Stephanie's Reviews > Emperors and Gladiators

Emperors and Gladiators by Thomas Wiedemann
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's review
Mar 16, 09

bookshelves: history
Recommended for: anyone interested in ancient history
Read in March, 2009, read count: 1

** spoiler alert ** (I edited down a book review I wrote for class)

Thomas Wiedemann’s Emperors and Gladiators is an exploration of the relationship between emperors, the Roman people, and the cultural ideas of gladiators and the games they took part in.

Gladiators were considered part of the non-citizen underclass in Rome, or the infamia. (29) However, Roman society placed an emphasis on virtus, or excellent military skill in the realm of hand-to-hand combat. (35-36) It was by proving their virtus that a gladiator was spared from death by the Roman people. The military experience proved to be the common ground of the Roman empire, which was mixed with many different cultures. (40)

The fighting of wild beasts and the execution of criminals were also a part of the Roman spectacles, taking place before the gladiatorial games. (55) As time went on, nobles continued to slaughter greater numbers of beasts to top the previous display. (60) Later, emphasis was placed on novelty in the shows, such as interesting combinations of animals fighting one another. (61)

Wiedemann then discusses the execution of criminals at these spectacles. Decapitation was reserved for the nobility, while others were burnt to death or torn apart by the beasts. (69) There were many acts of martyrdom in these spectacles as well. Criminals would be made to act out Greek/Roman myths that were distorted to fit their crime (83-84); whole masses of prisoners would be killed reenacting battles. (89) Wiedemann emphasizes the theatrical nature of these executions.

The gladiators were seen as a disgraceful underclass, but one that had the privilege of fighting to win their lives back. (104) Wiedemann notes that these war captives were not seen as any different from criminals, since to be rebellious against the Roman empire was seen as a crime in and of itself. (103) Wiedemann explains the intricacies of gladiator life, including sub-divisions of gladiators, family life, and career gladiators. (118, 115, 122)

Wiedemann then explores the opposition and eventual abolition of the gladiatorial games. He blames selective scholarliness for false suppositions about opposition that existed in ancient times. (129) There were many practical concerns that may have led to the abolition of the games, such as the dangers to the audience and burglaries that could occur. (131) Financial concerns were another problem as such expensive displays became increasingly funded by the state. (135)

Even the Christians had other motives for disliking the games that Wiedemann maintains were not humanitarian in nature. Augustine was concerned about the psychological damage that exposure to violence did to the Christian soul. (148) It was not the gladiators that the Christians were worried about, it was the on-lookers.

Wiedemann also explores the possibility that the Christians had a problem with the symbolic resurrection that the Roman people gave the gladiators. (155) He expresses the theory that the Christians did not need gladiatorial games in this way, since they possessed the symbols of baptism and penance as a way to be reentered in society. (160)

In his conclusion, Wiedemann shows how gladiatorial munus were ways in which the Roman people expressed their political approval and disapproval. (166) Emperors were expected to attend these events when they were in the city, and it gave the people a chance to express their opinions and pressure the imperial leader. (169-171)

The author's thesis is to show how the gladiatorial games were a part of Roman culture expressed desire to control life and death, and power, law and order. This theme is echoed in the placement of the amphitheatres on the periphery of the cities, as Wiedemann sees it symbolically symbolizing the place where civilization met barbarism, death met rebirth. (46-47)

Wiedemann describes the spectacles as a way to showcase power. In the beginning, it showed the power of the deceased man whose honor the games were in. (5-6) As the munus evolved, it became a testament to the power of the important men who sponsored such events, and in the end the state. (11) It was also a way to maintain the different castes in society. Though the gladiators were powerful fighters and warriors, their status in society was the same as a common prostitute. (29) Wiedemann maintains that it was essential for Roman society to see them this way. The games served to unite Romans; to define who was “in” and who was “outside” society. While the gladiators were admired for their virtus and military skill, their position as outsiders was necessary to maintain order. Wiedemann notes that it was military skill and these games that united the Roman empire, who had previously been groups of people with no common ground. (40) The gladiators could be venerated for their skill, and even spared their life because of it. However, the “outsider” role of the gladiator was key. As criminals and rebels, they had no place in Roman society, therefore death was appropriate.

The same was true of wild beasts. (92) The beasts were considered savage and natural, and therefore had to be dominated. (63) Wiedemann uses a poem from the Greek Anthology, which praises Caesar for the destruction of lions and bringing safety to the Nasamonians, to demonstrate this mindset. (64) The exotic and foreign beasts brought in from conquered areas served to prove not only man’s domination over nature, but the state’s control over the world. (65)

Wiedemann emphasizes the games’ importance to Roman culture as a symbol of life and dealth, also. The games originated out of the funeral munus, and served to preserve the memory of the deceased; almost, to bring him, or his status, back to life. (15) The first occasion of this is seen in 264 B.C. at the funeral of Junius Brutus Pera. (5) The gladiators were also a symbol of life and death, since one could, through military skill, potentially win back his life by the Roman peoples approval even if he had lost. (35)

It was this theme of exoneration and rebirth into society that Wiedemann sees as its eventual downfall in the face of Christianity, not morality. The Roman people were able to “bestow life” and “condemn to death.” (167) Wiedemann can dismiss ideas such as morality, humanitarian claims, and fear of pagan rituals. When it comes down to the theme of life and death, this gave the Roman people, not the church, symbolic control over it. (160) With baptism and penance being the Christian method of “rebirth”, or rejoining society, there was no need for the symbolism “outside”-ness of the gladiators, the display of virtus as redemption, and the judgment of the Roman people.


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