“Gladiators” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 6)

Hans Gumbrecht continues his brief history of sports in the West by turning from the ancient Greek games at Olympia to the very different events held hundreds of years later at the Colosseum in Rome.  Gumbrecht’s account of this is divided between descriptions of these events and an interpretation of what allure they may have held for the tens of thousands of spectators who attended.

Gumbrech vividly fills out our often oversimplified stock images of these events.  Thus, a program of events, usually paid for by a sponsor to curry favor with the populace and organized by a hired planner (called an “editor”) might last several days and include Greek style athletic events, simulated hunts, chariot races, reenactments of historical battles, music, and, yes, as the culminating attraction, gladiatorial combat. Here, though Gumbrecht professes to be wishing to stress discontinuities in sport history, he notes the obvious ways in which these extravaganzas resemble our contemporary mega-events.

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna --- Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna — Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

The most interesting part of this section of the book is, I think, Gumbrecht’s speculation concerning what might have been fascinated Romans about this.  We tend to think it is a kind of frenzy of distraction and bloodlust.  But, as Gumbrecht informs us, modern research maintains that by a ratio of 10:1, vanquished combatants were not killed, but rather released. So it wasn’t likely to be the prospect of seeing some hapless possibly overmatched or outwitted fighter killed that made these battles the main event.

Gumbrecht:

Together with the initial asymmetry between the combatants, the moment of truth must have drawn the crowd’s attention exclusively toward not the victor but the loser, who—for a few moments at least–lived publicly in the face of death (p. 105)

And what they wanted to see, Gumbrecht argues (prefiguring some comments he will make in a later chapter describing our own contemporary fascination with suffering) is “composure, a face ‘frozen as ice,’ ‘hard as stone,’ impenetrable as a mask” (p 106).  The combat in itself therefore was less important, he claims, than the moment it led up to; the moment in which the defeated gladiator could be transfigured through his public stoicism in the face of death into a heroic “icon for the psychic strength required to brave human frailty” (p. 106).

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Two aspects of this strike me as interesting.  The first is how strikingly familiar this attraction seems to me as a contemporary fan and student of sports cultures.  That is, not only is the stage spectacular mega-event context for the moment of truth somewhat continuous with modern sports, but so is appeal of the image of the human face overcoming the agony of coming to the limit point of physical destruction, mental stress, sheer exhaustion, or even simply tragic defeat.  Again, I’m a bit surprised to find that Gumbrecht’s own accounts, aimed at disrupting a “romantic view” of continuity between ancient and modern sports continue to show the opposite, at least as I understand them.

The other striking element of this is the important role played by competition in this scenario.  In his definition of athletics, Gumbrecht stressed the defining importance to his conception of athletics of arete (the striving for excellence) at the expense of agon (competition).  But here, it seems, excellence really doesn’t play much of a role and, even if competition is not the ultimate aim, it is a necessary catalyst to the staging of the moment that Gumbrecht believe was most fascinating to the ancient Roman spectator.

I’m interested in this because I’m continually trying to find ways to articulate my own sense that competition and the drive to win is essential to my enjoyment of sports, but not because winning (or losing) is especially interesting to me (even as a partisan of particular teams). It is because of all that competition sets in motion before, during, and after a contest.  In this too, I see more continuity than discontinuity between the fascination of modern sports and Gumbrecht’s description of sports in ancient times.

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