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Lecture One: Introduction: Murderous Games

Earlier tonight Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her first of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Natalie Smith offers her initial reflections on the lecture. Smith is currently a PhD student at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Dame Mary Beard opened her own Gifford lecture by reflecting on her respect and appreciation for the Gifford lectures and for the many eminent scholars that have given them. She specifically mentioned William Warde Fowler and his lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in 1909-1910 (which were later published as The Religious Experience of the Roman People). She then mentioned Hannah Arendt (as the first female Gifford lecturer) and her lectures given at the University of Aberdeen in 1972-1974 (which were later published as two of a projected three volume Life of the Mind series, which sadly remained unfinished due to Arendt’s death in 1975). Finally, she mentioned having “been gripped by watching” the more recent Gifford lectures given by Judith Butler at the University of Glasgow in 2018 entitled “My Life, Your Life: Equality and the Philosophy of Non-Violence.” She ended her introduction by reflecting on how her own series of Gifford lectures related to the original intentions of Lord Gifford and mentioned some humorous anecdotes regarding the inflexibility of the earliest Gifford committees in the late 1800s in order to thank the current Gifford committee and university staff for their flexibility in changing venues so that more people could attend the lectures.

Beard then moved on to begin to explain her chosen topic for these Gifford lectures, “the ancient world and us,” and the specific topic of her first lecture (the gladiatorial games). She mentioned that the overarching theme arose from an experience that she had 20 years ago in the Colosseum observing various groups of “school parties from different countries” react in similar ways to questions revolving around the brutality of the gladiatorial games that time and again resulted in a simplistically perceived moral progress and superiority of our own time when compared to the ancient Romans. As she recalled, “The teacher would ask: ‘What used to happen here?’ Almost immediately some kid, boy usually, stuck his hand up and said, ‘It’s where the Romans used to kill people for entertainment—and throw them to the wild beasts, Miss’. The teacher would then say ‘Would we do that now?’. No, Miss’ chanted the group in harmony (and a self-satisfied glow of confidence in human progress – a sanctimonious fog of self-righteousness – descended on the lot of them.”

Noting that she did not speak up then she began to reflect on what she would say now to challenge this simplistically perceived moral progress without defending the gladiatorial games nor necessarily the fascination that many Romans had with those games (even though, as she went on to show, the gladiatorial games were not without their critics in the Roman world, although most of the criticism was directed at the corrupting effects on the spectators rather than for the well-being of those on the arena floor). She asked, “Is there nowhere we see violence for entertainment in our own culture?” Are we still not thrilled by the idea of gladiatorial combat, whether that be through film, figurines and action figures, or posing for photos with those dressed up as gladiators for tourists? Not to mention many other forms of violence that are embedded in our various modes of entertainment today.  More seriously she asked, “how do you [we] compare what went on here with the fact that millions of people have recently watched footage of a real-life mass murder on their smart phones, and that at least one main stream British newspaper has posted footage of read dead murder victims?”

This, for Beard, raised some of the key questions to be pursued in these Gifford lectures. As she mentioned, I “want to question some of the ethical dimensions of our engagement with the Greeks and Romans, and in particular that unreflective sense of moral superiority that we often adopt when we confront that ancient past.” As she went on to say, “this is not a round about way of saying that Ancient History has something direct to teach us. . . .  I don’t think Ancient History or Classical Culture is relevant in that straightforward kind of way, or in the way the media tries to draw superficially easy, but quite misleading, parallels between then and now.” Nevertheless, she did argue that taking a more careful look at the Greeks and Romans enables us to take a more careful look at ourselves. In a phrase reminiscent of aspects of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy Beard stated, “If there’s dialogue between now and antiquity . . . it must impact on now too – not just on how we think about them, but on how we think about us.”

As Beard began to conclude this section of her lecture, she stated that this “raises further issues about how we study the ancient world.” “To what extent,” she asked, “should the historian judge, deplore or approve as much as study?” In taking this stance she did not want to give the impression that the ‘studying’ dimension would be diminished, but only that she would in addition ‘always be keeping in mind a range of questions, slightly different each time, that shine some of the spotlight back onto us.”

