The Roman Games descended from the Greek, whose inspiration had been religious, international and pacific. They had begun at Olympia in 776 BC and lasted unchanged for 1,000 years until banned by the spoilsport Christian Emperor Theodosius. The winning athletes won only token awards but, sneered Cicero, were more celebrated in Greece than were victorious generals. Roman Games, though attended by a whiff of religion and originally featuring athletic events like the foot-race, javelin throwing and the pentathlon, developed along quite different lines, becoming bloody, political and expensive. In our period, they included fights to the death between every kind of wild beast, between men (criminals and, later, Christians) and beasts, and, of course, between men and men – gladiators, professional killers.

The passionate entertainment of Romans was the chariot race where, although accidents did occasionally happen – to a too-successful jockey just before a big race – death had no part. The chariot race was essentially Roman. Romulus and Co. raped the Sabine women in a hippodrome at races in honour of an ancient rural deity, Consus, and throughout the history of the Roman Empire there were annual games called the Consualia. In the end there were at least fifty circuses in the Empire and they are still being unearthed. The largest was the Circus Maximus, where the Great Fire started, in a boutique, in AD 64; it was rebuilt by the Emperors Domitian and Trajan to seat 150,000 spectators, becoming the model (with dimensions of 640 by 190 metres) for circuses throughout Europe. They can be seen, or bits of them, at Arles, Vienne, Trier, Antioch (which held 80,000 and where the film Ben Hur was shot) and Carthage. Private circuses were built by the rich, like nine-hole golf courses, for their friends. The younger Pliny had one on his Tuscany estate.

The centre of the Circus Maximus was used for the exhibition of trophies and prisoners-of-war, works of art and spectacular loot, like artefacts from Karnak (cf. Cleopatra’s Needle in London or the lions in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice). Nothing was too grand for the greatest display of power, speed and danger in Rome, relished and anticipated with excitement by all ranks – slaves, freedmen, citizens, knights, senators and the Emperor and his friends. Everyone could sit and free seats were allocated for the poor. Caligula complained about being kept awake by the noise of the common people claiming their places in the middle of the night before the Games next morning – so much more fun than Wimbledon.

The charioteers were beloved and imitated. Children played with chariot toys, like they play with the models of cars sold all over the world today. Later they rode in carts drawn by sheep or donkeys, pretending to be charioteers, like Caligula and Nero, a contemporary of the dreaded Boadicea, ‘married’ one at a famous orgy. They were of modest origin, sometimes slaves, but were admired like Nigel Mansell and Sir Lester Piggott rolled into one, and they made, relatively, much more money (tax free). One called Diolus, with 1,462 wins, made 36 million sesterces, say £15m in today’s money; another, Scorpus, subject of an epigram by Martial,17 was given fifteen sacks of gold in an hour. The chariots were divided into teams, White and Red, then subdivided into Green and Blue. Romans and their Emperors were intensely partisan for their favourite teams: Caligula lunched with the Greens, Caracalla had the jockey of a rival team murdered.

The horses – two, rarely three and, in a quadriga like the bronze on top of the arch by Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner, four – bred, and trained until they were five years old, in studs in Cappadocia, Sicily, Spain and North Africa, were also famous, and the judgement of the animal on the inside left of a quadriga was crucial when it came to cutting corners. There was no time for pit stops, so slaves threw buckets of cold water on the overheated axles of the chariots when they turned. By the time of Caligula, when spectators could watch and bet on twenty-four heats in a day, the four chariots circulated fourteen times, covering about five miles, so the axles must have got quite hot.

No statistic could be produced to show the number of Spaniards who go home after a bullfight and do not beat up their wives, but we do not have to be psychologists to understand the catharsis, the soothing of the savage breast, induced after hours of witnessing the bloody deaths of animals or human beings, a fortiori the crueller, the more protracted, the more ritualized. Julius Caesar invented the bullfight as another course in the sadistic banquet of the Roman Games. Oddly, he exhibited indifference, at the height of his power, when he attended the Games, publicly looking through his papers instead of down at the gore below, attracting the kind of comment which a prime minister might if he were to be seen glued to his despatch box at a Cup Final at Wembley. However he did understand, as a young man on the political make, the brownie points to be scored by paying for gladiators. As an aedile, the first office on the political ladder, he showed off (borrowing the money from Crassus) by fielding 300 pairs. Gladiators also doubled as bodyguards and were used by Caesar’s buddy and fixer, Clodius, for the political and gang warfare which marked the last years of the Republic and made Romans more easily accept the discipline imposed by Augustus.

