The Roman penchant for blood sports and it’s influence on the present day

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The past is a potent influence for many things in the future.  History does not just set the stage for future events but is actually shapes these events in such a way that current or future events reflect the past it originated from.  For instance, the noodle has its roots in ancient Chinese history, and now, wherever one looks one will find a noodle stand or a restaurant serving dishes made out of the contemporary cousin of the ancient noodle.  Perhaps changes may occur over time so that what modern generations have is different from the ancient counterparts, but certain elements remain to accurately trace back these implements to the ancient times.  The Roman penchant for blood sports is something that has caused ripples to reach the shorelines of the future.  Roman blood sports are currently alive and well in popular culture to include the arts, media, and even competitive activities like games albeit changes to mostly forego with the actual shedding of blood.

            Roman blood sports include games that involved intense physical contact either between men or between man and animals.  “Athletae, or athletes, were first introduced at Rome, B.C. 186, in the games exhibited by M. Fulvius, on the conclusion of the Aetolian war.” (Roman Coliseum) Often, the objectives of these games were death or injury of the opposing athlete.  Games like the “petaurum, which is a board moving up and down, with a person at each end,” (Roman Coliseum) may not be as bloody as it seems but finds its future echo in the seesaws in children’s playgrounds.  (Roman Coliseum)  The more serious games, however, were really a sight to behold because of the abject inhumanity involved in these games.  The Romans had boxing which in itself was already bloody, but to make it more gruesome, boxers used “the cestus which was a formidable weapon, a Roman equivalent to a ‘knuckle-duster’, covered with knots and nails and loaded with lead and iron.” (Roman Coliseum)  These weapons when used by Roman boxers often caused death and serious injury.  (TSM)  Boxers were considered to be highly competitive when they were able to weather a match without being injured or wounded.  Another popular and more difficult game among the Romans is what is known as the “Pancratium which was one of the hardest athletic games, or sports, in which all the powers of the fighter were called into action. The Pancratium consisted of a fierce fight involving boxing and wrestling.” (Roman Coliseum)  This particular game was not governed by any rules so fighters kept on fighting to the death.  (TSM)  Of course, the most popular of Roman blood sports was the Gladiatorial games in which humans were pitted against each other or against animals.  (Roman Coliseum)  During these games which “took place in amphitheatres (like the Coliseum)” (Roman Coliseum) deaths were a normal occurrence because the Romans believed that “when an important man died his spirit needed a blood sacrifice to survive in the afterlife.”  (Crystallinks)

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            Nowadays, the influence of Roman blood sports could still be felt, in fact modern day Romans still hold a sports day known as “Giornata dello Sport celebrated along the historic road leading from the Coliseum through the ancient Roman Forum and on to Piazza Venezia.” (TSM)  However, the influence of Roman blood sports on the current way of life is not limited to sports only.  Modern and contemporary arts often recall the glory days of Rome by choosing Roman athletes or sports as their subjects, such as in the acrylic on canvas painting, “Gladiator” by John Keaton and the oil on canvass piece by Hans Doller entitled “Modern Gladiator” which features baseball players with certain body implements that represent the gladiators of Ancient Rome.  The reason why Roman blood sports are still a favorite subject for many artists is the ideals and concepts behind these sports.  Most Roman athletes looked to these sports not only as a form of entertainment but as a means of affirming their masculinity which accounts for certain gladiators who volunteered to be part of the games as opposed to what most people think that gladiators were forced into doing what they did not want to do.  This particular attitude of respect and honor is what is conveyed in modern day art work such as the one by Doller which parallels the modern game of baseball to the ancient gladiatorial games. (Doller)  This illustrates how the ideals of Roman blood sports are able to still remain despite the absence of unnecessary bloodshed in today’s games.  What is more accurately portrayed in contemporary art that has to do with the Roman blood sport culture is the spirit of sportsmanship and competition.  While modern day athletes would no longer fight to the death, they still compete for prestige, recognition, and dignity; quite similar to the ancient Roman athlete’s reason for competition.

            Other than just in the arts, Roman blood sports have also influenced pop culture and media.  The most recent example of this influence of Roman blood sports is the 2000 Oscar award-winning film ‘Gladiators’ by Ridley Scott which portrays, albeit not accurately, the life of a gladiator and delves deep into the intangible reasons for the gladiator’s desire for combat.  In the movie the gladiator goes into combat because of revenge which is barely one of the reasons ancient gladiators fought.  However, because of the appeal of dramatics and the desire to give the bloodshed a noble cause, writers chose to attach gladiatorial combat with the theme of vengeance.  The film may be considered a metaphor nowadays, but the movie was able to retain the underlying reasons of Roman blood sports while conveying the more significant values of competition and brotherhood.  Other aspects of pop culture where the influence of Roman blood sports is still evident are online games such as ‘Civilizations’ where players recreate ancient civilizations to include Roman civilizations and nurture their creations according to the culture of the period.

            Of course, the most significant contribution of Roman blood sports to the modern man is the existence of forms of entertainment like boxing and other competitive sports.  Note also, that in these competitive sports, making bets is a norm which again, originates from the Roman penchant for gambling.  “The Romans loved gambling and considerable money was placed on the contests of the athletes.” (Roman Coliseum)  As the Romans were known for their less aesthetic take on the games of the Greeks, wrestling, which is bloodier than boxing may well be attributed to the Roman penchant for blood sports.

            Perhaps people studying the humanities would not see how there is any aesthetic value in shedding blood, but it should be recalled that blood represents the occult and even the religious beliefs of a culture, so although seeing or shedding blood may be unsightly it has its own artistic and aesthetic value.  In fact, many modern media consider the romantic and sensual aspect of blood such as in the modern day teen love story, “Twilight” portraying vampires in love, or in the earlier novel by Bram Stoker, “Dracula” which also tells the story of a vampire falling in love with a mortal.  While this may be considered the reason why Roman blood sports had so much popular appeal it also affirms the fact that the Roman penchant for blood sports has extended its influence into the future by becoming a favorite subject in contemporary art, pop-media and culture, and even in entertainment.

Works Cited

Crystallinks, . “Ancient Roman Recreation & Sports.” Crystallinks. N.p., 2010. Web. 14 May 2010. <>.

Doller, Hans. Modern Gladiator. 2010. Fine Art America, New York. Web. 14 May 2010. <>.

Keaton, John. Gladiator. 1999. Fine Art America, New York. Web. 14 May 2010. <>.

Roman, Coliseum. “Roman Sports.” Roman Coliseum. N.p., 2009. Web. 14 May 2010. <>.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Gladiator. 2000. Dreamworks, 2000. Web. 14 May 2010. <>.

TSM, . “Sports Day in the Heart of Ancient Rome.” TSM. N.p., 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 14 May 2010. <>.


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