Mention of the words Roman amphitheatre is, for most of us, enough to summon up a vision of colossal and slightly eerie grandeur: a huge ellipse, a mass of weathered fabric; the black shadow underneath a rounded arch, an association with a painting by Giorgio Chirico; the agaraphobiac impression of tier upon tier of terraced stonework mounting from the central deserted arena, where we stand in nightmare solitude, dwarfed by space and time, chilled by the unseen ghosts of antique cruelties. “The punishment of being eaten by wild beasts was reserved for Christians and criminals of the lower orders.” “One day that the Senate of Rome (to please and recreate the common people) caused a great number of wild beasts to be baited, namely huge great lions. . . .” Add a few such sentences, and the picture is complete.
That of Nimes is the best preserved of all the Roman amphitheatres. On an exterior view, the great two-tiered building, standing in the midst of the modern town, and weathered by the wind and sun of eighteen hundred years, has a beauty independent of association. What a contrast between this sturdy, massive edifice, built solidly of great blocks of stone, of six to ten foot cube, and the hideous erections of steel, corrugated-iron, and concrete, looking as if their construction had been suddenly abandoned when they were half finished, which constitute our modern stadia and sports’ grounds! The Romans often lacked taste, but they always had standards; and the meanest city in the empire would not have permitted the violation of its amenities by such an abomination as our present-day authorities, avid of more rates to misapply, encourage cheapjack speculators to erect. This kind of solid, useful building, for which good material, a sense of harmonious proportion, and practical intelligence are the chief requirements, displays the Roman builder at his best. For the Romans, architecture meant first engineering, and then decoration as a separate activity; and since we now consider them, I think rightly, to have been better engineers than decorators, their most successful products in our eyes are those in which the decoration was either slight in the first place, or has been reduced to an inoffensive murmur by the weather.
Entering the building you may wander through the galleries which encircle it, seeing the town, from whose activities you have become dissociated (for you are unseen, a god), with the eye of unimplicated vision through the archways, and receiving a hint of the source from which the French have drawn their sense for vistas. If your memory is good, you will remember that the passages which lead inwards from these galleries, and which disgorged the spectators at the close of the performance, were called vomitoria. There are twenty-four of them. The major axis of the building measures a hundred and forty-five yards; it is sixty-nine feet high. You commit yourself to one of the vomitoria, and emerge above the arena, which looks small in comparison with the outer circumference of the amphitheatre, for the solid mass of the building is one hundred and ten feet in thickness. Your imagination strives to people the thirty-five rows of seats with men in togas or short tunics, engaged in waving handkerchiefs as an adjuration to spare the conquered, or passing sentence of death with downward thumb. There is a conflict of the learned here; some authors do not mention the handkerchief-waving, and say that the signal for clemency was given by holding the thumb upwards. Can the explanation be that those who had no handkerchiefs held their thumbs up?
The capacity of the amphitheatre is twenty-five to thirty thousand people. In Roman times there would have been seats on the space at the top of the wall bounding the arena, for the leading notabilities, including boxes for the local representative of the imperium and for the giver of the entertainment, who was called editor. Above this, as you may see for yourself, the seats rise in four stories, with a space between each, to allow of human circulation, from which led the vomitoria, dividing the seating accommodation into wedge-shaped blocks. The lower seats, which were occupied by the nobility and gentry, were furnished with cushions; the common people, who sat higher up, must chill their hams on the naked stone or bring their own. It is said that the top story was occupied partly by the meanest of the populace, and partly by what all the learned agree on calling females, which suggestssince in the amphitheatre there was no compulsory sexual segregationthat the Roman Empire, too, had its surplus women. I do not know whether I should shed my tear for the miserable wretch who perishes in the arena, or reserve it for those unwooed females, relegated to the topmost story among the pullulati.
