The Death Of The World’s Greatest Death Sport

Understanding why Rome's gladiatorial games came to an end begins with understanding what gave birth to them

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Oct 25, 2016 at 1:22 PM ET

On a hard stone seat of the Colosseum in in the year 106 AD, Rome’s late-summer sun beats down on the back of your neck. A joyous mood hangs over the metropolis of nearly a million people, the political and cultural center of the hyperpower that dominates the Mediterranean world and beyond, from the deserts by the Euphrates River near modern day Iraq, to Scotland’s lonely moors and glens.

The Emperor Trajan has returned to the city from Dacia, today’s Romania, with celebration on his mind. His two-year campaign of conquest beyond the Danube River has proven victorious, with a new province added to the Roman Empire and hundreds of thousands of exotic barbarian prisoners in tow. To mark this accomplishment, Trajan has decreed an unprecedented gift to the people of Rome: 123 days of parties, festivals, and, above all, games.

Packed in with more than 50,000 fellow enthusiasts, you watched the beast fights this morning, as skilled hunters fought against an exotic array of imported animals, including lions, tigers, bears, elephants, and even giraffes.

The public executions came afterward, as convicted criminals and some of the Dacian barbarians Trajan brought back suffered an array of gut-wrenching fates.

But now it’s time for the gladiators. As entertaining as it is to watch the slaughter of exotic animals, as empowered as you feel drinking in the maintenance of social order through the grisly death of criminals and barbarians, only the gladiators can offer the kind of well-matched professional skill that speaks to you as a connoisseur of death and violence.

You have a favorite, a strapping German secutor from beyond the Rhine River with 30 bouts in the Colosseum under his belt and a public profile so immense that cheap pottery emblazoned with his name and image is distributed as far away as Britain.

This time, the secutor’s sword, shield, and helmet are matched against the weighted net and trident of a retiarius. The German plays it smart, using slick footwork to avoid his opponent’s net and then picking his spots to explode forward, putting him safely inside the reach of the trident.

Disarmed and planted on the ground, the retiarius raises two fingers to ask for mercy. Trajan stands in his palatial, private box and considers the crowd’s response. A disappointing performance, the tens of thousands in the arena decide, and they chant in unison for the death of the retiarius. The emperor agrees. He pulls his thumb, held parallel to the ground, in a slashing motion.

The victorious German stabs deep into the defeated net-man’s throat, and the crowd—aristocrat and day laborer, shopkeeper and senator, rich and poor, male and female—explodes in a spasm of euphoria.

Gladiatorial games are one of the defining characteristics of the Roman Empire in popular culture. Movies like “Gladiator” and the multiple iterations of the Spartacus story in film and television have brought these combatants into the forefront of our understanding of an empire and its associated social and cultural order, which persisted for centuries longer than the United States has existed.

The appeal is easy to understand. For us as for the Romans, gladiators were fascinating figures, at the same time famous and infamous, celebrated and reviled. Like professional athletes today, they commanded the love of the crowd. Unlike our sports heroes, however, they dealt not in points, but in death itself.

Gladiatorial contests were the most beloved and sought-after spectacle for a jaded crowd accustomed to brutality, but they were just one piece of the Roman commitment to the packaging of violence and death as mass entertainment.

Contests pitting wild animals, the more exotic the better, against specially trained fighters called bestiarii were a cornerstone of the arena’s violent delights. A bewildering array of techniques for public execution—including crucifixion, immolation, vivisection, slaughter via animal, and even the bizarre reenactment of death scenes from mythology—were another popular draw. “The execution phase of arena spectacles cannot have been anything other than viscerally brutal,” writes the historian Garrett Fagan. “This was sheer murder.”

“He looked, he shouted, he was fired up, and he carried away with him the madness that would goad him to return,” wrote the Christian theologian Augustine of a friend who attended the gladiatorial games. Anyone who has ever sat in a packed stadium for a major college football game or watched a mixed martial arts title fight can understand the mixture of heightened emotions that washed over a Roman in the midst of such a crowd.

What’s less familiar to us is the subject of that rapt attention.

How could the Romans have taken such pleasure in the most extreme violence? What did they see when they watched a lion sink its teeth into a convict, or a pair of gladiators engaged in a skilled duel to the death? Why did the Romans expend their material and human resources to this end?

It begins with the very notion of human rights, which would have seemed absurd to even the most enlightened Roman. This was a slave society defined by its organization around the exploitation of forced human labor; to not own a slave was synonymous with utter destitution, and a wealthy person would possess hundreds or thousands of slaves.

