The games were important to the Romans for three main reasons, which will be explored in this essay. Firstly, and most significantly, they provided the Romans with a sense of civilised order and democratic influence. Secondly the games held a mythological importance and religious symbolism which was inherent in society. Finally, the games reinforced already strong Roman values and morals. Each of these elements served to make the games vital to Roman society and culture.
When the democratic system was altered to an imperial one, the emperors needed a way to appease the people, although they had lost the right to vote. The games fulfilled this role. To the Romans, the amphitheatre was a place of order, a triumph over chaos and lawlessness. They could communicate their feelings, and as the Emperor attended these games, they had the opportunity to voice their opinions directly to him. Occasionally it might be complaints about the cost of wheat, or calling for the removal of an unpopular official. The security of the crowd facilitated this, and the impression of direct communication was perhaps of more importance than the actual communication. The arena was a place of justice, where people saw criminals executed and social order established, and Romans had an interactive part to play;
“The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death,” Seneca (Epistle VII).
To the people, it was an actual and symbolic restitution of a society in peril, civilization triumphed over barbarians, and wild beasts. Spectators could virtually decide on the fate of gladiators in the arena, and it was a foolhardy Emperor who ignored the wishes of the people;
“As patron of the games and the most conspicuous member there, it was the emperor who made the final decision, although it often was politic to heed the crowd.” Tertullian Apology and De Spectaculis (1931) translated by T. R. Glover
Roman games were at first associated with religion, and sacrifice. They became known as munera which meant ‘debt’ or ‘obligation’. They were understood as obligations rendered to the dead. Often these bloody events would then be followed by a public banquet in the Forum. It is perhaps difficult to comprehend by modern man, that blood sacrifices to the dead could somehow raise them, providing them a form of deification. Thus many patrician families, who had offered these blood sacrifices to the dead in form of the munera, went on to invent themselves a divine ancestry. The importance of religion and mythological belief cannot be disregarded when considering why the games were of such importance to the Romans. It was evident in all aspects of the games themselves, with participants taking on mythological roles, e.g men dressed as the Etruscan demon Charon, and the god Mercury – One character prodding the corpses in the arena to ensure their death, whilst the other dragged them out. Statues of Mars, patron of gladiators, and Diana, patron of the venatio adorned amphitheatres. Tertullian points to the religious importance of the games to the Romans;
“But you [i.e. pagans] really are still more religious in the amphitheatre, where over human blood, over the polluting stain of capital punishment, your gods dance, supplying plots and themes for criminals – unless it is that criminals often adopt the roles of your deities. We have seen at one time or another Attis, that god from Pessinus, being castrated, and a man who was being burnt alive had taken on the role of Hercules.”
Tertullian, Apologeticus 15.4-5
Finally, it is necessary to consider that the games reinforced already strong Roman values and beliefs. Contrary to some belief today, the audience was not interested in mere blood.
The games were a symbol of Roman culture, and supported the dominance of their empire. They were a vital part of being Roman, and provided a focus in the absence of military pursuits, where they taught Roman values of training, discipline, strength, endurance and desire to win. Extremely popular were gladiatorial games, where spectators enjoyed observing the technical skill of what they deemed trained professionals. Roman culture was militaristic in nature, and they valued what they viewed as the art of killing. Pliny looked upon gladiatorial shows as an educational experience, of virtue and morality. Because the performers were outcasts, this emphasized the educational element, by the notion that if such people could provide examples of bravery and determination despite impending death, then so could real men.
Cicero, who has been thought to oppose the games, shared this view;
“A gladiatorial show is apt to seem cruel and brutal to some eyes, and I incline to think that it is, as now conducted, but in the days when it was criminals who crossed swords in the death struggled there could be no better schooling against pain and death” (Cicero Tusculans 2, xvii.41).
This is also echoed by Pliny in a passage where he praised the emperor, who satisfied the practical needs of the citizens , giving them;
“a public entertainment, nothing lax or dissolute to weaken and destroy the manly spirit of his subjects, but one to inspire them to face honourable wounds and look scornfully upon death, by demonstrating a love of glory and a desire for victory even in the persons of criminals and slaves.”
Thus, in conclusion, although Roman gladiatorial combats and other spectacles appear violent and cruel by modern standards, they were not popular and important to the people due to an inherent blood lust. They were, as discussed, part of Roman culture. They were a place for the common man to have the ultimate influence on life over death, a place that supported religious and mythological symbolism, and educated and supported Roman virtues.