Any one who has seen the contemporary mob at a football match will have little difficulty in visualizing the Roman one, though he must bear in mind that the latter was composed of southerners, and that he must look for a little more vitality, a little less apathy, a little more cruelty than he would find on the faces of a northern crowd. But the coarse, treacherous good humour, the complacent jocularity, the hysterical alternation between immoderate adulation and immoderate censure of the performersthese you might expect to find as well at Stamford Bridge or Nemausus as at Capua or Highbury. The blessed effect of a common interest on a gathering composed of even the mildest and serenest individuals, every demagogue, priest, ruler, and recruiting-sergeant knows. An orderly crowd is a unit of persons in unstable equilibriumthat is a definition which applies with equal aptness to an Old Boys’ Dinner, the spectators of a football match, and the House of Commons. Such a gathering no more consists of a simple mixture of the individuals who compose it, than common salt is a simple mixture of sodium and chlorine; nor must one assume that each of them is the coarse fool that their common behaviour suggests. So the Roman mob, composed not entirely of brutal and degraded wretches, but also of kind husbands and devoted fathers, behaved as any crowd in-vested with the same licence would do, loading a successful murderer, who had dispatched a score of pitiful untrained fellows, with extravagant praises at one moment, clamouring for an official to be thrown to the lions because something had gone wrong with the mechanism of the awning at the next.
The parallel has often been drawn between the decay of Roman manners in the last days of the Republic and under the Empire, and that which we have seen take place in the Western world in our own time. The decline of a vigorous and sturdy rural population and the growth of a worthless and discontented urban one; the replacement of an aristocracy possessed of standards of conduct and a sense of duty by a vulgar and irresponsible plutocracy, without taste or inherited culture; the increasing pauperization of the community by this ruling class under the stimulus of fear, and the consequent destruction of the sense of individual responsibility and of man’s personal dignity; the provision of spiritually valueless amenities and public spectacles on an ever-increasing scaleall these were the symptoms of the Roman decadence, as they have been of the European one, though this distinction must be borne in mind: that where the plutocracy of Rome provided the populace with entertainments without charge, that of our own time, with the greater commercial cunning which is the only contribution of the last five or six decades to human capability, has succeeded in making it pay for them. The poor man of these days pays his sixpences and shillings for admission to the football ground and cinema; his prototype of nineteen centuries ago was admitted to the amphitheatre and the circus for nothing, though some of the bet-ter seats were reserved and could be bought. Well, that is human progress! As for the comparative value of the entertainments, who will take it upon himself to judge between the football match and the munus gladiatorium, with their occasional skill and much dullness, or venationes and the cinema, with their senseless prodigality, their restless and meaningless excitement? A city erected specially for the making of a single film at the cost of a hundred thousand pounds, eleven thousand animals slaughtered at the triumph of Trajanwhat is there to choose between them? Clark Gable or Paulus, the red or the blue faction at the circus or the Arsenal, Hollywood or the curule aedilesis there any difference?
The munus gladiatorium has a conjectural Etruscan origin, and had at the time when literature first speaks of it a funerary and sporting significance; but, as has been the case with practically all our own ceremonies and sporting events within the last few decades, it increased enormously in scale and became increasingly vulgarized and professionalized during the later years of the Republic and under the Empire, until in the time of Domitian and Trajan thousands of pairs of combatants were engaged in the course of a single spectacle. The men who took part in the combats were either condemned criminals, slaves, or mercenarieshard-boiled adventurers or well-born spendthrifts, whom poverty or such motives as lead a man to turn gangster, or engage himself in the ranks of a blackguard political organization in the hope of a scrap with knives and knuckle-dusters, had induced to enrol in the most odious of the public services, to be trained for the arena by an official who had the pleasure of deriving his title from an Etruscan word which meant executioner or butcher. Public opinion regarded the calling as a dishonourable one, but the consistently successful gladiator was a popular hero, the object of the absurdest flattery and the recipient of prizes some-times amounting in the aggregate to a fortune; and, while those who were compelled to take part in the combats had often to be restrained by the most elaborate precautions from committing suicide, and to be urged on to fight by means of whips and red-hot irons, it is a convincing demonstration of the decline of Roman manners from the old ideal of gravitas, pietas, simplicitas, that under the Emperor Nero there were not lacking senators and even women who, from sheer depravity of mind and desire for sensation, were prepared to descend into the arena and take part voluntarily in the slaughter. It remained for Domitian to hit upon the pretty notion of arranging contests between dwarfs and women. But the lowest point of degradation was reached when the Emperor Commodus, the representative of the might of the imperium and the dignity of the Roman people, himself entered the arena, first as a hunter of wild beasts, and later as a protagonist in the munus gladiatorium itself.
