Arena: Blood, Sweat, and Cheers
Rome was over extended with deficit spending and an imbalance of payments.
Apparently, the Roman people were trapped. Rome had over-extended itself by becoming,
as much by accident as by design, the dominant nation of the world. The cost of
maintaining the Pax Romana (Latin for “the Peace of Rome”) over most of the
known world was proving too great even for the enormous resources of the mighty
empire. Rome did not dare to abandon its allies or pull back its legions who were
holding the barbarian tribes in a line extending from the Rhine River in Germany
to the Persian Gulf. Every time a frontier post was relinquished, the wild hordes
would sweep in, overrun the area and move that much closer to the nerve centers
of Roman trade.
The Roman government was constantly threatened by bankruptcy and no government agency
or politician could find a way out of the difficulty. The cost of its gigantic military
program was only one of Rome’s headaches. To encourage industry in her various
satellite nations, Rome attempted a policy of unrestricted trade, but the Roman
workingman was unable to compete with the cheap foreign labor and demanded high
tariffs. When the tariffs were passed, the satellite nations were unable to sell
their goods to the only nation that had any money.
To break the deadlock, the government was finally forced to subsidize the Roman
working class to make up the difference between their “real wages” (the
actual value of what they were producing) and the wages required to keep up their
relatively high standard of living. As a result, thousands of workmen lived on this
subsidy and had no inclination to work, thereby sacrificing their standard of living
for a life of ease.
The wealthy class of Rome, living in palaces and eating banquets composed of such
delicacies as thrushes’ tongues in wild honey and sow’s udders stuffed
with fried baby mice, owed their riches to great factories where slave laborers
produced enormous masses of goods by what we now call assembly-line methods. The
dispossessed farmers and unemployed workmen had one great cry: “Make the rich
pay!” The government responded by increasing taxes year after year on the plutocrats,
but there was a point beyond which they dared not go. After all, it was the taxes
paid by these rich men that kept the whole system going and the government did not
dare to ruin their source of funds.
Attempts were made to abolish slave labor in the factories but the free workmen’s
demands for short hours and high wages had grown so great that only slaves could
be used economically. Also, the big factory owners were politically powerful and
fought every effort to break up their holdings by bribing senators, hiring lobbyists,
and securing the support of unscrupulous labor leaders. A Roman factory owner found
it far more profitable to spend thousands of sesterces in such practices rather
than lose his slaves. The Roman freemen would far rather have their doles (unemployment
payments) and games than work for a living.
Since there was no technology used for entertainment in Roman times; the major distractions
for the Roman people had to be the arena circus productions.
To the Roman mobs, caught in an economic tangle they could not comprehend and were
unable to break, the circus was the only relief from their troubles. The great amphitheaters
became the ordinary man’s temple, home, and place of assembly. As the games
were ostensibly pious ceremonies given in honor of the gods, they gratified any
possible religious sensitivities. At least for a few hours by being in the Circus
Maximus, they were able to inhabit an edifice even more magnificent than the Golden
Palace of Nero instead of having to stay in their miserable, overcrowded tenements.
When they were at the circus, Romans were able to meet with other freemen, feel
a sense of unity as they sat with their factions cheering a certain chariot team,
and imposing their wishes on the emperor himself for, as the Romans themselves said,
“In the circus alone are the people rulers.” The Romans worshiped courage
and all Romans liked to picture themselves as rough, tough fighters. In Rome, the
“little guys” could identify themselves with a successful gladiator as
modern fight fans might relate to a famous prize fighter or how sports lovers are
fiercely loyal to various sports’ personalities or teams today.
The destructive forces in the arenas kept growing in attempt to satisfy the discontent
of the Roman masses.
The first century of the Christian era probably marked the high point of the games.
The spectacles had grown to such an extent that it seemed incredible that they could
ever be surpassed. The dictator Sulla (93 B.C.) presented one hundred lions in the
arena. Julius Caesar had four hundred. Pompey had six hundred lions, twenty elephants
and four hundred ten leopards fighting Gaetulians armed with darts. Augustus in
10 A.D. exhibited the first tiger ever to be seen in Rome and had 3,500 elephants.
He boasted that he had ten thousand men killed in eight shows. After Trajan’s
victory over the Dacians, he had eleven thousand animals killed in the arena.