At this point in her lecture Beard turned to a focused discussion of the Colosseum at Rome and the ‘murderous games’ that went on there.


She began by noting that the Colosseum remains almost as much a part of our culture today as it was back then, illustrated in part by the ongoing draw of tourism (in 2018 over 7 million people visited it making “it the world’s third most visited tourist attraction or heritage site”) and the various “representations of gladiatorial combat in European art over the last few centuries” as well as popular comics. She acknowledged that part of our ongoing cultural fascination is a result of how various Christians have spoken about and retold stories of Roman persecution. She also went on to note that there seems to be an element of “dark tourism” combined with a “comic banalisation” that continues to draw our attention to the Colosseum and its history of “murderous games.” She then asked, “But what’s it all based on?”

She began to talk about how “we both know a lot, and on some aspects frustratingly little, about these murderous games.” In an attempt to inquire after where our modern interests with and understanding of the Colosseum’s murderous games stem from she proceeded to discuss some of the things that we actually know about the Colosseum. The shows did sometimes involve slaughter on a massive scale. Gladiatorial combat did become a defining feature of Roman culture across the empire. A lot of cultural meaning was attached to these games (evidenced by a plethora of mosaics, paintings, and lamps as well as by metaphors and analogies used in both philosophical literature and poetry) and it is true that “emperors were repeatedly judged by how they behaved at the games.”

Beard then proceeded to speak of some of the areas that are a little harder to pin down. As she mentioned, we don’t know how the gladiatorial games came about despite there being several speculative theories. Nor do we have much more clarity on the cessation of the games. As Beard mentioned, “The end of gladiatorial combat was almost certainly connected somehow with the growth of Christianity, but exactly how is not so clear.” As she went on to mention, “Perhaps more striking is that we really don’t know much about what went on at these games across the empire, or even in Rome.” As she explained we have many “vivid snapshots” of what went on but less to aid us in understanding “how it all fitted together.” As she stated, “We have no overview of all this or any good idea of the infrastructure” (one problematic example being our understanding of the logistics involved with the transportation of large exotic animals across large distances to the Colosseum).

Beard next moved on to talk about how modern historians have generally approached talking about the murderous games. As she mentioned, the standard tactic is to acknowledge the horrible nature of the games and then proceed to find ways to evade the issue. In particular one tactic, as Beard explained, is to argue that the majority of the games “were much more low key” (where the defeated where often reprieved rather than executed) than the “one or two grand spectaculars in the Colosseum, sponsored by the emperor, where there really was a lot of blood spilt and no expenses spared on the animals.” Another approach, as Beard mentioned, is to focus on the second order functions of the Colosseum rather than on the brutality that took place within it. This is done by not only looking at the politics of the Colosseum as a ‘microcosm of empire” by focusing on the emperor’s role within it, but by also looking at how “the audience of the Colosseum . . . was a microcosm of the Roman political structure itself,” evidenced by the segregated seating according to one’s formal political status. Yet another common approach, as she mentioned,  is to “massage the murderous games into a manageable modern equivalent.” This is often done (more or less successfully) by comparing the games to modern spectator sports and to modern day celebrity athletes.


Detail of mosaic, from Rome, fourth century AD

As she concluded her reflections on these options she stated, “all these arguments seem to me fine, up to a point. But they simply don’t face the question that stares at you. How could they do it? You don’t actually evade the problem by saying that it wasn’t as deadly as we paint it. . . . some of it was deadly.” Nor do we actually think, as she mentioned, that the attendees at the games in the Colosseum were consciously reflecting upon second order issues concerning the Colosseum’s (and their) relationship to Roman social order that a political reading of the Colosseum draws out.

