The Roman Games: A Sourcebook by Alison Futrell

Book Review by Skarr

In 65 BC, Julius Caesar spent enormous sums of money to mount a lavish spectacle for the plebeians, one which had “rich and exciting production values”, to borrow a quote from the author of the book, “The Roman Games”. At this time, he was a mere aedile and according to Plutarch, he “threw into the shade all attempts at winning distinction in this way that had been made by previous holders of the office.” While Caesar may have certainly exceeded all expectations, he was by no means the first person to attempt gaining political mileage through the games, which were seen as a vehicle for attracting the attentions of the populace, particularly in the area of vote gathering and enhancing the status of the “editors” or presenters of the games.

Throughout Alison Futrell’s excellent book of sources on the Roman games, the author provides invaluable commentary to the various snippets of information, represented by blocked out gray text quoting ancient authors from Cicero to Juvenal to Ovid. Each source is categorized into appropriate sections in this book, which should be of primary interest not only to the student seeking to enhance their knowledge on the ancient games but also scholars who want to quickly reference a particular subject with a narrow focus on a certain aspect relating the games, from political implications, to the daily life of the gladiator as well as extracts relating to the conditions in the arena and participation of the ‘elites’ of Rome in the amphitheater.

While this book may not be read like a novel, as it does demand a certain level of concentration and ranges widely from the dry, political wit of Cicero to the more boisterous passages from Juvenal and even Petronius, it is absorbing in its own way, particularly for those readers who are passionate about Rome. I did find a number of things which I was not aware of and must commend the author for the painstaking way in which this body of sources has been compiled.

For instance, in Pompey’s second consulship in 55 BC, he put on a display where elephants were slaughtered en masse. However, these worthy creatures, having “given up hope of escape, they played on the sympathy of the crowd, entreating them with indescribable gestures. They moaned, as if wailing, and caused the spectators such distress that, forgetting Pompey and his lavish display specially devised to honor them, they rose in a body, in tears and heaped dire curses on Pompey, the effects of which he soon suffered.” This quote is from Pliny and I was moved by this passage and wondered how terrible it must have been for those poor elephants and I cursed Pompey myself for causing them so much anguish. He deserved what he got and if he was beheaded by the Egyptians, well, he certainly deserved his fate for the cruelty he showed.

In time, the spectacles given by prominent Republicans such as Caesar and Pompey faded in comparison to those of the emperors, with Augustus mounting one of the most extravagant shows, according to the memoirs of the emperor. Per his memorable quote, “three times I gave gladiatorial games in my own name and five times in the names of my sons and grandsons; at these displays about ten thousand men fought … I gave the people twenty-six venationes of African animals in either the circus, the forum or the amphitheater; about thirty five hundred animals were killed in these spectacles.”

Just reading this made my blood literally boil with anger as I consider the enormity of the sums involved that could have benefited the people in other ways as well as the sheer waste of the spectacles that the emperors mounted for “the people”. What a quantity of blood must have been spilt in a few days and the imagination staggers at the sheer indifference that must have been displayed by the vast multitude to the slaughter happening before their very eyes. It is always difficult to stomach such accounts, especially with our modern perceptions and sensibilities. One truly realizes after reading such accounts how monstrous it must have been to live in those times and the thought of going to see such mass killings for the sake of “spectacle” turns my stomach.

The matter doesn’t end just with Augustus as each successive emperor tries to outdo his predecessor in the matter of presentation, with Nero and Commodus probably the worst of a very bad lot. Nero delighted in presenting Christians, his favorite target group for persecution, while Commodus presented himself in the arena. Per a quote from Dio Cassius, he (Commodus) “managed to kill a man now and then, and in making close passes with others, as if trying to clip off a bit of their hair, he sliced off the noses of some, the ears of others, and sundry features of still others, but in public he refrained from using steel and shedding human blood.” Truly monstrous and a hypocrite to boot!