Some say that Julius Caesar could be called the father of the games because under
his regime they ceased to be an occasional exhibition of fairly modest proportions
and became a national institution. By the time of Augustus, the people regarded
the games not as a luxury but as their right. Under the old Republic, the games
lasted for sixteen days: fourteen chariot races, two trials for horses, and forty-eight
theatricals. By the time of Claudius (50A.D.), there were ninety-three a year. This
number was gradually increased to 123 days under Trajan and to 230 under Marcus
Augustus and several of the other emperors tried to limit the number of games, but
it always produced mob uprisings. Marcus Aurelius disliked the games, but in his
official position he had to attend. He used to sit in the royal box and dictate
letters to his secretaries while the games were going on. The Roman crowds resented
his negative behavior; and although he was one of the best emperors Rome ever had,
as a result of his contempt for the games, he was also one of the most unpopular.
Both Caligula and Nero, probably the two worst rulers in Roman history, were greatly
mourned by the crowds when they died because they always put on such extravagant
The Colosseum is considered one of the best-known arenas from the Roman days of
slaughtering humans and animals.
The buildings designed to hold the bloody shows are said to have never been surpassed
either for size or for perfections of functional design. The oldest and largest
of these vast structures was the Circus Maximus. Eventually after several modifications,
it measured 2, 000 feet long by 650 feet wide and could provide places for 385,000
The Colosseum, started by the emperor Vespasian in 70 A.D. and completed by his
son, Titus, ten years later, is considered to be the best equipped amphitheater
that the Romans or anyone else ever built. Since Vespasian and Titus were members
of the Flavian family, it was known to the Romans as the “Flavian amphitheater”
and it was not until the Middle Ages that it was called the Colosseum because of
The building had eighty entrances; seventy-six were used by the general public while
one was reserved for the emperor and one for the Vestal Virgins, a group of chief
priestesses whose duty was to guard a sacred flame that was kept burning continuously.
The other two doors opened directly into the arena. One was called the Door of Life
and through it the opening procession marched before the show. The other was called
the Door of Death and through it the dead bodies of men and beasts were dragged
to clear the arena for the next event.
An elaborate series of sewers carried off the blood and refuse from the arena and
the animal cages below it. A system of small sewers led from all parts of the building
to one great circular drain that surrounded the Colosseum. The drain, in turn, was
connected to the Cloaca Maxima, the main sewerage system of the city.
Where did the Romans get all of the animals they used in their entertainment of
violence, sex, and bloody gore?
Emperor Trojan held one set of games that lasted 122 days during which 11,000 people
and 10,000 animals were killed. Emperor Titus had 5,000 wild animals and 4,000 domestic
animals killed during the one hundred-day show to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum.
In 249 A.D., Philip celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of
Rome by giving games in which the following were killed: one thousand pairs of gladiators,
thirty-two elephants, ten tigers, sixty lions, thirty leopards, ten hyenas, ten
giraffes, twenty wild asses, forty wild horses, ten zebras, six hippos and one rhino.
Whole territories under Roman rule (Europe, Middle East, Africa, etc.) were denuded
of wild animals to supply the arenas. The early Christian fathers could only find
one good thing to say about the blood spectacles: the demand for animals cleared
entire districts of dangerous predators making it possible for those areas to be
opened for farming.
Several species of animals were either exterminated or so reduced in numbers that
they later became extinct: the European lion, the aurochs, the Libyan elephant and
possibly the African bear. There are no bears in Africa today and most scientist
apparently believe that there never were any, but a Roman reference claims that
they did get a “bear” from East Africa and Nubia. If it was not a bear
than what was it? There is no other explanation available.
The foregoing excerpts are from Those About To Die by Daniel P. Mannix, Ballantine
Books, New York, 1960.
Mannix says, “So many sources were used in preparing this volume that it would
be impossible to name them all. In many cases, only a single reference was taken
from a book. However, some of the main works dealing with the games are listed in
Here is his bibliography, essentially as he presented it in his book, including
not using italics for the titles:
Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschihte, Roma, L. Friedlander
The Spectacle, Martial
The Remains of Ancient Rome, J.H. Middleton
Historia Ecclesiastica, Eusebius,
Martyr’s Mirror, Thielem von Bracht
Acts of the Martyrs, P.I. Twisck
Pompeii, Thomas H. Dyer
Philip and Alexander of Macedon, David G. Hogarth
Les Gladiateurs dans l’orient Grec, Louis Robert
Roping, Bernard Mason
Fighting Sports, Capt. L. Fitz-Barnard
The Satyricon, Petronius
The Memoirs of Diocles
And the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Apuleius
I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Robert Graves
Quo Vadis, Henrye Sienkiewicz
Confessors of the Name, Gladys Schmitt (Mainly the martyrdom of the Christians)
Ben Hur, Lew Wallace (The famous chariot race is very accurate)
The Gladiators, Arthur Koestler (The Spartacus Rebellion)
Androcles and the Lion, Bernard Shaw (Humorous but accurate)
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