Blood and Games

• 2.2k
I think this post might find a place here, in the Ethics category, or in Political Philosophy, or in Philosophy of Art. I'm not sure where, or even if, it belongs in this forum. Let's find out.

A story about the recent recovery of the helmet of a gladiator in Pompeii caught my attention. Those who've been to Pompeii know the remains of a ludus (roughly, a gladiator "school") may be seen there, so this isn't a surprising discovery. But we have a fascination for blood games which doesn't seem to abate, and it may be said the Roman ludi, the public games featuring gladiators, are blood games par excellence.

Of course we've "enjoyed" blood games or sports throughout our history. But I don't want to address our delight in "blood sports" in which animals fight one another, or people fight or otherwise kill animals, though the study of the grotesque rituals and ceremonies involved in bullfighting or fox hunting may be interesting in a way. I want to address human games which feature human blood as an expectation or end.

I'm not sure if it's correct to say we play them still, except in the case of certain martial arts where drawing blood may signal or hasten the end of the game. People may be seriously hurt in other games like American football, but much as we like to think of football players as especially daring and powerful and (I suppose it must be said) masculine, they'd probably appear as perfumed, posturing dandies next to Roman gladiators, who risked death and being maimed by weapons used to kill and maim every day. Pudgy Teddy Roosevelt liked to proclaim the virtues of the "man in the arena" (and it seems Tom Brady does as well), but there've been no true arena contests since the games were outlawed in around 400 A.D. or C.E.

The Roman games weren't what they've been depicted as by Hollywood. We know from sources that gladiator contests were heavily regulated by the equivalent of referees. They were ornate and organized in the sense that they paired gladiators with different equipment and skills against one another. The helmet found in Pompeii was that worn by a Secutor, who was heavily armored and paired in fights against a Retiarus who wore no body armor and wielded a trident and a net. Gladiators underwent extensive training. Gladiator fights were generally not necessarily fights to the death, though death could result. Bouts would be stopped where one gladiator "gave up" (though his fate might be determined by the emperor or sponsor of the games, if he fought well his life could be spared). Given the life expectancy of the time, a gladiator might not die much earlier than any other Roman. Gladiators who fought well could be granted the status of free men if enslaved (not all were slaves; some were former soldiers, some were even aristocrats, some were citizens who fell on hard times). Gladiators were glorified in a sense.

Sources indicate the Romans thought that a gladiator who fought well was an example of courage, discipline, honor and strength, even and perhaps especially in the face of death. Gladiators possessed virtues of a sort, in other words. It was on this basis that the games were defended by some Romans--for the example they set. Romans admired the skill of many gladiators. Skill in fighting and killing, of course. The Romans were a military society; a cruel society in many ways. But fighting was considered a kind of art. Tertullian, a Christian and therefore an enemy of the games, claimed that those who defended the games and were fans of the games admired the art involved, but considered the artists to be inferior in social status.

Well, I've rambled, I see. But I think interesting issues are raised by the subject matter of my rambling. Were gladiators virtuous? Did the games provide examples of virtuous conduct? May blood games of this sort be examples of art?

Thinking of our own times, sports (though much less bloody and risky relatively speaking than the games) are sometimes thought to instill virtue or involve a sort of artistry. You know, the "playing fields of Eton" sort of virtue, at least. Do they? If our sports do, and the Roman games did not, why is that the case?
• 6.2k
I was thinking of the epidemic of self-harm, and those crowds of ill wishers waiting outside jails for news of the execution of prisoners, and then I thought of this:

Coichetti says that he has helped people from all walks of life suspend, including lawyers, wrestlers, doctors, acrobats and politicians.

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/09/the-therapeutic-experience-of-being-suspended-by-your-skin/262644/

It's art, it's therapy, and it's traditional, and even lawyers do it. You can have my place in the queue.

And I won't be joining this tribe either, wimp that I am: https://www.travellerspoint.com/community/oceania/crocodile-initiation-ceremony-sepik-river-papua-new-guinea/
• 2.9k
Did the games provide examples of virtuous conduct? May blood games of this sort be examples of art?

I think Hemingway and Mailer felt this. Something becomes art generally by agreement. Is sport art or a craft - the execution of something functional? I think boxing is still very much tied to this line of putative virtue. In work with prisoners and young people boxing is still seen as a pathway that enhances character. The idea being it teaches discipline and courage and you have to follow the rules/code.

