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Arena: Blood, Sweat, and Cheers

The Arena, More than a Place

The ancient Romans went to the amphitheaters for their “entertainment” where they could see the gladiators fighting to their deaths with swords and other weapons, or wild animals, killing and being killed.

Since the hard-packed ground of the old amphitheaters could not soak up the quantities of blood spilled on it in a contest, the show producers covered the ground with absorbent arena (sand) so the contestants would not slip and fall during their battles. It was this harena, or arena, the Latin word for “sand” that became the general term for shows, then today’s sports stadiums.

The following excerpts come from Those About to Die by Daniel P. Mannix:

From the preface: “In the vast marble Colosseum—greater than Yankee Stadium—the death struggles of the gladiators, the mangled bodies of the charioteers, whetted the people’s appetite for excitement and thrills.”

“The empire was dying, and the Roman Games—ruthless, brutal, perverse—were the emotional outlet for the discontented mob. Feats of strength and skill no longer pleased. Men were pitted against wild beasts, professional swordsmen against unarmed prisoners. The emperor Tragan gave one set of games that lasted 122 days during which 11,000 people and 10,000 animals were killed.”

“Still the thirst for sadistic and perverse ‘novelties’ mounted. Death and torture were the only spectacles that could really gratify the people’s longing. Death and sex were the only emotions they could still really grasp. The sight of a lion tearing a screaming woman apart gratified both instincts….”

The examples presented here, and in other sources, leave no room for doubt that the glory of the Roman Empire covers a great deal of shameful history.

Nero was the emperor and for two weeks the mobs of discontent had been rioting uncontrollably in the streets of Rome. The economy of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen was coming apart like an unraveling sweater. The cost of maintaining Rome’s gigantic armed forces, equipped with the latest catapults, ballistae, and fast war galleys, was bleeding the nation white and in addition there were the heavy subsidies that had to be paid to the satellite nations that were dependent on Rome for support. The impoverished government had neither the funds nor the power to stop the riots.

It was during this crisis that the Captain of Shipping and Transportaion hurried by chariot to consult with the first tribune. “The merchant fleet is in Egypt awaiting loading,” he announced. “The ships can be loaded either with corn for the starving people or with the special sand used on the track for the chariot races and to cover the floor of the stadium. Which shall it be?”

“Are you mad?” screamed the tribune. “The situation here has gotten out of control. The emperor’s a lunatic, the army’s on the verge of mutiny and the people are dying of starvation. For the gods’ sake, get the sand! We have to get their minds off their troubles!”

The Arenas of Entertainment in Death and Orgies

Soon a special announcement was made by heralds that the finest chariot races on record would be held at the Circus Maximus. Three hundred pairs of gladiators would battle to the death and twelve hundred condemned criminals would be eaten by lions. Fights between elephants and rhinos, buffaloes and tigers, and leopards and wild boars would be staged. Admission to the rear seats would be free. There would be a small charge for the first thirty-six tiers of seats.

Everything else was promptly forgotten. The gigantic stadium, seating 385,000 people, was jammed to capacity. For two weeks the games went on while the crowd cheered, made bets and got drunk. Once again the government had a breathing space to try to find some way out of its difficulties.

These spectacles, called games, were a national institution. Millions of people were dependent on them for a living: animal trappers, gladiator trainers, horse breeders, shippers, contractors, armorers, stadium attendants, promoters and businessmen of all kinds. To have abolished the games would have thrown so many people out of work that the national economy would have collapsed. In addition, the games were the narcotic that kept the Roman mob doped up so the government could continue to operate.

One performer named Pylades contemptuously told Augustus Caesar, “Your position depends on how we keep the mob amused.” Juvenal wrote bitterly, “The people who have conquered the world now have only two interests—bread and circus games (panem et circenses).”

• • • •
If you want to leave footprints in the sands of time, don’t drag your feet.
—Anonymous

Take me to part 2 of arena