Modern Assessments of the Arena's Meaning

Thomas Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (London: Routledge, 1992) 169-80:

Notwithstanding its popularity, it is hard to accept the idea that ludi and munera were a means to divert the people away from politics. . . . [A]ttendance at munera subjected emperors to pressure from the people, rather than diverting potential expressions of political will in other directions. Tiberius preferred to keep away altogether to avoid such pressure; but the unpopularity which this brought upon him shows that it was a mistake which later emperors knew they could not afford to repeat. . . .When an emperor was at Rome, then his personal presence at munera was expected. An emperor who was unpopular might be criticised either for being too interested in these games, or not interested enough: the tightrope which each emperor had to walk was a necessary consequence of the ambiguous position of the emperor as both autocrat and servant of the Roman people. . . .
The Colosseum was built on the site of Nero's highly unpopular Golden House, on land he had sequestered from its owners after the fire of AD 64; when Vespasian had a amphitheatre built on the site, he was symbolizing his own legitimacy as emperor by claiming that he had restored to the Roman people its right to decide on life and death. . . . On each occasion when they fought, gladiators enacted a spectacle of death and rebirth, and they did that in the presence of the Roman people, enabling individuals to come to terms with their mortality by reflecting on the unprecedented power and continuity of Rome's universal rule.

Alison Futrell, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997) 212-13:

The munera formed the basis of a complex of political ritual, meant not so much as a sugar-coated disguise of coercive force as it was the rhetoric of Roman authority enacted. . . . The ritual performance in the arena was a means of Imperial control through directed attitudinal change, the creation and manipulation of mass emotional response, renewed regularly at the behest of the ruling hierarchy. This was a polyvalent ritual, wrapped in layers of meanings to resonate with a diverse viewing public throughout the empire. . . .
This was not gratuitous display, however, not simply exotica; the spectacles served the public good as well as the interests of the Roman center. Here was public pleasure as well as law and order, here was the conquest of the Roman world as well as its integration in the creation of a new balance, a working sociopolitical order. The amphitheater was Roman power, Roman agency, the ability to define and construct the space in which significant actions, resonant in a Roman and provincial interpretation, were made real, given active form, drawing on the spirit of the Roman people and the basic impulses of a mythic past to create and to celebrate a new world order.

Roland Auguet, Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972) 197-98:

[T]he Roman attitude cannot be explained without admitting from the start that it is conditioned by the existence of slavery, that is to say, by the idea that a human being can be simply an instrument. . . .[O]nce a slave, the prisoner or the criminal remained an instrument until his death. Even more, free and fair combat gave him the chance of attaining to the status of a man, of acquiring a dignity of which he was, by definition, deprived. It conferred on him what in the eyes of a Roman was the most precious of privileges, the only one really to be envied, that of dying nobly. . . .
For the Romans the morality of these spectacles lay therefore in what we condemn the most strongly. Nor does it follow that their immorality, insofar as it can be discerned, had the meaning which we attach to it. When Cicero affirms that the munera were cruel and inhuman in their present form we instinctively interpret the phrase as an expression of regret that the blood of men who were not criminals should be shed. Can we be so sure? We ourselves see nothing but the blood. But is he not rather thinking of the degradation, of the dishonour, that the condition of being a gladiator meant for a free man, in that he was, legally and morally, reduced to the status of a slave? To the Romans this downfall . . . seemed worse than death itself.

Barbara F. McManus
December, 1997
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