GLADIATOR SPORTS IN THREE SOCIETIES:
A COMPARATIVE-HISTORICAL STUDY
Harold Leslie Linkous
B.A. Indiana University, 1975
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
2001 by Harold Leslie Linkous
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Harold Leslie Linkous
has been approved
Linkous, Harold Leslie (M.A., Sociology)
Gladiator Sports in Three Societies: A Comparative-Historical Study
Thesis directed by Professor Richard Anderson
The size of Roman gladiator arenas, and number of them uncovered, indicate
that gladiator matches were fundamental in Roman culture. They originated with
a funeral ritual but quickly grew into popular entertainment. Roman intellectuals
thought the fights were inspiring. Roman emperors used the games to buy
popularity from the populace. Criminals and prisoners of war originally supplied
the manpower, but eventually a number of Roman citizens volunteered to join the
gladiator ranks. These included senators, nobility, and even a dozen emperors.
Animal exhibitions, sea battles, and mythological theatricals were added
attractions. As Christians came into more influence in Rome, they continued the
Medieval jousting tournaments originated in northern France. They were
quite dangerous at first, just short of actual warfare. Practical military training
appears to have been the fundamental purpose, along with the taking of booty and
ransoming of prisoners. The Church condemned tournaments, as did the French
crown. English kings took control of jousting in Britian, to enhance their own
prestige and to keep their knights competitive. Nostalgic Arthurian jousts became
popular, making chivalry into a fetish. Tournaments evolved into an elaborately
flamboyant form; the Church subsequently embraced them.
In American boxing, contestants frequently come from poverty. The sizeable
prize money won by top contenders assuages public guilt over exploitation.
Another rationalization justifies boxing as an alternative to street crime for
underprivileged minority youth. Organized criminal syndicates actually control
much of boxing. Champions spend their money quickly and often suffer
permanent brain damage. Boxing originated in 17th century England. The
Marquis of Queensbury rules later introduced gloves and a referee into the ring.
The television screen image flattens, and tends to sanitize the impact of boxing
Fighting in professional hockey is an informal norm of the game. League
officials silently encourage the fights for the box office draw, and the message
filters down to coaches and players. Fights are sometimes expressive of temper,
and other times instumental for winning or entertainment of fans. Referees are
frustrated but largely powerless to stop the emphasis on fighting. Players
penalized or arrested for fights are regarded as celebrities.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates theses. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to my parents, Rosa and Clovis Linkous. I would not be
where I am now without them. They both instilled in me a respect for education.
My dad taught me the value of discipline, tenacity, and hard work. My mother
taught me a love for the liberal arts, and to respect myself.
My heart-felt thanks to Dr. Milton Kleg, formerly of the Education
Department, and later an addition to the Sociology faculty. His teaching style
included colorful stories, ribald humor, values, and vision. He pushed me hard
because he knew he could get better work out of me. He was truly unbelievably
generous with me in giving valuable advice.
I will also be eternally grateful to Dr. Pamela Walker Laird of the History
Department. She seemed as devoted to integrity as to her students. Meetings
with her were always refreshing and invigorating. She modeled a drive for high
standards in students and acknowledged our efforts. Dr. Laird believed in me,
drew out my potential, and supported my research interests.
Both of these professors had a lot to teach and a lot of themselves to give to
students. I learned from both of them the need for constant rewrites and revisions.
College faculty like these make graduate school a rich experience. I hope they
know how much they are appreciated.
There have also been some superbly organized lecturers along the way who
were also inspirational. Of note have been Dr. Norma Diamond (University of
Michigan, Anthropology), Dr. Dama Dufour (University of Colorado,
Anthropology), and Dr. Marty Zusman (Indiana University, Sociology).
2. ROMAN GLADIATOR GAMES.......................4
3. MEDIEVAL JOUSTING AND TOURNAMENTS..........27
4. BOXING: I COULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER......43
5. HOCKEY: FISTICUFFS ON ICE..................50
The staging of violent spectacles, and their appeal as entertainment, is an age-
old phenomenon. In contemporary society, violent titillation is presented in a
multitude of forms; so many, that we are no longer aware of the details. Too easily
we are dulled to normative behavior in Our culture, as if the more that we see of a
phenomenon the less we understand its significance.
Examination of past cultures can help us to understand our own culture and to
recognize similar features in our own society. Max Weber initially developed
sociology with the intention of using it as a tool in the study of history. He
eventually created the historical-comparative method in sociology where a
phenomenon is studied at several different junctures in time and place, in specific
case studies of macro-phenomenon such as religion or economy. For example,
Weber focused on the influence of religion upon society in China, India, ancient
Palestine, and capitalistic Europe (Bendix, 1977, 50-233).
This paper will look at the staging of combat sports at three points in
history, each separated by about 1,000 years. The first will be ancient Roman
gladiatorial games, the second Medieval jousting and tournaments; the last focus
will be on current American society, where the examples will be professional
boxing and hockey. If we can begin to understand what the Romans were actually
doing, as well as those chivalrous knights who sought to de-horse each other at
lavish festivals, we may begin to understand some of our own cultural practices
The choice of which sports to focus on in contemporary society is not
entirely straightforward. Boxing is an obvious example of a combat sport, but
rarely does anyone die in the ring anymore. Ice hockey features almost as many
punches to the face as a boxing match, but likewise concussions are infrequent
and fatalities are rare. Football is not included in this comparison because even
though it is a contact sport, its rules forbid fighting. In both boxing and hockey,
however, fist fighting is an integral part of the sport. Boxing is fist fighting; and a
part of the informal norms of hockey focus on fist fighting. It is a major attraction
of the sport, and that is the only aspect of hockey this paper will focus on.
So-called professional wrestling features fights which are more
choreographed and staged than the ones in hockey. In fact pro-wrestling is really
more theater and slapstick than it is a sport. No one worries about professional
wrestling matches being fixed, because they are not real competitions and the end
result of a match has always been scripted. In a similar vein, there are also the
pseudo-sports to consider: roller derby, tough man competitions, and the
American Gladiator show, among others. However, to keep this study focused on
legitimate sports, contemporary examples will be limited to professional boxing
and hockey. The latter two sports, as well as jousting and Roman gladiators, are
part of a cultural mainstream; pseudo-sports are marginal, if not aberrant. The
three periods of case studies will be covered chronologically and followed by a
ROMAN GLADIATOR GAMES
The gladiator fights were an immensely popular spectator sport that found their
way throughout the ancient Roman Empire. They were deeply entrenched in
Roman culture. Yet, their existence appears to be a contradiction in the civilized
legacy of the Romans. These were the same people who established systematic law
and copied Greek art, architecture, and theater. The Romans built roads and brought
order and security. It is well established though that these obscenely violent fights
lasted from the beginnings of Roman civilization until its end.
Roman amphitheaters built for gladiator exhibitions seating between 20,000 to
25,000 spectators, still stand in the French towns of Arles and Nimes (where they
now host bullfights). The famous Colosseum in Rome accommodated 50,000.
Arenas elsewhere within the Roman sphere, in Carthage, Seville (Spain), Polai
(Yugoslavia), and El Djem (in north Africa) seated over 30,000, other stadiums of
this size or larger existed in Milan, Verona, Capua, and Pozzuloi, all in Italy. One
sociologist was caused to observe, the enormous size of the amphitheatres indicates
how popular these exhibitions were (Hopkins, 1983,2). Tunisia had over twenty
Roman arenas within its borders (Wells, 1984,248). Spain had twenty-two arenas,
England was home to nineteen, and Gaul (France) had an amazing seventy-two
gladiatorial arenas (Futrell, 1997,55,58,66). Colin Wells concludes with the
obvious: "gladiator arenas were not...a mere aberration. They were fundamental to
the culture and to the social systems" (Wells, 1984,248).
