Gladiators as Athletes
Gladiators have retained a unique place in our cultural consciousness, and indeed occupied a unique position in Roman society – they were at once warriors and slaves; entertainers and prisoners; celebrities and criminals.
However, our primary-source information on gladiators is quite slim, especially compared to the widespread popularity of the games. The Colosseum could hold 50,000 people at a time, and would regularly pack in that number of spectators. And yet, most of our information comes from a few artistic depictions and the scant archeological record.
This fact has led to vast speculation in “reconstructing” the gladiator lifestyle, training, diet, and physique. The film Gladiator (though quite accurate) played up their status as slaves, and gave most of the credit for prowess in combat to prior military training. Spartacus depicted them as lean and sexy, as an explanation for their popularity among Roman women. More recently, the documentary The Game Changers claimed them to be sinewy vegetarian athletes. On the opposing end, certain academics point to depictions of rotund fighters and make the claim that they were overweight, to better absorb slashes, and that they were therefore more so masochistic actors than warriors.
All of these views are in some way too simplistic – and some of them are blatantly wrong. This essay aims to reconstruct gladiator fitness and form, and challenge existing notions on the topic.
Abstract: Paul the Apostle has a notoriously conflicted relationship with rhetoric: while his epistles represent some of the most stylized writing of his era, his writing consistently disparages ancient conceptions about rhetoric. Through a close analysis of Paul’s writing and a critical description of the concept of parrhesia (or frank, unadorned, critical speech), this study demonstrates that Paul’s ambivalence toward rhetoric stems primarily from the tensions between orality and literacy in late antiquity. Given that Paul’s mission of spreading the Gospel was an inherently rhetorical mission, the epistles represent a documentation of the difficulties faced by a practitioner of rhetoric at a key moment in the development of common literacy. Further, while Paul is often viewed as an important figure in rhetorical history, this essay shows that Paul predated both Origen and Augustine in attempting a reconciliation of Christianity and pagan rhetoric. This affirms Paul’s oft-overlooked status as an important theorist of rhetoric.
“The fundamental principle underlying all justifications of war, from the point of view of human personality, is ‘heroism’. War, it is said, offers man the opportunity to awaken the hero who sleeps within him. War breaks the routine of comfortable life; by means of its severe ordeals, it offers a transfiguring knowledge of life, life according to death. The moment the individual succeeds in living as a hero, even if it is the final moment of his earthly life, weighs infinitely more on the scale of values than a protracted existence spent consuming monotonously among the trivialities of cities. From a spiritual point of view, these possibilities make up for the negative and destructive tendencies of war, which are one-sidedly and tendentiously highlighted by pacifist materialism. War makes one realize the relativity of human life and therefore also a law of ‘more-than-life’, and thus war has always an anti-materialist value, a spiritual value.”
–Julius Evola, Metaphysics of War
There has always been something spiritual about warfare. It is greater-than-human; a supernatural struggle intertwined with the brutal reality of fatal clashes. In Evola’s words, it is an opportunity to awaken the hero within.
Today, with vast changes in warfighting and the rise of pacifist materialism, this notion has fallen out of favor. However, the spiritual aspect of war is an innate human truth, and has been accepted to the point of religious integration by every fighting society since the Stone Age. As long as man has gone to war, he has elevated it beyond a mere struggle of flesh and steel. Further, warriors have always elevated themselves beyond the physical, through ritual, belief, and philosophy. A man with a sword and a shield is just a man, but a man imbued with divine fury is something greater, more formidable.
However, there exists a longstanding dichotomy in how fighting cultures have “elevated” their warriors: the pagan vs. the Christian view. This dichotomy can be viewed as the classical contrast between Apollonian and Dionysian thought, yet simply ascribing it to that debate doesn’t fully do it justice. There’s more to be investigated here.
War is a defining characteristic across all humanity, occurring in every region of the world and in all eras of history. For the entirety of known human history, people have met opposing armies in massive, destructive battles, vowing to return victorious or not at all.
War in itself is an almost indescribably heavy event – a spiritual undertaking, especially before the modern notion of materialism. As a result, it has played a key role in every form of spirituality and religion. Almost every culture which went to war held its warriors to a higher spiritual standard, and he act of putting one’s life on the line has attained a religious status across cultures. Consider jihad, bellum sacrum, etc., and read Evola’s Metaphysics of War for more on the topic.
But I digress. Some cultures held their warriors in such high regard that they are forever remembered as fighting societies. These societies assigned special spiritual importance to warfare, and developed rituals for ensuring success on the battlefield by magical or religious means. In the pre-firearm era, two of the most famous were the samurai class in feudal Japan, and Viking society during their namesake age. These cultures never contacted each other, and were drastically different societies by all accounts, but their spiritual practices relating to war were near-identical in structure and purpose.
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