Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

9

CONCLUSION: HUNTS AND HOMICIDES AS SPECTACLES OF DEATH

Shame in death is the beginning of hell.

(A.E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell (1993) 167)

In the modern world the Holocaust, Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and more have made us reconfront human brutality. Examining our own violent nature drives us back further and deeper into our past, with a mandatory stop at Rome along the way. Rome makes us face our own violent legacy, our enduring predisposition to violence, and the banality of excessive violence in human history (and in the modern media).

Sadly, the contemplation of violence is essential to understanding human nature-what we have been and what we are, if not what we should become. Is violence dehumanizing or fundamentally human? Are civilization and violence antithetical, or does civilization depend on violence to control violence? Can the civilizing process succeed, or will man always know residual primitivism? Whatever its origin, for social order violence must be justified. Early man killed beasts to survive-to protect himself but mainly to eat; this killing became the sport of hunting and still retains its primitive justifications. The killing of men is justifiable for survival as well-to protect against foes and to punish criminals for prevention and revenge. To achieve its goals effectively in early societies, punishment had to be public, to be seen and sanctioned. The show had to go on. Public punishment of misbehavior regulated proper behavior by deterrence. It also reassured the community that it was protected and secure. As a violent, public, and imperial society, Rome took ritualized hunting and punishments to spectacular lengths. Even when men were tormented and killed for entertainment, the archaic justification persisted: 'that we may be safe'.

As ritualized versions of actions originally taken to ensure the survival and safety of the group, Roman blood sports legitimized, dramatically communicated, and reinforced the social and political order of the community. In the arena beasts were killed by men as if provisioning or protecting the clan or its field; men were killed by beasts as if being cast out defenseless into the wilds; and men killed other men, either in aggravated executions

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