May 2019

Gaming In Roman Antiquity: The Collective Voice 

     If there are certain tensions currently rippling around the internet, they may originate from the huge ethical split between those who view certain types of pranks as entertaining, and those who view them as acts of hatred. The point of this discussion is not to glorify public violence, but to expose its potential dangers to public health and safety with respect to the collective voice. The most negative concept surrounding this issue is that of boundaries, for the one that divides these two types of games surprisingly remains vague and undefined, despite various ancient laws that developed on uncivilized gaming some sixteen centuries ago. One consistent moral restraint, of course, is that when such pranks extend beyond the punchline at the expense of someone’s privacy and feelings, they become a valid threat to public health and safety and to that person’s well-being. Therefore, it should be in the public’s best interest to have firmly established laws that protect individuals against this threat, rather than a law that permits freedom with violent pranks.

     Should educational curriculum include a sound focus on this moral issue? One thing is certain: Westerners must decide for themselves what their personal roles will be on social media platforms and the entertainment arts. Will they lead away from the concept of brutal public gaming, or follow it? These are the humanizing concerns that should prevent anyone from taking a “joke” too far. 

     On the other hand, the history of socialized gaming in ancient Rome, for example, blatantly revealed how culture and society dehumanized without the establishment of realistic boundaries. This occurred mainly because Roman blood sport, or gladiatorial games, likely evolved from the Etruscans, who did neither recorded these public events, nor resolved the isolated problems they caused. In plain words, there was absolutely no interest whatsoever to protect the rights of a vulnerable target.

     A bronze cista handle which contains the scene, Sleep and Death Carrying off the Slain Sarpedon, 400–380 BCE, clearly shows two gladiators cradling a dead third in their arms. More than ten centuries before violent gaming did become outlawed, the public essentially lacked the proper moral etiquette to define such a “sport” as violent, for most democratic patrician audiences were uncivilized and made ruthless demands on participants. Nevertheless, elaborate and glamourous spectacle at ancient circus tracks and amphitheatres where funerary rites honored patrician men astutely disguised the ruthlessness of such brutality. In 264 B.C.E., the first gladiator event took place to honor a deceased Roman aristocrat; that funerary function stuck. The archaeology of the ancient Circus Maximus stadium site also reveals that it held other events in addition to the dramatic combats that upper classed Roman families viewed close-up, such as military parades and legendary battles. This stadium, a gigantic structure built in the Old Kingdom of Regal Rome in the sixth century B.C.E. to celebrate Tarquin’s defeat of the Latin city, Pometia, also housed Roman religious festivals – the ludi. Though there are no written records of those combats, some are still visible on Etruscan wall art. 

     Spartacus, a legendary prisoner who rebelled with other gladiators against Rome’s oligarchic slave owners and victoriously competed in 264 B.C.E. Had it not been for his excellent skill and the enthusiastic fervor of his Roman fans, he would have transpired in the arena. If there is anything bloodcurdling about this type of sport besides its reputation for displaying human carnage on massive scale as spectacle, it would be its uncivilized focus on targeting the low classes, a social issue against which the fictional character of Spartacus adamantly protested.

     Was victory justified under such conditions? Where participants in the Greek Olympics had been based on excellence, discipline, and high status, Roman blood sport capitalized on low social status and marginal or even mock combat skills. The Circus Maximus stadium underwent a great many changes, all due to meet Rome’s burgeoning societal demands, and so the sport became even more brutal. Nevertheless, earlier audiences celebrated the Olympic traditions of Greek athletics, such as wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, and not the blood sport which later became an obsession in Roman culture. Therefore, it would be extremely illogical to justify the conditions of such spectacle just for the sake of art and entertainment. Although philosophers like Cicero opposed the concept of physical combat over that of nurturing the intellect, the violence of blood sport simply spread, and it was all due to socialist politics.

     Circus Maximus also featured the abuse of females: this very stadium memorializes the humiliating and traumatic violence that legendary Sabine maidens suffered at one such championship around the eighth century B.C.E. By the first century, perhaps due to its historical link to horrific crimes soldiers committed against the docile, noble Sabines, Circus Maximus gradually evolved into an open trading market, where the lower class entertained the public. As the Roman population ballooned, despite Caesar’s extension of the seating arrangement and construction of a canal to keep everyone dry during rainfall, this 2,037 by 387 ft. stadium could no longer contain its magnitudinous audience.