I personally think this is largely nonsense - playing the flute would probably accomplish the same end, but it isn't as cool and there's no blood unless you do it wrong. And it is probably true that any activity that helps people take their minds of drug use and hanging out looking for trouble is helpful in some way. Even golf...

There is a lot of quasi mystical virtue stuff written about sport that I have never understood. Most sport seems to come with a mystique and a lore - especially those which involve ritualistic combat. Think Spanish bullfighting...
• 7.6k
Well, I've rambled, I see.

You rambled very nicely and provided an interesting, well-thought-out, and well-written post.
• 3.8k

Gladiators were slaves. Period. It did not matter whether they were virtuous or not. Their own wills were not involved in the decision whether to partake in the fight or not. They were thrown in to fight, WETHER THEY WANTED TO BE THERE OR NOT, and they had to fight to survive.

If you see any valor in that, I admire you.
• 4.5k
Tertullian, a Christian and therefore an enemy of the games, claimed that those who defended the games and were fans of the games admired the art involved, but considered the artists to be inferior in social status.

What about the aristocrats who participated? Did they do so entirely by choice or did it have something to do with status or wealth?
• 12.1k
Thinking of our own times, sports (though much less bloody and risky relatively speaking than the games) are sometimes thought to instill virtue or involve a sort of artistry. You know, the "playing fields of Eton" sort of virtue, at least. Do they? If our sports do, and the Roman games did not, why is that the case?

Given that the height of gladiatorial fights manifest in modern day boxing, I believe that incidents like what Mike Tyson did to his opponents ear-lobe-no longer occurring-makes us modern "men", so much less, "masculine".

Obviously, men have aggrievances over this fact. To whom, nobody really knows.
• 36
According to an online dictionary, virtuous means "having good moral qualities and behaviour", and moral means "relating to the standards of good or bad behaviour, fairness, honesty, etc. that each person believes in, rather than to laws".

Two things should happen for gladiators to be virtuous:

1. Their behavior should be seen as good or admirable by others. I don't know if that was the case. Maybe people watched them because they were interesting to watch, but not because those fights were the manifestation of good.
2. They should believe in what they do. Being a gladiator should be seen as their choice among many other less virtuous alternatives. I'm not sure it if was the case either.

I'm thinking about professional wrestling matches, where people put in a show to entertain others. I don't see them as virtuous for doing entertainment. Serial killers also come to my mind. Some of them treat their doings as a form of art, but that doesn't make them virtuous. On the other hand, killing can be seen as virtuous in proper circumstances.
• 15.7k

Erudite OP. Thanks.

I didn't watch Squid Game. I understand that the premiss was folk being forced into a blood game by way of looming bankruptcy. Not unlike forcing a slave into the ludi. The lust for bloodsport seems unabated, in that such a premise proved so enticing to many.
• 1.2k
Fight to the finish/Death match/Blood sport.

Humans fighting humans (Roman gladiators) $\rightarrow$ Animal fighting (cockfights) $\rightarrow$ Robot combat (Robot Wars/Battlebots).

Is this progress or what?

Roman gladiators were slaves; the etymology of the word "robot" is slave.

Virtualize combat: drones, robot army of the Trade Federation (Star Wars).
• 2.2k

These seem a different kind of game, though. In the Roman games, endurance of pain was valuable, but not the end in view, nor was it accepted or self-inflicted as worthy or redeeming in itself. Gladiators fought one another, and were successful because they were more skillful than their opponent, less fearful, more disciplined. Many were forced to fight, I'm sure, but we know some did so willingly. They put themselves at risk from others who would do them harm, relying on themselves and their training to avoid it--if they were good enough at the game.
• 2.2k

Thank you.
• 2.2k
I think Hemingway and Mailer felt this.

Oh yes. I can't understand Hemingway's fondness for bullfighting. No doubt there's risk involved, and I suppose the matador must, to be seen as admirable, kill the bull in certain ways, and that may involve skill. But it still is simply a celebration of a man killing a beast, and I can't think of that as impressive in any sense, particularly as the picadors typically weaken the animal and goad it before the matador is exposed to harm. Hunting doesn't strike me as admirable or worthy either. Using firearms to kill animals who pose no threat normally isn't exactly glorious.

So I think there must be something more involved in the game, or sport, in order for it to be deemed art or an example of virtue worthy of admiration to those who think it such.

