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Blood and sand

To study the ancient gladiators helps in understanding our current society

reproductionBread and the circus: this is the emperor of all clichés, used to attack entities from the World Cup to the President of the Republic, a symbol of a people “idiotized” and patronized, who consent to be sold for little. From the right to the left, the image, coming from Roman times, serves as a way of flogging politicians, in the majority of times without the attacker taking into account the disdain to the citizens, hidden in the phrase, stolen from  its context, one of the Satires of the poet Juvenal (67 A.D.-130 A.D.). In order to combat a cliché, there’s nothing better than another (with the forgiveness of the philosopher Santayana, its creator): “Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeating it”. “Taken out of its context, Juvenal’s maxim remits us back to the alluring possibility of seeing the Romans as being uninterested in political events and lovers of easy access pleasures” observed Renata Garraffoni, author of the doctoral thesis entitled, Technique and adroitness in the Roman arenas: an interpretation of the gladiator at the apogee of the empire, defended at Unicamp.

“More than just reinforcing the idea of a taste for bread and circus, sex and violence, it’s necessary to create alternatives for the predominant idea of the masses manipulated by the elite and to underline the distinct forms of social relationships in ancient Rome, which are creative, unique and surprising” she explains. Those who do not directly study the past are condemned to repeating the same foolishness. “The idea of bread and the circus only adds value to only one aspect of the munera (the gladiator games in the arena), which is that of political manipulation. One speaks of indolence, parasites within the State, violence and pleasures, but little is spoken about the day to day happenings of these people who fought, which leads us to think about the limits of these interpretations that imprison the diversity of the subjects, impeding that they be agents of their history” says Renata. The researcher, when speaking of the past, reveals how historians, with the modern vision of the 19th century, showed the Roman population as demoralized and decadent, the “inferior people” who could be controlled at the pleasure of the ruler, since they preferred to watch games rather than to work.

Curiously enough, the same preconception permeates modern critics, who treat the population in the same “idiotized” manner. “In the 19th century, when the German historian Friedländer made use of the catch phrase by Juvenal about panem et circenses in order to analyze the cultural aspect of this society, he did it starting from his experience, or that is to say, in a context of capitalist development in which work was valued to the maximum and idleness presented as a potential threat to the established order” she explained. “In the text itself, he compares the marginalized Romans with the modern ones, revealing more the modern concern with unemployment and the revolt that assaults the cities of that moment rather than the Roman concept in itself.” For Renata, the expression was born from the analysis of an ancient text starting from a bourgeois view, generalizing an ancient satirical image and converting it into an analytical category that was crystallizing itself in historiography as a concept. And, in the minds of many, an eternal image of the people as a “brutalized mass”.

reproductionMosaic with gladiators of Pompeii, 1st century A.D.reproduction

Renata evaluates that at a historic moment in which violence is questioned and taken as something to be extirpated, in which social peace is longed for and the protection of animals and nature creates new lifestyles, to think that, in an era, hundreds of men and animals were killed in arenas causes discomfort in our contemporary world. Paradoxically, what we fell sick about can also serve as a form of identification and stimulus. “In general, the profile of the gladiators does not have any historical foundation, but are inspired in the moral conduct of capitalist society, in which the universalization of contemporary values such as victory, happiness as a consequence of professional realization and financial success predominate, and these are sent back into the past to prove how, since Antiquity, they had already been inherent to the character of man” the historian remembered. Who were they?

The munera had its origin in sacrificial rites to the spirit of the dead for which, it had been believed, it was required to offer blood. They were introduced into Rome, of Etruscan origin, in 264 B.C., when the sons of Junius Brutus honored their dead father with three pairs of gladiators in combat. In 65 B.C., Cesar, in order to pay homage to his father, dead twenty years before, brought together 320 pairs of fighters dressed in silver outfits and did not bring more of them because the Senate condemned the excess. Thus, during the Republic, the games were financed privately and, little by little, the religious significance gave way to an exhibition of riches and power, which aroused an openly political character to the fights. The emperors, perceiving the potential, quickly took upon themselves the exclusivity of organizing the munera, to the point where the poet Tertuliano ironically said about the event “it has gone from paying homage to the dead, to glorifying the living”. Among the fighters there ranged criminal slaves to free men and women, including, many times, noble patricians, senators and emperors.

At first it involved not shameless blood, but the exhibition of honor, of valor, of the gladiator’s capacity to conquer, under conditions of equality, his opponent in a just manner. Nor did all of the jousts lead to death. The researcher related that, on studying tombstones at Pompeii, it was discovered that many of them had died at an advanced age, retired from the arenas. “Contrary to what’s seen in films, the fights were not destined towards the mere diversion of the people, nor was the fight until the death. These spectacles were important in the affirmation of Roman citizenship” revealed the archeologist from USP, Pedro Paulo Funari. “It was always the fight of civilization against barbarism, the human against the animal, the just against the unjust, a public means of showing that society dominates the forces of nature and of social perversion.” At the end of a combat, the loser would take off his helmet and offer his neck to the winner, who, nevertheless, did not have the power of death over him.

