Gladiators of old entertained the masses

"We who are about to die salute you." That was what the gladiators said to the Emperor of Rome as they assembled in front of the royal box seats in the Roman Colosseum. And they were. About to die, that is. Beginning somewhere around 200 BC, figh...

"We who are about to die salute you."

That was what the gladiators said to the Emperor of Rome as they assembled in front of the royal box seats in the Roman Colosseum. And they were. About to die, that is. Beginning somewhere around 200 BC, fights to the death replaced the games that had originally taken place. Rome lasted over 700 years. So did the slaughter that served its citizens as a distraction from everyday stress and war and hunger and the stupid and selfish politicians. Entertainment as a drug. A narcotic. For the last 500 years of Rome's existence, the only thing holding Rome together was the games. They became more important than food. In the end, they bankrupted Rome.

The games originally began as more of a circus, with animal acts, some boxing with leather padded gloves, reenactments of the siege of Troy, and chariot racing. The Colosseum itself, built somewhere around 500 BC, was four times as large as Yankee stadium in New York City, and held nearly 400,000 people. It was always full.

Gladiators--the word is Roman for "swordsman"--were introduced as entertainment quite by accident. Two wealthy brothers--Marcus and Decimus Brutus--wanted to give their dead father a noteworthy funeral. These brothers were "patricians," members of the ruling class in Rome, and giving blow-out funerals was an important social obligation. The brothers wanted something different. One of them remembered an old, old custom of having a few slaves fight to the death over the grave of the recently deceased. The souls of these slaves thus were thought to accompany the dead chieftain to the next world, where they could defend him.

Educated Romans didn't believe this; however, they did know that being popular meant getting the best government jobs, so putting on a good show in the year 264 BC was important.


The brothers became the most popular politicians in Rome by having three pairs of slaves fight to the death. Gradually, the public wanted more. In 216 BC, it was up to 22 pairs. In 183 BC, 60 pairs, and in 145 BC, 90 pairs of slaves took three days to kill one another.

But these battles by untrained men were too tame. Somewhere around 200 BC, gladiator schools began popping up, filled with men sentenced to them for some supposed crime. When gladiators marched into the Colosseum, it was with the knowledge that this would be a good fight, and that one of them would die. This escalated until fighting men--each from different countries fighting with different weapons--were pitted against each other.

In 46 BC, a victorious general with political aspirations named Julius Caesar arrived in Rome, and saw that the way to the top would be to provide bigger and better entertainment to the people. His first game had a hunt of 400 lions, fights between elephants and infantry, parades of elephants with torches in their trunks through the city at night, bull fighting by mounted men, and the first giraffes--Cleopatra sent them to him--ever seen by Romans. The chariot races--during which some drivers and horses always died horrible deaths, much to the crowd's delight--alone lasted ten days, and the gladiatorial contests went on for a month. It was only a matter of a few years after this that the games took place every day, and the Romans began to view them as their rightful due. Any attempts after this to limit the games resulted in mob uprisings.

As the now daily spectacles grew, these huge colosseums were engineered so that they could be flooded in a matter of minutes, and huge naval ships put on real battles. One of these arenas measured 1800 feet by 1200 feet, and could hold two fleets of 12 ships each. This turned out to be so popular that Claudius wanted to do it again instantly, but there were no prisoners left--over 1900 had been killed in the ship battles--in the Roman jails. He then pitted an Etruscan army of 5000 against a same-sized Samnite force. Trees were planted. Villages built. Bands played while these men killed one another.

Nero, Caesar, Pompey, Augustus--these men routinely put on shows with 600 lions, thousands of elephants, hundreds of tigers and leopards, and more. When the world ran short of animals, in the first century AD, Emperor Marcus, who disliked Christians, began the popular practice of feeding them to the lions, and soaking them in oil and burning them for light so that the gladiators could fight at night.

The spectacles grew, as did the arenas, in size and cost. Elaborate sewers carried off blood and refuse, from both the arena above, and the animal and prisoner cages below. There were elevators to get the animals up to the arena, and huge water gates to instantly flood and drain the stadium for the next acts. The costs of putting on these daily "games" became astronomical.

Finally, toward the end of Rome, around 500 AD, the cost of maintaining Rome's gigantic army and navy grew overwhelming. An impoverished government no longer had the funds to control growing rioting in the city, or to feed its citizens. Government, faced with the choice of loading ships in Egypt with either corn or fresh sand for the colosseums --the old stuff got bloody and it took several tons of new sand each day--, chose sand. After all, the games distracted the people from a nation collapsing around them.

Unbelievable, right? But think. Are you watching the daily television footage of the contest in Iraq? Seen the craters? Know that thousands are dead?


Who started that contest? And why?

Bigger and better entertainment as a distraction.

"We who are about to die salute you."

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