Yesterday, Grantland's Louisa Thomas published a magisterial essay on the innate culture of violence in the US and its many manifestations in American football. Early in her discussion, she touches on a comparison that's often drawn between modern football and its seeming counterpart in the Roman arena. Since this conflation is easy to make, I'd like to point out what Classical scholars see as the merits and pitfalls of such an elision, and explain a few of the overlaps between the two contexts.
Here is Thomas's nod toward ancient Rome:
Football is our culture's great spectacle of violence, our version of the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. You can see signs of football's celebration of amped-up manhood in the pageantry of our own bread and circuses: the military jet flyovers, the Built Ford Tough commercials, the shiny uniforms, the amplified crunching sound of hard hits, the big-knotted ties, and the pregame show special effects that seem like something out of Transformers 12. You can see it in the silver gladiatorial mask that Terrell Suggs wore during the pregame introductions when the Ravens played the Steelers last Thursday. But those are only symptoms. Get rid of the truck commercials, get rid of the gun salutes, and you'd still have the violence on the field.
If I could distill the basis of her comparison into one line of thought it would be the sheer eventfulness of both sports. That is, she focuses on the mass appeal inherent to Roman circuses and American football. But there's more to this connection.
(For those interested, the following points are more fully explained in Garrett Fagan's The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games, Cambridge, 2011.)
Those who study the sociology of the Roman arena and modern sport highlight four main disparities between ancient and modern fandom:
(I) The Roman games as sites of public punishment and execution. Participants in gladiatorial combats were, for the most part, slaves, captured enemy soldiers, or condemned criminals. Thus, their time in the arena was, at best, penance for crimes committed, or, at worst, protracted performance leading to their execution. We have some evidence—notably from Pompeian wall graffiti—that free men elected to fight in the arena, and there's better evidence that not every gladiatorial match ended with the death of the loser. In this latter regard, the losing fighter earned a missio, or "reprieve," from the crowd and lived to fight another day.
(II) The institution of slavery. Attached to the previous point, most gladiators were of the servi (slave) class, and thus their inherent humanity was always already devalued, if valued at all. This "less than us" mindset necessarily entailed a certain apathy toward combatants felt on the part of audiences. Slaves, moreover, were a commodity, a cog in the ancient economic machine, to be bought and sold and thrown away on a whim. It was of course in the best interests of a slave-gladiator owner to keep his fighters in good health, since his fighters' labor brought in mountains of revenue. Still, bargaining power and contract negotiations between gladiator and owner never would have happened. (EDIT: see below.)
(III) The prevalence and immediacy of land-based and single combats. Continuous war was a reality of the Roman Empire, built as it was on a Ponzi scheme that required more tribute (more subjugated peoples) for increased state revenue. Thus, most adult males were intimately familiar with the atrocities of the battlefield, so the atrocities of the amphitheater only dramatized what they had seen abroad. Speaking in general terms, a higher percentage of gladiatorial consumers had already participated in the violence of that sport than the percentage of modern football fans have participated in football. I should also point out that anthropologists today agree that team sports were wholly foreign to Europeans until discovery of the New World, where the Native Americans were already engaging in such competitions.
(IV) Rudimentary medical technology and knowledge. Not until the early Christian period (4th century CE) do anxieties about bodily trauma and life-long injury enter the conversation surrounding gladiatorial games. There are some voices of dissent about the morality of the amphitheater before that time, but they are so few and far between as to be exceptions that prove the rule. And moreover, most dissent toward the arena is couched in terms of how being there, as a fan, makes us, the fans, more morally repugnant. Never is the existence of the fighting taken to task, and never is the very real maiming questioned. In fact, because of modern advances in medicine are we better suited to understand and interrogate the implications and impact on players' lives.
For all these dissimilarities, the congruities between ancient and modern sport are equally, if not more, intriguing. To wit:
(I) There is a documented "hooligan culture" surrounding gladiators and their various teams or "schools" (ludi). We have evidence of a riot breaking out in the first century in Pompeii, which led to the cancellation of a gladiatorial bout. Ancient graffiti are quick to announce which particular ludus a gladiator came from, with the Ludus Neroniensis at Rome being one of the most prolific. Graffiti often include specific nicknames attached to certain gladiators, which demonstrates a "cult of personality" enjoyed by popular competitors.
(II) The prevalence of state-funded amphitheaters (or colisea) across the Roman Empire betrays a mass appeal on par with that of modern football stadia. I'll pause here because the architectural development of the amphitheater is a purely Roman invention. The double (amphi) viewing space (theatron) created a backdrop to the action in the center that erected bleachers and fans in place of a wooden stage backdrop (scene). Thus, when ancient and modern fans gaze across the stadium, they see others like themselves, wearing similar attire, acting similarly drunk, spouting similar expletives.
(III) The four distinct fighting styles (retiarius, murmillo, thrax, secutor)—with the specific weapons attached to each type—attests to the high degree of skill and training required to compete in the arena. The similarities to the different positions and preparations for those positions on the football field should be self-evident. This also demonstrates that the ancients, like us moderns, held especial appreciation for masterful performances of the various styles of competing, and certainly the ancient authors speak about their favorite fighting styles in enthusiastic terms.
(IV) Interestingly, a form of record keeping sprung up around gladiatorial combats and combatants. Most of this comes down to us in the form of graffiti. For instance: "Severus, of free status, victorious 13 times, earned a reprieve. Albanus, left-hander, of free status, victorious 19 times, won." (CIL iv 8056). (Note the inclusion of Albanus's left-handedness!) Other graffiti indicate that this or that fighter had in the past earned a corona (crown), which scholars liken to a modern MVP award for that day's fighting. Thus, fighters' wins/losses were tracked in the same way that modern boxing or MMA stats are kept.
(V) There is a well attested gambling culture attached to the Roman games, and a number of authors, mostly satirists, bemoan losing huge sums on certain poor performances. In fact, scholars recently discovered a form of match fixing involving Greek wrestlers (!).
(VI) Finally, like modern football crowds, ancient arena crowds are self-selecting groups. They choose to be there, choose to expose themselves to the very real possibilities of maiming. As I said above, there are some voices of dissent in the ancient period, but they swim against the current; a current which bore off 60,000 people at a time to watch men fight in Rome's Coliseum.
These similarities and dissimilarities should be kept in mind whenever someone makes the ancient/modern comparison, and this post is loosely connected to another, longer project I'm working on about the psychology of violent sport fandom. I'm happy to discuss further in the comments, or get shouted at on twitter.
Above image "Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant," by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859).