The wretched son and successor of Marcus Aurelius is depicted by historians as spending the greater part of his time in sensual pleasures of such a kind that an author who described them in English would certainly be indicted for obscenity, though there is nothing to prevent any one who possesses the desire and the ability from reading a very plain account of them in Latin. He must, however, have had a steady hand and a sound eye; for, as Gibbon tells us, “some degree of applause was deservedly bestowed on the uncommon skill of the imperial performer,” who seems to have had that peculiar aptitude for the arts of the chase which the tradition of every age has ascribed to royalty. “Whether he aimed at the head or heart of the animal, the wound was alike certain and mortal. With arrows, whose point was shaped into the form of a crescent, Commodus often intercepted the rapid career and cut asunder the long bony neck of the ostrich. A panther was let loose; and the archer waited till he had leaped upon a trembling male-factor. In the same instant the shaft flew, the beast dropped dead, and the man remained unhurt. The dens of the amphitheatre disgorged at once a hundred lions; a hundred darts from the unerring hand of Commodus laid them dead as they ran raging round the Arena. Neither the huge bulk of the elephant nor the scaly hide of the rhinoceros could de-fend them from his stroke. Aethiopia and India yielded their most extraordinary productions; and several animals were slain in the amphitheatre which had been seen only in the representations of art, or perhaps of fancy.” We should be ready to credit the imperial performer with considerable personal courage, too, if the historian did not go on to add that “in all these exhibitions the surest precautions were used to protect the person of the Roman Hercules from the desperate spring of any savage who might possibly disregard the dignity of the emperor and the sanctity of the god.”
“But the meanest of the populace were affected with shame and indignation,” continues Gibbon, “when they beheld their sovereign enter the lists as a gladiator, and glory in a profession which the laws and manners of the Romans had branded with the justest note of infamy. He chose the habit and arms of the Secutor, whose combat with the Retiarius formed one of the most lively scenes in the bloody sports of the amphitheatre. The Secutor was armed with an helmet, sword, and buckler; his naked antagonist had only a large net and a trident; with the one he endeavoured to entangle, with the other to dispatch, his enemy. If he missed the first throw he was obliged to fly from the pursuit of the Secutor till he had prepared his net for a second cast. The emperor fought in this character seven hundred and thirty-five several times. These glorious achievements were carefully recorded in the public acts of the empire; and, that he might omit no circumstance of infamy, he received from the common fund of gladiators a stipend so exorbitant that it became a new and most ignominious tax upon the Roman people. It may be easily supposed that in these engagements the master of the world was always successful; in the amphitheatre his victories were not often sanguinary; but when he exercised his skill in the school of gladiators, or his own palace, his wretched antagonists were frequently honoured with a mortal wound from the hand of Commodis, and obliged to seal their flattery with their blood.”
Some doubt has been cast on the probability that the amphitheatre of Nimes was used for venationes, since the height of the wall bounding the arena has been thought too small to ensure the safety of its distinguished occupants in these circumstances. Yet this kind of building had been thoroughly explored when the amphitheatre of Nimes was constructed, and it seems unlikely that those responsible would have deprived potential audiences, by an error easily avoided, of a favourite spectacle. The simplest adaptation has made the arena suitable for the bull fights which are held here on Sundays and fete days in the summer; which suggests that at Nemausus the experiment was tried, perhaps, of surmounting a low wall by a high metal grille, instead of reversing this proportion as was probably customary. On the other hand there is evidence, perhaps not to be accepted altogether without question, that the arena could be flooded for the holding of naumachiae. Naumachiae were water-fights, in which ships manned by criminals or captives, who fought to the death, or crocodiles and other aquatic creatures, were engaged. They were sometimes held in the amphitheatre, but more often on natural or artificial lakes, such as that constructed by Julius Caesar on the Campus Martius. History has preserved the fame of one organized by the Emperor Claudius on Lake Fucinus, in which fifty ships, representing the opposed navies of Rhodes and Sicily, and manned by nineteen thousand condemned criminals, took part. The arena of Nimes looks too small for any extensive sea-fight, though that is largely an effect of shape, and actually there is room, I suppose, for quite a considerable number of small boats or a few large ones, which would afford a spectacle sufficiently titillating to any but the jaded metropolitan palate. And if there were no wild beast shows here, there were at least plenty of gladiatorial combats, one may be certain. Hundreds, indeed thousands, of wretches must have fallen dead on this floor, or have been carried from it, mortally wounded, to be stripped and finally dispatched in a chamber specially allotted for the purpose. One more analogy with our own day remains to be recorded. That the odour of the multitude, and perhaps of blood, might be extinguished, it was the custom for scented liquids to be sprayed over the audiences of the amphitheatre, just as in some of our most modern cinemas.