I personally think this is largely nonsense - playing the flute would probably accomplish the same end, but it isn't as cool and there's no blood unless you do it wrong. And it is probably true that any activity that helps people take their minds of drug use and hanging out looking for trouble is helpful in some way. Even golf...

A reasonable view. But how account for the mystique, the appeal of blood games in that case? Is the reference to virtue and artistry mere puffery? It's hard to deny the appeal. I'm hardly an athlete or heroic figure, but I've enjoyed competing in "combat" sports like fencing, and gave Escrima a try; I've enjoyed shooting clays (not birds or animals, though). These certainly aren't blood games (though Escrima can be) and merely mimic them, but competing in them seems to be satisfying in a peculiar way. You feel a sense of worth when you successfully hack at and stab someone with a sabre while being hacked at and stabbed (at least I did). I imagine a boxer or martial arts contestant would feel something similar.
• 2.2k
What about the aristocrats who participated? Did they do so entirely by choice or did it have something to do with status or wealth?

A good question. From what I've read, reasons for their participation varied. Some were down on their luck and turned to the games, some merely wanted to, some wanted to impress women (who it seems would fawn upon gladiators if the ancient graffiti is any indication). I don't think an aristocrat would think to increase his status by fighting in the games, as it seems gladiators, though admired, were thought to be of inferior social status.

Commodus, of course, is the most famous example of an aristocrat who fought as a gladiator. He was a special case, though, as an Emperor could do much as he wanted to do as long as he mollified the Senate and controlled the legions, no matter how ridiculous he was thought to be. He managed to do that for a time, but was strangled by a wrestler in his bath. He apparently thought his prowess as a gladiator and athlete made him popular with the people and discouraged assassination.
• 847
I personally think this is largely nonsense - playing the flute would probably accomplish the same end, but it isn't as cool and there's no blood unless you do it wrong. And it is probably true that any activity that helps people take their minds of drug use and hanging out looking for trouble is helpful in some way. Even golf...

I think there’s a difference between physically exerting your strength over another person and learning a skill like playing an instrument. It may not be PC to say, but I think a lot of men particularly have a need to exert their strength; whether it’s through violence, physical labor, or exercise. There seems to be a tension that can only be released through it. In this way, sports are a healthy way to release this aggressive impulse.

I think there’s a reason why you won’t find many (any?) flutists that are physically elite. Those who are exceptionally strong, fast, agile, etc. tend to pursue activities/occupations that allow them to demonstrate these abilities. And they do so because it’s intrinsically rewarding. It feels fun to knock the shit out of someone, especially when the social stigma against doing such a thing is lifted, so that there’s no need to feel guilt or remorse for doing and taking pleasure in what is usually considered immoral. The praise and potential for significant monetary gain also help reinforce it, of course.
• 3.7k
I can't understand Hemingway's fondness for bullfighting.

That's because your opinion of him is too humanistic.
It's rather strange that as a lawyer, you don't see life as a struggle for survival/the upper hand.

It may not be PC to say

And this is pretty much the problem with this topic. It's about something that people generally actually like and admire (and prove so by paying to watch or do it), but there is a taboo on talking about it.
• 847

Well, you’re right, but I was referring to the “sexism” found in attributing this sort of thing primarily to males.
• 10.3k
As previously said, excellence in posting.

Competitive, body contact sport (football, boxing, wrestling, etc.) operates under an overlay of "character building". My guess is that if you want to build character, try something else.

The nonsense that justifies body contact sport disguises the action in which a lot of people find pleasure. I don't know whether bloody sports are good or bad, but a lot of people clearly get a charge out of them. The Romans seemed to have been quite open about their blood-sport pleasure. If the gladiatorial games were governed by rules and regs, that would reflect the costs incurred in putting the games on. An expensive dead gladiator wouldn't fight again.

My guess is that the number of programs featuring track and field meets (high school on up) attract paltry audiences--non-existent in comparison to football/basketball. The competitiveness of track and field doesn't (normally) involve aggressive body contact.
• 1.5k

Ah, the vicarious pleasures of watching other life struggle, suffer, and die form a safe distance ... maybe with popcorn ready at hand. Not so taboo nowadays, I think. For those who are into it, there’s quite a resurgence of enacting the Ancient Roman dictum of “bread (like fast food for those who can’t afford better) and circus (like the both literal and figurative bloodsports that surround)” … this in our oh so civilized society, so as to keep the vast majority of us appeased in times of ever-increasing want. Always was and always will be so no point in being opposed to this, the attributes of the so called “real world”. Besides, no such thing as the vicarious pleasure of seeing others well off while one is in suffering; and if there is, it doesn’t pertain to the real world anyway.