Gladiator fights appear frequently in Roman artwork, on sculptures, marble
reliefs, mosaics, and even frequent graffiti. They were so much in the Roman
popular mind that we find gladiator figures emblazoned on everyday household
items such as mirrors, oil lamps, silverware and decorative statuettes.
Excavations at Pompeii revealed a babys nursing bottle, stamped with the figure
of a gladiator (Hopkins, 1983,7).
In Rome, archaeologists have recovered programs, libellus numerarius
which apparently were sold for a small price, that listed the names of
gladiators who were scheduled to fight, but not the actual pairings (Auguet,
1972,38). Much more rare, some actual tickets for the fights specifying the
location of tier and specific seat have also been found (Auguet, 1972,40).
Obviously some of the organizational practices of the Romans resemble
procedures found in sports stadiums today.
A promotional sign was preserved at Pompeii:
Twenty pairs of gladiators of Decimaus Lucretius Satrius Valens,
lifetime flamen of Nero Caesar, son of Augustus, and ten pairs of
gladiators of Decimus Lucretius Falens, his son, will fight at
Pompeii on April 8,9,10,11,12. There will be a full card of wild
beast combats, and awnings for the spectators. Aemiluis Celen
painted this sign, all alone in the moonlight! (
The awnings for spectators referred to above were a standard feature at
larger arenas, describing a canvas big top canopy which when unfurled, protected
the audience from the mid-day Mediterranean sun. Also at Pompeii, we know that
perfumed sprays were lavished on the spectators to keep them cool and refreshed
The Roman games were not at all related to the Greek Olympics. The latter
were tried out in Rome in 186 B.C. (Swaddling, 1980,78-79) but did not catch on.
The only Greek spectator sports that the Romans retained were boxing, wrestling,
and a foot race, which they staged as minor events at the Hippodrome racetrack in
association with chariot races. Emperor Augustus tried several more times to stage
Greek-style competitions, calling them isolympia "equal to the Olympics but these
also failed to gain popularity (Guttmann, 1986,19). The Romans were actually
morally offended that Greek athletes competed in the nude. However they had no
moral objection to watching armed men fight to the death.
The gladiator fights originated with a religious ritual. Borrowed from the
Etruscans and Samnites, it was thought that the blood from a killed gladiator seeped
into the earth and helped keep recently deceased dead relatives alive. The first
recorded Roman gladiator fights, it is well documented, were held between three
pairs of fighters at a funeral in 264 B.C. by the sons of Iunuius Brutus Pera in honor
of their father (Barton, 1913,13) (Auguet, 1972,114). After this, the size of the
venues increased consistently. In 216 B.C., the three sons of Amelius Lepidus
sponsored twenty-two pairs of gladiators as funeral games in the Forum for three
days. The funeral of Valerius Laevinus in 200 B.C. featured twenty-five pairs;
seventeen years later, a funeral in the Forum saw an escalation to sixty gladiators in
paired fights. Titus Quinctuis Flamininus then sponsored seventy-four matches in
174 B.C., in honor of his father (Futrell, 1997, 22,24). Although the fights were
held out in the open in the cattle market of the Forum with seating provided for
spectators, the funeral rites were so popular that standing room was completely used
Eventually wooden amphitheaters were erected, and the first permanent stone
structure was erected at Pompeii in 80 B.C. (Auguet 1972,116). The architectural
design was based on the half-oval theater, which had provided rows of seating for an
audience viewing the front of a straight stage, which linked the half-oval. Julius
Caesar in 46 B.C. adopted the plan of "the wooden double theater" (Carcopino,
1968,237) completely encircling the gladiators and doubling the audience seating
capacity. This plan stuck and became the model for all amphitheaters from that time
up to the football arenas of today. One wooden arena built in Rome in 29 B.C. by
Statilius Taurus was destroyed by fire some years later during Nero's mle.
However, this disaster was minor compared with the loss of life at another wooden
arena in Rome. The ancient writer Tacitus recorded that tragedy:
Atilius [the architect]...neither rested its foundations on solid ground
nor fastened the wooden superstructure securely...Lovers of such
displays starved of amusements... flocked in...
The packed structure collapsed, subsiding both inwards and
outwards...fifty thousand people were mutilated or crushed to death
in the disaster. The Senate decreed that in the future no one with a
capital of less than four hundred thousand sesterces should exhibit a
gladiatorial show, and no amphitheater should be constructed except
on ground of proved solidarity (Tacitus, 1996,188-89).
The popularity of the games resulted in such large arenas that the Roman
government had to establish regulatory codes dealing in their construction.
Construction of the Flavium Amphitheater, known popularly today as the
Colosseum and still standing in Rome, was begun in 70 A.D. by the emperor
Vespian and completed by Titus ten years later.
The rules of a gladiator fight were simple enough. The paired fighters marched
into the arena in a solemn parade, the pompa, and addressed the emperor or whoever
was of highest status, with words to the effect of "those who are about to die salute
you" (Carcopina, 1968,240). When the fighting commenced, the style of the fight
depended on the standardized types of gladiators and their particular weapons. The
classic match up was between a retiarius, a net-man, armed with a trident, dagger,
casting net, and one arm covered with armor plate, paired against a secutor, "the
pursuor, with short sword, rectangular shield, leg greaves, and elaborate crested
helmet. The more heavily armed pursuer was so named because he spent much
time chasing the faster retiarius who ran while re-gathering his net for another cast.
The trident, the fishers net, and the emblem of a fish on his shoulder plate, show
that the retiarius probably symbolized the god of the sea, Neptune.
Over the years, many specialized types of gladiators were added to the games.
We hear of the Veles aimed with a javelin; the Provacator armed with a round
shield and lance; the Sagitarius who fought with a bow; the Mirmillo who fought
the a bare body wearing only a helmet crowned with a fish; the Essedarii who
fought from British war chariots; the Equites who fought from horseback with round
shields and lances; the Dimachaeri who fought without a shield and a sword in
either hand; the Laquearii whose offensive weapon was a lasso; the Andebates who
fought blind with coats of mail covering their entire bodies and full visored helmets;
the Paegniarii who during intermissions fought each other with short staffs and
whips (Auguet, 1972). Other types, like the Thracian, the Samnite, and the Gaul,
originally represented real prisoners of war from those nations, and were accurately
armed as such. For all of the specialized types, gladiators generally trained for only
one and fought as that type throughout their career.
Whatever the match up though, when one of the two fighters became too
fatigued or wounded to fight anymore, he raised a finger to plead with the audience,
and thus symbolically asked for his life to be spared. The audience then responded
with thumbs up or down and the ultimate decision laid with the emperor, provincial
governor, or if no one of sufficiently high status was present, the fight's promoter,
the editore (Barton, 1993,19). If no mercy was signaled for him, the defeated
put one knee to the ground and gripped his executioner's thigh, just
above the knee, to steady himself; the other drawing back his free
arm, placed his arm on his victim's helmet so as to hold his head
firmly, and plunged his sword just below the visor into his
...The gladiator, in order to win renown, must know above all else
how to avoid the reflex which comes at the last moment; he must not
try to ward off the sword or shrink away, contract his neck or try to
draw back his head. He must...offer his throat to his adversary, .
should the need arise, to direct against it, the point of the sword, and
to receive the blow, as Cicero says, with his whole body (Auguet,
As horrifying and amazing, as this may seem to the modem reader, this was
the standard of sportsmanship in Roman days. Confirming the harshness of the
age, the Roman writer Cicero criticized the seeking of mercy among gladiators.
We hate those weak and supplicating gladiators who, arms outstretched, beg for
their lives" (Cicero in Auguet, 1972,51).
In fact Roman intellectuals and other elites were fascinated with the bravery
shown by gladiators; fascinated, inspired, and uplifted. Several written pieces by
Roman philosophers and writers all point in the same direction, to the same
consistent theme, which Cicero expressed:
I know that in the eyes of some people the gladiatorial combats are a
cruel and inhuman spectacle; But...no lesson in how to endure in the
face of pain and death could be more efficacious...These gladiators,
these rogues, these barbarians, to what lengths do they not carry their
strength of mind?...do they not prefer to receive a blow to breaking
their roles? What evidently concerns them more is the desire to
please both their master and the spectators? Covered with wounds,
they send to ask their master if he is satisfied; and if he is not they
are ready to offer their throats...What art there is in their very
downfall. (Cicero in Auguet, 1972,190-91).