     The Gladiator Mosaic is a perfect testimonial to the brutality of Roman blood sports. This mosaic from Villa Borghese, Torrenova, bears the inscription of a fallen gladiator’s name, dated from the fourth century. This scene commemorates one of the final championships before the fall of the Roman Empire, between 410 AD, when the Goths sacked Rome, and 476 AD, when Odacer took control of Rome and deposed Romulus Augustulus The mosaic reveals a victorious gladiator leaning over another as he stands over his defeated opponent, about to deal a final blow with his raised sword.

     The evolution of Roman spectacle took a dramatic turn in the first century. Around 70 CE, immediately after Nero’s reign, Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty undertook the construction of a new amphitheatre in the valley between the Palatine, Caelian, and Esquiline Hills, along with a canal and elaborate aqueduct system -- all very close to the Forum where most of Rome’s high profile political events took place. The Colosseum’s dense population since the third or second century B.C.E. was due to its core position in the region. Sadly, the opulent spoils conquered after a recent siege of Jerusalem provided its funding. However, it was Vespasian’s son, Titus, who held the inaugural games in 81 CE. An innovation of traditional Roman spectacle was the inclusion of re-enacted scenes from legendary naval wars right in the very canal of the arena.

     The architecture of the Colosseum facilitated the violent gore of Roman spectacle. It was likely during this time that Rome’s exotic display of public execution encouraged the participation of the audience as judge and jury. If the accused could convince the audience of his innocence, the collective voice could save him from a tortuous death. Vespasian imported thousands of wild animals into Rome from Africa and housed them there before guards released them into the arena. Along with the ferocious animals, Titus also took over 100,000 Jewish prisoners into Roman custody and held them in the Colosseum stalls after the siege of Jerusalem. That scenario leaves very little left to the imagination. The Arch of Titus memorializes the siege on the Forum’s Via Sacra, Rome.

     The decline of the importance of Circus Maximus and the Colosseum relates to the decline of the Roman Empire itself, and its defeat and conquest by northern tribes, which led to several outcomes. First, as the spirituality of Romans had induced a proper sense of humanity by the fifth century, blood sports’ irreconcilable conflict with the Christian theology of death and resurrection led to the banning of such competitions. In fact, the Church was entirely against all types of theatrical performances, not only Roman spectacle and violent sport. Secondly, the eventual physical devastation of Circus Maximus left only ruins, with no resources to repair it, particularly after the Imperial reign of Augustus. The conquest of the Western Empire in the fourth century CE left very little cultural centres available for Romans to entertain, as almost everything was a pile of rubble. Nero’s fire of 64 CE also burned the stadium’s lower tiers; moreover, a column in the upper portion of Circus Maximus collapsed in 140 CE and killed over a thousand people. [Chronica Minora, ed. Theodore Mommsen (VOL 1, p 146)]. After the ban on gladiatorial games lifted in 27 CE, twenty thousand more people died at the Fidenae Amphitheatre near Rome during a spectacle when a column collapsed. Thirdly, unlike the east, the decline of Roman spectacle by the fifth century was largely due to the owing of taxes, and the declining wealth of the patrician land owner, as the hosting of such events was a constant drain on diminishing Rome’s resources. However, spectacle still flourished in the east’s capital, Constantinople, where property owners still controlled the flow of wealth.

     Although the later restoration of Roman theatre and spectacle gradually flourished again, it did so mainly to celebrate religious events; the calibre of blood sports that the ancient Etruscans and Romans cultivated never returned to its previous popularity. With respect to the disgusting nature of the punishment of the victims in antiquity, it is no wonder that the collective voice of the crowd remains a major influence in channeling today’s trends. But with respect to the odd inclination of prank pulling, has the internet evolved into a public circus for haters to express violent tendencies?  has the collective voice on certain platforms become as dangerous as it was in early history? 

     There is no doubt that the  solid, humanist education that Seneca and Cicero expounded is lacking in our schools at every level. Humanism in addition to the essential core subjects should be the foundation of every curriculum plan; compassion should be a central focus in any classroom or studious setting, regardless of political agenda. The instructor ideally should stress a notion that choice is personal rather than collective. This aim is most suited to our diverse population, where emphasis is on the student’s perspective, and not merely on that of scholars and the instructor. However, the downfall of a humanist education is that the under achiever will most certainly not thrive when expressing opinions in a group.

     The learning theories of Jean Piaget are most indicative of the humanist approach to education. The most important decision about one’s role in the future of violence is up to the individual: who will keep following in history’s old ways, and who will head into a new direction?