Am I getting things generally right here? My bad for the tonality if not.

I can enjoy a well played out physical contact sport. I’ve seen quite good, and brutally intense, kickboxing where the competitors gave each other long, earnest fraternal hugs when the match ended. This hugging thing is deemed uncomfortable, un-male-like behavior by many of us. But this same portion of us are not thus uncomforted when a boxer bites off the ear of another.

I take many a competitive sport to be mock-aggression, with or without bodily contact, much like a good portion of childhood play is. Something we engage in as practice for the real thing, but not the real thing itself; certainly not something wherein we must become the victor at any and all costs. I assume there has to be some mock-aggression in the stereotype of girls playing with barbies if there is to be had any fun to begin with in such play. More social than physical, but again serving as practice for the real deal in terms of conflicts.

Generally asking: What has bloodlust to do with this? Well, other than a resurgence in the general populace's desire for it.
• 2.9k
But how account for the mystique, the appeal of blood games in that case? Is the reference to virtue and artistry mere puffery?

I guess there is something primal in all this that reaches into our evolutionary history. Survival is important. I have hired many security guards in my work for protection (people sometimes go apeshit using meth (ice), etc) - I no longer relish rolling around on the ground in fights myself. And there is no question that some guards have exceptional fighting skills (performed in a honourable way with the minimum of force) and they are generally worshipped by the staff who work with them. There is an instant recognition of a kind of nobility in the person who can handle themselves in a brawl, keep their cool and who doesn't need to resort to dirty tricks or extreme retaliation.

I imagine a boxer or martial arts contestant would feel something similar.

I studied Wado Kai karate for 6 or 7 years as a teenager. The appeal was a kind of ritualistic combat combined with a form of mysticism. The idea that you could progress and become a master had a big appeal to some adherents. It provided meaning and community - not unlike a church group. A tournament combined all things humans seem to like - a festival, competition, crowds, spectacle, winners and losers, surprises and prizes.
• 2.2k

Good post.

I think admiration of skill and courage is involved in the attraction to blood games, and would think mysticism of a kind could be significant at least among the participants. Not as to the spectators, though. One sees mysticism involved in the Eastern martial arts more than the Western, and that may be part of the tradition which is behind them. The samurai tradition behind Kendo, for example. I wanted to try my hand at Keno once, but was told that I would have to buy the (mock) sword before I could even give it a try. This irritated me.

I think that the festival/spectacle aspect would be significant as well. It certainly was in the Roman games, which were open to the public and typically took place on holidays. I thought this thread might have a place in Political Philosophy because the Roman games were often given by aristocrats (who were usually politicians) to endear themselves to the people. Later, the Emperors wisely prohibited anyone but themselves from holding games.

Such things may account for admiration and popularity. Is there more to it?
• 2.2k
First, thank you.

If the gladiatorial games were governed by rules and regs, that would reflect the costs incurred in putting the games on.

Very true. Training, feeding and boarding gladiators was expensive and so were the games. That's why contests weren't fought to the death that often.

The nonsense that justifies body contact sport disguises the action in which a lot of people find pleasure. I don't know whether bloody sports are good or bad, but a lot of people clearly get a charge out of them.

There's something about the idea of purposely killing or harming someone before an audience that makes characterizing it as virtuous or as art objectionable, true. But I have the sometimes disturbing feeling (and that's all it is, perhaps) that there can be something virtuous in the conduct of the participants, and that the combat may evoke responses that aren't merely bloodlust, and that this evocation might be something similar to what art can do, and this is part of the appeal.
• 1.2k
Ah, the vicarious pleasures of watching other life struggle, suffer, and die form a safe distance ... maybe with popcorn ready at hand.

:sad: Oh well, let's not spoil the fun! This is the best the world has to offer by way of enjoyment! Schadenfreude is all we got, take it or leave it! Mr. Hobson, hello!? Are you there, sir? Hello!?
• 2.2k
It's rather strange that as a lawyer, you don't see life as a struggle for survival/the upper hand.

