by Doug Ward

NOVEMBER 2008-The great popularity of the ancient Roman games is well known. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Emperor or a wealthy private citizen, a spectator at the Colosseum was treated to an action-packed tripleheader. In the morning there were hunts, with men hunting animals or animals fighting against each other. In the middle of the day there were executions of criminals or political prisoners, sometimes carried out by animals. The headline attraction, gladiatorial combat, took place in the afternoon.


The body count after a day at the arena was often very high. It has been estimated that in the first century AD, the loser in a gladiatorial fight lost his life about twenty five per cent of the time. By the third century, this figure is thought to have risen to about fifty per cent. These estimates are based on limited data, but they seem to suggest that the public's thirst for violence escalated over time.1


Because of the blatant disregard for life exhibited at these events, the games were condemned by both Jews and Christians.2 One scripture cited by both groups as an admonition to avoid such entertainment was Psalm 1:1-2:


"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night."


If anything qualified as a "seat of the scornful", they reasoned, it was a seat in the amphitheater. At the very least, attendance at the games caused a person's thoughts to stray far from meditation on the ways of God.3


Jewish oral law allowed two exceptions to the prohibition on attendance at the games. An Israelite could attend for the purpose of arguing that the life of a fallen gladiator be spared, or to be able to testify on behalf of a dead gladiator's widow so that the widow would be allowed to remarry. These exceptions were accompanied by the stipulation that the attendee not get caught up in the spirit of the event.4


However, being "at the arena but not of it" was much easier said than done. In Book 6 of his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells the story of his young friend Alypius, who goes to Rome to study law. At one point Alypius allows himself to be dragged to the amphitheater by some classmates. Though confident in his ability to resist the allure of the games, Alypius is completely carried away by the action and becomes an ardent fan of the gladiatorial battles.


Alypius was not alone. As Rome conquered more territory, the cities in its provinces quickly began to build amphitheaters and stage events modeled after the ones in Rome. By the third century AD there were over 200 amphitheaters around the empire.5 There was something truly contagious about the arena.


A Historical and Psychological Study

How can we account for the tremendous popularity of the Roman games? One scholar who has investigated this question is Prof. Garrett G. Fagan of Penn State University. Fagan has recently completed a book manuscript on the crowd dynamics of the Roman arena, drawing upon a combination of ancient historical and archaeological evidence and modern psychological studies of group behavior. He summarized his findings in an Archaeological Institute of America lecture at Miami University on November 11, 2008.


Professor Fagan explained that the highly organized seating arrangements in the amphitheater enhanced the experience of the spectators. Following a ruling made by the Emperor Augustus in 19 BC, spectators were grouped in specific sections of the arena according to factors like social class, age, gender, livelihood, and native region. Government officials and nobility were given the best seats, while people from lower social classes sat further away from the action. Being seated with one's peer group enhanced a spectator's sense of identity and connectedness with that group.


The action at the arena also would have helped the various groups of spectators in the crowd to bond together. One can imagine a group cheering together for a particular gladiator or calling in unison for the punishment of some criminal. The level of excitement was raised further by musicians who provided instrumental accompaniment to the proceedings, accentuating key junctures in the battles.


At the amphitheater the spectators were treated like "lords for a day" by the sponsors of the games. The sponsor might ask the crowd's opinion on whether an exceptional performance in the arena was deserving of a monetary reward. At the end of a gladiatorial battle, the crowd gave its "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to indicate whether the life of the loser should be spared. For a brief period the spectators at the games were in a position of power.


Fagan's description of the crowd's experience at the Roman games helps us account for the addictive popularity of these events. It also invites comparison with today's spectator sports. At today's arenas and stadiums, crowds do not come to watch executions or battles to the death, and they are not granted power over the lives of the athletes. Seating is based on ticket prices rather than strict social class distinctions. However, there are also plenty of similarities between ancient and modern sporting events. Our sports are rarely deadly but often violent, and the violence is part of the attraction for some spectators. Music and other devices are used to raise the level of excitement, and crowds often behave badly.


In a large stadium crowd, there will often be someone holding up a sign bearing the message "John 3:16." Perhaps some "Psalm 1:1-2" signs would also be appropriate.


1See Fik Meijer, The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport, translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2005, p. 61.

2For further discussion of Christian opposition to the games and abuse of animals at the arena, see the article "Exotic Animals for the Roman Arena" in Issue 21 of Grace & Knowledge.

3For an example of Christian application of Psalm 1:1-2 to Roman entertainment see Tertullian, De Spectaculis 3. The Babylonian Talmud addresses this subject in tractate Abodah Zarah 18b.

4See the Tosefta, Abodah Zarah 2.7; or the Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 18b.

5Meijer, p. 118.




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On 18 Nov 2008, 11:20.