Bread and circuses: Gladiatorial contests and today’s sporting spectacles

As the new English Premier League season begins this week and football fans are driven to a frenzy in the coming months, it may be worth reflecting on this global phenomenon.

Aug 12, 2017

By Anil Netto
As the new English Premier League season begins this week and football fans are driven to a frenzy in the coming months, it may be worth reflecting on this global phenomenon.

When we watch football, we forget about the worries of the world — and perhaps that may not be a bad thing now and then. But taken to an extreme, the craze over football — and other sports — that has swept across the world should make us pause.

What do we make of Neymar’s transfer to PSG for US$263m? This money would be enough to educate 1.15m

Indian primary school students for one year — or run a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey for 11 years (Aljazeera).

Where does this money come from? Mostly from jersey sales, stadium ticket sales, pay-TV subscriptions — advertising and sponsorship deals. These sources of revenue are an indication of how sports and leisure have become increasingly intertwined with materialism, and the corporate drive to promote such materialism.

In around 100AD, the Roman satirical poet Juvenal looked around him and lamented the state of society in his time. The people no longer seemed interested in political involvement in the Roman state — never mind social issues like income inequality and unemployment.

He wrote: “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who, once upon a time, handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

All the wily political leaders of his time had to do was dish out handouts and provide lavish entertainment spectacles — hence the term “bread and circuses” — and the ordinary people were happy.

Thus could the ordinary people be easily hypnotised or distracted by crooked self-serving politicians into supporting the status quo.

In ancient Rome, the handouts took the form of Annona (a grain dole or cheap food). The state also hosted lavish — and bloody — entertainment spectacles such as the brutal gladiatorial contests, which are believed to have originated as some sort of funeral games.

The gladiators, although low in the social hierarchy, kept Romans spellbound. They grew into something like celebrities, even teenage heart-throbs. Contrary to popular belief, not all gladiatorial contests ended with death. Only 10-20 per cent of contests resulted in a contestant being killed, usually by a sword pierced into the loser’s neck. After all, it was expensive to train these gladiators in their respective “schools” — just as it would be a major crisis if an expensive top-level football star were to suffer a career-threatening injury.

It was all big business for trainers, owners — and even politicians.

In a sense, modern sporting spectacles help to divert the public’s attention from their problems in the same way. Think of a developing nation like Brazil which could ill afford to host the World Cup and the Olympic Games. (Now there are high-level investigations into allegations of major corruption related to these two events.) These games kept the population distracted as they served up superficial patriotic pride.

In a gladiatorial contest in Roman times, at times, spectators were encouraged to participate in the bloodlust: they would be asked to decide through their hand gestures whether a particular contestant who had failed to perform should be killed.

So subconsciously, this seemingly ‘innocent’ leisure pursuit, participated by the masses, helped to cement the Roman Empire’s values of ruthless military conquest devoid of compassion as a way of achieving stability and progress.

In those times, compassion and mercy were seen as signs of weakness, not virtue. For after all, what can we say about a society that applauded the throwing of gladiators (including women and slaves), Christians and innocent into the arena with wild animals.

The gladiator games lasted for almost a thousand years, peaking between the First Century BC and the Second Century AD.

Jesus and Christianity burst onto the scene in the First Century at a distant outpost of the Empire at the peak of these games in Rome. He put love and compassion at the apex of a new moral order. This posed a direct challenge to the order of the Roman Empire, established through brutal military conquest, and cemented even in leisure pursuits like the bloody gladiatorial contests.

As for bread and circuses, although Jesus urged the people to pray to the Father for their daily bread, he also told them that humanity does not live by bread alone: they were to pursue a higher order, by establishing his kingdom of love and compassion and justice and mercy.

He had little time for “circuses” or public entertainment spectacles. Instead, he urged his followers to spread the Good News of love and peace and redemption to the ends of the earth.

Gladiatorial games drew to an end after Christianity became a “state religion” of the Roman Empire in 380AD as the values that Jesus had promoted spread like wildfire and more and more people realised how cruel the games were.

But we cannot be complacent today: “bread and circuses” lives on today in subtle forms that have, perhaps, an even greater impact on people. Today, “bread and circuses” takes the form of materialism and entertainment (including sports) served to us by mesmerising technological gadgets. Computer games and Hollywood blockbusters serve up even more violent scenes by modern day warriors.

If we are not careful, these could easily divert our attention from the problems of the world, just as effectively as the bloodletting in those gladiatorial arenas sent the crowds in the Roman arenas into ecstasy.

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