Sunday, November 18, 2012

Gladiator Games, Past and Present

I’ve touched on this subject before but have decided to come back to it with some questions rather than answers.

Why were gladiatorial games and bloodsports so popular in the Roman Empire?

What sparked this question again for me was reading The Sun Also Rises, by Earnest Hemingway. Not ancient history, true, but it does have passages about the running of the bulls and bull fights in Pamplona, Spain. Of course, I am aware of the Pamplona festival and bull fights which are a remnant of the ancient events of the amphitheatre. A matador may not be Spartacus but he certainly has cojones. Reading about Pamplona got me to Googling some photos of the festival which led me to one thought:

People are fu#*ing crazy!

Pamplona goring
Excuse the (sort of) expletive but, when writing, you must always strive to use the best word possible and that seemed most fitting. I’m sure it’s an adrenaline rush being chased down with the easy chance of being gored but, really? The runners don’t have swords like the matadors. Have a look at some of the photos I found – OUCH!

And yet, people continue to do it, to watch it. I suppose it is way more ‘manly’ to face down a bull with a sword (or run from one) than to shoot a lion or moose from 100 meters with a gun. The latter is no test of strength in my opinion. Get in the ring with a lion and a knife in your hand, then you’ll be brave, or at the very least off your head.

I digress.

Gladiatorial Combat
In ancient Rome, the populace flocked to amphitheatres all over the Empire to see men die and animals slain, people tortured, burned, raped and all manner of horrific things. Emperors and other officials put vast fortunes into these events, importing animals from distant lands, in order to please the mob and exert control over it. With the mob behind you, you had real power. That was the way in ancient Rome.

 But what about today? Why is bull fighting, boxing or, an even better example, why is Ultimate Fighting Challenge, so popular? The latter is not the phony, chair swinging, airborne drop-kicking show of the WWF any more. These guys are in the ring beating the hell out of each other while people in bars across the world sip drinks and watch and cheer and hope for the mischance that will make it all the more exciting.

If history has taught us anything, it is that violence is inherent to human nature. Even though people feel disgusted or repelled by something horrific, much of the time, they feel the urge to look, to gawp. Is it like watching an awful talk show where the people on the stage are so far gone that it makes the viewer feel better about their own life? Are we ok watching because the people are strangers to us? Would we feel differently if we knew the person? The need for violence, to watch it, must go deeper than that. Why then does not everyone wish to witness it? Maybe it comes down to one’s constitution, that some are just more able to handle the sight of it?

Ultimate Fighting Challenge
Primary sources from ancient Rome differ in their views of the games in the Coliseum. Some people saw it as a rite of passage for young men, that it was good for them, would toughen them up. Others viewed the games as something base, something that undermined a great civilization. I think camps are divided today as well.

What about the moral dilemma facing the practice and viewing of bloodsports? Is not the mark of true civilization that we strive for goodness in every aspect of life? I suppose it depends on your perspective.
I don’t have an answer and I’m sure there are a plethora of sociological and psychological theories on violence in ancient and modern times. It is just something that perhaps we should think about next time our eyes search an accident scene as we drive by, or the next time we turn on the television to watch some stranger have his face turned to pulp.

In ancient Rome, the games were not only a showcase for the powers that be, they were an occurrence in which the populace would be brought together to share in something alongside their rulers. Even in hindsight, it is difficult to fully understand the appeal. But the games lived on for hundreds of years, having made the transition from funerary rite to public display for the entertainment of all.

Pamplona misfortune
I have not been to a modern bull fight myself, and I don’t know that I would want to. Hemmingway describes it as only he can, simply, without any romantic notions. It is a powerful scene, and yet, despite being the literary ‘tough guy’ that he was, he does cast doubt on the whole idea of running with the bulls and bull fights when the character of Jake is speaking with a waiter at a cafĂ© after the morning’s events.

The waiter asks if anything happened at the running that morning and Jake tells him that one man was badly gored. One would expect the waiter, a local who makes money off the festival, to be a fan of the running of the bulls, the fights. And yet, as Jake tells him about the man getting a horn through the back and out the chest, he shakes his head and says:

“All for sport. All for pleasure… You hear? Muerto. Dead. He’s dead. With a horn through him. All for morning fun… Not for me… No fun in that for me.”

I think I’m with the waiter on this.

Scene from Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
And yet, I enjoy watching movies or TV series such as Spartacus: Blood and Sand which contain extremely graphic depictions of gladiatorial combat and violence. Why is that? For myself, the fact that I know it is not real, that those things are not actually happening to people, is a big factor. As a fiction writer and historian, I like to be transported to those times and places I have studied for so long. It fires my imagination and, Spartacus is just great storytelling.

If I were a young citizen in ancient Rome, would I find myself at the amphitheatre, yelling for a victor to slit the throat of a fallen foe? Perhaps. They were different times, far removed from our modern mindset. I know I wouldn’t want to see that today. I think I would much rather find myself in the Circus Maximus taking in the chariot races. But that’s just me.

I guess the danger is in taking violence for granted and not recognizing it for what it is. Whether it is the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, bull fighting or representations of gladiatorial games in ages past, we should stop and ask ourselves why we are watching it, participating in it, and why we enjoy it. 
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