The epicurean Seneca, another Roman philosopher stated, You must not think
that only great men have been gifted with the strength of mind that breaks the bonds
of human servitude...A mighty impulse has enabled men of the meanest state...
(Seneca in Auguet, 1972,196). It was necessary in this day for Seneca to point out
the revolutionary notion that men of low status could possess dignity in their
character. This is how Roman intellectuals were able to portray gladiator fights as
moral lessons. The slaves and criminals were not real men. They were less human
than their social superiors and therefore their deaths, as individuals, were of lesser
significance, [and] caused no real loss to the community (Futrell, 1997,50).
Another testimonial is offered by Pliny the Younger who also sees the gladiator
match as elevating and honoring the slaves who were forced to fight and die:
We...had occasion to see a spectacle which did not sap the vitality of
men or weaken them; one incapable of enfeebling and degrading
manly spirits, but of a nature to excite them to bear noble wounds
and scorn death and to make the very slaves and criminals give proof
of a love of glory and desire for victory (Pliny the Younger in
These ancient writings offer a valuable glimpse into the mind of the Roman
audience, without which we cannot fully understand the purpose of the Games.
Early on, Roman politicians recognized the opportunity for political
popularity by staging gladiatorial games. In 105 B.C. Roman consuls put on the
first gladiator matches at state expense (Auguet, 1972,114); Julius Caesar mounted
an exhibition of 320 pairs of gladiators in 65 B.C. supposedly commemorating the
death of his father, already twenty years deceased (Hopkins, 1983,4). He probably
would have exhibited more matches, but he was legally kept from doing so by the
Senate (Barton, 1993,13). Caesars political enemies had foreseen the prestige he
stood to gain and so had succeeded in getting the Senate to pass the 320 pair limit.
Caesar actually derived free publicity from the Senates action (Kohne and
Ewigleben, 2000,16-17). After 63 B.C., a law forbade any politician from giving
gladiatorial shows during the two years that he is a candidate for office actually or
prospectively (Beacham, 1999,16). It was already a capital offense for candidates
to openly offer gifts to prospective voters. A law passed four years earlier otherwise
heavily penalized electoral corruption, permanently barring the guilty from office.
Sulla and Autronius were both exiled from Rome in 65 B.C. for bribing the people
with games before the election of Consuls (Beacham, 1999,16).
The situation shifted though when Julius Caesar made himself de facto emperor,
signaling the beginning of rule by dictatorial emperors with an impotent Senate, for
the next 450 years. The focus on elections became largely irrelevant and emperors
openly courted public favor with gladiator games. The new power equation
required that for emperors to keep the increased power they had seized, the people
had to be placated, even bribed, with spectacular gladiator shows. The one emperor,
who did not assume this obligation and in fact took a moralistic stand against the
games, was Tiberius. He was never forgiven by the common people for depriving
them of entertainment, and future emperors took note (Pearson, 1973,48-51)
By the time of Augustus, senatorial restrictions had become considerably
lessened and excessive spectacles ruled the day. In his own writings, Augustus
claims to have put on combats involving 10,000 men:
Three times I held a gladiatorial spectacle in my own name and five
times in the names of my sons or grandsons; in which spectacles
some ten thousand men took part in combat.. .1 have provided public
spectacles of the hunting of wild beasts twenty-six times in my own
name or that of my own sons and grandsons, in the Circus or the
Forum or the amphitheatres, in which some three thousand five
hundred beasts have been killed (Augustus in Kohne and
Remarkably, this would be exceeded a number of times in the future by other
Roman rulers. During opening ceremonies in the Colosseum in 80 A.D., it was
variously reported that between 5,000-9,000 animals were slaughtered in a single
day, some of them killed by women (Hopkins, 1983,9). The emperor Trajan
celebrated his victories in Dacia (Romania) in 107 A.D. with 10,000 gladiators
fighting and 11,000 beasts being killed over several months. Two years later in
dedicating the Baths of Trajan, he offered the Roman public over 8,000 gladiators
and 10,000 wild animals (Kohne and Ewigleben, 2000,24-26).
As time went on not only slaves and criminals fought as gladiators, but
increasingly knights, debtors, and thrill seekers. During the reign of Nero, it has
been estimated that one thousand aristocrats performed as gladiators (Oates, 1994,
42). One gladiator bom into the nobility coolly explained his choice with an epitaph
on his gravestone: Everyone takes his pleasure where he finds it (Auguet, 1972,
156-57). Augustus had sought to limit the appearances of nobility fighting as
gladiators, but he gave up since the prohibition was of no use (Dio in Barton,
1993,25). Counting free commoners as well as nobility, by the end of the
Republic, somewhere around half of all gladiators were volunteers (Ville in Barton,
1993,14). The ancient writer Petronius wrote excitedly in the Satyricon, we are to
be given a superb spectacle lasting three days, not simply a troop of professional
gladiators, but a large number of them freedmen (Petronius in Barton, 1993,36).
Volunteer gladiators were sometimes driven to enlist by financial problems;
other times it bears the mark of escape, the equivalent today of joining the French
Foreign Legion. For senators and the wealthy class though, different motivations
must be looked for. They often skirted the law by fighting as gladiators, and at the
very least earned a social stigma and political ruin. The senator Dio Cassius wrote
that they held in contempt their disgrace [atimia]. The elite volunteers declared
that they considered the infamy attached to this profession as of no account (Dio in
Auguet, 1972, 157).
Part of the explanation lies in the inversion of status and honor, which appears
to have been felt throughout Roman society after the failure of the Republic. Notes
the modem classical scholar Carlin Barton, one finds in Roman literature, from
Cicero on, a sense that the price exacted for political, social, and economic status
had become self-abasement and that honor and dishonor had become synonymous
(Barton, 1993,27). The Roman philosopher and former slave Epictetus asks one of
the Roman elite, Do I not know how you became praetor, where you got the
consulship, who gave it to you. He asks of a Consul, Does it seem to you slavery
to act against your will, under compulsion...? You are just as much a slave as those
who have been thrice sold Epictetus details the sacrifice of integrity and self-worth
in order to become Caesars friend, to attain upward mobility becoming the slave
of men who are not even free. He brands the office of senator the noblest and
sleekest slavery of all (Epictetus in Barton, 1993,28-30).
Disdain for trading dignity in exchange for status is a common theme among
educated Romans. The foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery, wrote
Seneca (Seneca in Barton, 1993,30). Tacitus jabs at the political elite, The higher
a mans rank, the more eager his hypocrisy (Tacitus, 1996, 35). Tacitus cites no
higher an authority than the emperor Tiberius in criticizing the servility of the
Roman Senate: What men are these, so ready to be slaves! (Tacitus, 1996,150).
The man of elite status who went into the arena voluntarily as a gladiator may
have been reclaiming his freedom in a sense. Perhaps it was a way of showing
ultimate disgust at his high status in a corrupt political system, a way of being real at
last and focusing on a life and death battle where the tactics and rewards were pure
and obvious. In any case, there were frequent failed efforts to legislate against the
elite fighting as gladiators. Eventually, by the time of Emperor Titus and again
during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Senate sought to control the situation by
regulating who could become gladiators and designating five pay grades (Balsdon,
1969,297) (Auguet, 1972,154-55).