Well, we're pretty strange, sometimes. But lawyering can be a kind of contest or struggle, especially in the courtroom, and there's an audience as well (though an unwilling one, mostly, but now and then there are interested spectators). I play chess, and that's a kind of struggle as well. But I don't see life as a struggle comparable to blood games, because to the extent life is a struggle I don't think the struggle is normally one that is admired and lauded by others, and one's participation in life is simply expected.
• 2.2k

But that's not true. Some were, certainly. That was especially the case early on, when they were generally taken from conquered peoples. Some were criminals. But some were freemen, some were equestrians or "knights" (Roman citizens who had less social status than those of the senatorial class, but were usually well off), some were even senators. Grave inscriptions for gladiators establish this was the case as do other sources.
• 2.2k
I think there’s a difference between physically exerting your strength over another person and learning a skill like playing an instrument. It may not be PC to say, but I think a lot of men particularly have a need to exert their strength; whether it’s through violence, physical labor, or exercise.

An uncomfortable truth, I think. There's something peculiarly male about this, for good or ill. For example, although there were female gladiators, they were uncommon and a kind of novelty. It may be that the Roman games were exceedingly popular because Rome was a military society--service in the legions was expected even of senators; it was part of the cursus honorium, the course by which senators attained respect and prominence.

Admiration and respect for fighters, how they fought and how they died, can be seen in warrior societies as well.

This may be changing, as some women seem to be becoming interested in combat sports, and the idea isn't as taboo as it once was.
• 2.2k
For those who are into it, there’s quite a resurgence of enacting the Ancient Roman dictum of “bread (like fast food for those who can’t afford better) and circus (like the both literal and figurative bloodsports that surround)” … this in our oh so civilized society, so as to keep the vast majority of us appeased in times of ever-increasing want.

For those who don't know, it's phrase taken from Juvenal, writing about 100 A.D. or C.E. or somewhat later (oddly, during the reigns of the Antonine Emperors, generally considered "good" Emperors, but the dole and public games had been a feature of Roman life for a couple of centuries by then):

They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, Bread and circuses.
‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,
The furnace is huge.'
• 2.2k
Here's a thought about the Roman games, and pagan life generally.

In the Greco-Roman world, before Christianity crushed most of it into the dust, the afterlife was generally considered to be rather dreary and gray, even for the good among us (unless we became gods, as mortals would sometimes do). In other words, it had no appeal to the living. It wasn't something we desired.

So, we judged our worth by glory and virtue in life. Glory consisted of renown for acts done while living. Glory was achieved through courage, bravery, skill--it could not to be achieved when among the dull dead, but one's glory would be remembered by the living. One's death could be glorious. Even a gladiator's death.
• 1.5k
Ah, the vicarious pleasures of watching other life struggle, suffer, and die form a safe distance ... maybe with popcorn ready at hand. — javra

:sad: Oh well, let's not spoil the fun! This is the best the world has to offer by way of enjoyment! Schadenfreude is all we got, take it or leave it!

Here’s a rephrasing of what I was saying: Mistaking the pleasure of watching well played-out combat sports for the pleasure of bloodlust is on par to mistaking the wails that occur during sexual orgasms for manifestations of suffering. That said, there of course are those who find fun in bloodlust’s fulfilment, this as they find fun the bringing about of others’ suffering via sex - neither of which were unheard of in the Colosseum, for example.

I was ignorant of the phrase's specific origins, so thanks for the reference.
• 1.2k
Mistaking the pleasure of watching well played-out combat sports for the pleasure of bloodlust is on par to mistaking the wails that occur during sexual orgasms for manifestations of suffering.

:up:

That said, there of course are those who find fun in bloodlust’s fulfilment, this as they find fun the bringing about of others’ suffering via sex

:up:

So if I see people applauding and cheering as a toreador sinks his blades into a bull's sides, that's not schadenfreude-like? These expressions actually represent remorse, love, pity, compassion. I thought these sentiments came with their own distinctive, dedicated physical correlates like :sad: :grimace: :cry:

:up: Next time you take a tumble and somebody laughs/sniggers (at you), you're gonna shake his/her hand, tip your hat, and thank him/her.

:confused:
• 10.3k
Emperor Augusta's wife, Livia, gives pep talk to the gladiators. Pretty sure you've seen this bit from I Claudius by Robert Graves, based on Suetonius, et al.

Claudius got to be a god, apparently. I haven't read Robert Graves's sequel to I Claudius, Claudius the God, and there hasn't been a BBC / PBS production of it. unfortunately. Given the straitened circumstances of public broadcasting, there probably won't be.

bold
italic
underline
strike
code
quote
ulist
image
url
mention
reveal