Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

PREFACE

This project originated several years ago when I taught my first course on ancient sport, a service course established to woo non-majors into embarking on more 'serious' ancient studies. Usually such courses only cover Greek sport, but I decided to add the Roman experience, reasoning that Greek athletics continued under Rome, and that races in the circus and physical recreation in the baths-and perhaps even the games of the arena-can be studied as sport. However reprehensible, whatever activities a given society participates in or watches for the sake of disportment, entertainment, recreation, and leisure are sport for that society. I knew that a rousing rendition of the 'horrors of the Colosseum' would maintain student interest in the latter part of the course; but I was not going to indulge in any simplistic, stark contrast of Roman bloody, decadent, spectator games with the purity and inspiring virtue of less bloody (but hardly bloodless) Greek sport, for I knew that Romans were open to exercise and in time even to Greek sport, and that Greek sport was not free of corruption, abuse, and violence.

There I was, disgusting students with horrific 'true stories' of bloody beast-fights, gladiatorial gore, and cruelty to Christians. As I read out famous accounts of the astounding numbers of casualties in the spectacles, a usually lethargic student suddenly blurted out: 'But what did they do with all those bodies?' There it was. I answered perfunctorily with something that I recalled vaguely from some classical handbook, but I felt uneasy and suspected that the student's innocent question went well beyond sport. The nagging sense that this was a valuable question stayed with me long after the course was over. Some years later, after having done research primarily on Greek sport, I returned to that student's question and embarked like a detective on a trail of scattered clues. From pagan literature to Roman law to Christian martyrology, from the Colosseum to the Capitol, from the Forum to the suburbs of Rome, I delved deeper and deeper into the case of the missing bodies.

Given the many episodes of brutality in recent world history and the escalating violence in the modern, especially American, media, it is not surprising that a new wave of scholarship in English has begun focusing on the Roman amphitheater-its archaeology, art, and architecture, and its

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