03/04/2009 04:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Roots of Anti-Liberalism: Part II

(see previous essay in this series)

In the midst of the ancient city of Rome, between the Aventine and the Palatine hills, the Circus Maximus (expanded by Caesar in 50 BC) could seat 250,000 people, or about a quarter of the population. The Circus was used most often for races, but also for lavish spectacles involving reenactments of myths and military triumphs, mock battles that included mass killing of condemned captives, criminals, and other dangerous people (noxii).

If the Circus Maximus could hold a quarter of the population of Rome, we can assume there was a need for that much seating--that a substantial fraction of the Roman population were spectators at the various and frequent spectacles. The Flavian amphitheatre (Colosseum), the usual arena for frequent whole days of gladiator fighting and non-gladiator human death by sword and beast, seated 80,000 people with plenty of standing room available. Roman arena spectacles were not productions before sparse audiences.

Seating was arranged according to social class, with all seats for the lower classes free and unreserved. On the night before a spectacle, it was common to find people sleeping outside the Colosseum to be assured a seat in the morning. The city of Rome had, in effect, a widely advertised Superbowl production approximately twice a week all year long. No leisure activity in the city offered serious competition to the death "games" in the arena. It's reasonable for us to assume (and it's confirmed by Roman contemporaries such as Seneca) that the audience seated and standing around the arena did not cringe at the blood and gore and human death on the sand. The question is why?

The catalog of Roman spectacles of torture and murder seems limited only by the technology available at the time. If the Romans had had machine guns, the guns would probably have been used to slaughter hordes of scrambling defenseless men, women, and children condemned to death--slaughter for the entertainment of the cheering crowds. Or maybe the condemned would have been offered slingshots and stones to use against the barrages of bullets. Instead the primary instruments of torture and death were professional human killers, wild carnivorous animals, and in a mockery of justice, victim pitted against victim to kill or be killed, and if not killed in one round, to be killed in the next round, until one victim remained to be finally decapitated by a gladiator.

Four main categories of outcasts were killed in the arena: criminals, traitors, prisoners of war, and heretics. Rome's corrupt and arbitrary judicial system during the Empire could turn an innocent into an outcast without any fuss. The Emperor could condemn anyone with a flick of his finger, although so-called "citizens" were usually decapitated and not sent to the arena for public execution.

As arena spectacles of death increased in size and frequency, the procurement and transport from the provinces of outcasts for slaughter in the arena burgeoned into a profitable industry.

For the ordinary people of Rome, the spectacles were free and the major form of public entertainment. The usual spectacle began at dawn and lasted until dusk, bodies of dead humans and animals continually dragged out of the arena by ropes and hooks. Animal meat was apparently distributed to the poor (approximately one-fifth of the population was on the dole), but human bodies were thrown into the Tiber to be carried by the river current to the sea.

Nearly every historian who studies ancient Rome agrees that for the audience seated and standing around the arena the spectacles of death were entertainments rather than lessons in morality or bravery or demonstrations of the consequences of political dissent. The political objective of public punishment and death might have been to produce fear of dissent and law-breaking in order to control the populace, but the audience that actually came to the arena came to be entertained and not to be instructed. The senators and other members of the ruling class did not need instructions about the importance of not defying the social order. Neither the upper classes nor the lower classes needed to come to the arena to know that any confrontation with the social order might lead to severe punishment or death. Romans came to the arena by the many thousands, day after day, to witness torture and death, to be entertained, to enjoy spectacles of death both elaborate and awesome.

Most of the victims killed in the arena were not gladiators; they were criminals, slaves, war captives, herded from all parts of the empire to Rome. After about 150 AD, many of those killed in the arena were Christians, but they continued to be far outnumbered by pagans. Throughout the empire, local officials supplemented their income by selling local condemned people to procurers to be shipped to Rome to have their death entertain Roman spectators. The shipping of animals and condemned people to the Roman arena was a business throughout the Mediterranean world.

Some historians claim that whatever the origins of the Roman blood sports, the victims were always seen as worthy of punishment. Always? A father might legally find a son disobedient, sell the son as a slave, the slave-son might rebel against his new master and soon find himself facing the beasts in the arena. Or, as noted in the Satyricon, we have the example of the tutor of Glycon discovered by his master pleasuring his master's wife. The satirist Petronius fumed at the injustice: "Is it the slave's fault that he is forced to act thus? It is rather that old sh*t-bag who deserves to be tossed on the bull's horns."

Most Romans knew enough about the way victims were accused, condemned, and procured to understand that among the condemned were people innocent of serious crime. This was especially true for victims condemned for alleged political crimes, condemned often by imperial whim or by fraudulent trial before some government official. Did it matter? In the midst of a cheering mob in an amphitheatre, apparently nothing much mattered except the entertainment of murderous violence on the sand.

The full story of Roman gladiators is not necessary here. Our focus is the audience and the spectacle of death. Gladiator combats began and continued as a form of human sacrifice, first following the funeral rites of a dignitary, later as productions by wealthy patrons or emperors to entertain the populace. From the beginning, the idea was that all gladiators would eliminate each other in a blood bath of human sacrifice. Poetic interpretations and analysis of honor, bravery, and fidelity to the gladiator oath of service to death may have rationalized the lethal ritual, but stripped of embellishment the purpose remained: the idea was violent death of outcasts as public spectacle for both the mob and those in power.

Over a span of more than 600 years, until the 5th century AD, gladiator combat was the most popular public event in Rome. Sponsored by private families or politicians, gladiator combats became an important means of publicity for ambitious individuals. Julius Caesar once offered the public the spectacle of 300 pairs of gladiators in terminal combat to the death. Later, during the Empire, nearly all spectacles of death in Rome were controlled and scheduled by the Emperor. The Emperor Augustus produced an average of 600 pairs of gladiators for each spectacle. The Emperor Trajan offered 10,000 men in mortal combat. Construction of the enormous Colosseum, the permanent Roman arena for gladiators and other spectacles, was begun at the end of the 1st century AD, travertine hauled from a quarry outside Rome on a special new road built by 30,000 Jewish prisoners.

Spectacles of death in the city of Rome were more than local affairs. Events were advertised by placards on all the main roads leading into Rome, and "the rich left their country houses and the peasants their flocks" to travel to the city on the day before the spectacle, an eager mob awaited by a horde of thieves.

The arena, the blood and death on the sand, were not some minor diversion for the population of Rome and its surroundings: they were a central focus for all levels of society. Although mass entertainments are popular in nearly all societies, the important question for us is why the Romans hurried to fill the arena for this type of entertainment? Why this lust for human blood and death and meat on the sand? Where did it come from? What set of circumstances produced it? Evolution? The ancient Romans were too heterogeneous, many ethnic groups from all over the Mediterranean. Whatever it was that produced the intense callousness and lust for human carnage in ancient Rome had not existed in ancient Greece and did not exist in later centuries. Evolution of the ancient Romans along a special path is highly unlikely. So what was it?

(to be continued)