As U.S. politics descend into blood sport, historian Roland Auguet’s “Cruelty and Civilization: the Roman Games” deserves a look. It’s all about gladiators — men who killed and were killed to amuse the masses: admission free — and the society that invented them.
Originally, only condemned men or slaves were forced to do battle. The slaves often as not were prisoners of war, forced to kill one another over grave mounds for their victors’ amusement.
But here is a strange thing: After three or four centuries — when the Republic had collapsed and the Empire rose and tottered — even knights and senators volunteered for the ring.
This was bizarre not just because they did it at peril of their life, but because to do so they were stripped of their equestrian and senatorial status and joined the despised class of slaves and criminals.
(Senatorial and equestrian, or knighthood, status were not elective, but financial. Knighthood required 400,000 sesterces; senators had to be worth a million. Roman senators who squandered their fortunes sometimes returned to the Senate to beg for money to preserve their family’s status — and the Senate sometimes handed it over. Quicker and easier than tax reform, I guess.)
A knight or senator who became a gladiator as a lark could not buy his way out; he had to survive five or more years of battles. And even if he did survive — and I am paraphrasing Auguet here — what the hell? Why would men born to privilege do this?
Auguet compared gladiators to Roman actors, also despised, and prohibited by law from citizenship and many aspects of normal human intercourse — appearing with a senator in public, for example — subject to deportation and worse for plying their trade.
Yet the Roman attitude toward gladiators, actors and — dare I say it? — politicians, survives today in the United States, as we totter from Republic and Empire toward decline.
Should you or I, dear reader, creep out in moonlight to snog our neighbor’s wife, and be caught at it, who would care? Who should care, aside from our neighbor’s husband?
Yet if a movie star does it, or a senator does it, it’s front-page news.
Why is that?
It’s because we, like the ancient Romans, love to despise people who are more powerful than we are. We love to worship them, and we love to see them suffer.
Our leading politicians — gladiators in our pathetic and feeble blood sport — understand this. They know that tens of millions of voters today, in our election games, are just as bestial and ignorant as the Romans who anticipated, and were gratified by, death in the old Forum.
We Americans just want a good show.
And the higher the stakes, the more exciting it is.
“Kill him! Kill him!” or “Spare him! Spare him!” It makes no difference — so long as we can shout, along with, or against, our brethren.
U.S. politics today consists of a few hundred millionaires pirouetting through the White House, the halls of Congress and up K Street, in internet tutus, throwing phony kisses and stuffing money into their shorts; while below them, in the vomitoria, millions of people around the world die of hunger, of cholera, of warfare, of religious fanaticism, of “jobs, jobs, jobs,” while our well-paid citizens make laser-guided bombs for shipment overseas, above all, to the Middle East.
Thousands of children have died and are still dying of cholera in Yemen.
Do you know what it takes to cure a child of cholera, my fellow Americans?
Clean water. That’s all it takes. Clean water.
And what are the president of the United States, the 535 members of Congress, their uncountable staff members and campaign contributors and the truckling White House appointees doing to save the lives of children that would cost only pennies a day?
I’ll tell you what they’re doing. They’re pretending to be gladiators — fighting for what?
To save their own overfed butts. Nothing more. And how could there be anything less?
The president, vice president, every member of their Cabinet and staffs and the U.S. Congress are doing today exactly what the bosses of the first gladiators did: watching victims of war fight over mounds of corpses.
Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant!