The Magazine

Their Sporting Life

Of games and gladiators, Greeks and Romans.

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By J.E. LENDON
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Gladiators did die—probably more died from sepsis from nonfatal cuts than from being killed outright on the sand—but most matches were fought to the surrender of the less-skilled competitor, and both gladiators went on to fight another day. Like bullfighters, gladiators were highly skilled professionals, the product of years of intense training. They were showmen more than slaughterers.

In the immense extent of Roman history, moreover, gladiatorial combat flowered for a term, and then wilted naturally away. Tastes changed, and gladiators could not, in the long run, compete with the Romans’ first love: chariot-racing. The Romans believed that chariot-racing was nearly coeval with their city; when a new Rome, gathered of human scraps and scrapings, lacked for women, Romulus, Rome’s mythical founder, invited the neighboring Sabine folk to chariot races and seized theirs. In fact, Roman chariot-racing was borrowed early from Greece, where tyrants and men of wealth grazed horses and hired drivers to race their teams at Olympia. 

But the Romans made chariot-racing corporate. A rich Roman wishing to sponsor games did not breed horses himself, but contracted for steeds and drivers from the four established teams: the Greens, Blues, Reds, and Whites. Under the empire, these circus factions took on nearly all the administration of the racing, and (in a very modern touch) the weaker Reds and the Whites became wholly owned subsidiaries of the Blues and the Greens. Top drivers operated as free agents of nearly modern cynicism, leaping from faction to faction in search of better horses and higher money, and, like top professional athletes today, they could accumulate enormous fortunes.  

Roman sports, however, had none of the social splendor of the Greek. Poor-boy-made-good was part of the mystique of chariot-racing; and as for gladiators, the historian Thomas Wiedemann maintained that the moral uplift of gladiatorial combat for the audience lay exactly in watching the most socially abject of creatures bootstrap themselves to wealth and fame by practicing virtus, or physical courage—the quality that Romans liked to think most perfectly encompassed their national character.

But there we go again, trying to conjure all of Roman culture from the blood on the sand, trying to make gladiatorial combat into the single special activity that defined the differentness of Rome. And that, Potter reminds us, would be as odd as trying to reduce the culture of the Greeks to their eager pursuit of gloios, the mixture of sand, oil, and sweat that a Greek athlete scraped off his body after exercise, and which was prized for its medical and magical properties. 

We must not be ashamed of enjoying sports for sports’ sake, and oddness for oddness’s sake—as the reader of The Victor’s Crown is invited to do again and again—content that, in history, the eye-catchingly strange is not necessarily important, but also that what is important is not necessarily all that strange.  

J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of  Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.