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Roman Honor and Proto-martyrs

Evie Thibault
09:48 PM ET (US)
Q: Reading Cicero and Seneca, what is the gladiator supposed to represent? What do you think is really going on?

In both Cicero and Seneca, it seems that the gladiator is supposed to represent the most exalted form courage. As Cicero explains, the gladiator provided an example for others to follow, since “there could be no better schooling against pain and death at any rate for the eye…” Cicero implies that anyone could show the courage of the gladiator in meeting death, if given the right training. Seneca offers an example of the unsuccessful gladiator, relaying the crowd’s reaction to one who died with less honor. The audience’s question, “Why die so squeamishly?” lets us know that they expected a proud and unflinching death from the gladiator. As Seneca explains, the “evil in tortures and other so-called adverse conditions” is “In the drooping, bending and truckling of the soul.” So the gladiator’s role was to model the virtuous death and avoid the evil of cowardice.

The trouble with gladiatorial combat, as Martial and Tertullian were aware, is that it is not strictly “real.” The gladiator fights because he must, and dies because he must, not because of some great philosophical realization of the futility of living just to live. It is this that leads Cicero to call it “cruel” and Seneca to condemn the audience as short-sighted. The spectacle is a “bad example” primarily because it is a staged example.

To get a little off-track, I want to address one of Laura’s questions. She asked “Can someone be a martyr who only acts out of self interest if it is described as public interest or belief?” The example of the gladiator offers an interesting answer to this because the lines between public and private interest are not neatly drawn. She points to Cicero’s explanation that the gladiator seeks his owner’s approval as indicative of a false kind of honor. I propose a different way of looking at it. This seeking of approval may be the only true kind of honor. We tend to see gladiatorial contests as pure entertainment, but they performed other functions for Roman society. Carlin Barton (in “Sorrows of the Ancient Romans”) makes a strong case for gladiators as a redeeming part of Roman society, a way for Rome to gain back honor through individual example. To complicate this, as Hannah hinted at, not all gladiators were slaves. Some free men, even citizens, voluntarily surrendered their public status in order to participate in a gladiatorial contest. Whatever honor they could gain as gladiators was more attractive than what they had previously. Although it might not fit Seneca’s idea of honor, that of doing what is not expected and doing it for oneself, gladiatorial honor was a real and tangible idea for ancient Rome. To complicate this further, Barton also suggests that gladiators, by being so public, served to attract the hostility of the gods and deflect it from general society. In this way, the honor of the gladiator is the honor of self-sacrifice for the public good. It is just a different way of looking at public good than we are accustomed to from the Greek sources.

Gladiators are not strictly martyrs in the way we’ve been thinking about them, but I tend to see them as witnessing to the public will. Most did not die as part of a spectacle for any great personal belief, but they may have died for a public belief. It is hard to say which is more consistent, but I think the gladiatorial example influenced later Christian martyrs, if only in providing the kind of example Cicero speaks of.
Kate McConnaughey
08:51 AM ET (US)
Q: Reading Tertullian, who are the gladiators? How does he view the games and the audience?

A: I find Tertullian's view of the gladiators quite interesting. Rather than showing the fighters as heroes or entertainment, Tertullian stands against the popular pastime and views the gladiators as murderers and criminals, wrongly valued in Roman culture. His descriptions show the gladiator arena similar to the center for a cult, complete with the audience members as worshippers praising men who have recently been punished by the same public for a crime. Tertullian's view of the hypocrisy arises from this, wherein the men given a "choice" of punishment for a crime are now viewed as Gods with significant honor bestowed upon them, thus, not really a punishment at all (especially in light of Roman society and the idea of individual honor). He largely focuses on God and the search for truth, in that God disregards all that is false and every form of hypocrisy, thus condemning the practice of gladiatorial events.
Ana M. Pardo
01:47 AM ET (US)
4) Reading Cicero and Seneca, what is the gladiator supposed to represent? What do you think is really going on?

