Nipissing University  -- History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Reading for March 7, 2001

Seneca on the Gladitorial Games

Introduction (Muhlberger):

Seneca was a literary figure, philosopher, and courtier-politician in the time of the early emperors.   He was first a trusted advisor and then a victim of Nero.   He wrote a collection of philosophical letters to a friend, of which this is one.   It discusses the relationship between the philosopher and the mass of humanity, although for most of us the chief interest is what he says about the gladitorial games of his time.

What are Seneca's objections to the gladitorial games?   What makes you think that his objections were not widely shared?   What might a supporter of the games reply to Seneca?   What can we learn about the games themselves from this excerpt?

   Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust  yourself to them with safety. I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same  character that I took abroad with me.  Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed;  some of the foes that I have routed return again.  Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in  such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the   the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering  discase.  To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us,  or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith.  Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the  greater the danger.

      But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals  subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.  What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more  greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human  beings.  By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, - an exhibition at  which men's eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men.  But it was quite the reverse.  The previous  combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have  no defensive armour.  They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.  Many persons  prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts "by request." Of course they do; there is no helmet or  shield to deflect the weapon.  What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill?  All these mean delaying death.  In  the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators.  The spectators  demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest  conqueror for another butchering.  The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword.  This  sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.  You may retort: "But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!" And what of it?  Granted that, as a murderer, he  deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this  show?  In the morning they cried "Kill him!  Lash him!  Burn him; Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a  way?  Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn't he die game?  Whip him to meet his wounds!  Let them receive  blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!" And when the games stop for the intermission, they  announce: "A little throatcutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!"

      Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example. reacts on the agent?  Thank the  immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. The young character, which  cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority.  Even  Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so  true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that  approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.  Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the  familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperecptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our  covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless  and sincere.  What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it!  You must  either imitate or loathe the world.