Given this question Beard went on to assess possible options to answer the question “How could they do it?” One being that we could claim that Romans were simply crueller than us or that they had different definitions of cruelty. Beard acknowledged that there might be some credibility to this line of thought, but she was quick to caution against too hasty an acceptance of this line of thought on its own.

It is here that Beard’s own constructive interaction between “the ancient world and us” began to most clearly emerge in this lecture. Instead of the approach(s) mentioned above Beard insightfully suggested that we ought to “think differently about how what was going on in the arena was defined.” As she pointed out, “almost none (and this is generally true of the Christian criticisms too) are concerned with the humanitarian aspects, or the cruelty to fighters and animals. They focus almost entirely on the spectators.” Having noted this Beard began to suggest that this implies some sort of division between reality and representation. As she went on to say, “The reality of the games lay in the human spectators; and the focus of interest of the critics was the effect on them of the representation, the constructed spectacle that they watched.” As Beard further explained, “It’s almost to say that what is going on in the arena of the amphitheatre wasn’t really real,” from the spectators’ perspective. This argument, Beard claimed, is evidenced in part by the mythical aspects of the presentation of the murderous games in the Colosseum that in effect de-humanized the participants for the spectators. As she mentioned, “What the real spectators look at is a world of fantasy, representation, and the second order ‘reality’ of myth.” As she further mentioned, “The boundary of the amphitheatre arena operated a bit like the screen of our smartphones. That is to say, one reason that millions of people can watch mass slaughter streamed into their hand is that the screen turns what they are seeing from reality into representation (or from gratuitous violence to ‘news’), it makes it watchable.”

Beard then moved on to focus on the role that definitions and designations of humanity (and perceived non-humanity) have in this division between reality and representation in the gladiatorial spectacle. She acknowledged that “all cultures debate” what it means to be human “in the sense of” what counts as “a person with the rights and agency attached to that status” and she noted that this plays a central role in many key debates in our own culture (such as debates over abortion, the rights of prisoners, and the rights of those “sectioned under the mental health act”). She went on to mention that “in the case of ancient Rome . . . humanity in the sense I am talking about did not legally start (emotionally is another matter) in utero, nor at birth, but when the father a few days later recognized the baby as a family member (before that the baby could be disposed of – and I mean killed – with impunity).” She went on to suggest that “we’re dealing with some of those different boundaries in the murderous games: in one sense, those on the floor of the amphitheatre – the slave gladiators, the condemned criminals, those free volunteers who had give up that status by becoming gladiators – could be seen as not human in the sense that the audience was.” As Beard went on to conclude, the Romans were in large part able to watch the gladiatorial games because, from their perspective, they were not “watching the murder of fellow humans.”

6 replies to “Lecture One: Introduction: Murderous Games”

  1. Natalie Smith says:

    This Monday evening, Dame Mary Beard started off what promises to be an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking series of lectures titled, “The Ancient World and Us: From Fear and Loathing to Enlightenment and Ethics”. As ever, Beard effortlessly showed her incredible breadth of knowledge in Classical History as well as her ability to bring accessibility and warmth in her presentation. In this first instalment, Beard introduced us to the concept of the lectures, which set out to tackle some of the most well-known ethical dilemmas arising from the study of antiquity. In addition to presenting these rather thorny topics, we were encouraged to check the ways we engage with and present history.

    From this first lecture, on the violent, gladiatorial games which have become a symbol in the public imagination of the Roman world, we were confronted with the evidence and the way it has been presented both in popular and academic contexts. It was this discussion of our own approaches to difficult topics that was most interesting to me. Beard’s lecture incited many valuable questions on how we do history. In an attempt not to project an “unreflected sense of progress” in the face of antiquity’s crimes, I wonder the extent to which historians can and should make comment on the ethical trespasses of history – as Beard puts it, the “Ethical dimensions of [our] engagement”. If historians should, or at least inevitably do, engage with the ethics of the past, to what extent is this allowed?
    This then caused me to wonder how can we best balance having a sense of advocacy in our observation of history while simultaneously avoiding a sense of moral superiority. Is it possible to engage with the moral “failings” of the past without (covertly or overtly) assuming a sense of one’s own “success”?

