Abstract: Watching the Fighters: Exploring the Romans’ Fascination with Gladiators


Why did the Romans pack into arenas that could seat tens of thousands to watch people and animals tortured and killed? Many scholars consider this phenomenon one of the most alien aspects of Roman culture. In this lecture, I make the countercase: the Roman fascination with gladiators is not in the least incomprehensible. Having first established that the historical record is replete with public spectacles of violence staged outside the Roman context, I move to the psychological and emotional attractions of watching sport. Gladiatorial combats shared various attractive aspects of sport, and the ancient spectators’ mental orientation toward them can be demonstrated as analogous to those of modern spectators of sport. Finally, by exploring social psychological and sociological perpsectives on the attractions of staged violence, we arrive at a fuller understanding of what was going on in those long-ago arena seats – an understanding that lies closer to home than many might like to admit.

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