One of Ancient Romes most important forms of public entertainment took place in amphitheaters. These were the gladiatorial games. Although there were more renown and primordial forms of entertainment, such as the chariot races, gladiatorial activities became a widely popular and powerful form of leisure for Romes powerful and common citizens. Roland Auguet writes:
It only remained for the emperors to learn the lessons of experience. They hastened to appropriate, to their own advantage, as far as they could, a means of propaganda whose efficacy was to be proved by history. The organization which thenceforward controlled the right to give munera showed a more and more open tendency to monopoly, which was expressed by legislative measures and considerations of fact; in Rome at least all the gladiatorial combatswere offered to the people by the emperor (28).
Auguet gives insight as to just how important the games were for people in Rome, especially the powerful. The gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome had many affects on Roman society.
Gladiatorial games developed from a more passive state and different motives to the image that many people in todays society believe it to be. Before the times of the emperors, gladiators were used primarily for funerary remembrance. The family of the person who had passed away would try to honor the deceased by having a display of power and wealth and other skills between men, gladiators, to show the prowess the deceased had possessed in life. This form of gladiatorial combat had been going on in Rome and its surrounding provinces since the mid-3rd Century B.C. and was often followed with a banquet and gifts (Beacham, 14). One of the earliest attempts at using gladiatorial combat for reasons not pertinent with showing the deeds of the deceased came in 45 B.C. Julius Caesar announced to Rome that he would honor his daughter Julia with a munus. This was when Caesar was in the midst of a consulship and had the power to put on a show of great magnitude. He told the people that he would put on a show so enormous that it would be nothing like they had ever seen. However, in his attempt to win over any Roman that had yet to concede to his leadership, the Senate intervened and put restrictions on the amount he could spend (Weidemann, 6). This move by the Senate would be followed during the rest of Romes history concerning the amount allowable on future gladiatorial combats.
When the games were used to the advantage of the person running for an office, they had lost most of their original ideology behind them. The transition from funerary purposes to social purpose was a gradual one. During the Republic, when one died they, depending on the amount of wealth left behind, might be given a gladiatorial combat and banquet in their honor. The ideology behind these games was to show the kind of person and life they had left behind. Thus, Roman gladiatorial games originally started out as a kind of passage from life to death.
If used correctly, the ability to put on ludi, or games, was a strong ally. The games were a significant part of a Romans everyday life. Before gladiators fought publicly, the forms of entertainment were not much more than theaters that would perform Greek and Roman plays, and the local Circuses that often showed chariot races. These events would very often be sponsored and supported by Senators and other Romans who would want to run for office and become more popular. It was against the law to give bribes and donations to people to get their votes for or against something; however, bribes would still take place. Besides doing the honest deed by campaigning strongly for such heralded positions as Consul and Tribune, these prospective candidates would put on shows in their name. After the shows a festival would often be given to and for the people of Rome. The show and the banquet would often be very expensive expenditures. These would often be beneficial to the candidates, as the Romans would favor these candidates more because they could put on a show. These passive forms of bribery soon expelled others from running for offices. Romans came to expect these voluptuous banquets and magnificent shows from the candidates. As a result, poorer candidates who could not afford to sponsor a game were overlooked by the people (Beacham 15).
Around 44 B.C., the games started to become less about funerary purposes and more of an entertainment theme. In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar had given the biggest spectacle of entertainment Rome had ever seen. With restrictions by the Senate, he was not able to involve as many gladiators as he advertised, but more important than that, he started a new trend. The following year, on 14 February 44 B.C., at the annual Lupercalia Festival, Julius Caesar was given the title Dictator Perpetual. Thus came the end of the Republic and the beginning of a new Rome. The death of the Republic was not celebrated by a mortal combat between men with few clothes and a weapon; it was followed by constant war until Octavian Caesar took control of Rome in 27 B.C. Thus gladiatorial combats as funerary games ended. They were replaced with games that would be presented as part of a calendar of public events meant to ensure the continuity of the state and its emperors. The games became associated with the continuation of Roman life and values (Futrell, 46-47).
From the start of the Roman Civil War, with the assassinations of the Gracchi brothers in 131 and 121 B.C. respectively, politics in Ancient Rome turned into a violent and increasingly competitive state.The leaders of Rome used spectacles like gladiators to direct the attention away from the negative aspects of the Republic. They used bloodshed in the arena to try to balance the amount of mayhem that was happening inside and outside the walls of Rome itself. With the ever-increasing importance of gladiatorial combat as both an accessory for the people and a weapon against political opponents, places to watch these shows would need to be constructed, and they were.
Amphitheaters had political ideas built into their construction. The location of construction of amphitheaters in Rome was not always built in densely populated areas.Before its use in Imperial Rome, the amphitheater held an independent status. The placement of theaters in and around Rome did not correspond to developed areas. In the provinces of Rome the theaters were often built in and around military frontiers. In Gaul, for example, there was an amphitheater built in complete isolation from any central village or town (58). Gauls theater shows that there oftentimes there were very few determining factors of their placement.The few factors would have been their societal and political impact on Romes conquered peoples as well as an attempt to assimilate Roman values and ideals into their everyday lives.
The construction of amphitheaters also shows political and sociological views of the Romans. One of the more important features of the theaters was the seating. The theaters would be built to hold vast numbers of people. The better seats would be given to the more important people in Roman society. The Senators decree provided that every public performance, wherever held, the front section must be reserved for senators (Beacham, 122).
As gladiatorial games became more popular, the size, magnificence, and seating capacities greatly increased. The pinnacle of every amphitheater ever built was the Colosseum in Rome. Built on the grounds of the former Golden House of Nero, it was a project started by the emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) and completed by the emperor Titus in 80 A.D. It was four stories in height and could hold an amazing 50,000 people! These houses of games were the products of ambitious, young Romans who sought to help themselves while helping Rome.
