Rome in the News: Football vs. Gladiators

In the wake of the classroom scandals at UNC, revelations about the dangers of concussions, and the sex abuse at Penn State, football has been on everyone’s mind lately. It seems to be popular to compare the American fascination with football with Rome’s love of gladiators. The implication, of course, is that we’re somehow better. As Elizabeth Pardoe puts it,

Unlike the Colosseum crowds, football fans cheer not when a player is injured, but when the injured player manages to walk off the field or gives a sign of life.

The Romans are bad and bloodthirsty; as Americans, we prefer to cheer for success. This dichotomy is well-known from Hollywood (behind paywall), although Pardoe is harsher on spectators than the movies are. As a person who has never liked football, I should have been sympathetic. But I found the comparison strangely off-putting.

It might have been the phrase “postmodern Vestal Virgins”; perhaps it was only frustrating in comparison to Anna McCullough’s much more erudite (yet still accessible) essay on the same topic. But I think the real reason was the nagging feeling that I had read it before, in a version more than two thousand years old: Cicero’s letter to his friend Marcus Marius (Ad Familiares 7.1).
Writing on the occasion of the spectacular opening ceremonies for Pompey’s theater (55 BCE), Cicero congratulates his friend for staying away from the games, while at the same time assuring him that he did not miss much. Like Pardoe, Cicero couches his critique of the games in rather florid prose (it would hardly be fair to pick on “postmodern Vestal Virgins” while letting a word like lectiuncula [‘light reading’] slide).
Both writers tiptoe around the same point: they’re watching something they know is morally reprehensible, but that hasn’t stopped them. Pardoe worries about the health of college athletes, while Cicero admits that venationes are ultimately a deplorable spectacle: both man and beast are noble, yet one must die. His friend Marius is so refined that he holds gladiatorial shows in similar contempt (though not necessarily for humanitarian reasons). But — despite moral qualms — the orator and the professor find themselves in attendance.
The similarities don’t end there. The two trot out several of the same rationalizations and deflections to resolve their cognitive dissonance. Appeals to nostalgia provide emotional justification to attend.  For Pardoe, “memories of childhood” spent watching football push her to the stadium. Cicero finds himself in the crowd because all of the great actors of his youth, including the famous Aesop, have been drawn out of retirement for the occasion. Both distance themselves from the violence by focusing on the artistry and the splendor of the games. Pardoe invokes the “marching bands” and “international flavor” of a spectacular homecoming parade (tossing in a reference to the ill-fated Cleopatra while she does so). Cicero’s deft praeteritio introduces the similarly over-the-top elements: a train of 600 mules for the performance of Clytemnestra, and spectacular equipment for the Trojan games.Both (and this is far more striking for Cicero) even take refuge in the shared morality of the crowd. Pardoe takes some solace, as I pointed out above, in pointing out that the goal of the game is not injury or death. So football is less a bloodsport than what she imagines Roman gladiatorial combat to be. And Cicero expresses his dislike of beast hunts as something he is sure Marius shares.  In the case of elephants, the show stirred the compassion even of the vulgi atque turbae; even the scum of Rome (see Atticus 2.1.8) could see that there was little difference between man and beast.But why put up with such a show?  Again, both Cicero and Pardoe agree: it’s the officials’ fault.  For Pardoe this means blaming referees and coaches for failing to adhere to safety regulations (which often are no more than window dressing to begin with). For Cicero it means blaming the presiding magistrate, Spurius Maecius, who chose the entertainment, and perhaps even Pompey as well, who admitted that much of his expenditure had been wasted and was misguided.  Consider the fingers duly pointed. 

I had originally intended to use this post to take issue with some of Pardoe’s more cavalier assumptions about the nature of the Roman spectacle, and that may still come in a later post.  Instead what I found was a reminder that sometimes the gulf between “us” and Cicero’s Rome is much narrower, and much less flattering, than we might think.

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