Death as Decoration: Scenes from the Arena on Roman Domestic Mosaics
. . . the realism with which their anguish is portrayed is excruciating; and this picture raises in a most acute form the problem of how householders could wish to perpetrate such scenes of carnage on the floors of their homes.
-- Toynbee 1973: 83, on dying leopards in the Borghese Mosaic
. . . there are different cultural definitions of being human, being male, and being civilized.
-- Marvin 1986: 135, on Spanish bullfighting
Bears and big cats prowl the bloodied sands of an arena, and leopards attack bound seminude male captives. One cat balances itself on the staggering body of its victim and bites directly into his unprotected face; blood streams from his wounds and forms puddles on the sand (Figure 9.6, below). How is the modern viewer to understand this scene on a Roman mosaic from Tunisia? To evaluate the violent acts of another culture in an objective way is a difficult, perhaps impossible, task, especially when the acts are completely unacceptable within one's own society. Too great an appearance of objectivity or understanding may even bring upon a scholar the opprobrium of his or her peers. Many modern authors who discuss the ancient sources on Roman venatorial and gladiatorial combat have felt moved or obligated to emphasize their personal distaste for the topic (i.e., to pass moral judgment on the act). The authors' emotional responses are sometimes incorporated in the form of pejorative adjectives into the body of facts or ideas presented. More rarely, negative comments are relegated to introductory or concluding remarks. This judgmental approach, although understandable, is noteworthy; in the evaluation of more socially acceptable topics, anthropologists (or archaeologists, or historians) have often been expected to overcome their own cultural biases, sometimes to an unrealistic degree, and to empathize with the subject ( Geertz 1974: 27; Hopkins 1983: 29). While it is hardly desirable to applaud the Roman system of death as entertain-