Were Romans Obsessed with Violence
Were Romans Obsessed with Violence? In many modern books written about Ancient Rome and her people, the Romans are often portrayed as brutal and unforgiving people who enjoyed violence and thought it amusing to see people being injured and killed to the point of obsession. It is my aim to establish whether this classification is justified or if it is simply an exaggeration of what a small group of people enjoyed.

While it is known that in Rome there were gladiatorial fights, public beatings and the keeping of slaves was legal (and common), it is also important to understand just exactly how advanced the Romans were. The Longman Dictionary of the English Language defines civilised as "of or being peoples of nations in a state of civilisation." And then defines civilisation as "a relatively high level of cultural development; specifically the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of records is attained." I think that by this definition, the Romans were civilised, the educated being able to write and detailed records being kept by many historians.

The Romans also had written laws and government, including (later) an assembly for the poorer classes. In fact, their system of law was actually quite advanced (even if it was designed to help the rich) - "The idea was accepted that a man's intentions ought to be taken into account, and there was less importance attached to what he did and what he meant to do. The next thing to become established was the notion that all men must be treated equally." This way of thinking was very advanced and not barbaric or uncivilised at all, in fact the same notion that all men should be treated equally was not established in America, Australia and other countries for many years.

It is now common knowledge that, in Ancient Rome, people often attended (and enjoyed) gladiatorial fights to the death, wild beast hunts, naval battles and chariot racing, all which often had religious origins. During the reign of Caesar, thousands of men and animals were butchered just to make a Roman holiday! The Romans also enjoyed pantomimes and plays which too were often very violent in nature - "It was not uncommon for a condemned criminal to be executed [on stage] as part of the play."

In modern sources, it is often portrayed that slaves were treated more harshly than was actually the case. Slaves in Rome actually did have some benefits - "It is clear that slaves owned land, property, ships, interests in business concerns, even slaves of their own, and that their rights were protected by law." In most cases, slaves were citizens of conquered lands who had been spared and put into slavery instead of being executed. This in itself was a 'benefit'. Often slaves were trained by their 'masters' in a craft, giving them skills and again benefiting them. "For a man from a 'backward' race might be brought within the pale of civilisation, educated and trained in a craft or profession, and turned into a useful member of society." Although this extract is clearly written by someone not a slave, it proves that a slave may learn a lot and actually benefit from slavery. In fact, Satricon of Petronius, who was once a slave actually said "Thanks heavens for slavery, it made me what you see today." Although this only the account of one man, it shows that at least some people actually recognised the benefits that slavery brought them.

On the other hand though, some slave masters treated their slaves very poorly. In the eyes of the Roman law, a slave was the absolute property of his master and he could inflict any kind of punishment on his that he chose and beating, torture and the murder of slaves was common, and some slaves lived in constant fear of their masters. Often masters would attack their slaves for the most minor and trivial reasons, and often because they wanted to take their anger out. "Farm slaves often toiled in chain gangs, living like animals and in constant fear of the whip or the cross." And "It was common in criminal cases for slaves' evidence to be given under torture, and the law of the Imperial age was explicit on how to do so."

The following is a description of the harsh conditions of slaves who worked at a flourmill, written by Apuleius, (c. AD157):

"These poor, undersized slaves. Their skin was black and blue with bruises, their backs covered with cuts from the whip. They were covered with rags, not clothes, and it was hardly enough to make them decent. They had been branded on the forehead and half of their hair was shaved off. On their legs they wore iron chains."

Although many slaves were treated very badly, there were many masters that treated well and sometimes even respected their slaves, who were often more talented at a particular craft than their master. Many slaves were often released by their masters. "It was discovered that, the nearer the lot of a slave approached a free man, the more useful he was." This realisation helped slaves invariably.

Conclusion

Although much of the evidence portrays the Romans as brutal, unforgiving and obsessed with violence, we must look at exactly why this is thought. When writers try to prove that the Romans were obsessed with violence, they often refer to: gladiatorial fights, chariot racing, wild beast hunts, and (mostly) the keeping of slaves. However, when you look at this list of 'entertainments', you see that they are all similar to things that have been/are done in the 'modern world'. Consider boxing - although the rules are more stringent and the boxers do not fight to the death, they do beat each other, causing long-term damage to both. This isn't all that different to gladiatorial fights! Chariot racing is very similar to motor racing, and today, people pay to hunt drugged animals in confined parks. Needless to say, the keeping of slaves continued well into the 19th Century. And although it can be said that the Romans watched these entertainments to see violence and death, the same can be said about the people of the 'modern world'. There is only one reason that people watch boxing - to see people getting hurt, and the 'highlights' of the motor racing are always the spectacular crashes.

Therefore, the Romans were no more violent as a society than our own. We have the same sort of entertainment and enjoy the same violent things. I think that it is very unfair to say that the Romans were obsessed with violence when we ourselves partake in the same sort of things they did.

Bibliography
Ancient Sources
Plutarch, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1972

Modern Sources
P Mantin & R Pulley, The Roman World: From Republic to Empire, Cambridge University Press, England, 1992
KR Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, 1989
Longman Dictionary of the English Languages, WM Clowes Ltd., Beccles & London, England, 1984
REC Burrell, The Romans and Their World, A.Wheaton & Co., Exeter, England, 1970
RH Barrow, The Romans, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1976
G. Alföldy, The Social History of Rome, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1991


 
Bibliography:
Bibliography Ancient Sources Plutarch, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1972 Modern Sources P Mantin & R Pulley, The Roman World: From Republic to Empire, Cambridge University Press, England, 1992 KR Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, 1989 Longman Dictionary of the English Languages, WM Clowes Ltd., Beccles & London, England, 1984 REC Burrell, The Romans and Their World, A.Wheaton & Co., Exeter, England, 1970 RH Barrow, The Romans, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1976 G. Alföldy, The Social History of Rome, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 1991
 
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