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13 December 2007 Edition

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Matt Treacy

Come on, you Lions

AS WE stood in the ruins of Ancient Rome last weekend, Ciara was wondering whether the crowd in the Colosseum used to sing: “Come on, you Gladiators in Blue.” Or perhaps it was: “Come on, you Lions?” Whichever of them got beaten before the final, I suppose.
The Colosseum was the first sports super stadium and was completed in 80AD. It held 50,000 people. The Circus Maximus, between the Palatine and Aventine hills, could accommodate up to 250,000 but it wasn’t an enclosed arena. It was used for chariot races rather than fights.
Gladiatorial fights at the Colosseum ended in 404AD when a monk named Telemachus jumped into the arena to appeal for the crowd to show some humanity – they stoned him to death. It was sufficient, however, for the Emperor Honorious to decide that enough was enough and the Romans after that concentrated on being over-run by ‘barbarians’, although the Colosseum continued to be used for non-lethal pursuits.
In the more than 300 years of its existence it is estimated that as many as one million people may have been killed in the Colosseum and it wasn’t the only arena of death. It was, however, the biggest and most popular. As a single site of cruelty, torture and death it ranks with places like Auschwitz.
Standing amid its ruins you get some sense of the awfulness that took place there. And of how intimate it must have been. Spectators in the good seats were a lot closer to the action than in Croke Park. But even with that you cannot help but be fascinated by what drew so many people for so long to the ultimate spectacle in sport – death.
Nietzsche believed that the Romans’ pleasure in watching people being killed was a product of the decadence of the Empire, when they no longer had any outlet for their violent impulses in war and conquest. His argument is somewhat weakened by the bloody history of the earlier Republic but the worst excess dates from the time of Nero who died before the Colosseum was built but who would no doubt have thoroughly enjoyed himself there and would most likely have joined in if some accounts of his life are true.
At first, gladiatorial contests were what in Dublin are known as “straighteners”: a fair fight between two more-or-less equal opponents. That soon lost its attraction and the games became ever more cruel and more akin to torture than fighting. Soon gang rapes, the setting of wild animals on helpless prisoners and horrendous tortures, including of children, drew the sort of crowds that now go to football matches. And they loved it.
It undoubtedly had a corrupting and brutalising effect on those who participated and those who watched. People bet on everything, including how long it would take people to die and got pretty emotionally involved in the whole thing, even following particular gladiators. In the Circus Maximus, the chariot teams wore blue, green, purple or gold and had fans who followed them in the same way.
Daniel P Mannix compared the psychology of the Roman crowd to the United States in the 1950s. “The same tendency can be seen today in rough sports. The spectator who hollers, ‘Murder the bums! Knock his teeth out! Kill him!’ is usually a meek little guy in a rear seat who has just got a bawling out from his boss and had to sneak out of the house when his wife wasn’t home. He wants to see somebody else getting hurt... He doesn’t care who.”
Perhaps the difference is that whereas the meek American of the Eisenhower era would most likely revert to type once the game or the fight was over, Roman society in general was an increasingly nasty and violent place and in the end it collapsed. The ‘barbarians’ were pushing at a rotten gate.
Sport still appeals to such instincts. Walter Macken, a native of Galway  – and thus no stranger to the dark side of sport! – once pondered how “benign gentlemen” could become transformed into bloodthirsty fiends watching their county play in Croke Park. That was until he attended a Galway match there and was overcome with an “atavistic desire for slaughter”.
I have personally seen apparently sensible middle-aged and elderly men and women set about referees and opposing players with umbrellas, walking aids and heavy handbags. When your tribe goes to war, reason goes out the window. That is an understandable aspect of how sport can give rise to violent emotion and sometimes crowd trouble.
The darker side perhaps is where spectators are there only to enjoy the spectacle of another’s humiliation and pain. Some would argue that is the basis for the appeal of bull fighting, no matter how Hemingway and others attempted to portray it as having to do with the bullfighter’s courage. Except that the victim is almost invariably the bull rather than the man.
Boxing has some of the same attraction. Not to most boxing fans but you only have to look at some of the creatures who attend professional boxing in Dublin and elsewhere to understand that. They are there to see another person being beaten, and preferably to a bloody pulp.
Before boxing was properly regulated, fights always ended in savage beatings. And often the loser died. Although, paradoxically, and probably because of the greater numbers participating, more boxers died between 1910 and 1960 than in the previous 150 years.
As our sensibilities became more nuanced, death became less acceptable. Human nature has not changed. The savagery of war has not changed. Indeed technology has enabled slaughter, in war and peace, on a scale unimaginable, or at least unattainable, to the Romans.
If some mad regime was again to allow torture and death as a sport, would people watch? Probably. In its absence, our dark side must be content with ersatz death. Certainly an improvement. Maybe the ghosts of the Colosseum have taught us something.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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