Worse yet, the obsessively hierarchical nature of Roman society marked slaves as entirely disposable, and it’s hard not to see how this view of an entire class of people bled into attitudes about death and violence in general.

In this understanding of society, particular acts of violence were suited to particular ranks of people. To our eyes, crucifixion is a ghastly form of execution, but the only horrifying thing about it to your average Roman would have been applying it to the wrong kind of person. For a slave, crucifixion was an entirely appropriate form of death; for a citizen, it was unthinkable.

What happened on the sands of the arena both grew out of and reinforced this ingrained understanding of status built upon the superiority of citizens and free people over slaves, who lived without a shred of legal rights, much less humanity.

Those who fought and died in the arena fell into the last category. The vast majority of those killed for sport in the Roman world weren’t specially trained gladiators, but noxii (the root of our English word noxious): prisoners of war, bandits, pirates, and prisoners condemned for individual crimes. They were, from the perspective of the crowd, human garbage.

Gladiators were drawn from these same ranks, or voluntarily forfeited whatever status they had once held. While a courageous death and skill at arms could redeem them in the eyes of the crowd, they were still legally and morally despicable. Even if freed, gladiators were still subject to legal restrictions: They could never become citizens or even make a will.

The spectacle of animals, prisoners, and gladiators fighting and dying spoke directly to the Roman viewer’s sense of the proper order of the world. Even an impoverished shopkeeper could watch a famous gladiator die and know that he, the observer, was still above that poor wretch. To be Roman was to know that there was always someone below you, and what happened in the arena was the quintessential reminder of the boundaries of us, the crowd, versus them, the damned.

Roman views of status and of violence, and the ways in which they intertwined, were one major piece of the context that produced gladiatorial combat. The second was the relationship between the urban population of Roman cities and the most important people in those communities.

Transactional relationships were the glue that held the Roman world together. Vertical ties between powerful, wealthy patrons and their subordinate clients, the bread and butter of Roman society, required explicit responsibilities for both parties.

The wealthy and powerful were expected to give liberally from their own pockets for the benefit of their communities. Distributing free food and wine and endowing buildings such as theaters or bathhouses were common gestures, but providing entertainment was the gold standard.

This practice of private giving for public purposes, known as euergetism, was the norm for urban aristocrats throughout the Greco-Roman world. It was an arms race to give the best entertainments and benefactions, to be remembered as the most generous and beloved. Pride in one’s city and a genuine desire to be acclaimed by one’s fellow citizens drove this competition.

The competition between aristocrats, which also included the emperor himself as the putative first among equals, created a market for the specialist violence gladiators provided.

By the reign of Marcus Aurelius—the kindly old gentleman who was smothered to death by his psychotic son Commodus at the beginning of “Gladiator”—around 180 AD, one estimate suggests that the total annual value of gladiatorial games was on the range of 60 to 120 million sesterces. Depending on your rate of conversion, that’s between $350 million and $1.5 billion in today’s money just for gladiatorial games. The sum doesn’t include animal fights, the cost of public executions, or the free food and booze that went along with these entertainments.

In this kind of market, gladiators were the equivalent of professional athletes, as far removed from the condemned criminals thrown to the beasts as beer-league softball players are from the Chicago Cubs.

The same law that provides the estimate of the total value of the gladiator industry also tells us that competitors were broken down into increasingly expensive tiers depending on how experienced and skilled they were. They were too valuable, in fact, to consign to automatic death in the event they lost. Assuming the crowd and the editor of the games approved, there was no reason for a defeated gladiator to be killed.

Even in the event of serious injury, they received medical attention, up to and including amputation. The epitaph of one gladiator, a secutor from Syria named Flamma, says that he fought 34 times, with 21 victories, nine draws, and four occasions on which he was spared.

At their peak, just before the end of the second century AD, gladiators were specialized, well cared-for fighters trained for a marketplace of discerning, jaded consumers of ultraviolence, all paid for by a competitive class of urban aristocrats desperate to win the acclaim of their less fortunate countrymen.

This gladiatorial arms race between aristocrats for the approval of the urban population contained the seeds of its own destruction. Only an exceptionally prosperous urban elite could afford to spend these amounts of money on benefactions, and even at the peak of both city aristocrats’ wealth and the strength of this ethos of euergetism, the expense could still be ruinous.

Over the course of the third century, disaster after disaster struck the Roman Empire. The period is known, fittingly, as the Crisis of the Third Century. Usurper after usurper claimed the imperial throne, with no fewer than 20 men holding the title between 235 and 284. Only three of those 20 weren’t assassinated. In the context of that political instability, raids and invasions from beyond the frontier devastated cities and entire regions, while plague periodically wiped out tens of thousands of people.

