Published on October 14, 2011  

An unusually large audience of approximately 1,000 attended the 2011 J. Roderick Davis Lecture in Samford's Wright Center Oct. 13. Speaker Garrett Fagan, classics professor at Pennsylvania State University, alternately shocked and amused his audience as he described the world of ancient gladiators and revealed it to be unnervingly familiar.

Before he addressed the evening's topic, Fagan praised former Howard College of Arts and Sciences dean Rod Davis--whom the series honors--for creating Samford's Classics Department in the late 1990s. "In my opinion, you are not a university if you don't have a classics department," Fagan said. In an age when "education is defined by mathematics and the sciences," he said, "it's all the more important to have an appreciation for what the humanities have to offer." He said knowledge of history, cultural traditions, language, art, philosophy, understanding of data and how to adapt to new information and learn quickly "are skills of inestimable value in the modern world and global economy, and the sooner we can see this, the happier we'll be".

Fagan then turned to "The Lure of the Arena," based on his most recent book of the same title. He cited the many scholars who describe the violence of ancient Roman gladiatorial games as something alien and unimaginable to the modern mind. But within minutes Fagan was well on the way to demonstrating that the human taste for violence as entertainment is ever-present. From ancient games, public executions, bullfights and combative sports right through to the mixed martial arts craze and crowd-pleasing "greatest hits" of modern athletics, we consistently seek out such bloody spectacles, and do so with many of the physical and psychological trappings of the Roman games.

Building on the research of scholars who study modern crowd response to violence, Fagan has found in the Roman arena all the elements that sustain even modern athletics, including dedicated venues, unique costumes, formal rules of conduct, artificial obstacles to the participants' success, special equipment, the possibility of unexpected outcomes and, of course, a special class of combatants.

"Pretty Boy" 

Fagan introduced the spectators at his own arena to the individual ancient gladiators known to us from tomb inscriptions, eyewitness accounts and graffiti--"Stinger," "Blade," "Eros," "Pretty Boy," and "Joker," just to name a few. These were not artless butchers, Fagan said. They were carefully trained for specific gladiatorial roles defined by tradition and constrained by the expectations of the spectators. A gladiator's armor, weapons and even his movements were reserved for the arena and fully understood by his audience.

Fagan noted that, contrary to popular depiction, losing gladiators were not always or even often killed in the arena. To fight well, even only to ultimately lose, was to earn the respect and mercy of the spectators. Fagan also pointed out that many gladiators were free men who fought of their own will, which would seem unlikely if their chance of surviving any given combat was only 50/50.

Ancient spectators, like their modern counterparts, fed the gladiatorial spectacle as much as it fed them, cheering-on the violence, changing allegiances based on the performance of the fighters, identifying heroes and villains and expecting justice for both. They celebrated good matches in graffiti that not only identified the fighters by individual name and unique traits (left-handedness, for example) but also even included their win/loss/draw statistics. They were "emotionally synchronized" connoisseurs and choreographers of what Fagan described as "the arena's dance of violence ".

Our own games might not be as bloody, but Fagan left little doubt that the Roman "Pompa" and Superbowl pre-game show are cut from the same cloth, complete with music, sponsor recognition and display of trophies. "The Roman fascination with their bloody games is, therefore, hardly as incomprehensible or alienating as others have asserted," Fagan concluded. "They watched because they were like us, not because we are unlike them".


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