Gladiatorial games as a means of political communication during the Roman Republic
By Philip Thomas
Fundamina, Vol.16:2 (2010)
Abstract: Limited means of communication in antiquity brought funeral games into politics. This paper argues that during the republic politicians communicated their message by way of public spectacles. The origin and development of the ludi are researched and political exploitation thereof during the republic is analysed. The use of these games for public execution of certain categories of criminals deserves attention. Literary and legal texts confirm that Roman politicians were aware of the potential of games to further their careers, with the result that their propaganda value was institutionalised during the empire.
Introduction: After the 2010 World Cup, the question may be raised how a developing country, short of skills and money, struggling to provide in the basic needs of her citizens, saw fit to afford billions on staging a major sports event. However, recent sport spectacles, for example the 1998 World Cup in France, during which president Chirac suddenly donned a soccer scarf and could not be kept out of the stadium, or not so recent sport events as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, steer us towards the hypothesis that political leaders, irrespective of time and place or ideology, are aware of their need to court the voters in pursuit of popularity. Today communication is linked to technology, the printing press, telephones, loudhailers, radios, television, movies, or the internet, which leads to the question how – in antiquity – political candidates and established politicians marketed themselves without these tools. The answer, for the Romans, may be found in the arena.
The Romans recognised the importance of communication. This is attested by the emphasis placed on public speaking in the education of young noblemen. But, eloquence from the rostra only reached a limited number of supporters, while the required loud voice might be undone by hecklers and a hired mob. Cicero did not have a loud voice and chose the courts, but this required specialised skill, hard work and talent and had little entertainment value. This article offers the hypothesis that clever politicians found another means in public spectacles. First the origin and development of the gladiatorial games will be described and secondly the political exploitation of these games. Brief mention will also be made of the strange midday interlude, the ludi meridiani, in which certain categories of criminals were killed by animals, gladiators or each other.
Most work on the arena games in Rome focuses on the imperial period when for all practical purposes political communication had become irrelevant. This article argues that the gladiatorial shows found their origin in the republic and were very popular. They therefore became frequent and were used for the most basic of political ends, namely votes for an election. In consequence, the scope is limited to the later republic when the political dimension of the games was at its greatest. The paper does not offer moralising, sociological, psycho-analytical or anthropological explanations.
See also Famous Gladiators of Ancient Rome