Traditionally many of the gladiators had always been prisoners of war. For
example, when the Jewish Rebellion was crushed in Israel in 70 A.D., Jewish
prisoners were sent to a gladiator school in Greece, others were massacred in the
arena at Caesarea (on the coast of Israel), and many others were reserved for the
construction of the Colosseum in Rome (Auguet, 1972,153). Condemned criminals
constituted another category of gladiators and this was apparently seen as a major
deterrent to crime. Cicero wrote describing the situation before his lifetime, when it
was primarily criminals who fought in the arena and he applauds the deterrent
This type of display is apt to seem cmel and brutal to some eyes, and
I incline to think that it is so, as now conducted. But in the days
when it was criminals who crossed swords in the death struggle,
there could be no better schooling against pain and death.. .(Cicero
in Grant, 1967,116).
Neros court philosopher, the consistently humanitarian Seneca, wrote against the
immorality of watching criminals fight as gladiators. If one reads his argument
closely though, he has no objection to the criminals killing one another. It is the
audience he is concerned for.
You may retort: But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!
And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this
punishment. What crime have you committed, poor fellow that you
should deserve to sit and watch this show? (Seneca in Grant, 1967,
Augustus established certain seating laws in an attempt to restore traditional
Roman customs and values. He ordered that the front row of seats would be
reserved for senators. Foreign ambassadors were now moved to less preferred
seating (Futrell, 1997,162). Soldiers were separated from civilians. This legislation
replicated the social hierarchy visually, with arena sections being divided amongst
the social classes, the clean white togas of the upper class in the front tiers and the
dark, drab clothes of the commoner in an upper section separated by a wall. The
Emperor specified the assignment of one seating section to married commoners,
another to boys not yet come of age, and close by, to their tutors (Guttmann, 1986,
23). Poorer boys without tutors were required to sit in upper galleries. Augustus
relegated women to the back rows at gladiatorial shows, along with slaves and
freedmen who were not wearing the required white togas that earned preferred
seating (Beacham, 1999, 123-4). Slaves and the very poor were admitted to the
games at no charge.
The emperor himself was in the hierarchy display, and Augustus became aware
that he was part of the scene, always being watched. We leam from Suetonius that
Augustus stopped carrying on business and writing letters while at his seat, in order
to show visible interest in the games (Auguet, 1972,186). When it was not possible
for Augustus to attend a gladiator show in Rome, he sent his formal apologies along
with a designated substitute to preside in his place. During the first few years of the
reign of Emperor Tiberius, he attended all gladiator spectacles according to Senator
Dio Cassius, to keep the populace in order, by seeming to share their festivities
with them (Hopkins, 1983,19).
Capital criminals were killed by animals in the morning (a tradition begun by
Augustus) and then condemned murderers, without armor or training, were forced to
kill each other in a sideshow of unskilled gladiatorial combat at noon. Seneca
described the scene to us as follows:
Recently I happened to stop at noon-hour entertainment, expecting
humor, wit, and some relaxing intermission... from watching men's
blood. However, it was quite the opposite. The morning matches
had been merciful in comparison. Now all niceties are put aside, and
it was pure and simple murder. The combatants wore absolutely no
protection. Their whole bodies are exposed to one another's blows,
and thus each never fails to injure his opponent. Most people in the
audience prefer this type of match to the regular gladiators or the
request bouts. And why not! There are no helmets or shields to
deflect the swords. Who needs armor anyway? Who needs skill?
These are all just ways to delay death. In the morning, men are
thrown to the lions and the bears: at noon, they are thrown to the
The spectators demand that combatants who have killed their
opponents be thrown to combatants who will in turn kill them, and
they make a victor stay for another slaughter. For every combatant
therefore, the outcome is certain death...
...This is the intermission for the gladiators. So let us have some
men murdered. Don't just stop the entertainment! (Seneca in Grant,
Normally most gladiator fights did not end in death. One writer claims that
only one in five fights involved a killing (Barton, 1993,22). Gladiators who
survived combat for three years no longer had to fight in the arena; they were
assigned two more years of some other duty (Auguet, 1972,154-55). In fact, it
appears to have been an important principle to the Romans that the possibility of
mercy, missio, in all fights was preserved. Augustus had Neros grandfather exiled
for insisting on having all losers in gladiator matches killed (Grant, 1967,76).
Classicist Clavel-Leveque has estimated that during the first century gladiators had a
one in seven chance of surviving their career to retirement (Barton, 1993,22). If
they were not famous stars but rather members of a large gladiator troop, it appears
that many gladiators only fought about once a year (Balsdon, 1969,301). Careful
lists were kept of their wins, draws, number of times lost but spared, or date of
having perished. One famous gladiator, known simply as Flamma, had a total of 34
combats with 21 wins, had been spared 9 times after indecisive matches, and on 4
occasions lost, owing his survival to the generosity of the spectators (Auguet, 1972,
179). Informal graffiti at Pompeii almost approaches formal record keeping:
Severus ex-slave 13 victories Killed
Albanus once slave of Scaurus, freed, 19 victories Won
Spiculus of Neros school, first fight Won
Aponetus ex-slave 16 victories Killed (Hopkins, 1983,25).
We know that different emperors were fans of certain types of gladiators. Titus
favored parmulari (men with small shields), while Domitian cheered for a type
called scutarii (Carcopino, 1968, 240). Caligua was devoted to the Thracians.
Claudius, supposedly one of the kinder and more benevolent emperors, refused
mercy to all retiarius because they did not wear helmets and died with their faces
exposed, so that he could watch the process of their death agony (Auguet, 1972,49).
Claudius once staged the siege and victory over a British city and the surrender
of the Celtic kings of Britain. He appeared in the arena himself wearing an officers
cloak and portraying the victorious Roman general (Auguet, 1972,70). Theatrical
scenes were in fact shown at the Colosseum with some frequency. Usually these
were mythological scenes familiar to their audience from legend and literature; they
always involved the hapless actor's death. Orpheus would be seen in a pastoral
setting, the garden ofHesperides glittering with gold, sitting with tamed bears.
Suddenly starved lions were released into the scene and Orpheus was tom apart.
Another actor would be seen standing at the top of an artificial mountain portraying
Hercules on Mt. Atna; his kerosene-soaked tunic would light up in flames, and the
actor burned to death. Icarus and Daedulus appeared to be flying with waxen wings
(actually a system of ropes and pullies) over the Colosseum; on cue the wings
disintegrated and they fell to the floor of the arena (Auguet, 1972,99-104). The
Roman audiences knew these stories well and were entertained by the graphic
In an amazing feat of engineering, the Romans were able to stage large "sea
battles, the naumachia, by flooding the floor of the Colosseum, and also by
constructing large man-made lakes. Actual historic battles were recreated. Julius
Caesar presented a sea battle between Roman galleys and Egyptian triremes;
Augustus and later Nero staged the sea battle of Salamis between Persians and
Athenians (Auguet, 1972,69). These exhibitions followed the known phases of the
battle portrayed, and so it was not the swordsmanship and unforeseen outcome of a
regular gladiator match that was the attraction; it was the grand scale, the elaborate
staging, the spectacle. The audience was also duly entertained by the extent to
which the scene in front of them could quickly change. "It frequently happened that
a few minutes after the staging of a naval battle, gladiators appeared on the drained
soil" (Auguet, 1972,71). In one single day Nero exhibited a large massacre of
animals, then staged a sea battle, next quickly drained it for gladiators, then flooded
it again for a banquet on ships (Auguet, 1972,71) (Wiedemann, 1995, 90).
Claudius exceeded them all though, with the sea battle he presented on Fucino
Lake with 19,000 naval gladiators. A huge trident rose out of the water to signal the
beginning of the battle. Siege machines mounted on rafts were employed; other
rafts carrying Rome's praetorian guard were stationed all around the lake to prevent
gladiators form getting any notions about escape (Auguet, 1972,69-70).
