We Who Aren’t About to Die…

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse offered a handy metaphor for the ritual use of military power in the modern world. This was 1964, full-on Cold War, both the U.S. and Soviet Union bristling with nuclear missiles and racing each other to build more, and everyone living under the perceived threat that a nuclear holocaust could break out tomorrow. If you were born before, say, 1980, you’ll remember the feeling. Not a day-to-day dread for most people, just a kind of sobering everyday reality you kept locked away somewhere in the back of your mind.

Well, forget about nuclear war, Marcuse said. (I’m brutally paraphrasing here, and from memory, but the sense of it’s right.) Never happen, he said. The Soviet elite depend on the U.S. elite to stay in power, and vice versa. They need to keep their home populations in a constant state of fear, and their economies on a constant war footing, and they can only do that if each superpower can cite the opposing superpower as the cause. So they’ll never blow each other up. In fact, Marcuse said, it’s more useful to picture all those missiles not pointing outward at some enemy across the sea but inward, at their own populations. That’s what nuclear arms are for: not defense against foreigners but to defend the ruling elites against their own citizenry. Crowd control on the grandest scale. What was the term back then? Civil defense? You bet.

Rational realpolitik types, of course, laughed him off as a silly neo-Marxist academic rehashing 1984. Then, 30 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, not going out in a holocaustal blaze but simply, quietly falling in on itself like a pricked souffle, poof. The threat of nuclear war, which many people then living had lived with all their lives, suddenly vanished; it’s hard now to remember even what it felt like.

But the U.S. still maintains its military and it still must be used from time to time. Not to defend us against real threats from real enemies—for now, we seem to have plenty of enemies, but no real threats. Which may explain why the ritualistic nature of our recent wars has been so uncloaked, their theatrical and propagandistic uses so oddly naked to the eye. Grenada, the Gulf, the Balkans. These days the emperor goes to war naked, as did the Gauls. Scapegoats pop up as needed, like targets in a firing range: Qaddafi, Saddam, Slobo. Wag the Dog? Marcuse might say this is one dog whose tail hasn’t stopped wagging for decades.

I got to thinking about this reading the new paperback reissue of Paul Plass’ 1995 The Game of Death in Ancient Rome (University of Wisconsin Press, 284 pages, $17.95). I know comparing the United States to imperial Rome is a hoary, simpleminded cliche. Some historian, maybe it was Paul Veyne, has said that for all we think we know about the Romans, for all our false sense of familiarity with them (mostly coming, among us lay people, from modernizing fictions like Ben-Hur and I, Claudius), a modern dropped into the middle of Augustus’ Rome would find it as alien and incomprehensible a society as that of the Iroquois or the Incas. Still, reading about ritual violence like the gladiatorial games, I couldn’t help thinking there was, if not parallels, at least adumbration.

Imperial Rome was a highly militaristic society, and the ritual violence practiced within the imperium reflected the tensions inherent in maintaining order in such a society. Ruling powers in such regimes make a grand show of using and, most pointedly, controlling violence as a way to keep the masses docile and pacified. You inflict a little violence on your own people to prevent the people from breaking out in spontaneous (rebellious or otherwise catastrophic) violence themselves. Plass marvelously terms the practice “homeopathic counterterror.” 

Public crucifixion, for example, was a great tool for scaring people into obedience. Used mainly on slaves and the lower orders—as in the mass crucifixions of Spartacus’ rebels—it was “intended to reaffirm normal public order by breaching it nightmarishly.” In the military, the practice of “decimating” one’s own troops (pulling out every 10th soldier and executing him) had similar intent.

This calculated use of staged brutality is not to say that some Roman emperors were not also simply sadists. Caligula liked to have tortures and executions going on in the background while he lunched; Nero burned Christians as human torches during an evening garden party; and Claudius—the real Claudius, not Graves’ stuttering, bourgeois Brit—liked to get up close and study the faces of defeated gladiators as their throats were cut.

The Romans—and the Etruscans, before the Romans obliterated them—were huge fans of bloody sports. As bad as you may think boxing is today, it’s nothing compared to the way they used to do it. “[I]n the ancient world, [boxing's] object was to inflict damage as directly as possible,” Plass writes. “Since the head, not the body, was the principal target, the chance for a quick kill (literally, at times) which made rest periods between rounds unnecessary was enhanced by the caestus or brass knuckles (small metal dumbbells held in the fist). Under the circumstances, sudden bursts of violence resulted in fearful mutilation of the face,” leading to a tradition of jokes about a boxer being so battered he doesn’t recognize himself in a mirror—ha!—or is denied his inheritance by authorities “on the grounds of failure to prove his identity.” The Etruscans had a game in which you’d put a sack over a guy’s head, hand him a club and then sic a wild dog on him.

These were not, in short, pacifistic people, and examples like these help us understand why the ruling powers felt the need to control an innately violent populace with violence. Even ostensibly nonviolent sports like chariot-racing came with their own levels of potential death and mayhem, and could whip crowds up into outbreaks of civil disobedience (not unlike modern soccer, Plass notes). Caligula, ever the kidder and innovator, got bored with horse racing and introduced camel races to Rome. By that time, the races had become such huge public events that one magistrate, protesting the ruinous cost, substituted dogs for horses.

