Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Sports of the Amphitheatre

In no other nation upon the earth and no other period of history has enjoyment taken so cruel and brutal a shape as in the Roman empire. The fierce people of the imperial city seemed to have a native thirst for blood and misery, which no amount of slaughter in the arena, of the sufferings of captives and slaves, or of the torments of persecuted Christians sufficed to assuage. The love of theatrical representations, which has proved so potent and unceasing with other nations, had but a brief period of prevalence in Rome, its milder enjoyment vanishing before the wild excitement of the gladiatorial struggle and the spectacle of rending beasts and slaughtered martyrs.

It was not in the theatre, but in the amphitheatre, that the Romans sought their chief enjoyment, and few who wished the favor of the Roman people failed to seek it by the easy though costly means of gladiatorial shows. The amphitheatre differed from the theatre in forming a complete circle or oval in-stead of a semicircle, with an arena in the centre instead of a stage at the side. It also greatly surpassed the theatre in size, the purpose being to see not to hear.

These buildings were at first temporary edifices of wood, but of enormous size, since one which collapsed at Fidente, during the reign of Tiberius, is said to have caused the death of fifty thousand spectators. The first of stone was built by the command of Augustus. But the great amphitheatre of Rome, the Flavian, whose mighty ruins we possess in the Colosseum, was that begun by Vespasian, and finished by Titus ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

This vast building is elliptical in shape and covers about five acres of ground, being six hundred and twelve feet in its greatest length and five hundred and fifteen in greatest breadth. It is based on rows of arches, eighty in number, and rises in four different orders of architecture to a height of about one hundred and sixty feet. The outside of this great edifice was encrusted with marble and decorated with statues. Interiorly its vast slopes presented sixty or eighty rows of marble seats, covered with cushions, and capable of seating more than eighty thousand spectators. There were sixty-four doors of entrance and exit, and the entrances, passages, and stairs were so skillfully constructed that every person could with ease and safety reach and leave his place.

Nothing was omitted that could add to the pleasure and convenience of the spectators. An ample canopy, drawn over their beads, protected them from the sun and the rain. Fountains refreshed the air with cooling moisture, and aromatics profusely perfumed the air. In the centre was the arena or stage, strewn with fine sand, and capable of being changed to suit varied spectacles. Now it appeared to rise out of the earth, like the gardens of the Hesperides; now it was made to represent the rocks and caverns of Thrace. Water was abundantly supplied by concealed pipes, and the sand-strewn plain might at will be converted into a wide lake, sustaining armed vessels, and displaying the swimming monsters of the deep.

Chariot Race


In these spectacles the Roman emperors loved to display their wealth. On various occasions the whole furniture of the amphitheatre was of amber, silver, or gold, and in one display the nets provided for defence against wild beasts were of gold wire, the porticos were gilded, and the belt or circle that divided the several ranks of spectators was studded with a precious mosaic of beautiful stones. In the dedication of this mighty edifice five thousand wild beasts were slain in the arena, the games lasting one hundred days.

The first show of gladiators in Rome was one given by Marcus and Decius Brutus, on the occasion of the death of their father, 264 B.C. Three pairs of gladiators fought in this first contest. This gladiatorial spectacle was continued on funeral occasions, but afterwards lost its religious character and became a popular amusement, there being schools for the training of gladiators, whose pupils were recruited from the captives of Rome, from condemned criminals, and from vigorous men desirous of fame.

As time went on the magnificence of these spectacles increased. Julius Cæsar gave one in which three hundred and twenty combatants fought. Trajan far surpassed this with a show that lasted for one hundred and twenty-three days, and in which ten thousand men fought with each other or with wild beasts for the pleasure of the Roman populace.

The gladiators were variously armed, some with sword, shield, and body armor; some with net and trident; some with noose or lasso. The disarmed or overthrown gladiator was killed or spared in response to signals made by the thumbs of the spectators; while the successful combatant was rewarded at first with a palm branch, afterwards with money and rich and valuable presents.

The gladiators were not always passive instruments of Roman cruelty. We have elsewhere described the revolt of Spartacus and his brave struggle for liberty. Other outbreaks took place. During the reign of Probus a revolt of about eighty gladiators out of a school of some six hundred filled Rome with death and alarm. Killing their keepers, they broke into the streets, which they set afloat with blood, and only after an obstinate resistance and ample revenge were they at length overpowered and cut to pieces by the soldiers of the city. But such outbreaks were but few, and the Roman multitude usually enjoyed its cruel sports in safety.

We cannot here describe the many remarkable displays made by successive emperors, and which grew more lavish as time went on. Probus, about 280 A.D., gave a show in which the arena was transformed into a forest, large trees, dug up by the roots, being transported and planted throughout its space. In this miniature forest were set free a thousand ostriches, and an equal number each of stags, fallow deer, and wild boars. These were given to the multitude to assail and slay at their will. On the following day, the populace being now safely screened from danger, there were slain in the arena a hundred lions, as many lionesses, two hundred leopards, and three hundred bears.

