Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Brutalization of American Culture: We've Seen this Before

This morning I read of a widow of a one year old who just lost her 11 year old daughter to poisoned Halloween candy. Our culture become more brutal, mean and senseless with each passing week. Violence is everywhere in our streets, our TV's and movies. The popularity of Cage Fighting is a demonstration of the dehumanization of our culture. If we look to history, we can see that we have been here before. Great cultures can be corrupted by violence. This short article from Kairos Journal is an example. Read it an pray for your nation.

Savagery in the Arena: The Brutalization of the Roman Empire

Towards the end of the first century, the Roman Emperor Domitian1 staged a favorite drama, Laureolus, in the arena rather than at a traditional theatre. The play’s namesake was a runaway slave who became the leader of a gang of highway robbers. He was captured eventually and executed, both by crucifixion and the attack of wild animals. The play was no different; Domitian had the bright idea of inserting a condemned criminal into the title role and making his execution a real one. The Roman writer Martial recorded the crucifixion of this unfortunate “Laureolus” and how he “gave up his vitals defenceless to a Caledonian bear.”2

This terrible incident is just one of the many cruel and bloody spectacles for which the Roman amphitheatre became notorious. It began with small-scale gladiatorial fighting, but soon evolved into major productions of torture and bloodletting for mass entertainment. The earliest recorded contests took place in 264 B.C., between three pairs of gladiators at a ceremony Decimus Junius Brutus held in honor of his dead father. Later on, these fights became so popular that candidates for public office sought to curry favor with the voters by sponsoring them – a public relations exercise that grew in scale as the Republic collapsed and the era of emperors began.

As the popular appetite for violent entertainment increased, the repertoire of Roman “games” was extended to include fights between wild animals (for example, elephants against bulls); fights between humans and wild animals; and the execution of criminals by wild animals and by each other.3 One particularly sad and early example of this growing inhumanity occurred in 55 B.C. when elephants were pitted against javelin-throwers at games organized by Julius Caesar’s future rival, Pompey.4 According to Cicero, who witnessed the occasion, the crowd was greatly impressed but manifested no pleasure: “Indeed, the result was a certain compassion and a kind of feeling that the huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.”5

But as time went on, constant exposure to violence and bloodshed hardened the hearts of the spectators and encouraged the staging of ever more bloody and novel amusements. The Emperor Trajan,6 for example, had 11,000 animals slaughtered at a spectacle lasting 123 days in A.D. 107, and in the years between 106 and 114 some 23,000 men fought to the death.7 Nor were these orgies of cruelty and bloodletting confined to the city of Rome. They extended throughout the empire, for nearly every town built its own arena and staged its own games. In Sparta (Greece), for instance, youths had to prove their fortitude by being scourged at the altar of Artemis Orthia: “Around the altar was erected a theatre, so that a better view could be obtained of the scourgings, the endurance of the lads, the sanguinary [bloody] scenes.”8 Reflecting on the period, historian W. H. Lecky, wrote, “Those hateful games…spread their brutalizing influence wherever the Roman name was known,” rendering “millions absolutely indifferent to the sight of human suffering.”9 Not surprisingly, early Christian apologists, such as Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225),10 vigorously condemned the Roman arena and all those involved with it.

At first reading, these cruel appetites and practices seem distant and bizarre, but a look at contemporary entertainment shows that decency is, for many, a veneer. The same dark impulses that filled the Coliseum are present in the heart of modern man. Hence, the popularity of Saw movies, where victims are forced to mutilate themselves and others to escape; the rise of “no mercy” and “modern gladiator” bouts, so-called “extreme fighting” by men in cages; the incidence of staged dog fights, drawing a celebrity audience. Thus, the coarsening continues, obscuring the image of God in man. Today, it is more a matter of gruesome drama than actual death, but once the conscience is seared, the viewer desires yet greater thrills. Perhaps history is coming full turn, with a new production of Domitian’s Laureolus in the works.


He ruled from A.D. 81 to 96.


Anne Glyn-Jones, Holding up A Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (London: Century, 1996), 104-105.


Ibid., 95-98.


Lived from 106 - 48 B.C.


Glyn-Jones, 97.


Emperor from A.D. 98-117.


Glyn-Jones, 100.


Martin P. Nilsson, Imperial Rome, tr. G. C. Richards (London: Bell, 1926), 180.


W. H. Lecky, quoted in Glyn-Jones, 259.


“If we can plead that cruelty is allowed us, if impiety, if brute savagery, by all means let us go to the amphitheatre.” Quoted in ibid., 169.

1 comment:

Pat said...

Just found your blog and found it quite interesting! I will return...