Why Violence?

Gladiators

Renaissance explorers found that the sports played by western natives were considered to be the “little brother of war.”  In the Americas as well as in Europe, primitive hunting and warfare spawned a domesticated offspring, sport.  Athletic equipment borrows its design from weapons, and many competitions mimic or enact combat.  As Diane Roberts points out in her book Tribal, “baseball represents how America wants to see itself; football, specifically college football, represents America as it really is: not a Field of Dreams but a consecrated battleground where we celebrate violence and hypermasculinity”.  This was particularly true at the University of Pennsylvania.  Sports had become the way of defining our cultural values, and this was shown in Provost Pepper’s rationale for instituting sports and athletics.  Dr. Pepper said that there was convincing evidence “of the value of properly-regulated gymnastic exercises and athletic sports in forming a higher standard of manly feeling and of personal conduct among the college students.”  The idea of using sports to draw out masculinity was by no means original.  Back in the Renaissance, many intellectuals examined the value of aristocratic sports during the adoption of Greek ideas about athletics.  What they discovered was that the most gentlemanly sports involved mimic combat.  College football did not only mimic combat, it was combat.  Since football was such a gentlemanly sport, it was used as an example of American values apart from masculinity as well.  Frederick Winslow Taylor, the creator of the principles of scientific management, used football to model the training and teamwork necessary for a modern business to succeed. 

In Rome, gladiators served a similar purpose.  Gladiatorial combat was not senseless slaughter.  Two skilled fighters, either slaves or criminals, would compete in a show of skill and endurance and represented their masters and fans.  Not only was this a way to provide entertainment while disposing of the socially unacceptable, this sort of combat modeled discipline and desire and showed the Romans how to face pain and death.  As Cicero said, “when guilty men are compelled to fight, no better discipline against suffering and death can be represented to the eye.”  The successful gladiators became celebrities, but these duels were not conducted for the benefit of the slaves and criminals.  Gladiatorial combat was intended to harden the citizens for war.  Just as football players represented the masculine ideal, gladiators exemplified a crucial Roman value: bravery in the face of death.  The gladiators who exhibited bravery and skill were spared after a defeat, while the ones who did not perform well were killed.  The gladiatorial games in the Colosseum also served as a safety valve against social unrest.  Under Augustus, there had been 150,000 idlers in Rome, and another 150,000 who finished work at noon.  The emperors realized that bored people are likely to revolt, so they kept the people entertained.  The emperors used the gladiators to disempower the people and lure them away from political engagement.  As Juvenal famously said, “there was a time when the people bestowed every honor - the governance of provinces, civic leadership, military command - but now they hold themselves back, now two things only do they ardently desire: bread and games.”