Gladiators, who had performed originally as part of a funeral offering from a pious son in memory of his parent, had become so significant that there was even a profession, auctoreamentus gladiatorium, and the trainer, the lanista, of gladiators (a synonym in Etruscan for butcher or executioner) could become rich and powerful, though never socially acceptable; for though Romans, ‘from first to last spectators, and not, like the Greeks at their best, actors’, hugely enjoyed the combat, they were not proud of their gladiators. None, for instance, ever figured on a coin. They were, however, admired, and lovesick tributes have been found on the walls of Pompeii. Occasionally, like the pugs in eighteenth-century England, they survived, and have been caricatured limping through the salons of older and voracious Roman ladies, with their rheumy eyes, scarred bodies and missing ears, objects of contempt, not compassion.

Pliny was bored by the Games; Cicero was in favour, with reservations; Claudius, a gibbering, snivelling weakling, but, as we shall see, immensely cunning, adored them as much as the most voyeuristic of his subjects; Caligula was obsessed by gladiators and once fought an opponent armed with a wooden sword, only to despatch him in due course with a real one. Only Seneca protested.

Here is a well-known extract from one of his letters:

I’ve happened to drop in upon the midday entertainment of the arena in hope of some milder diversions, a spice of comedy, a touch of the relief in which men’s eyes may find rest after a glut of human blood. No, no, far from it. All the previous fighting was mere softness of heart. Away with such bagatelles: now for butchery pure and simple! The combatants have nothing to protect them: their bodies are utterly open to every blow, never a thrust but finds its mark. Most people prefer this kind of thing to all other matches, whether part of the programme or by special request. Naturally so. The sword is not checked by helmet or shield. What good is armour? What good is swordsmanship? All these things only put off death a little. In the morning men are matched with lions and bears, at noon with their spectators. These pit butcher actual against butcher prospectively and reserve the winner for another bloody bout, death is the fighters’ only exit. ‘But this, that, or the other fellow has committed highway robbery!’ Well? ‘And murder!’ As a murderer, then he deserved what he’s getting: what’s your crime, unlucky creature, that you should watch it? ‘Kill! Flog! Burn! Why does he jib at cold steel? Why boggle at killing? Why die so squeamishly?’ The lash forces them on to the sword. ‘Let them have at each other in the nude – get in at the bare chest!’ There’s an interval in the display. ‘Cut a few throats meanwhile to keep things going!’ Come now, can’t you people see even this much – that bad examples recoil on those who set them?

The joy in cruelty, the cruel joy wafting up from this hostile telling of the Romans at play, shows that the crowd was sadistic, like many crowds, though that concept, with its sexual undertones and subsequent possible feelings of guilt, would have been, like masochism, unknown. The Roman lust for blood was equally uncomplicated and prodigious. Tigers and lions were first introduced to the arena in 184 BC and were an instant hit. Cicero wrote that the ‘wild beasts were magnificent’, though he noticed the crowd felt sympathy towards the elephant. Respect for wild animals is a very modern phenomenon and the Romans felt none. There were, after all, in the Empire, plenty more lions, tigers, bears, ostriches, and even crocodiles, where they came from. They cost a lot to assemble and were only offered at munera – the extravagant shows mounted by grandees like Pompey and Agrippa and, of course, the Emperors – as opposed to the ludi, attended daily by Caligula,18 where deaths were only human. (These, especially the sea battles, when thousands fought to the end on artificial water, could mount up and yield a satisfying glut of blood.)

The Roman Games, beginning as pious memorials, ended in an impious killing, when a (subsequent) Christian martyr, a monk called Telemachus, endeavoured to interpose himself between two gladiators in the year AD 402. The presiding praetor, who had probably paid for the event, had him instantly despatched, but when the current Emperor, Honorius, heard of this unhappy interruption, as it might have been represented, he banned the Games and they were never revived.

The elected officials – the aediles, quaestors and praetors who ran Rome and the Empire – were obliged to pay for the Games and were voted money by the treasury, but if they did not double it they could be accused of embezzlement – a very Roman arrangement. The Games were as significant a feature of Roman life for high and low as the baths, the aqueduct (which the poor would illegally tap into) and the dole. Citizens used the occasions to voice with impunity their grievances to officials and to the Emperor. Everyone knew how much they cost and who had paid what. The public of the Games was the public of the electors, and friends of a young aedile on the first rung of the political ladder would stump up so that their chum could put on a good show.

Finally; many Roman citizens had no regular employment and spent their day gossiping, cadging, watching trials and so on – all, unless they were rich, outside and not in the dirty, smelly tenements where they slept. Since holidays increased from two months at the beginning of the Empire to three under Tiberius, four in the second century and six in the late Empire, there could have been no better way of passing the time than attending the Games.

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