Death, Spectacle, and Entertainment: From the Colosseum to Hollywood


In the modern era, when people think of entertainment, their minds tend to veer towards streaming platforms, multi-million dollar companies pumping out show after show to the masses, apps specifically designed for content creation. On the whole, while certainly hyper-capitalized and increasingly monetized in society today, the fundamentals of entertainment have not changed overmuch through the centuries: every civilization throughout history has possessed some mode of public spectacle to thrill and entice the populace. In twenty-first century America, that mode is reality television; in Ancient Rome, that mode was the Colosseum.

Construction of the Colosseum began between C.E. 70 and C.E. 72 under the Roman Emperor Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty. In the aftermath of the Siege of Jerusalem, Rome pillaged the Second Temple of the Jewish people and used the spoils to fund the Colosseum, then known as the Flavian Amphitheater. Construction lasted until after Vespasian’s death and was completed by his successor in C.E. 80, at which point it was officially inaugurated; the first games involved the killing of over 9,000 wild animals, thought by some to be Emperor Titus’ attempt to appease the gods for the turbulent first months of his reign.

Games in the Colosseum followed the general structure of other public sports in Rome: animal entertainment in the morning, criminal executions around midday, and gladiatorial combat in the afternoon. The animal entertainment was intended to be exotic and shocking, due to the fact that many thousands of unusual creatures—such as giraffes, ostriches, and crocodiles—would be imported and then slain before a crowd of hundreds. The noontide executions, however, were meant to be a recess of sorts between sessions, and it was custom for the elite and the Emperor to use this time to dine and socialize before returning for the afternoon session. The afternoon sessions were the most varied and creative, involving anything from a one-on-one duel to massive reenactments of sea battles, sometimes even flooding the arena with water to accentuate the performances.

Although the Colosseum was not the first amphitheater to display gladiator battles in this way, it was by far the largest and most extravagant entertainment in the empire, and it was a cornerstone of Roman entertainment. Similar to some modern entertainment, it was not free to attend, though the price of admission varied drastically depending on any number of factors—memorably, Emperor Commodus would charge the city of Rome a million sesterces (roughly equivalent to five million USD) every time he fought in the Colosseum, which was frequently, massively straining the economy. It should be noted that Commodus was an aberration for his gladiator matches, as it was considered disgraceful and scandalous for an Emperor to lower himself to the level of a secutor. The vast majority of gladiators were slaves, with a minority being volunteers, but Romans of noble classes participating in the grimy and bloody scrapping of the Colosseum was virtually unheard of.

Gladiator battles were highly advertised events. Billboards would be strung up around the city for days beforehand, detailing the venue, the date, the names of the competitors, and highlighted features, which included any luxuries that would be provided to spectators, somewhat like a baseball or football game. Food, drink, sweets, water sprinklers, and shade were all enticing aspects of Colosseum games.

Gladiators were the modern-day equivalents of TV stars fused with celebrity athletes, right down to the parasocial relationships. They had sponsors and trainers who would promote their image for money, drawing in voters who would pay to support the gladiator in the arena. Romans had darlings and scapegoats among competitors and would cry out either encouragements or disparagements during matches depending on how the tides were turning; the attitude of the crowd during games was capricious, liable to change on a whim if a gladiator failed to live up to expectations. These whims often determined whether a competitor lived or died. Victory was signaled by the defeat or death of an opponent, and a typical victor would be awarded with money or laurel crowns, but for those victors who had originally been condemned slaves, the greatest boon was emancipation and retirement, called rudis. Sometimes, if two gladiators fought equally well, both could be acknowledged as victors and granted rudis, as described in the match between gladiators Priscus and Verus. If a gladiator wished to express surrender, he could raise a finger to signal to the editor that he was defeated; the editor would then ask for the crowd’s verdict, and display his verdict with pollice verso—a hand gesture that has proven too vague in phrasing for scholars to decisively agree upon. This is where the “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” signal in modern media about Ancient Rome came from.

The sparing of a defeated gladiator’s life was called missio. When missio was not granted, the gladiator would be killed. It was considered a combatant’s prerogative to fight well and die well, and to die well, a gladiator could not cry out or beg for mercy, which was considered disgraceful. In this way, a “good death” could redeem a gladiator from the dishonorable passivity of surrender.

In the end, although gladiator battles in the Colosseum remained popular for hundreds of years, the rise of Christianity in the empire eventually snuffed them out, and by the fourth century CE the infamous gladiator trials of the Colosseum had ceased. However, popular fascination with the Colosseum and Roman games endures, with dozens of Hollywood movies portraying the plights of centurions and gladiators in the arena—although, the historical accuracy of these films leaves much to be desired.

Western culture’s preoccupation with the brutal practices of Ancient Rome has become a form of entertainment in and of itself. Though modern media trends towards the detached and sanitized, the spirit of the Colosseum lingers in people’s hyperfixation on the sordid lives of celebrities, the swift axe blow of cancel culture, and widespread obsession with drama on the national stage. In this way, bloody internet feuds become synonymous with slaughtering a hundred lions in a day, and pop stars are found eerily reminiscent of Emperor Commodus, flaunting his bloodlust before the horrified Senate—megalomaniacal.

Categories: Entertainment

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