Most devastating of all was a decades-long financial crisis that came about as a result of debasement of the coinage. Soldiers still had to be paid, and the only way to make up the huge budget shortfalls that came about due to barbarian raiding and usurpations was to devalue the currency, which caused runaway inflation.

The combination of these crises hit urban areas the hardest, and they effectively destroyed a necessary piece of the structures that had produced gladiatorial contests on a massive scale.

Plague jumped from city to city on the back of the Roman Empire’s tremendous infrastructure of ports and roads: If the weather was right, a flare-up of smallpox in Rome could hit Carthage in North Africa in five days, Marseilles in a week, Egypt in two, and Syria in three. Across the Roman world, cities contracted from their peaks in both size and population.

The elites in these cities, the ones who spent so much cash on entertainment for their fellow citizens, felt the effects of the financial crisis. Their wealth came from a combination of business interests, including agricultural estates that produced surpluses for export and the shipping businesses that moved those foodstuffs. Increasingly worthless coinage and shrinking export markets tightened their budgets, leaving less money to spend on pricey gladiatorial games.

On a less material level, the Crisis of the Third Century frayed the strands of reciprocity that tied together the urban elites and the people of the cities they dominated.

The Roman Empire of the first two centuries AD, which contained between 60 and 70 million residents at its peak, functioned with only a tiny central bureaucracy surrounding the emperor, a household of just a few hundred legal, tax, and military experts who handled correspondence and decision-making at the highest levels.

The actual work of governance throughout the Empire, of tax collection and legal judgment, provisioning of supplies and the building of aqueducts and other infrastructure, was handled by the same local elites who competed for the favor of their fellow citizens. Acclamation and election to office meant that these aristocrats were the people with whom the imperial court and its tiny cadre of bureaucrats communicated when they made a decision.

This was a win-win situation for everyone except those who had the misfortune of winding up on the wrong end of a sword or a tiger’s jaws in the arena. The people received gifts and entertainment, the “bread and circuses” made famous by the poet Juvenal, while the aristocrats received the prestige necessary to mark themselves out as the ones with whom the central government would do business.

Most people living during the reign of Marcus Aurelius would never have met an actual imperial official in their entire lives, only the local aristocrats whose names and faces they knew with some intimacy from their benefactions and public appearances.

The Crisis of the Third Century destroyed this social contract between urban populations and local elites. It’s not a coincidence that the relationship between the central imperial government and these communities also changed.

In place of a light touch and the heavy involvement of city aristocrats, an increasingly impersonal, bureaucratic state grew up in its place. Officials working directly for the emperor collected the taxes, passed judgment in legal matters, and handled provisioning. This new service aristocracy, which received its orders, pay, and rank in society from the state, had no need of the acclamation and approval of the communities it administered.

Without those bonds of reciprocity between ruler and ruled, there was no need to compete through games, and this meant that there was increasingly little need for gladiators, the most expensive form of bloodsport. In the west, the poorer part of the Roman Empire, gladiatorial games disappeared by the end of the third century; the wealthier, Greek-speaking eastern half of the empire retained them a bit longer. Only in Rome, the city home to the wealthiest, most traditionally minded aristocrats, were gladiatorial games still a going concern in the last quarter of the fourth century. However, even there, the imperial gladiator barracks closed in either 397 or 399.

Amid this economic restructuring of Roman cities and their elites, one other factor reared its head: the rise of Christianity. According to Christian moralists, the problem with gladiatorial combats wasn’t so much gruesome violence and death in public, but the shameful and destructive emotions they engendered among the crowd. Under pressure by Christian bishops, Emperor Constantine the Great prohibited sentencing condemned criminals to the gladiatorial schools, as did Valentinian with specifically Christian criminals 40 years later.

Still, the rise of Christianity wasn’t the deciding factor. First, gladiatorial games were gone in most of the west by the time religious conversion became a real issue. Second, the fact that the prohibitions had to be repeated over and over, and that gladiatorial games pop up in isolated incidents until the middle of the fifth century, speaks to the futility of Christian moralists’ attempts to ban the practice. It’s all but impossible to make a taboo of something woven into the fabric of society.

However, once Roman society’s urban relationships, aristocratic competition, and overflowing prosperity ceased to be, the conditions that produced the market for the gladiators’ skilled violence was gone forever. Still, the public’s taste for blood remained. 

Romans were no less enamored of gory spectacle as diversion in the fourth, fifth, and sixth century than they had been in the first and second. Wild beast shows remained popular well into the sixth century—the last recorded instance at the Colosseum took place on the first of January, 523.

As for public executions, those never went out of style.