The exhibition of exotic animals was also a major attraction. Large numbers of
animals were "hunted" with bow and arrow for the entertainment of spectators; this
is first recorded in 186 B.C. About a century and a quarter later, in 58 B.C.,
Aemelius Scaurus showed crocodiles and hippopotamus. In 55 B.C., Pompey
showed African apes, rhinoceroses, and French lynxes. In 47 B.C., Julius Caesar
amused audiences with the slaughter of giraffes (Auguet, 1972,117). A trapping
and transportation industry for these animals became so efficient that it threatened
some species with extinction. Fights between unusual pairs of animals such as a
bull and panther, a bull and wild boars, and especially lions against tigers were also
orchestrated. To protect the audience, nets were strung in front of the first few rows
of the arena to prevent big cats from leaping into the stands.
Specialized animal-fighting gladiators, venators, fought lions and bears and
sometimes guided animals in fighting each other. Bull throwing was practiced and
taught by Thessalians, and elephant hunting was performed by the desert Getuli
people. Occasionally trained animal tricks rather than fighting was the attraction.
Lions were taught to catch rabbits at a full run, gently in their jaws without a scratch.
A man about to be caught by a bear would use a vaulting pole to elude his attacker.
Animal trainers would astonish audiences by kissing lions and tigers. More
sobering, condemned criminals were thrown to starved carnivores. Augustus began
the latter as a tradition to be held in the morning, as a prelude to armed combats
(Strabo in Wiedemann, 1995, 78-79).
The emperor Nero once fought a lion in the arena; a specialized staff had
prepared" the lion with a drug to be harmless (Auguet, 1972,170). Emperor
Caligua fought in the arena as a Thracian gladiator and charioteer (Auguet, 1972,
156). In addition to these Roman rulers, we know that the emperors Commodus,
Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Didius Julianus, Caracalla, Geta, and Macrinus, all
fought as gladiators because they wished to (Grant, 1967, 97,100) (Barton, 1993,
66) (Wiedeman, 1995,110-111) (Bunson, 1995,181) (Hopkins, 1983,20). The
emperor Commodus was perhaps the most notorious.
Commodus was quite well known as a gladiator posing as Hercules (Birley,
1976.169) . He went so far as to wear a lion skin over his shoulder and carry a club
like Hercules (Boardman, Griffen, and Murray, 1988,153). Commodus practiced
his fighting skills with hapless sparing partners in the emperors palace, and became
an accomplished secutor (Gibbons, 1994,118-119). One Roman historian wrote
that Commodus won 735 gladiator matches; which was modest compared to the
base of one of his statues whose inscription claimed 12,000 victories (Birley,
1976.169) . Commodus once intimidated the entire Senate into chanting 626 times
that Commodus is first among the secutors, as he walked among them with a
bloody knife. In one of his many delusions of grandeur he officially changed the
name of the city of Rome to the Colony of Commodus(Scarre, 1995,124-25).
Emperor Commodus once sponsored a fourteen-day festival of gladiator
matches, chariot races, and animal fights, where he was the main star. From a
special platform above the Colosseum floor, he threw 100 short spears at 100 lions,
never missing a single cast. As an expert archer, he shot special crescent-headed
arrows at ostriches, which decapitated the birds (Gibbons, 1994,118). A panther
was let loose in the arena to attack a bound captive; Commodus waited for the
panther to leap upon the man before shooting an arrow. The arrow found its mark,
the panther rolled over dead, the man was unharmed, and the audience was amazed
(Gibbons, 1994,118). On a single day, he killed a giraffe, several rhinoceroses, and
two elephants (Christ, 1984,114). Another day he clubbed to death five crocodiles.
He began one event by killing 100 bears (Auguet, 1972,171-172).
Always playing to the gallery, Commodus would sometimes let the Colosseum
spectators choose which gladiators he would fight. This was not a privilege other
gladiators looked forward to because unknown to the audience, their weapons would
be made of lead or wood, matched against the iron blade of Commodus (Victor in
Gibbons, 1994,118-19). He finally met his death after thirteen years of rule, when
planning to lead a New Years Day parade from the gladiators barracks to accept
his swearing in as Consul, dressed as a secutor (Dudley, 1993,178). The Roman
elite had had enough of his vulgar eccentricities, and they recruited a gladiator
named Narcissus who strangled Commodus in his bath (Welch, 1998,93).
It is sometimes asserted today that the gladiator games represented the
decadence that brought about the fall of Rome, and that the new force of
Christianity was instrumental in ending the violent entertainment of the Romans.
The historical record does not support either of these ideas. The games ended only
when the Roman Empire ended, with Rome being overrun repeatedly by German
tribes at the end of the fourth century.
As the Christians came to have more influence and Christianity became
the official religion of the Roman Empire, gladiatorial games continued for
several more decades, well into the German invasions (Grant, 1995,122-
123). The first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great, enjoyed
forcing German prisoners to fight to the death, and threw many of the
Bructeri tribe of Germans to wild animals to be tom apart in the Colosseum
(the same fate ironically, suffered by Christian martyrs in Rome for several
centuries previous). Constantines court biographer would note, he
delighted the people with the wholesale annihilation of their enemies.. .and
what triumph could have been finer? (Grant, 1995,117) Two years later
this first Christian emperor passed a law that kidnappers if they were slaves,
would be thrown to wild beasts in the arena, and if freeborn would be sent to
a gladiator school (Wiedemann, 1992,160). One of the early Christian
Church leaders, Pope Damasius hired a troop of gladiators in 367 A.D. as
his personal bodyguard (Kohne and Ewigleben, 2000,30). A scholar who
has specialized in the final days of the Roman Empire may not be
overstating it when he wrote The role of Christianity in the abandoning of
most western gladiatorial combat was nil (Macmullen in Wiedemann,
Saint Augustine described in his Confessions how his young friend Alypius
became a surprised fan of gladiator fights in the Colosseum, expecting to be morally
repulsed by the bloodletting but instead,
He saw the blood and he gulped down savagery. Far from turning
away, he fixed his eyes on it. Without knowing what was
happening, he drank in madness, he was delighted with the guilty
contest, drunk with the lust of blood...He looked, he shouted, he
raved with excitement. He took away with him a madness that
would goad him to come back again (St. Augustine in Grant, 1995,
While Christians might have condemned Romans for putting on blood
baths as entertainment, they found that they enjoyed the fights too.
Christians became as enamored to violence as any pagan; they found
violent entertainment to be compelling and cheered with the rest of the
The next chapter of this study moves to combat sports in the Middle
Ages, when Christianity was even more dominant. Quite different from
the Romans, sensitivity, mercy, and fair play were cultivated in the
medieval ideology of chivalry. Slaves or POWs were never used as
fighting participants in a jousting tournament. They were entirely
volunteers and to participate was honorific. At first, there were no
spectators at all, but as we shall see, that would change considerably.
MEDIEVAL JOUSTING AND TOURNAMENTS
It is important to draw a distinction between jousting and the tourney. The
tourney, also known as the melee, was a group endeavor of two teams, something
just short of real battle. The early names "toumoi" and "toumeamentum" suggest a
French origin for the sport (Clephan, 1918/1995,1). Early English writers also
referred to tournaments as conflictus Gallicus, (French conflict) (Keen, 1984, 84).
Jousts, like tournaments, were fought from horseback, but a joust refers to a single
combat run between two knights.
Both jousts and tournaments rose out of obscurity in the early twelfth century,
with no known precedent. At that same time-period however, the mounted warrior
charge with couched lance had just emerged as a dominant new tactic in warfare.
Notes Maurice Keen in his important work, Chivalry, the hundred years or so
between the middle of the eleventh and the middle of the twelfth century.. .mock
war and martial training are virtually inseparable from each other (Keen, 1984, 83).
The implication is that jousting sports could well be understood as practical training
for warfare (Keen, 1984, 88). Evidence that the medieval mind interpreted jousts
this way lies with one medieval writers erroneous assertion that Roman gladiators
had actually been young men in-training to be knights (Keen, 1984,5).
