Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

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INTRODUCTION: VIOLENT SPECTACLES AND ROMAN CIVILIZATION

Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed.

(Metcalf and Huntington, Celebrations of Death (1991) 25)

The death of humans (and sometimes even of animals) usually constitutes a spectacle, a disturbing sight which is awful in both senses of the word, an eerie yet intriguing phenomenon demanding acknowledgement and attention. When confronted, as it must be, death makes us come to terms, individually and collectively, with our powers and our limitations-with our humanity and our mortality. Witnessing natural deaths of the aged and infirm is distressing, but far more disturbing are premature, forced, and unnatural deaths. Yet throughout human history some beings have been killed so that others might live, prosper, or feel safe or superior. Violence and destruction are (or have been) necessary for survival and security; empires always have exploited and intimidated. All societies witness natural death and all societies kill, whether directly in war, state executions, blood sacrifice, hunting, or the butchering of animals for meat, or indirectly via oppressive poverty, insidious pollution, or various 'combat' or 'blood sports' wherein the abuse and death of humans and animals are either intentional or probable. Rome, however, remains extraordinary for the scale and the method of its violence, and for applauding skill, artistry, and diligence in the punishment and destruction of creatures.

From our origins as humans we have dealt with the activity, the responsibility, and the aftermath of death. Paleolithic man advanced as a species in part by developing tools and techniques to improve his killing abilities, to expand his capacity to destroy and control nature and other men; but we still have not evolved past the sensation that killing is a symbolically charged act, something necessary but something to be done in certain prescribed contexts and ways, with certain appropriate actions before and after the killing. Killing must not be random or simply for its own sake; it must be justified in some way, e.g. to protect the community from threats or to provide resources for survival. However swift and intelligible the death, killing normally evokes a profound sense of anxiety. All societies use

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