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The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.

Barton contends that certain emotional extremes (despair, desire, fascination, and envy) were characteristic of the Roman world in the late Republic and early Empire (1st C. B.C.-2nd C. A.D.) and that the gladiator and the "monster" (the latter being the grotesque in general) were the most conspicuous manifestations of these emotions. For Barton, "the 'gladiator madness' of the Romans was simply a distillation of the parching liquors of despair and desire that had, elsewhere within |their~ culture, reached a point of saturation".

Barton is among a growing number of scholars who are dedicated to making the familiar Romans unfamiliar. What sets her apart is her use of language (the author is fond of adjectives), her reminders that history is a construct (The Past is unknowable), and the sprinkling of her narrative with popular cultural references (Freud, Foucault, and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, for example). Barton often reveals her own identity through the interjection of value judgments, duly noted as such. One cannot help being impressed by the breadth of her knowledge and by her daring rejection of the staid academic tone that is usual in the field of Roman history.

The author claims to be innovative and ground-breaking. Drawing on new historicist and deconstructive critical strategies, she warns that her methods "may not appear excessively strange to ethnologists and historians of mental life; but they may cause some consternation to ancient historians". But Barton is not the only historian to have gone beyond dwelling on the empirical truth of what ancient authors say. Critically aware scholars (such as T. P. Wiseman whom Barton frequently footnotes) have for years judged, "the metaphor, the fantasy, the deliberate falsehood, the mundane, the truism, the literary topos" to be "as valuable as a report of Tacitus or an imperial decree," which Barton says is the hallmark of her own method. They have done so out of necessity, since Roman social history has few literary documents and no untapped resources in archives and public libraries such as exist for later periods.

Barton wants to explicate a broad cultural phenomenon ("the sorrows of the ancient Romans"), but her discussion draws only on the ideas of a limited number of elite authors of the early Empire: mainly Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, Martial, Juvenal, and Tacitus. She worries that she has "cast her net altogether too widely through the sources". On the contrary, Barton's net has not been cast widely enough. For example, she provides a valuable discussion of the use of gladiatorial metaphors in Seneca--valuable for an understanding of Seneca and his audience. To generalize about the Roman world on the basis of Seneca's writings, however, requires more evidence and argument than the author provides.

Some good points are made, such as that the Romans' interest in the "grotesque" (mocking mime shows, promiscuous Saturnalia parties, etc.) had less to do with moral laxness than with the inflexibility of their culture. But unwary readers should know that this book offers little of value about Roman gladiators. In fact, it perpetuates several myths about them. Barton claims, for instance, that when a man became a gladiator he embraced "cosmic cruelty"; that the arena was emblematic of "the Roman esthetique de l'agonie"; that it was part of a "larger drama of unbearable emotions" which constituted "the Roman theatre of cruelty". Barton finds the Romans "surpassing strange--the great carnivores of the ancient world--exercising the same fascination as a Siberian tiger or a great white shark".

Ironically, the Romans were much stranger than Barton thinks. Firstly, they did not conceive of arena activities as cruel; they thought that watching gladiators was entertaining and good for people (it inured young men to violence). Romans simply did not care about most of the people who fought and died in the amphitheatre; their sympathy for another's suffering was proportional to the sufferer's degree of dignitas, and most arena combatants had none. They went to the arena not because they enjoyed suffering but because of the excitement of an uncertain and dramatic outcome. They also went to watch men display skill and fighting prowess, or virtus (one of the key ingredients of the Roman self-image). Their interest in the arena had much to do with their conception of themselves as a military people, i.e. their conception of what it meant to be Roman. Barton's idea that the deaths and tortures of the arena were significant per se is an un-Roman one.

To paint a picture of a "cruel" arena, Barton resorts to exaggerating the participation of free people in gladiatorial combat. In fact, most citizens who fought in the arena were not aristocrats who did so as "the suicidal culmination of a life of self-indulgence", but were members of the lower and middle strata of Roman society, as their epitaphs make clear. These people became gladiators because of poverty, debt, or to avoid decades of legionary service in distant provinces (see the discussion in Thomas Wiedemann's Emperors and Gladiators, Routledge, 1992, pp. 108ff.). Most gladiators were defeated enemies and condemned criminals of servile status. In ancient literature, instances of senators or equestrians appearing as gladiators are mentioned only because they were unusual.

Barton's thesis that "gladiator madness" was a function of the cessation of conquest under the Empire follows Keith Hopkins's Death and Renewal, Cambridge, 1983, Ch. 1. This view helps her to link gladiators with her favorite lugubrious writers of Nero's court. The thesis is demonstrably untrue. Archaeological and literary evidence show that gladiatorial games had been very popular in the late Republic when Roman imperialism was at its height. Gladiatorial combat became more and more extravagant in the 1st C. B.C. in the climate of competition on the part of dynasts such as Pompey and Caesar. It was in order to restrain that (ruinous) competition that the early Roman emperors passed legislation limiting the frequency of gladiatorial games and the number of pairs of gladiators that could be shown (see Cassius Dio 54.2; Suetonius, Tiberius 34 & 47; Tacitus Annales 13.31). For example, the particularly bloody munus sine missione (a type of combat with no reprieve for the fallen gladiator) was banned under Augustus--surely not because it was cruel, but because it was wasteful.

Barton makes much of Roman ennui. She tells us that, "when the Romans' conquest exposed 'the world' to them, when endless wealth made uncommon pleasures easy to obtain ... the Romans of the late Republic and early empire were compelled to go to great lengths to stimulate and feed new desires and to keep one desperate step ahead of satiation" ... "the quest of suffering (one's own and another's) became a search for limits, for reality". That such a state of affairs was pervasive during this period is arguable in itself. In any event, it almost certainly did not go beyond a tiny, privileged circle (here Barton betrays her "senatorial" perspective on Roman history). Because of the aristocratic nature of the sources, it is easy to forget that gladiatorial combat was rooted in popular support and not in upper-class interest. "Keeping one desperate step ahead of satiation" can have had no relevance for the Suburan innkeeper, the Puteolan banker, the Athenian archon seated in the front row of the Theatre of Dionysus, the soldier stationed at Carnuntum, and for most other fans of gladiatorial games. It might, however, help to explain why elaborate executions of condemned criminals forced to dress up as characters from Greek myth became part of the arena repertoire in early imperial times, at least in Rome.

We may also be skeptical that aristocratic fondness for the arena was connected with political disillusionment and loss of dignitas as Rome moved from a republican to a monarchical form of government. Barton says that the arena offered a "stage on which might be reenacted a lost set of sorely lamented values," that the arena could be a "real test of valor that the consulate, the praetorship, the imperial throne was not". For those who lived in a world in which everything outside the arena was a "loathsome and bitter burlesque," the gladiator was a symbol of self-vindication. But many Roman aristocrats of the early imperial period (one thinks of Pliny the Elder) did not conceive of their political careers as undignified or meaningless.

Carlin Barton has written a provocative study of the emotional world of the ancient Romans, but it is compromised by her narrow literary perspective. Even within that perspective, Barton often makes judgments in modern, instead of in Roman terms. She overemphasizes the redemptive value of death and suffering in a world where these things were ordinary. We can get closer to an understanding of the "strange" Romans if we discipline ourselves to think of death as something banal, and if we try to put aside our modern notion of the inherent worth of individuals.

Katherine Welch New York University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Author:Welch, Katherine
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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