Interesting critics to the set of the arena and the gladiator are both made by Seneca and Cicero.
Cicero writes: ‘a gladiator show is apt to seem cruel and brutal to some eyes, and I incline to think that it is so, as now conducted.’ In fact he agrees with the brutality aspect of what is seen in the arena because the gladiator’s struggle has lost its purpose and has become a ‘show’. It’s become a way of entertainment, instead of being a demonstration that serves the purpose of teaching people the pains of punishment when committing a crime. The scene at the arena is pure ‘butchery’ and it can be either part of the program or special request as Seneca explains.
The people in charge of the gladiator show are punishing murderers for committing a crime but are themselves murdering to be entertained!
I thought about Karen's question on where is the act of witness in suicide. I think that it is through the learning of someone's suicide and not through viewing the act itself that there is witness. Suicide is set to be a memorable example. What people witness is death and the person's abscence, the result of a reason to die, with no regard for the way in which the act was done.
Karen Johanns
11:22 PM ET (US)
I thought about Laura's question "Can someone be a martyr who only acts out of self interest if it is disguised as public interest or belief?" as I was reading Seneca's letter to Lucilius, since I was primarily concentrating on his argument in favor of suicide and trying to link it back to the theme of martyrdom.

The word "martyr," as I'm sure we are all intimately aware of by now, comes from the Greek "marturon," which means "to bear witness." In our previous readings we came upon those who died for some kind of ideal which they believed to be larger than themselves, whether it be for famiy, nation, or personal honor. There was a kind of "bearing witness" outside themselves. In this week's readings, both the gladitorial games and Seneca's praise of suicide seem to fall short of this ideal.

In the case of the arena, the gladiators seem to be largely captives of war or criminals who have been given the choice of fighting (and eventually dying), or being executed or condemned to a life of slavery. Is death in the arena really a witness? To their own bravery or honor? I'm not so sure that this fits the bill. After all, even though Achilles seemed mostly concerned about his own honor in The Iliad, he did sacrifice his life in battle for the glory of the army and for Greece.