    At the beginning of this year, I started my PhD and sat in a series of Welcome Week talks. One in particular was about “Ethics and Research”. The speaker encouraged students (particularly those undergoing research in modern, observational contexts) to go about the proper procedures, approaches, etc. While the talk was incredibly valuable for some, as a student of fourth-century history, I initially had trouble finding the relevance. My subject seemed “too old” to really affect anyone. However, what I have found in the beginning stages of my own research is that the distance of time shouldn’t cause me to forget that I am still observing real people, in their own context – full of its own respectable and problematic aspects.

    My own research focuses on Christian religious place-making in late-antique Jerusalem. My method of study attempts a careful balance of the theological importance of sacred sites with the social-political complications that inevitably come with it. I feel it important to recognize that place-making could have been both a reflection of devotion and of asserting power. There are several ethical considerations in this with regard to religious conflict and contested space – issues that continue to be real in Jerusalem’s modern context. Thus, in my own study of history I find myself simultaneously careful not to make any sort of “statement”, while still being clear I don’t affirm the actions of my late-antique subjects. However, is that, in itself, a statement?

    The question of whether historians can and should make comment on the more problematic areas of history is a difficult one because, to an extent, it is hard to avoid. For one, historians don’t often encourage the reinstatement of gladiatorial games in our modern world because, from our modern context and ethics, it does seem wrong (whether or not we have modern equivalences to consider). In addition, I think of the valuable revisionist works of social historians in the past few decades and the re-examinations of disenfranchised groups such as slaves, women, the outsider. Undoubtedly, these are important contributions. However, by focusing on these subjects, don’t we assert that these subjects are worth studying? Thus to a degree it would be strange for historians not to make comment on the more problematic pieces of history. Silence on particularly sensitive topics can even be mistaken for affirmation. So, in many cases, it seems to me that historians are able to confront the ethical dilemmas of history.

    However, in our discussions of the past and its problems, I wonder the degree to which historians can comment without assuming this moral “high ground”. In the lecture, Beard reoriented our question on the gladiatorial games away from “How did they do it?” to more nuanced examinations of the interpretive process of watching. Discussions of the “shared illusion”, reinforced through physical distance, mythical themes and attire, caused us to consider the blurred boundaries between “representation” and “reality”. In this, Beard’s thoughtful comparison to our own treatment of the phone screen as a sort of barrier against the reality of gruesome public footage is a helpful way of looking back at ourselves when making comment about our historical counterparts. In an effort to avoid this sense of superiority, should the work of historians more often have this act of reflection? Or, does the search for connections then and now come with similar simplifying pitfalls as declarations of difference? These themes will undoubtedly resurface throughout this series. I expect that Beard will continue to challenge us in our various approaches to antiquity in particular, and history as a whole.

    1. Mary Beard says:

      Thanks Natalie…I think you hit the nail on the head. I feel as conflicted as you.. we SHOULD judge (what would it be to take it all as normal), but it can be too easy to do that. I am interested in how ordinary people in the past could internalise views that we find obviously abhorrent (and how we can reflect on what people might say about us!

  2. Reading this made me think of the essence of human nature and has it/can it change over time? Also the spectacle/entertainment of hangings in medieval period and Madam Guillotine during the French revolution. Nowadays we get our gory kicks in watching fictional war/cowboy/police films/TV series. Interesting. Looking forward to rest of series

    1. Mary Beard says:

      Thanks.. and I would add to that ‘the news’???

  3. Oscar says:

    A very stimulating, thought-provoking lecture! I would like to expand more on the topic of what constituted being human in Antiquity, specifically in Rome. Can you point to relevant literature I can read on the topic? Thanks!

    1. Mary Beard says:

      Thanks Oscar. Have just sent you an email, with a little bit of bibliography on recognising children. Much of what I said came from me…I shall be discussing this a little further in the fourth lecture.

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