The younger Gordian, in his triumphal games, astonished the Romans by the strangeness of the animals displayed, in search of which the whole known world was ransacked. The curious mob now beheld the graceful forms of twenty zebras, and the remarkable stature of ten giraffes, brought from remote African plains. There were shown, in addition, ten elks, as many tigers from India, and thirty African hyenas. To these were added a troop of thirty-two elephants, and the uncouth forms of the hippopotamus of the Nile and the rhinoceros of the African wilds. These animals, familiar to us, were new to their observers, and filled the minds of their spectators with wonder and awe.

Gladiators, as we have said, were not confined to slaves, captives, and criminals. Roman citizens, emulous of the fame and rewards of the successful combatant, entered their ranks, and men of birth and fortune, thirsting for the excitement of the arenal strife, were often seen in the lists. In the reign of Nero, senators, and even women of high birth, appeared as combatants; and Domitian arranged a battle between dwarfs and women. As late as 200 A.D. an edict forbidding women to fight became necessary.

The emperors, as a rule, were content with sending their subjects to death in those frightful shows; but one of them, Commodus, proud of his strength and skill, himself entered the lists as a combatant. He was at first content with displaying his remarkable skill as an archer against wild animals. With arrows whose head was shaped like a crescent, he cut asunder the long nook of the ostrich, and with the strength of his bow pierced alike the thick skin of the elephant and the scaly hide of the rhinoceros. A panther was let loose and a slave forced to act as its prey. But at the instant when the beast leaped upon the man the shaft of Commodus flew, and the animal fell dead, leaving its prey unhurt. No less than a hundred lions were let loose at once in the arena, and the death-dealing darts of the emperor hurtled among them until they all were slain.

During this exhibition of skill the emperor was securely protected against any chance danger from his victims. But later, to the shame and indignation of the people, he entered the arena as a gladiator, and fought there no less than seven hundred and thirty-five times. He was well protected, wearing the helmet, shield, and sword of the Secutor, while his antagonists were armed with the net and trident of the Retiarius. It was the aim of the latter to entangle his opponent in the net and then despatch him with the trident, and if he missed he was forced to fly till he had prepared his net for a second throw.

As may be imagined, in these contests Commodus was uniformly successful. His opponents were schooled not to put forth their full skill, and were usually given their lives in reward. But the emperor claimed the prize of the successful gladiator, and himself fixed this reward at so high a price that to pay it became a new tax on the Roman people. Commodus, we may say here, met with the usual fate of the base and cruel emperors of Rome, falling by the bands of assassins.

The gladiatorial shows were not without their opponents in Rome. Under the republic efforts were made to limit the number of combatants and the frequency of the displays, and the Emperor Augustus forbade more than two shows in a year. They were prohibited by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, in 325 A.D., but continued at intervals till 404. In that year Telemachus, an Asiatic monk, filled with horror at the cruelty of the practice, made his way to Rome, and during a contest rushed into the arena and tried to part two gladiators.

The spectators, furious at this interruption of their sport, stoned the monk to death. But the Emperor Honorius proclaimed him a martyr, and issued an edict which finally brought such exhibitions to an end.

Saint Telemachus And Gladiator


There was another form of spectacle at Rome, in its way as significant of cruelty and ruthlessness, the Triumph, each occasion of which signified some nation conquered or army defeated, and thousands slain or plunged into misery and destitution. The victorious general to whom the senate granted the honor of a triumph was not allowed to enter the city in advance, and Lucullus, on his return from victory in Asia, waited outside Rome for three years, until the desired honor was granted him.

Starting from the Field of Mars, outside the city walls, the procession passed through the gayly garlanded streets to the Capitol. It was headed by the magistrates and senate of Rome, who were followed by trumpeters, and then by the spoils of war, consisting not only of treasures and standards, but of representations of battles, towns, fortresses, rivers, etc.

Next came the victims intended for sacrifice, largely composed of white oxen with gilded horns. They were followed by prisoners kept to grace the triumph, and who were put to death when the Capitol was reached. Afterwards came the gorgeous chariot of the conqueror, crowned with laurel and drawn by four horses. He wore robes of purple and gold taken from the temple of Jupiter, carried a laurel branch in his right hand, and in his left a sceptre of ivory with an eagle at its tip. After him came the soldiers, singing Io triumphe and other songs of victory.

On reaching the Capitol the victor placed the laurel branch on the cap of the seated Jupiter, and offered the thank-offerings. A feast of the dignitaries, and sometimes of the soldiers and people, followed. The ceremony at first occupied one day only, but in later times was extended through several days, and was frequently attended with gladiatorial shows and other spectacles for the greater enjoyment of the Roman multitude.