The Roman Republic did not use these games the way the future emperors would. One reason why is because the government was more balanced and there was less of a need to gain the Peoples favor. There were a few sought-after positions like Consul, Tribune, and Aedile that would cause the potential candidates to do everything from bribing to buttering up the Romans with expensive banquets and elaborate festivals to garner votes. But when the Republic vanished, those persons who wanted to be the supreme rulers of Rome needed to show the people why they deserved to be Imperator. Most emperors had programs for Rome and Her citizens. They would build forums, entertainment complexes, baths houses, places to shop, places to practice law, and, perhaps one of the most important, places to show combats. When and where these theaters existed, public officials knew the next step; put on a show.
Romans as a whole liked gladiatorial games; emperors, as well as other public officials, liked sponsoring them. These games would show the power, wealth, majesty, and most of all, the true Roman side of a person. The everyday Citizen of Imperial Rome enjoyed getting lavished by public officials. He enjoyed the banquets and festivals put on by those running for high offices. Most of all, he enjoyed the free shows that would be given to them by these officials. Julius Caesar knew this, which is why he gave Rome a spectacle in 45 B.C. The emperors who would follow also knew this and it was visible through their political action that they used this Roman fixation to their advantage.
Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, ruled from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. During his principate Augustus gave Rome prosperity, wealth, and a peace not known during the previous one hundred years. The important issue that determined Augustus ideals behind his reign was the amount of warfare the Romans had induced the last one hundred years. Civil war had been going on since the time of the Gracchi, and finally ended with Augustus victory at Actium in September of 31 B.C. With the defeat of Mark Antony, Augustus could finally end the civil strife that was tearing apart Roman citizens. For bringing a stable balance of peace to Rome, the citizens were grateful to their new Caesar. He knew that in order to survive and keep his new form of government working he would need to show why his way was better. He gave the People what they wanted and needed, which included entertainment in the form of gladiatorial games. In his autobiography, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, or The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, he tells us he
gave three gladiatorial games in his own name and five in that of his sons or grandsons; at these games some 10,000 men took part in combat. He gave beast-hunts of African beasts in his own name or in that of his sons and grandsons in the circus or forum or amphitheatre on twenty-six occasions, on which about 3,500 beasts were destroyed (Res Gestae, 30-31).
Augustus clearly points out the gladiatorial spectacles he gave the people of Rome, though he does not explain why.
He put on these shows for many reasons; the most important being that it would greatly increase his popularity amongst Romans of all kinds. These games showed his power, influence, and wealth. But he was not showing off, rather he was making a statement about himself as a person. By dedicating some of his games to other people, he was telling Rome that he was not selfish, nor kingly in that aspect. Most importantly, he gave the games all for and to the people of Rome.
Other successful rulers would follow the steps of Augustus and win over the Romans. The emperor Tiberius, whose reign is marked by unpleasantness towards him, did not follow the example set by his predecessor; therefore, he did not win over the majority of Romes citizens. According to Beacham, Tiberius had a dislike of crowds. He also forbade the single combat of knights that had performed at his sons games. Beacham goes on to claim that Tiberiuss apparent disdain for popular pastimes, coupled with an aloof personality, was a serious public relations error that caused suspicion and resentmentwhich did little to lend Tiberius confidence in the administration (Beacham, 157). The inability to sponsor a game or attend games caused the public to view Tiberius in a different manner. He did a poor job of following up Augustuss actions and manners. By showing aloofness towards Romes passions, he distanced himself from Her people.
What Tiberius faltered in many future emperors sought to exceed in. The emperors that followed Tiberius were more passionate about the games and about Roman entertainment values itself. The emperor Nero even participated in many musical competitions to show his general ties with Romans (212-214). After Nero committed suicide in A.D. 68 and after the very short reigns of four emperor rulers, Titus Flavius Vespasianus became Imperator of Rome. Vespasian started perhaps one of the biggest projects created during his time on top of the former Golden House of Nero: the Colosseum. Although Vespasian was not alive when it was completed, his successor Titus was able to complete and show the first combat in it in A.D. 80. This worlds most famous amphitheater is given a good first-person description by Finley Hooper. Today, the floor is missing and so exposed to view are the animal dens and narrow corridors, like cattle runs, through which condemned prisoners and hopeful gladiators passed on their way to die in the sunlight amid the savagery of a public entertainment (Hooper, 404). The Colosseum would provide ample entertainment to the persons of Rome for centuries.
The reign of Constantine I (R. 307-337) brought about the end of the games for almost a century. His reign brought extreme changes to Rome and its people. His institution of Christianity into the daily action and lives of Romans brought an end to the treacherous games because they often involved slaves, prisoners, and Christians (Futrell, 143-144). It took almost a hundred years before the games would be allowed back in Rome.
Gladiatorial games had many purposes in society. They started out as performances honoring the deceased; a display of wealth and prowess in life. After the death of the Republic the purpose started to become more for entertainment to Roman people and as propaganda for Roman Elite. Since bribery was illegal, although it still happened, sponsoring a game would entice the Roman people and gain that person dignitas. The place where games happened was considered to be sacred; thus, having games in the honor of people, both alive and deceased, would show their divinity (Beacham 83). Magnificent amphitheaters were built to house these great games.
Julius Caesar set the example for future emperors and aristocrats to follow. With his games in 45 B.C., he showed that by putting on these tremendous displays of battle and carnage, the Roman people would applaud him. The successes made in Rome thanks in part to gladiatorial combats are immeasurable. The games themselves united Romans on a common ground where anyone and everyone could go and enjoy a fun-filled day of carnage and bloodshed at their local amphitheater.
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