The author asks an interesting question as to why emperors stooped to this level. However, the answer is less than satisfying, as can be expected, since it is difficult to fathom the true depth of power that a single man commanded over all others. In more modern times, this same, rapacious blood thirstiness has been demonstrated time and again where one individual holds more power than is commensurate either with his understanding or responsibility. There is a lesson to be learned here and we have to give thanks that today, such power is limited to a specific number of years, as untold havoc could result. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that history repeats itself, given enough time as basic human nature has not really changed over the centuries. We are no doubt a little more informed, perhaps even a little more “enlightened” but the same dangers exist today, as it did before, thousands of years ago.

Throughout this book, there are passages that will definitely provoke your interest, if not your curiosity, as the author has collected these from a variety of sources and time periods. For example, there is even a quote from Ovid, where he outlines some really specific ways in which you can seduce someone at the games. This is pretty hilarious and Ovid, true to form, goes right to the techniques that need to be employed, from opening lines such as “Whose colors are those?”, obviously referring to the chariot race teams, which were named after the primary colors – red, green, blue and so on to other tactics such as sitting close to her or brushing off imaginary dust from her blouse.

Speaking about love, there is also an interesting tidbit about the dictator Sulla, who meets his last wife at the games, according to Plutarch. Valeria, a beautiful young woman, passes behind the dictator and pulls off a little piece of wool from his toga before going to her seat in the row behind him. As the surprised Sulla turns to look at her, she says, “There’s no reason to be surprised, Dictator. I only want to have a little bit of your good luck for myself.” This little incident sparks a romance between the two as they begin exchanging looks, then smiles and per Plutarch, negotiations began for marriage at the end. This was a charming story and one which I was not aware of.

It is perhaps difficult to pick out one section over the other, as the quotes are grouped by theme, but the section, “The Life of the Gladiator” offers some interesting perspective on the daily lives of the men (and women, for there were women fighters, including one female fighter who kills a lion, according to one of the quotes). Romans loved to gossip and one of the more frequent ones involve affairs between “high-born ladies and the low-born objects of their desires, rendered even more desirable because of the thrill of violating status expectations by associating with one so vile.” One woman singled out is the mother of emperor Commodus and it is widely believed by many at the time that the empress Faustina conceived him out of wedlock as he “was actually begotten in adultery, since it is reasonably well known that Faustina chose both sailors and gladiators as paramours for herself at Caieta.” It’s a pity that the movie “Gladiator” did not touch upon this particular quote from the Historia Augusta, Marcus Antoninius 19.

Gladiators must have endured countless humiliations on a daily basis; a fact that is clearly brought out in extracts from Seneca’s Letters and led many of them to commit suicide. Seneca moralizes the issue for his friend and I was moved by his account as he talks about a German who was preparing for a bestiarii, as part of a morning exhibition and “withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was used for the vilest purposes and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe and choked the breath from his body …. What a brave fellow!” While many modern readers may be moved to pity on reading this, Seneca’s observations seem to center on his bravery and he tells his friend that he “surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded a sword…” This shows a very cynical view, in my opinion and a callousness that must have been pervasive at the time.

While certain gladiators were treated as no more than beasts, such as the German above, there were many who had loving wives, a family and even children of their own, whom they honored and cherished. The author quotes a two sided tombstone for the family of one gladiator who, with his wife, “commemorated the passing of their toddler-age son, and then honored his deceased wife with an inscription on the other side.” Gladiators also lived in familia, as they typically belonged to the same ludus. Since only one ludus furnished gladiators for a given set of games, they would have had to fight each other and possibly wound or kill close friends they had formed during their time together. This fact is brought out very vividly in an old movie, “Spartacus”, where the black gladiator refuses to give out his name to Spartacus, saying that if they became friends, it would be difficult as they might have to kill each other in the arena.

Apart from the numerous quotes and extracts and commentary which are fascinating, there are also various photographs that enhance the overall quality of the book. The famous Caracalla baths had quite a few portraits of gladiators and I guess these were the sports heroes of the time, with not only graffiti on the walls of the city but life like images that the general public could admire.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Roman games and also for the casual as well as the serious student of ancient history. I think it is an excellent reference book to have in your library or collection and I would urge anyone with more than a passing interest in ancient Rome to acquire a copy.

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