The end of the gladiators

In AD 350 the gladiatorial games were as popular, magnificent and widespread as they had ever been. An unbroken history of development and adaptation stretching back some 600 years lay behind the combats. A century later not a single gladiator, lanista or munus was to be found anywhere. For an institution that had survived for so long and been so popular to disappear so completely was dramatic indeed.

Some have claimed it was Christianity that abolished the gladiators, some that it was the fall of Rome. But the end of the gladiators was rather more complex than either idea would suggest. Although Christian writers denounced the gladiatorial games, they were not the first to voice criticism. The first century AD philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca came to Rome to work as a lawyer, later becoming tutor to the young Nero and in time his chief minister. Seneca had no time for the gladiatorial games. He wrote that ‘Man is a thing which is sacred to humanity, but nowadays he is killed in play or for fun. It was once a sin to teach how to inflict wounds, but now a man is led out naked and defenceless and provides a good show by his death.’

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He also criticized those who attended such gladiator game events saying that those who watch the killings ‘come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, more cruel and inhuman.’ Seneca’s best known comments on the games were written after he had himself attended a munus. He deliberately avoided the morning animal hunts and timed his visit to coincide with the trained animal dis-plays and the clowning about by the burlesque figures. Instead he blundered into the execution of condemned criminals. So disgusted was Seneca that he was moved to write:

It is pure murder. The men have no armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. Many prefer this event to the usual pairs (of gladiators) and to the bouts by request. Of course they do, there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears: at noon they throw them to the spectators. The crowd demands that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest killer for another killing. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. You may say ‘But he was a mugger and he killed a man. So what? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved to die, but what crime have you committed that you should deserve to sit and watch? In the morning they cried ‘kill him, lash him, burn him. Why does he stroke so feebly? Why doesn’t he die well? Whip him to meet his wounds. Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and vulnerable to the blow. Then the games stop for the interlude and they announce A little throat slitting comes next so that there may still be something to watch.

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Seneca’s views and pronouncements had small impact. They had virtually none at all on the young Nero for he went on to become a great fan of the games. Seneca did however articulate a view held by a sizeable minority of Romans. The philosopher and historian Plutarch held government posts under Trajan and took the opportunity to write to provincial governors recommending that they should abolish gladiatorial combats in their jurisdiction. Most ignored him, though many did reduce the number of shows that took place.

About this same time, the two Greek cities of Athens and Corinth got embroiled in a furious rivalry. To demonstrate their superiority, the council of Athens decided to hold a great festival of art, literature and athletics, but also to include the Roman-style gladiatorial games. Introducing foreign activities was not popular with everybody and one Demonax declared in his speech ‘Men of Athens, before you pass this rule you must destroy the Temple of Pity.’

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Those pagans who objected to the gladiatorial bloodletting did so largely on the grounds that they corrupted those who watched them. The Christians had a different religion and a different way of looking at humanity. Christ specifically cared for people who were despised by society or were outcasts. He taught that respect and charity should be given to all humans. The first Christian openly to denounce the slaughter in the arena was Tertullian, a writer from North Africa who practised as a lawyer in Rome before being converted to Christianity and returning to his home town to work as a preacher. He roundly condemned the games, writing `he who shudders at the body of a fellow man who died a natural death common to all will, in the amphitheatre, gaze down with the most tolerant eyes on the bodies of men mangled, torn to pieces and defiled. Yes and he who comes to the spectacle to signify his approval of murder being punished will have a reluctant gladiator hounded on with lash and rod to do more murder.’ Even so the main thrust of Tertullian’s writing was that the games should be banned because of the effect they had on the watching crowds rather than because of the cruelty of what went on in the arena.

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Even the great Christian Augustine of Hippo was more worried about the effect the games had on the viewer than on the hapless men dying in the sand. He wrote about a young friend of his named Alypius who went to Rome to study law. One day this virtuous young Christian met some pagan friends in the street after lunch. They were off to the Colosseum to watch a gladiatorial combat and invited Alypius to join them. He refused, but they dragged him off with them anyway. Alypius declared ‘You can drag my body there, but don’t imagine that you can make me watch. Though I shall be there, I shall not be there. In this way I shall have the better of you and of your show.’ The group of friends found seats, but Alypius sat with his eyes firmly shut. Augustine takes up the story:

In the course of the fight a man fell and there was a great roar from the vast crowd of spectators which struck his ears. He was overcome by curiosity and opened his eyes, perfectly prepared to treat whatever he might see with scorn. He saw the blood and he gulped down savagery. Far from turning away, he fixed his eyes on it. Without knowing what was happening, he drank in madness, he was delighted with the contest, drunk with the lust of blood. He was no longer the man who had come there, but was one of the mob. He was a true companion to those who had brought him. There is little more to be said. He looked, he shouted, he raved. He took away with him madness which would goad him to come back again and again. And he would not only come with those who first got him there, but would drag others with him.