Jousts were often run in "the Lists", narrow channels divided by a low dividing
wall, "though jousting was by no means confined to these enclosures; indeed, such
contests were sometimes run in the open space or square of a town. Jousts were
often included with the tourney, though frequently held independently" (Clephan,
1918/1995,3). Over the course of the next three centuries, jousting almost replaced
tournaments (Gies, 1974,81). From the beginning of the joust, the basic contest did
not change: the charge with the lance, the breaking of lances and the unhorsing of
opponents are the salient features" (Keen, 1984, 88).
A tournament was held over a large area in the countryside, and was publicized
for at least several weeks by heralds. The only place where a participant could be
safe was a roped-off "out of bounds" area, where he could rest and disarm (Keen,
1984,85). "The earliest accounts say nothing of judges or referees, and though the
principal weapons were lance and sword, virtually no holds were barred (though the
use of bolts and arrows seems to have been frowned on" (Keen, 1984, 85). The
tournament was a rough and tumble free-for-all between two galloping teams, and
deaths were commonplace.
The Church condemned tournaments from the start. Pope Innocent H, in 1130
was apparently offended by the independence and pride shown at tournaments, at
which knights are wont to assemble, in order to display their strength and their rash
boldness, and ordered that knights who were killed in tournaments would be
refused Christian burials (Keen, 1984,84). As if this threat were not enough, hell
torments were promised to them as well: they would wear armor covered with
spikes on the inside, like an Iron Maiden torture device, for eternity (Catnip in
Barber, 1995,374). Another representative of the Church wrote that, As to these
who die in tournaments, there is no doubt that they go to hell.. .unlike those who die
in a just war to whom no blame is attached (Heisterbach in Barber, 1995,375).
The fact that jousting tournaments enjoyed such great popularity in defiance of
Church condemnation indicates that they were essentially a grassroots phenomenon,
developing chivalrous values and rituals outside of official Christian thought.
Besides training for warfare and basic excitement, the capturing of booty was a
major motivation for taking part in a tournament. Horses and armor were
confiscated, and prisoners were typically held for ransom. The medieval writer
Chretien describes a tournament:
On either side ranks tremble and a roar rises from the fight. The
shock of lances is very great. Lances break and shields are
riddled...saddles go empty and horsemen tumble, while the horses
sweat and foam. Swords are quickly drawn on those who fall
noisily, and some run to receive the promise of a ransom, others to
stave off this disgrace" (Keen, 1984,85).
Hard portraits of warriorhood rose out of these tournaments. Roger of Haveden
claimed, "he is not fit for battle who has never seen his own blood flow, who has not
heard his teeth crunch under the blow of an opponent, or felt the full weight of this
adversary upon him" (Keen, 1984, 88). Henri de Laon lamented that by the late
thirteenth century, tournaments had become "too soft and ceremonious"..."Men
came to them not to prove their strength but to win booty. De Laon was an old
school purist, who felt that the purpose of a tournament should be to distinguish
who have the courage to endure bodily hardship, which is what
marks out the man who is fit to lead a company... the man who can
support the weight of his helmet and who does not pause for heat or
breathlessness... to be soaked in one's own sweat and blood, that I
call the true bath of honour (Keen, 1984, 88).
By the thirteenth century, there is already a nostalgia for purer times, for true
knightly virtues. Even earlier, in 1170 when tournaments were not yet a century old,
Peter of Blois complains of corruption and yearns for the good old days:
In earlier days, knights had promised under oath not to leave the
battlefield and to place public before personal gain. Instead of
testing their strength in battle...they engage in drinking contests;
knights go into battle, not with their swords, but with wine in their
hands, not with their lances, but with cheese, and not with their
javelins, but with roasting spits. They lead a fife of leisure,
dishonoring the knightly calling...their desire to fight is replaced by
their lust for booty; they have wars depicted in paintings in order to
delight vicariously in something they do no really wish to experience
first-hand (Goetz, 1993,183).
William of Marshall, as is well documented in medieval literature, made a
handsome enough living collecting ransoms with a partner knight, touring France
for two years and attending many tournaments. In one ten-month period, he is
supposed to have captured and held for ransom 103 knights (Gies, 1974,178). Even
in the quest for booty though, knightly values of selflessness were practiced.
One incident is recorded at a French village where,
at dinner during one tournament, William caught sight of a knight of
the opposing party who had fallen in the street and broken his leg.
William rushed outside, ran to the groaning knight, took him in his
arms, armor and all, and carried him into the inn, not to succor him,
but to present him for ransom to his dinner companions with the
words: Here, take him to pay your debts! (Gird, 1984, 89).
Usually a prize was awarded to the outstanding knight at tournament, not
dissimilar from "most valuable player" award (Gies, 1984, 88). If a woman of noble
birth was in attendance, the privilege of awarding the prize was hers (Duby, 1997,
157). However, "the champion at a tournament was not supposed to keep his
winnings to himself, but share them amongst his friends and followers" (Duby,
1997,157). The Chevalier Bayard's biography claims that although he often won
the prizes at tournaments, he magnanimously gave them to the runner-ups (Gies,
Chivalry is an essential concept for understanding the institution implicit in
tournaments. The word chivalry comes to us from the French, chevalier, meaning
horse; and at first chivalry meant only horsemanship. Quite rapidly though, it
absorbed a unified complex of meanings present in the ideal knight. Chivalry refers
to a noble stand of behavior, something better than oneself, selflessness, and a code
to be striven for. It meant loyalty, generosity, fair play, and deferential behavior
toward women. It also inferred "prowess-the ability to plunge headlong into danger
without pausing to calculate the risks" (Duby 1997,157). In his work on chivalry,
Keen points out that in one sense, chivalry was only a "polite veneer...words and
ceremonies...tinsel gloss borrowed from romance" (Keen, 1984, 3). At the same
time though, it was a very real standard of values that the medieval mind was
conscious of and referred to endlessly.
The idea of chivalry became a doctrine. Geoffrey de Chamay, an active knight
for eighteen years until killed at the battle of Poitiers, authored three books on
chivalry in 1355. In these, he laid a framework for knightly hierarchies of greatness,
ordinal scales for the achievement of chivalry. Knights had to prove themselves
through action, he maintained, and he who achieved more, was the more worthy
(Keen 1984,170). Young men who achieved distinction through jousting were on
the right track but for de Chamay, the tournament brought higher praise. Nobler yet
was the knight who participated in actual war, and even higher honor went to
distinguished armed service in "distant and strange countries" (probably alluding to
Crusades in the Middle East) (Keen, 1984,12-13).
Earning low status at best was the behourd, a sometimes unplanned and more
informal occasion than tournaments and jousts. The behourd was more likely to be
fought by squires and common citizens; the jealousy of knights apparently caused it
to be banned in England in 1234. A behourd was more playful and was fought with
minimal equipment. It may be seen as the equivalent of touch football (as opposed
to the NFL, in full pads and helmets) because of its local, primary group appeal.
Only shield and spear were needed for a behourd, and full armor would rarely be
seen. An early thirteenth century German chivalric romance portrays a behourd
which was more violent than usual that would have been a tournament if they
would have been wearing armour (Barber, 1995,206). Germans of this time-
period were certainly familiar with the violent potential for tournaments, because
one in 1243 at Neuss on the Rhine produced what the most conservative estimate
had as being forty-two dead in one day (Barber, 1995, 374).
Behourds appear to have been less threatening to civil and religious authorities,
and we know that from the beginning Catholic Templar Knights were allowed to
participate in behourds even though tournaments were forbidden to them by Canon
law. The French legitimized the sport, calling the first Sunday in Lent Behourd
Sunday(Barber, 1995,219). In 1208 near Rome we read of a nobleman who was
vassal to the Pope playing at buhurts from afternoon until suppertime, while being
visited by Pope Innocent HI (Barber, 1995,207). The city of Bologna passed a law
in 1259 against behourd horseman attacking bystanders with spears, but only if the
bystanders were on foot. In 1288, Venice a highway statute ordered that any
behourder must provide his horse with bells so that those not involved might be
warned of his approach.