Gladiatorial combat was originally “a ritual response to the death of prominent members of the community,” Plass writes. The staged combat—reenactments of war on a small scale—as well as less violent contests of strength, suggested “renewal of life through vigorous, hazardous physical activity.”

Later, the games became unconnected from specific funerals and took on a larger civic life of their own. Under the emperors they grew into enormous, bloody spectacles. ”At the first gladiatorial show in 264 B.C., 3 pairs of contestants fought; by 174 B.C. there were 37 pairs.” Caesar upped it to 320 pairs, “and Agrippa set 700 pairs of criminals against each other (with all being killed).” By Trajan’s reign, as many as 10,000 gladiators were fighting in a single year (in Rome, with untold numbers participating in smaller spectacles out in the provinces). The emperors also enjoyed staging large-scale naval battles in giant pools created in the city: They were among the special effects marvels of their time. Claudius pitted 19,000 fake sailors against one another in one mock battle.

Along with grandiosity, the emperors enjoyed the grotesque. Dwarf combat was popular, as was combat between men and women. Caligula liked to make fun of the whole thing by placing the old, feeble and just plain clumsy into the arena and watching them ineptly bash each other. (The Romans also loved their equivalent of sideshow acts, and suitors competed to present the emperor with the most unusual freaks as gifts. Pet dwarfs were quite common. “A team of hermaphroditic horses and a boy who did everything with his feet because he had no arms or shoulders were amazing for their quality, the bones of people more than nine feet tall were amazing for their size, and a four-headed boy appealed on both scores.”)

And as we all know from our Christian lore, thousands of animals killed and were killed along with all those gladiators, Christians, runaway slaves, captured foreign soldiers and the criminal element in general. The Romans had an insatiable curiosity for exotic animals—the more exotic the better—and yet “fascination with unusual fauna at Rome never led to the establishment of a true zoo, perhaps because display for its own sake could not meet Roman social needs. Instead, an element of danger, along with strangeness and vast scale, was…a major ingredient in the appeal of animal shows.” Titus staged the slaughter of 9000 wild and tame animals to dedicate the Colosseum; crowds were entertained not merely by “slaughter of animals in immense numbers but of exotic species from exotic places—elephants, ostriches, deer, chamois, boars, crocodiles, hyenas, seals, antelopes, aurochs, panthers, bulls, bears, rhinoceroses, hippopotami.” They also liked to see animals fight one another—bears versus pythons, elephants against bulls—and, of course, nothing was more fun than to see Christians fed to lions or captured enemy soldiers trampled by elephants.

The point of all this display, Plass contends—all the savagery and death, all the exoticism and freakishness, all the grandiosity and grotesqueness—was to show the state in control of it all, wielding apparently limitless life-and-death power over all of society, even all of nature: gladiators and slaves, ostriches and bears, hermaphrodites and dwarfs—and, not coincidentally, everyone seated in the audience. It was a ritual show of power “during which a high level of public tension was ‘entertained’ in both senses of the word: ‘diverted’ by the absorbing performance, more seriously ‘dealt with’ as something demanding attention…

“What in real crises is a matter of life and death becomes absorbing entertainment precisely because at another place and time it is an extraordinary matter of life and death… The aim was to acknowledge danger without losing control; the violence is real enough where it is, but where it is is not the everyday real world.”

It was no secret that the arena was a savage metaphor for the whole empire: that it represented the empire in microcosm. For example, it was not lost on anyone in attendance that seating was strictly regulated, each rank and class of citizen in their specified sections; I think they were even “color-coded,” since only certain ranks could wear cloaks of certain colors. Plass cites the French historian Clavel-Leveque:

Symbolic protection of society reaches its high point…when the spectators, arranged in good order—important people dressed in signs of their status, soldiers in their parade uniforms, and the emperor in triumphal garb—assist with eliminating, crushing, and forcing submission of all enemies, real or potential, of order: those condemned to the beasts or the sword, rebels and brigands, prisoners of war, dangerous barbarians, or slaves, always the object of fear. How better to associate the masses with rejection of all rebels and troublemakers of every sort, enemies internal and external? What better way to spread among the masses the lessons of fear overcome, of discipline, submission, courage, and virile violence—all of which these diminished creatures, even women and on occasion dwarfs or children, exemplify?


Plass writes, ”Resemblances of one kind or another between gladiatorial games and modern sports readily come to mind,” citing hockey, football, boxing, etc., but especially professional wrestling, because the violence there is the most controlled and theatrical, the ritualized opposition of good and evil most overt. 

Well, much as I like wrestling, you know what I think: The best contemporary resemblance isn’t any sport at all, it’s the modern televised ritual of arcade-game warfare, tape-looped violence endlessly repeated as lesson, entertainment and demonstration of power all in one, safely confined in the “arena” of the tv screen, near and yet at the same time unreal, etc. etc. I won’t hammer the cliche. It’s obvious enough.