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Rome - Bread and Circuses

The Roman Circus

The Empress Livia is said to have complained once that gladiators in the Roman circus were play-acting their fight-scenes, using animal blood to make the contests look realistic. She wanted them to give the crowd a real fight. When the crowd was promised a fight-to-the-death, she wanted one gladiator to kill the other one. (For a time, the gladiatorial contests must have increased in intensity, with a corresponding increase in fatalities. Yet, economic forces probably played a role in reversing the decision. Whatever the attitude of the gladiators toward a winner-take-all contest, they represented valuable property to their owners, who rented them out for shows and contests. The owner had to weigh the promise of higher immediate returns, from the larger crowd size, against the possibility that his entire investment would be lost. There was little to be gained if death was the outcome of every contest.)

While the Romans feared the barbaric practices of foreign invaders, they acquired a rather barbaric reputation in their own right. Not only did they watch as gladiators killed each other, they saw animals turned loose on defenseless victims, observed re-creations of ancient sea battles in which slaves drowned when their ships sank, and watched plays in which actors were burned to death, as part of the script. The Emperor Caligula is said to have fed his wild animals with criminals because butcher's meat had become too expensive.

Ironically, the Roman reputation for barbarity was earned more from their role as spectators than from their own actions. Yet the Romans cannot be criticized for sitting on the sidelines. Rome did not acquire a vast empire by allowing its soldiers to act as spectators to battles fought by others. Roman soldiers took their place on the front lines. Their willingness to risk their lives on the battlefield did not mean that they were above taking part in barbaric practices themselves. In 71 B.C. it was the Roman army which crucified 6,000 slaves who had taken part in Spartacus' revolt. Sulla's army massacred 6,000 captives held in the Roman circus, in 83 B.C., then followed up with a second massacre of prisoners in Praeneste.

The cost of participation

What does the bloodletting in the Colosseum say about Roman political leadership? - very little that is flattering. It suggests that Roman politicians were currying favor with the masses by appealing to their basest instincts. Unable to provide effective leadership, they were able to stay one step ahead of the crowd only by distracting it with grotesque spectacles. The Emperors, rather than leading the masses, chose instead to appease the mob. Insofar as the mob seemed to grow more bloodthirsty, perhaps that had to do with the lack of action. Denied the experience of actual combat, the mob could only feel the exhilaration of battle by watching others engaged in the most extreme actions in the arena.

For all the bloodshed which took place in the circus, it still may not have matched that which had occurred on the streets of Rome. The Colosseum showcased some of the worst examples of human behavior, yet it also may have represented the lesser of two evils, in terms of numbers. The daily confrontations which took place between 60 and 43 B.C. were "ordinary" street brawls between two mobs, yet they probably produced many more deaths than the circus.

The problem for Rome was not an unusually cruel personality trait harbored by the Roman plebs. It was instead an inability to solve underlying social and economic problems. Romans were forced to live under conditions of hardship. They were crowded together, could not find work, had trouble finding food, and had little hope of escape. The leadership was sitting on a powder keg, which, while never quite exploding, never disappeared either. Before the circuses the Roman masses found an outlet for their frustrations as members of rival gangs which sprang up throughout the city. Unemployed toughs roamed the streets hunting rival gangs. The authorities either would not or could not control things. When Clodius, one of the leaders, was killed in such a fight, his followers succeeded in burning down the senate house, where his body had been displayed. Augustus, if not able to totally solve the problem, did exercise enough authority to bring it under control. He outlawed many of the gangs and stationed troops in Rome itself to maintain order. He continued the practice of free grain distributions as well.

Perhaps there was a sense, among later politicians, that Augustus' measures were not enough. Something else was needed to take peoples' minds off of their problems. Let them work out their frustrations in the circus rather than on the streets of Rome, against each other. If the contests were barbaric, they served to limit the number of casualties suffered. Street-fighting would have exacted an even higher toll.