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It is interesting to note what Augustine says about the effect all this had on young Alypius. ‘He received in his soul a worse wound than the gladiator had received in his body. His own fall was more wretched than that of the man which had caused all the shouting that caused him to open his eyes and so made an opening of for the thrust which was to overpower his soul.’ Augustine is still more worried about how a good Christian can be led astray than by the suffering of the pagan gladiator.

Whatever their motives and no matter how strongly they disapproved of the munera, Christian writers were powerless in the face of official government support for the bloodshed. That changed in the early fourth century when Constantine the Great became Emperor. Constantine was declared emperor in AD 306, but it was not until AD 324 that he gained control of the entire empire, having defeated his rivals. Although a pagan at this time, Constantine was supportive of the Christian church and recognized its growing power and influence in his empire. One of his first acts was to summon a great council of Christian bishops at Nicaea to sort out various doctrinal disputes that were causing troubles within the Church. The most famous result of this council was the Nicaean Creed, still repeated in Christian churches around the world. A less familiar result was the Edict of Berytus (Beirut) issued by Constantine.

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The Edict of Berytus was concerned with the punishment of criminals. Among the provisions was the stipulation that magistrates must no longer send convicted criminals to serve as gladiators. Instead they were to be sent to work as slave labour in the mines. The conditions in the mines were frightful and death rates high, so leniency was probably not the motivation. The key to the new instruction is that the Edict also forbade the holding of gladiatorial games altogether. This order was undoubtedly issued under the influence of the Christian council. However as soon as the bishops had dispersed, Constantine was granting exemptions to various towns and cities, allowing them to continue to hold munera. In any case, the order never applied in Rome itself.

After Constantine’s death in AD 337 many of his laws were ignored, the Edict of Berytus among them. By AD 357 the games were flourishing again across the Empire. In that year the Emperor Constantius II issued a military order forbidding serving soldiers from taking any part at all in gladiatorial games, including acting in their traditional role as guards. Clearly official disapproval of the games was growing, but just as clearly they were continuing to be held. Meanwhile, in AD 366, the new Pope Damasus I intervened in a most unlikely fashion. The papal election held on the death of Liberius was hotly contested between Damasus and Ursinus, who had been secretary to Liberius.

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Damasus won a majority, but Ursinus got to the Church first and had himself crowned as Pope before barricading himself inside the Julian Basilica along with his supporters. Damasus then rounded up his backers and marched off to the gladiatorial training school near the Colosseum. There he hired the gladiators and sent them to the basilica to oust Ursinus. The gladiators were, of course, good at such work. They killed 137 people and Ursinus fled, leaving Damasus as undisputed Pope. The idea of gladiatorial contests as a suitable public entertainment was, however, slowly fading. The practice died in the eastern provinces first. They had never been as popular in the Greek-speaking part of the empire as in the Latin-speaking west. The idea of the gladiator had developed in Rome and spread out from there, now it was shrinking back. The last known gladiatorial munus in the Eastern provinces was held in Antioch in AD 392. In Rome the games persisted unabated. It was in the 360s that Augustine’s friend Alypius was studying in Rome. In AD 404 came what is recognized as a seminal event. A munus was taking place in the Colosseum. The fight between a pair of gladiators had been announced and they had taken their places in the arena when there was a sudden commotion. Scrambling down the sheer wall from the seating areas was a Christian monk, later discovered to be Telemachus from Asia Minor.

The monk ran towards the gladiators to remonstrate with them on the subject of Christian brotherly love. He was intercepted by one of the attendants. Then a section of the crowd followed the monk into the arena and fighting broke out, leading to a riot in which Telemachus was one of the fatal victims. The Emperor at the time was the devoutly Christian Honorius, then not yet twenty years old. Appalled by the death of a saintly monk, Honorius banned the gladiatorial games in Rome. They clearly continued elsewhere, however, for after the Emperor’s death in AD 423 the new ruler, Valentinian III allowed the games back to the Colosseum. By this date the barbarians were raging through the empire and keeping a precise chronology of consuls and their works was a low priority. Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths in AD 410, the Vandals were in Spain and the Germans were looting Gaul.

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Amid this chaos one consul held a gladiatorial games some time in the later 420s, and had a celebratory medal struck to commemorate the event. Another consul had a similar medal struck in the 430s and we have a vague record of gladiatorial games being fought in Rome in the 440s. By this date the Roman Empire was in terminal decline. The Eastern Provinces had their own Emperor in Constantinople, now Istanbul, and the barbarians had carved up the Western Provinces between them. The title of Emperor of Rome was little more than a bauble to legitimize the naked military power of whichever barbarian king could grab it. In such circumstances nobody any longer had the power or the inclination to hold gladiatorial games. The Roman mob no longer had any real say in how power was distributed or maintained, so there was little point in buying their support. In any case, the bloodthirsty fights were no longer as popular as they had been. The city was becoming increasingly Christian and the Church was doing its best to ban the bloodletting. Some time after AD 440 the gladiatorial games stopped altogether.

from The Age of the Gladiators by Rupert Matthews