“Neither was the decision in the hands of the emperor, but in the multitude, to pay testimony to an act of popular sovereignty that would only have its equivalence, in the modern world, with referendums or plebiscites, in which everyone has a say. If in elections women could not vote, in the arena all (of them) could have their say, a prerogative that modern citizenship would only reach in the 20th century” observed professor Funari. To lower the thumb (which, contrary to common sense, had signified saving the loser, in a movement that imitated the sheathing of the sword) or to raise it pointing towards the throat, indicated that the loser had to be killed) were not mere whims, but obeyed a sense of Roman humanitas, for whom the principal condition to save the loser was that he had shown great courage. “Everywhere, in large and small cities, in the Mediterranean or on the frontiers, the arena had represented a place of affirmation of citizenship and of justice, in which the final word had been in the hands of those who came together there, men and women, rich and poor” stated the historian.

reproductionA fighter’s helmet, 1st century A.D., found at Pompeiireproduction

Even Juvenal himself, in spite of the contumacious hyperbola in his Sátiras, had thought the same way. When he said that “the people yielded command, honor, legions” and “now limits itself and anxiously desires two things: bread and the circus” in truth the poet is unfolding a critical rationality about those who ask worthless things to the Gods, when it would be better that they desired virtue. “In this sense, we can suppose that the degraded image of the plebe finds itself in a wider context to compose a text at the same time entertaining and moral. Thus, we believe that Juvenal’s criticism is not in the otium (idleness), a merit that was appreciated by the aristocracy of which he was part, but yes in  mundane pleasures, which, in excess, impeded the citizen from having active participation in the social universe” analyzed researcher Renata. What the 19th century interpreted in its manner, the 20th repeated and the 21st is parroting, many times reuniting the idea that Christianity “saved” the degenerate Roman people from this profane, ominous and violent lifestyle.

In the substrate of all is the elitist position of a negative vision of populist classes that still remains alive among us. “The emphasis is given to those who organize the event and, when one displaces a glance to these poor classes, they are interpreted as a single choir of voices. Even if it is to contest or demand their rights, the popular classes are portrayed in a homogenous, synthesized manner, almost always in opposition people/governor. Very little is commented on the image of those to whom all eyes converge, the gladiators” the researcher remembered. Another important point of this poor understanding is the material aspect of the games and fights: the arena. The historian alerted to the fact that we take as a parameter the amphitheaters that remain, of stone (they were in general made of wood), especially the Amphiteatrum Flavium, the Coliseum, built only in 80 A.D., centuries after the start of the practice of the munera. Starting from the size of the building, she advises, we tend to over value the grandness of the spectacles and to imagine baths of blood equally colossal.

“Five centuries separate the first from the last combat witnessed by the Romans. Thus they were historical phenomena, constructed and reinterpreted in different manners throughout the period in which they occurred” she affirmed. “Not always did the gladiator perish and, even if he came to die in combat, the relationships between death and blood, in this society, were different from ours. A study about the munera has to take into account that they were developed in a slave/master environment and one that was highly militarized.” Therefore, the amphitheaters and their extensions expressed and constituted these values on a day to day basis. “The Roman spectacles can be analyzed as a type of communication between the individuals who bring about the sentiment of participation in the constructing of the world order.” There were even a “supporters’ fight”, that revealed, in the conflict between the games’ spectators, the very own social contradictions of Roman society. Nothing further from the truth than the supposed passiveness of bread and the circus.

In spite of having their critics, in particular in the more intellectual classes, the fights were also valued by thinking heads for their result on the psyche of the Roman people. “On publicly assisting punishments in the arena, the citizens felt themselves assured that social order had been restored. Thus the games had reaffirmed the moral and political order of things and the death of criminals and animals was the real and symbolic re-establishment of a society under threat. In the arena, civilization triumphed over barbarism” explained the German historian Cordelia Ewigleben, author of the book entitled, Gladiators and Caesars. “The gladiator had demonstrated the power to overcome death and had inspired in the public the virtues of courage and discipline. He who did not know how to fight and die with courage had dishonored the society that had attempted to redeem him and redeem itself. Hence little sympathy for those fighters who valued their life too much” she related.

In this context, to witness how men had confronted the need to die, to see what they most feared, the Romans had come face to face with their own mortality and had triumphed. The order of things had been balanced and death had been overcome; in the end, on fighting bravely and with subtlety, the gladiator could demonstrate sufficient merit to gain his salvation. On dying without protest, he would equally acquire it. In a society in which three out of every five people died before they completed 20 years and in which the chances of a professional gladiator being killed were one in ten, which was not something small. With or without bread.