Violence in Sports: A Comparison of Gladiatorial Games in Ancient Rome
By Amanda Stern
Honours Thesis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2001
Introduction: Gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome and modem sports have more in common than we would like to believe. Violence has been a key component to the success of each of these activities. Many spectators watched as the Coliseum was filled with blood from brutal gladiatorial matches. Today, hundreds of fans watch as two grown men hit one another in a boxing ring. After examining gladiatorial games and looking at modem sports one may notice similarities between the two. These similarities suggest that modem sports seem to be just as violent as games in Ancient Rome.
The Romans believed that they inherited the practice of gladiatorial games from the Etruscans who used them as part of a funeral ritual. The first gladiatorial games were offered in Rome in 264 BCE by sons ofJunius Brutus Pera in their father’s honor. Gladiatorial combat was originally part of a religious ceremony that was intended to insure that the dead would be accompanied to the next world by armed attendants and that the spirits of the dead would be appeased with this offering of blood. Although this ritual began as a ceremony to honor important men after their death, it began to lose its religious significance and it became a more popular sport. Aristocrats’ funerals celebrated their victories and enhanced their reputations. Emperors presented the games to show the public how much power they had.
Among the gladiators were thousands of prisoners of war. The historian Josephus described how Titus dealt with his captives from the Jewish Rebellion. “The number of those destroyed in contests with wild beasts or with one another or in the flames exceeded 2,500″. The Romans, however, seemed to believe that this kind of treatment was too light a punishment for their enemies. At times criminals were condemned to work in the mines, but they believed that being a gladiator was a less severe sentence. Many people were killed in the mines, and they stood a better chance of survival in the arena.
Some free men even entered the games in hopes of popularity and patronage by wealthy citizens. Some people chose this lifestyle because gladiators were given three meals a day, decent medical care, and if they were good enough they were given their freedom. They may be free, but they could never be citizens. These men, although they were free, would never be seen as legitimate members of society by the upper class. Upper class citizens saw men who had been gladiators as worthless creatures. They viewed them as they did actors whom emperors sometimes forced to fight in the arena just because they had disgraced themselves already by appearing onstage.