxing: Dave Kingdon/Index Stock Photography; car crash: AP Photo/Martin Seppala
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Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona/Bridgeman Art Library