In all European countries behourds tended to be associated with knightings,
dances, weddings and other festivities. Behourds flourished in Italy until the end
of the fifteenth century, merging into a non-combative show of horsemanship called
the carrousel. As tournaments became less violent and more regulated in Germany,
the distinction between behourds and tournaments was dropped and the German
word buhurt eventually disappeared from the language.
Tournaments had been deadly affairs, but one at Chalons, France, in 1274 got
especially out of hand. King Edward I of England was traveling through the area
with a band of followers when invited by the Count of Chalons to participate in a
local tournament. Edward accepted but
at an early stage of the contest the Count, a knight of unusual
strength, forcing his way through the melee attacked the King with
great vigour and impetuosity; and casting away his weapons threw
his arms around King Edward's neck, hoping to unhorse him. The
King, however being a tall and powerful man kept his saddle,
and...cut fiercely at his adversary, dragged him from his horse and
threw him heavily to the ground, for a while a real battle ensued, in
which the outside followers of both sides took an active part
The riot escalated quickly as "the footmen joined in earnest, and there were
heavy casualties, both among participants and spectators" (Keen, 1984, 86). The
encounter became known in history not as merely a tournament, but as "the Little
Battle of Chalons. After this incident, rules were introduced which forbade the
laying of hands on an opponent, and otherwise trying to regulate the potential for
anarchic violence going too far (Clephan, 1918/1995,17).
While the Church had opposed tournaments since their very beginning, this was
reversed in 1313 by Pope John XXII and the church recognized certain secular
chivalric orders: the Garter, Star, Crescent, and Golden Fleece (Huizinga, 1996,
350). The elite nature of tournaments became tightened and soon participants were
required to prove their knightly ancestry. In Germany, it would be the rule that
none should be admitted to a tournament unless he could show that his ancestors
had frequented them for over fifty years" (Keen, 1984,90).
It was certainly in the interests of knights to gain the notice of lords and nobles
at a tourney. Conversely, ambitious nobles had always been on the lookout for
talent at tournaments (Keen, 1984, 89). "The best knights were sought after, for
each lord's individual reputation-and that of his land-depended on the military
success of those who fought bearing his arms" (Duby, 1997,156). The proving
ground was the tournaments, and these were arranged to be spread evenly
throughout the year, at least in the north of France; here they took place on an
average every two weeks. From the start, Northern France, Champagne, and
perhaps Flanders, were acknowledged to be the most important centers for
tournaments (Keen, 1984, 84). This, in spite of the fact that the kings of France for
centuries held tournaments to be illegal; tournaments flourished in flagrant disregard
of the prohibition. The English crown had early on forbade tournaments, but
Richard I lifted the moratorium when he saw the French 'were fiercer and better
trained for war... and he did not wish to see the French reproach the knights of his
kingdom for...lack of skill"'(Keen, 1984, 88).
In England a unique evolution of jousting occurred, unusual in being under the
domain of the royal crown head. Edward I rapidly increased the frequency of jousts.
He, like the earlier Roman emperors who kept themselves popular by sponsoring
gladiator spectacles, made the crucial discovery that it had a valuable potential for
enhancing his political prestige(Barber, 1995,172). By 1328, Edward HI would
hold a three-week long festival of jousts to celebrate his new marriage. His new
queen attended jousts regularly, which brought even more respectability to jousting
and caused other ladies to attend. Colorful pageantry and imaginative themes
blossomed. At one of Edwards jousts in 1331, a market place was sanded and
enclosed, and a stand was built nearby for the ladies. The ceremonies were opened
with an elaborate parade in which all of the knights were dressed in Tartars, each
one accompanied by a lady in matching costume. Later the spectator stands
collapsed and a number of ladies were injured (Barber, 1995,174). Edward m
continued to experiment with jousting festivals, once holding a torch-lit joust at
night in Bristol. On another occasion he conspicuously celebrated his recent victory
at Poitiers by parading the king of Scotland and his more recent prisoner, the king of
France, in a colorful jousting pageant at Smithfield (Barber, 1995,175).
A new type of tournament, the jousting fair, or Round Table was begun in
England, amounting to a theatrical reenactment of the King Arthur legend.
Variations appeared soon afterward in Germany where a forest was erected and
defended, and in Spain where a wooden castle was the focal object. Costumes from
Arthurian days now became important, especially for the jousters. King Edward HI
became obsessed from about 1344 onward with the idea of re-establishing the pure
chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table, actually building a great wooden round
table at Windsor Castle (Borsdt, 1996,162).
The taking of vows now became an important custom; for example, a knight
might promise to wear a patch over one eye until he had performed some brave
deed. Another customary vow was for a knight "to wear for a whole year a golden
bracelet with a lock attached until he finds the lady who has the small key fitting the
lock and can free him when he offers his services to her" (Huizinga, 1996,90-91).
Jousts did not always go as planned, but the participants still felt obliged to
fulfill the original challenge. In 1319, John of Bohemia orchestrated a court of
King Arthur challenge and elaborate scaffolding was erected in the main
marketplace of Prague. However, no outsiders responded to the challenge and the
local knights had to joust among themselves (Barber, 1995,172). Far more than
athletic competitions, jousts were a chance for knights to find causes of honor, and
to identify allies, villains, and victims. A marathon jousting tournament in Spain,
which was to last for thirty days or until 300 lances were broken, was interrupted by
two knights from the Barcelona area, who were offended that religious pilgrims on
the road to Santiago were being detoured because of the joust. The two knights
sought to break all three hundred lances against defenders themselves, in order to
quickly end the tournament and liberate the pilgrims, but the sponsor, Suero de
Quinones, pointed out that the rules limited them to three lances apiece. They
pressed forward with their mission of honor, and challenged him to a private joust
(Barber, 1995,195-196). Honor could sometimes be upheld in silent protest: in
1286 when the duke of Bavaria, who was commonly rumored to have framed and
unjustly executed his wife, held a tournament at Cologne a hundred knights
responded by carrying shields which featured the image of a headless lady (Barber,
Odd clothing customs involving some cross-dressing also became apparent.
Bavarian knight Ulrich von Lichtenstein went on one jousting tour wearing a long
blonde wig and dressing "in drag" (Keen, 1984, 92). At an English Arthurian
tournament in 1299 damsels were actually young male squires in disguise (Keen,
1984,93). At a joust in France, a lady gave her blouse to a knight "to wear it as
battle dress in the tournament...without any armor or protection other than helmet
and greaves. [The knight]...holds the shirt in his arms throughout the night and
kisses it passionately (Huizinga, 1996,88). At another joust at Acre in 1286,
knights dressed as fine ladies and nuns (Bishop, 1987,141).
Jousting became increasingly safe with blunted weapons and additional armor.
One exception of this was the practice in Germany of the Scharfrennen, a joust with
sharpened lances among feuding nobles (Holmes, 1988,348). However, for the
most part the fight itself became almost supplemental to the rest of the fair.
Towards the last stages of jousting tourneys in 1468 at Bruges, Anthony, bastard of
Burgundy poses as the knight of the Golden Tree and issues a challenge to defend
the tree for eight days against four challenges a day. He serves the Lady of the
Secret Isle and the festivities are to celebrate the marriage of Charles the Bold from
Burgundy to Duchess Margaret of York of England.
On the first day of jousting, there was time for only one charge in the lists
because the wedding ceremonies had taken longer than expected. The first nights
feasts included a costumed singing lion ridden by a dwarf, and a camel ridden by a
magician releasing colorful birds. The second day of jousting was won by the
Knight of the Golden Tree. The banquet on that evening and several later nights
focused on the legends of Hercules, even including a joust between Hercules,
Theseus, and two Amazon women. The third evenings feast clustered around a
model of Charles the Bolds new castle in Burgundy, which reached the roof of the
hall inside and was filled with singers costumed as animals.