As for Seneca, while I can understand his belief that death is preferable to disgrace, he appears to be advocating that the time and manner in which one dies should always be under the individual's control. In this case I really don't see suicide as advocated by Seneca as a witness to any ideal except that of the Self. I wonder if suicide as a means of exercising ultimate control over one's fate, absent the real threat of disgrace or dishonor, should be considered anything other than placing individual desire over all. If that is the case, where is the act of witness?
Edited 10-20-2002 11:25 PM
Mandy Cass
10:40 PM ET (US)
One of Hannah's points is that soldiers in battle gain honor for their families as well as themselves. Something which struck me in this reading is how little regard for family this society had, especially in contrast with the Greek sources we've been reading. In the Oedipus Cycle and Iphegania it seemed everyone was more concerned with the honor and fate of their families than with their personal wellbeing. Roman society, in contrast, appears very selfish. This selfishness also seems to be connected with the way in which they view suicide. In prior sources choosing death always seemed to be a last resort, where in this society one is expected to kill themselves for comparatively minor reasons. In Greece it seemed like honor came from the sacrifice of one for many, in Rome honor springs from not allowing oneself to be disgraced. Death is an escape and not a sacrifice. This is backed by the resignation called for by Lucan, Seneca and Epictetus. Uniformly they state that death is not to be feared, as it releases one from possibly dishonorable situations. Hannah stated in her response that "Suicide, as Seneca would probably concur, is honorable since one is choosing the method, time and circumstances of death." I think this will is equally (if not more) important in Roman society, but that the philosophy of the day makes it easier to come by. It seemed that death was not an easy decision for the Greek martyrs (I am especially thinking of Iphegania) but that Romans (at least those who subscribed to current philosophical inclinations) would have been conditioned to not fear death, but regard it as an easy mechanism for escaping any kind of personal disgrace.
Hannah Fisher
07:37 PM ET (US)
I'm interested in the choice of death instead of living. I think Laura's posting concerned this as well. Cicero argues that people naturally respond to what they've been trained to do or what they're accustomed to. I can't answer Laura's question, by no means, I only have some more questions myself. I think that gladiators and soldiers are equal in their training to face death without fear (or at least, without showing fear). The soldier fights for the cause of his country, whatever it may be. The gladiator fights as an employee of his owner, or like Laura said, for his life. In a sense it's their job to fight and possibly to die for those who employ them. That's their purpose in the most stripped down way, but I think that it gets built up to encompass things like 'honor' and 'bravery.' Why should it matter if some soldiers get hysterical and wet themselves before battle and others sit around stoically thinking only of their duty until death? If they can fight and be warm bodies on the battlefield or in the arena, it shouldn't matter what their attitude or appearance in the face of death are. It does matter though. Great warriors can earn prestige and honor for their families and even find a place in the history of Livy if they put their hands in fire or climb steep cliffs, but also poor warriors get equal attention as bad examples if they are treacherous or overly ambitious. I don't know enough about gladiatorial combat to say whether the gladiators wanted to live or die. The instinct to live is very strong, in order to be a good fighter you have to be willing to give up your life and give yourself up to an afterlife that may be uncertain, unless you are convinced of a better afterlife. Afterlife aside, a good death will benefit your family's honor so, really, though it is your life, you are not the only person concerned. The gladiators, if they're slaves (I'm not convinced that there weren't some free gladiators) would have no family to honor, only their own personal pride, which is also a strong motivator. I can see both sides to the argument as to whether to die in the arena or commit suicide. Suicide, as Seneca would probably concur, is honorable since one is chosing the method, time and circumstances of death. In one of his examples, a German in a gladiatorial school kills himself with a toilet brush. Honorable death? Yes! Seneca believes this man would have chosen a more 'glorifying death,' like jumping off a cliff, if he'd had the opportunity. But since he was not free to do so, he had to take his life the only way he could have. For the other side, I can see that dying in the arena could also be honorable. The thing that strikes me throughout the readings is that death isn't shameful, it's the manner of death that makes the death. There is nothing dishonorable about being killed by someone else, he may have been more skilled, but if courage was shone on the part of the deceased, no one can really begrudge him. It also seems that they made an effort to match people well. I guess what it comes down to is whether you disdain the slavery of being a gladiator and having your death chosen for you or whether you see death in battle (any battle) more honorable than suicide. Maybe introverts choose suicide and extroverts prefer to go out with a bang in the arena and have people talking about what a great fight it was for weeks afterwards? Personal philosophy?
laura sutherland
05:21 PM ET (US)
   I am confused as to what the gladiator represents for Cicero and Seneca. In the Cicero reading, it seems that the gladiator suffers from "the force of habit," in that they are so used to the process of the show, and willing to perform it, that they do not cowardly escape from being hit. Even in death, the gladiators would not shrink from their fate but instead bravely stared death down. I would think that with this said, Cicero believed the gladiators to carry with them a certain honor. However, he also says that they ask permission to submit to the opponent from the audience and their owners-- how does this equal honor if they rely upon someone else's opinon? It feels like this kind of honor is artificial and for the mere sake of thier owners amusement.
  In the Seneca reading about suicide he says "to die soon or die late matters nothing: to die badly or die well is the important point." As an example he uses Rhodian who lived in a cage and fed "like a wild beast." This man did not die on his own terms, but suffered through the degradation because of the possibilies ahead in life. For Seneca this is weakness because Rhodian was humiliated and suffered in living, instead of taking control of his life and death. Here, suicide would be a better answer- why then do gladiators not commit suicide, if to live in captivity and under the control of owners is to lose their honor? Do the gladiators work to gain some honor in the fight and the defeat of others, and then, when all is lost, behave bravely by willing death to come?
  How do soldiers differ? Soldiers fight against an enemy with the belief that they will win and then when defeat is near, bravely embrace death. Does this make them equal to gladiators? Is it that soldiers fight for a cause, but gladiators only fight for their life- which is not always a "good life" as Seneca would describe it. I guess I dont understand how gladiators are honorable in their deaths, even in similar ways to soldiers, but do not receive as much honor or support as the soldiers.
  To pose a question: Can someone be a martyr who only acts out of self interest if it is disguised as public interest or belief?
Fearless Leader
01:47 PM ET (US)
Here are some additional questions to help you think about the texts on Roman honor and the gladiator in our sourcebook.

Roman Honor and the Gladiator, pp. 41-73


1. Note the evolutions of Martial's feelings. Where does he begin, where does he end? What explains the change?

2. What options did Vulteius's men have? Why are some unacceptable? Why do they choose to do what they do? What greater "statement" are they making?

3. Reading Tertullian, who are the gladiators? How does he view the games and the audience?

4. Reading Cicero and Seneca, what is the gladiator supposed to represent? What do you think is really going on?


1. What contradictions do you notice in his thought?

2. Is this a "curable" universe? (I.e., what is evil and can it be remedied?)

3. What are Seneca's chief strategies of survival?

4. What explains the tedium, the ennui, which seems to take hold of him? How does Seneca remedy it?

5. What really is tranquillity and why is it desirable? What does it presuppose? What is Seneca's attitude toward emotional life?

6. How important is the idea of stewardship?

7. What is true virtue?

8. Why is excess "problematized"?

9. Why is suicide presented as attractive by Seneca? Do you think he believes it? Does he convince you with his arguments? Why does he succeed or fail?
Carolina CamargoPerson was signed in when posted
09:29 PM ET (US)

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