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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

Gladiatoral games uncovered

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, March 23, 2007

On Sunday, March 18, students, faculty and community members filled Viking Theatre to hear Professor Garret Fagan of Penn State University discuss “The Lure of the Roman Arena: Comparative and Psychological Perspectives.”

Fagan began by warning his audience that his talk would not spare the “nitty-gritty” details of the Roman gladiatorial games and of other assorted sorts of torture and brutality, noting that the full Roman games (tellingly called munera, or ‘duties,’ in Latin) comprised morning beast fights, either beast versus beast or beast versus man, executions during the lunch break, often by exposure to beasts, burning, crucifixion or some combination of all three, and the main event during the afternoon: the performance of “highly trained, quasi- or wholly-professional fighters.” Thus the Roman games had three essential elements: the giver, who paid for them, the performers or victims and the “ravening mob of spectators.”

Fagan argued in his talk that viewing the games was “a potent social and psychological experience” which has not been sufficiently accounted for outside of its specifically Roman cultural context or from a modern psychological perspective. In other words, most studies of the games discuss them as a particularly Roman experience with only subconscious appeal, but violent spectacles, Fagan noted, have exerted a powerful conscious appeal on people in all times, cultures and places, whether ludic, punitive or religiously mandated, from Aztec human sacrifices to English hangings to American lynchings.

With the proviso that his approach necessarily assumes the general applicability of modern psychological research to the ancient Romans, Fagan argued that the Romans’ enjoyment of gladiatorial games can be ascribed to crowd dynamics, the indulgence of stereotypes versus outgroups, the excitement and the attraction of violence. He drew repeated attention to the fact that the seating arrangements in the arena facilitated the psychological processes at work there. By and large, Roman spectators sat among peer groups.

Crowd theory has only recently begun to move beyond the 19th century idea of the “mindless mob,” but recently social psychologists have realized that crowds have several distinctive aspects and that they are never mindless. Crowds, Fagan pointed out, always have a predetermined reason to gather, and thus a nascent social identity even before crowds begin to congregate. This nascent identity is further enabled by the fact that crowds are composed of smaller subgroups.

Moreover, when crowds congregate, they do so in the presence of those they label as “outsiders,” and they categorize those outsiders in terms of stereotypes common to the crowds. Crowd members also do not “lose” their social identities, but instead their various identities adapt to the crowd’s circumstances and conform to its norms. Thus the expression of the crowd’s identity vis-à-vis outgroups is experienced as liberating and empowering.

Because Roman spectators were so strictly segregated according to class, gender, property status, citizenship and a host of other factors, the cohesion of the crowd in the arena was heightened and thus cast into relief the salience of the outgroups performing in the gladiatorial events. Thus, the historically infamous bloodthirstiness of the arena crowds.

Fagan concluded his discussion with a lengthy analysis of the most extended ancient commentary on spectatorship at the games, written by none other than St. Augustine. In the “Confessions,” Augustine talks about his “friend,” Alypius, whom Fagan and other scholars believe in fact to have been Augustine himself. Alypius’ experience of watching the games was an almost paradigmatic illustration of the modern facets of crowd theory which Fagan detailed. Ultimately, he concluded, a “focus on the psychology of spectatorship might lift the arena out of its Roman context and bring it uncomfortably closer to home.”

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