• This is not sport: it's politics

    Single Issue XVI

    ‘This is not sport: it’s politics.’ How and why did Roman elites in both the republican and imperial periods seek to control the gladiatorial and circus games?

    For the elites of Rome in both the Republican and Imperial periods, the games did not amount to mere entertainment for the masses, but were a tool of control and influence. Through the games, the people of Rome could make their voices heard to the influential elites; whilst up-and-coming politicians could curry favour and attention with the mob by putting on extravagant shows. The ways in which the Roman elites sought to control the games evolved over time, but throughout the republican and imperial periods they were used for propaganda and displays of both the vast power and wealth of Rome.

    The games were always about power, from the first gladiatorial games given as funeral games to honour a family member’s legacy. The first such game to be held in Rome is recorded by Valerius Maximus as having been given in 264BC by two men (one of whom had been a consul) for their deceased father, in which six gladiators fought (cited in Hopkins 1983, p. 4). The power displayed in these games was the power of life and death over these gladiators, with it being posited by the author Tertullian that funeral games involved the shedding of blood as a “service [rendered] to the dead” (Tertullian, de Spectaculis 12). In time, these games grew more and more spectacular as the deaths of influential Romans became an “opportunity to demonstrate [an elite family’s] power and prosperity” (Kohne, Ewigleben & Jackson 2000, p. 11) in being able to host bigger and better games, transforming funeral processions into games of one-upmanship. In 174BC, 90 years after the first display of gladiators at funeral games, four days of games were given in honour of Titus Flaminius, an ex-consul, in addition to a public banquet, artistic performances and bouts between 74 gladiators (Livy, The History of Rome 41.28). In another 109 years, in 64BC, Julius Caesar held funeral games in honour of his father that involved 640 gladiators equipped with armour made of silver (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories 33.16; Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Caesar 5.5). Gradually, the games also became political in nature because of their popularity with the people of Rome (Hopkins 1983), which caused the elites to seek to use the games for their own advantage. An illustrative example is that when political rivals had constructed seating at the location of the games and were hiring them out in 122BC, Gaius Gracchus used his position as tribune of the plebs to take the seating down, in order that the poor could enjoy the games without having to pay for seating (Plutarch, Parallel Lives: G Gracchus 12.3-4). In this way Gracchus could portray himself as the champion of the people, whilst his rivals lost face with the mob.

    The Zliten mosaic, circa. 200 AD

    By the time of the late Republic the games had reached extraordinary levels of ostentatiousness and were magnificent displays of not only an individual’s wealth, but the might and reach of Rome as well. In particular, the introduction of foreign animals that had never before been seen by citizens of Rome; such as lions, panthers, giraffes, hippopotamuses and crocodiles (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories 8; Dio Cassius, Roman History 38, 43); into the games were a direct display of the “military prowess and geographical expansion of Roman influence” (Beacham 1999, p. 12). An elite who was able to pit elephants, infantry and horsemen against each other as Julius Caesar did in 46BC (Dio Cassius, Roman History 43.22); or beast hunts involving 500 lions and 18 elephants as organised by Pompey the Great (Dio Cassius, Roman History 39.38; Pliny the Elder, The Natural History 8.20) was sure to be remembered in the minds of the mob and to be seen as “citizens of status” (Kyle 1998, p. 3). It was through this increasing extravagance that the Roman elites sought to monopolise the games, as only the elites could afford such expensive endeavours or had the connections to procure exotic animals.

    In addition to these self-serving political reasons, it has been suggested by the poet Juvenal that the reason the elites wished to control the games is so that they could placate the mob. In the Republican period, the mob had held the power to bestow “legions, the symbols of power” but by the Imperial period “there are only two things that they ask for / bread and circuses” (Juvenal, Satires 10.78-81). However the games did not always placate the mob, and the people of Rome could exercise power by voicing their grievances at the games, for as Cicero said, “the judgement and wishes of the Roman people about public affairs can be most clearly expressed in three places: public assemblies, elections and at plays or gladiatorial shows” (Cicero, In Defence of Sestius 106). Thus the mob might yell at the host of the games, be they Republican magistrates or imperial emperors, and petition about the high price of corn (Tacitus, The Annals 6.13) or demand the execution of unpopular officials who had abused their power (Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Galba 17.4). From this evidence, it can be argued that the elites made the games more and more spectacular in order to give the mob novel entertainment as a means of placating them and averting potential unruliness.

