Updated on November 12th 2021
Gladiators of Rome
It’s generally agreed that gladiatorial games were first introduced to Rome during the First Punic War (264 BC – 241 BC), when the Roman government, in a bid to raise moral (and distract public attention from disastrous military setbacks in the field), organized exhibitions of mortal combat. Thereafter, gladiatorial games became Rome’s national sport, but not without its critics. Seneca the Stoic was perhaps the greatest historical critic of the games and of the people who wallowed in the spectacle. In part this is his first hand account of such an event.
Seneca the Younger
Seneca has come down to us today as the most famous philosopher of Stoicism. His comments on the blood thirsty games in Rome 50AD shed a more honest and realistic appraisal of the games that had the city inflamed with brutality and awash in blood.
An Eyewitness to the Games
“I happened to go to one of these shows at the time of the lunch-hour interlude, expecting there to be some light and witty entertainment; some respite for the purpose of affording people’s eyes a rest from human blood. Far from it. All the earlier contests were charity in comparison. The nonsense is dispensed with now: what we have is murder pure and simple.”
- Seneca is referring to a moment in the organized games when slaves and criminals are thrown against one another to kill without any body armor or training as a gladiator.
“The spectators insist that each on killing his man shall be thrown against another to be killed in his turn; and the eventual victor is reserved by them (the spectators) for some other form of butchery; the only exit is death. Fire and steel keep the slaughter going. And all of this happens while the arena is virtually empty.”
- As Seneca noted, many of the slaves and criminals being prepared as gladiators sort suicide as a death preferable to the one awaiting them in the arena.
Suicide as a Desperate End to the Fear and Suffering
“For example,” wrote Seneca, “there was lately in a training school for wild-beast gladiators a German who was making ready the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing which he was allowed to in private and without the company of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge (this was a common device for Romans to clean their backsides; think of toilet paper today), which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked his wind-pipe, and chocked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death!”
Seneca makes a Poignant Observation
Seneca observed during the second event in a sham sea-fight one of the barbarians sank deep into his own throat a spear which had been given him for use against his foe. “Why, oh why,” he said, “have I not long ago escaped from all this torture and all this mockery? Why should I be armed and yet wait for death to come?”
This self-sacrifice was all the more striking because of the lesson men learnt from it; that dying is more honourable than killing.
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Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who lived and worked in Italy from 1987 to 2018. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of Italian art and history closer to you and in a way that is entertaining and informative; together with great travel tips. Getting off the beaten track in Italy is always an adventure and he invites you to join him in discovering an Italy that will surprise and amaze you.