Davis: Are we more civilized than our ancestors?


Traveling in Italy almost forces a person to think about the history of civilization. Every few yards there are reminders of what happened in 70 AD or 1450 and times before and after.

The Roman Coliseum is a good place to reflect on the history of the human race. In around 80 AD the Coliseum was a going concern where gladiators fought to the death as animals of all kinds were released from the bowels of the edifice, employing a series of pulleys and fairly sophisticated platform elevators.

Gladiators were the popular heroes of the day, somewhat like the sports figures that our culture puts on a pedestal and pays obscene sums of money to ply their trade while we pay obscene amounts of money to watch them perform. But gladiators were not the respected citizens that athletes of today are because they were mostly condemned criminals, prisoners of war and slaves.

Ancient Roman gladiators, like the sports figures of today, were paid well although they didn't have much choice about putting their lives on the line. Spectators played a pivotal role in the scheme of things as they do today. And much like modern sports venue seating, the coliseum seating was created to divide the classes. Cheap seats were high up in the nosebleed section while the Senators and powerful people of the day sat below, close to the action. The emperor had a special box with the best view of the show.

The show was a massive bloodbath according to accounts. Lions and all sorts of beasts of prey were deposited in front of men who knew that if they did not get the job done then their foe would. There were also human types of battles and, according to one account I read, the city of Rome would bring criminals into the arena and offer them up to the gladiators or to the animals, just so the crowd could watch them die a horrific death. Accounts indicate that this type of public murder was the most popular event.

The web site History Today notes, "The enormous size of the amphitheaters indicates how popular these exhibitions were. The Colosseum was dedicated in AD 80 with 100 days of games. One day 3,000 men fought; on another 9,000 animals were killed. It seated 50,000 people. It is still one of Rome's most impressive buildings, a magnificent feat of engineering and design. In ancient times, amphitheaters must have towered over cities, much as cathedrals towered over medieval towns. Public killings of men and animals were a Roman rite, with overtones of religious sacrifice, legitimated by the myth that gladiatorial shows inspired the populace with "a glory in wounds and a contempt of death."

It was also noted that not every Roman enjoyed the bloodshed: "Philosophers, and later Christians, disapproved strongly. To little effect; gladiatorial games persisted at least until the early fifth century AD, wild-beast killings until the sixth century. "

It was not all bloodshed however. There were times when the coliseum was used for spectacular theater presentations and grand cultural events. There was even a system for flooding the coliseum so that mock naval battles could be fought. It is not clear how "realistic" those battles were but I suspect that the water was tinged with red quite often.

As I walked around this ancient ruin and read the signs and tried to imagine the drama of death that took place here I kept thinking that we really have not made a lot of progress when it comes to being more civilized than our ancestors of 2,000 years ago.

We have institutionalized some forms of bloodshed as we continue to use war as a last resort tool of diplomacy. Professional sporting events do not offer battles to the death but the level of violence in some sports has escalated over the years making some of our sports heroes, such as hockey enforcers, look more like gladiators.

While I was thinking about this lack of positive evolution an American tourist looked at me and said, "Things haven't changed much." I nodded and said, "It sure looks that way." We both went on our way and continued to see the similarities in the arenas of hero worship, public spectacle and class discrimination.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.


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