    The Chariot Race, Alexander von Wagner, 1882

    During the imperial period however, the motivations of the Roman elites for controlling the games had changed, as outlined in the quote by Juvenal above. The mob no longer held power over the elites, and thus control was not sought in order to gain the mob’s vote, but to impress upon them the might of Rome. The games were a perfect venue for disseminating the emperor’s propaganda. During the Emperor Caligula’s reign, Pliny the Elder tells us the wealth of Rome was displayed for all to see via a scaffold that was constructed in the Circus Maximus upon which 124,000 pounds of silver were placed (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories 33.16). This would have been a statement for the mob, fellow elites and visiting dignitaries about the power and wealth that was available to Rome and its emperors. In similar fashion, in 66AD the Emperor Nero covered the entire Theatre of Pompey in a layer of gold for one day in order to impress the Armenian king Tiridates, who had come to Rome to be installed as a puppet king (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories 33.16). In addition to literal representations of the wealth of Rome, emperors would also host long-running games in celebration of military victories. Events such as the Emperor Trajan’s 123 days of games in celebration of the conquest of Dacia, over the course of which 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators fought (Dio Cassius, Roman History 68.15), would have been constant propaganda to Romans of their superiority over their rivals. To the Roman people these displays of wealth and power must have created the sense that Rome was favoured by the gods for how else could the Roman Empire have grown so vast and achieve such victories.

    As was discussed earlier, during the republican period control of the games was sought by the elites as a way of placating the mobs and gaining a political advantage over rivals. During the imperial period however, complete control of the games was sought by the emperors as an attempt to remove the possibility of Roman elites becoming popular with the mob by hosting lavish entertainments. In order to achieve this level of control, Augustus reduced the number of official gladiatorial shows to two per year and restricted their potential for splendour by prohibiting officials from spending more on their games than their rivals had, and by establishing a limit of only 120 gladiators being allowed per game (Dio Cassius, Roman History 54.2). These limitations did not apply to Augustus or his successors however, as seen by Augustus boasting of having hosted eight games in which a total of 10,000 men had fought (Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti 22) or the 100 days of gladiatorial games held by Titus to commemorate the Flavian Amphitheatre, on the third day of which over 3,000 men fought (Dio Cassius, Roman History 66.25). As Tom Holland has said, during the reign of Augustus and his successors the games became even more spectacular than they had previously been but this was at the cost of them being staged solely by the emperor (Holland 2015, p. 267).

    Pollice Verso, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872

    Augustus asserted his control over the games in other ways as well, such as through legislation which allocated specific seating to spectators of public shows depending on their position in the Roman social hierarchy. Suetonius and Dio Cassius relate that senators, equestrians, soldiers, married men, under-age boys and their tutors, women, those in dark cloaks and Vestal Virgins amongst others were covered by this legislation (Suetonius, Augustus 44; Dio Cassius, Roman History 55.22). It can be assumed that this was an attempt by Augustus to preserve the respect owed to senators and equestrians, whilst seeking to enforce social codes of conduct amongst participants. Augustus’ control of the games also served as an opportunity to groom his family for succession. In the inscription of Augustus’ accomplishments it is listed that he gave gladiatorial games and wild beast hunts in the name of his sons and grandsons (Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti 22). By presenting games and ascribing them to his family, Augustus could introduce his sons and grandsons into the public eye and attempt to make their reputation greater than that of other Roman elites who could not host games on the same scale. In this way the games were a chance to refine the heir presumptive, a practice followed by the Praetorian Guard prefect Macro who groomed Caligula for succession by recommending that “what matters when you watch the races in the Circus is not the sport itself, but rather to behave appropriately in the context of the sport” (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 7).

    In conclusion, to the Roman elites the gladiatorial and circus games were not mere sports, but politics. In the republican era by exerting control over the games an elite could make a name for themselves with particularly lavish entertainment which would hopefully be remembered by the mob when they ran for office. In the transition from the Republic to Empire, the control of the games was seized by the emperors who kept a strong hold on it lest potential rivals be born from the adoration of the crowd.

    Primary Sources
    Augustus 1924, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, trans. F Shipley, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    Cicero 1891, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero: In Defence of Sestius, trans. C Yonge, George Bell & Sons, London.
    Dio Cassius 1914-1927, Roman History, trans. E Cary, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    Juvenal 1958, Satires, trans. R Humphries, Indiana University Press, USA.
    Livy 1938, The History of Rome, trans. E Sage & A Schlesinger, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    Pliny the Elder 1855, The Natural History, trans. J Bostock, Taylor and Francis, London.
    Plutarch 1919, Parallel Lives, trans. B Perrin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
    Suetonius 1957, The Twelve Caesars, trans. R Graves, Folio Society, London.
    Tacitus 1942, The Annals, trans. A Church & W Brodribb, Random House Inc., New York.
    Tertullian 1977, de Spectaculis, trans. T R Glover, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    Secondary Sources
    Beacham, R 1999, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, Yale University Press, Connecticut.
    Holland, T 2015, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Little, Brown, Great Britain.
    Hopkins, K 1983, Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
    Kohne, E, Ewigleben, C & Jackson, R 2000, Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, trans. A Bell, University of California Press, Berkeley.
    Kyle, D 1998, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, Routledge, London.
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Pontifex Maximus's Avatar
      Pontifex Maximus -
      What an extremely well cited, detailed, and informative article! As a fellow scholar/researcher of history in this period, I am very happy with the sources provided and the analysis. Well done, a very interesting read!!
    1. Gigantus's Avatar
      Gigantus -
      Prefect Macro did a good job it seems, Caligula certainly 'behaves appropriately in the context' of this well researched article.
    1. Gaius Baltar's Avatar
      Gaius Baltar -
      Great job, very informative article.