On the sixth day, the bastard of Burgundy was seriously injured dining a joust
and physicians were concerned for his life, but he insisted that the festivals go on at
his expense. The next challenger arrived in a mock castle, which opened to reveal
him mounted on horseback and ready to joust. He portrayed a character held captive
by Little Hope and Danger and could win his freedom only by jousting and
defeating the defender of the Golden Tree. There was no feast on this evening
because Friday was a fast day for Catholics.
On the last day of jousting, the bastard of Burgundy surprised all by showing up
on a luxurious horse-litter accompanied by an entourage of gentlemen, archers, and
knights. Of him it was now said he did not seem just a bastard of the Burgundian
house, but heir to one of the greatest lordships in the world (Barber, 1995,188).
The final banquet brought back the theme of the Golden Tree featuring thirty
gardens, each with a golden fruit tree in its center, surrounded by a golden hedge.
Entertainment included a battle between giants and twelve sea-knights. The lord of
Arguel was awarded the prize for jousting; award for best performance in the last
days melee tournament went to Charles the Bold, but he refused it and it was given
to Sir John Woodville, the queen of Englands brother. This final nights feasting
A female dwarf in cloth of gold rode into the banquet hall mounted
on a mechanical lion to present a daisy to the new Duchess
Margaret, and a sixty-foot mechanical whale was hauled in, its tail
and fins working, its mouth emitting music (Gies, 1984, 201).
Tournaments became good natured and great fun. Nobles and even
royalty behaved at jousts like over-grown boys who had to be called
home at suppertime.
Henry VIH met Francis I of France in the Field of Cloth of Gold near
Calais in 1520 both kings jousted...A chronicler reported that after
the jousts the two kings retired to a pavilion...and drank together, and
then the king of England took the king of France by the collar and
said to him, My brother, I want to wrestle with you,' and gave him
one or two falls. And the king of France, who is strong and a good
wrestler, gave him a Breton turn and threw him on the ground...And
the king of England wanted to go on wrestling, but it was broken off
and they had to go to supper...(Gies, 1984,202).
The long history of jousting and tournaments was coming to an end by this time,
indirectly brought about by changes in the weapons of war: longbows, crossbows,
long pikes, and cannon. German resentment against these weapons and the
unknightly peasant-foot soldiers who used them can be seen in that languages
Spiessburger, which in todays use means a Philistine or Bourgeois person, but in
the 16th century referred to lower class "freeman who were sent to the front lines
aimed only with a cheap pike or Spiess" (Borst, 1996,162).
The undermining of the military pre-eminence of the knight quickly sapped the
jousting tournament of its reason to be. For some time already though, it had been a
hollow ritual, celebrating nostalgic homage to primordial, misty legends of King
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Jousting festivals had become elaborate
theater, making good and evil into tangible characters and scenes. Once they had
become so harmless and playful, tamed to authority and ceremony, the Church
embraced j ousting.
The references to the glorious past were a clue; an inferred acknowledgement
that knights no longer lived by values of loyalty, devotion, selflessness, and honor, if
ever they had. One medieval writer had pointed out that chivalrous behavior only
applied to knights and others of their class and higher; common people were left out
of any chivalrous obligation (Barber, 1995,376). Another wrote that as young lords
spent fortunes on tourneying, they recouped their money by imposing taxes on then-
poorer subjects, who became the victims of jousting tournaments (Barber, 1995,
375). Knights tended to be rather self important and full of themselves, recounting
their sporting accomplishments with great pride. The English chronicler, John of
Salisbury, pointed out with sarcasm that knights were apt to boast of their feats on
the playing field of the joust, their garrulous tongue, if they find any to listen, will
make the incident memorable from century to century (Barber, 1995,372). In
short, jousting tournaments did not five up to the lofty, chivalrous values they
purported to celebrate.
BOXING: I COULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER
There is a tradition that boxers come from a particular social strata. It is part
of the romance of the sport, and part of how we justify its existence. It is the
Horatio Alger success story; the tough guy who fights his way up from the street.
The dedication and intensity of the boxers is as legend as Jack Dempsey soaking
his hands in brine and his face in bull urine to toughen the skin (Kahn, 1999, 20).
We know the harsh odds against him and romanticize his courage and tenacity.
We project the determination and drama of "all or nothing" onto the boxer.
Typically, the fighters are without education or social nicety. In literature, we
have referred to them as "bums" and "palookas We justify the beating they take
because the institution is giving them an opportunity for wealth, fame, and success,
which they could not have without the platform of boxing. As Joyce Carol Oates
wrote, .. .it has the virtue-how American, this virtue!-- making a good deal of
money for its practitioners and promoters (Oates, 1994, 86).
We would probably not tolerate boxing if the fighters were upper middle class
white boys with something to lose. The huge prize causes us to suspend
compassion for the lower class champions. After all, we tell ourselves that boxing
provides an opportunity for disadvantaged minority youth, who can turn their anger
away from society to fighting each other under controlled circumstances. Whether
their anger is legitimate or justified, boxing sometimes does provide a route out of
crime. For example Sonny Liston had been arrested 19 times and was serving his
second sentence for aimed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary when he began
taking boxing lessons (Oates, 1994,82, 84).
We romanticize their mythic success stories in films like the Rocky stories.
Sportscasters like to call boxing the sweet science, first called The Sweet Science
of Bruising in 1818 by boxing historian Pierce Egan. Boxing stories have graced
the silver screen many more times in films like Champion, The Harder They Fall,
Fat City, Body and Soul, The Champ, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Great
White Hope, Requiem For A Heavyweight, Hard Times, and Raging Bull.
Modem prize fighting is directly derived from bare-knuckle boxing of England,
where it was illegal at first. The first recorded boxing match described in a
publication entitled the London Protestant Mercury was in 1681 between a butcher
and a gentlemans footman (Oates, 1994,44). By 1719, an official champion was
recognized in England, named James Figg. A tradition evolved rapidly wherein a
champion would call for challengers from the audience to literally toss his hat into
the ring (the derivative meaning of entering a political fight). In the early days, the
prize ring was formed by spectators standing in a circle and holding a rope. The
Marquis of Queensbeiry rules were not introduced until the heavyweight
championship was held by John L. Sullivan from 1882-1892. His career spanned
both bare-knuckle boxing and the new rules, which mandated a referee and boxing
John L. Sullivan, as well as Jack Dempsey had refused to fight blacks, and in
fact, a separate Negro heavyweight championship title was in affect 1902-1932. hi
1925, Jack Dempsey resisted considerable pressure to fight against Harry Wills,
The Black Menace for a National Championship title (Oates, 1994,66). Long
before the official Negro heavyweight championship existed black slaves fought in
the South before white male audiences, sometimes to the death. The slaves wore
iron-collars around their necks resembling those worn by dogs, affixed to chains,
which held them into rings. These fighting slave collars are exhibited in historical
Today as much as ever, fierceness if not savagery is admired in professional
boxers. Rocky Marciano would gladly take five punches for the opportunity to land
one of his own. Joe Frazier described an ethic of machismo: I dont want to knock
my opponent out. I want to hit him, step away, and watch him hurt. I want his
heart (Oates, 1994,70).
The flat images on television tend to sanitize the violence of a boxing match, but
those physically present at a match can well understand how a boxer is simply not
defeated, but is decked, stiffed, destroyed, annihilated or starched. The crowd
at a large venue like Madison Square Garden sends out waves and counter-waves,
crying that the fight has been fixed, demanding a knockout punch, or insisting that
the referee mercifully stop the fight.
Most boxers are not even in a league where they have a chance at fame, but
somehow they keep pursuing the dream. Fighters will often drive hundreds of miles
and sleep in their cars to save money, just for a purse that may not even cover their
medical bills. As one of these boxers said, "Aint no dues like boxing dues"
For those few that do win big prize money, wealth is often fleeting. Many
heavyweight champions have ended their careers in debt and humiliation. Initially,
as the champion flushed with success, they live the dream of "big man, big
spender. Jack Dempsey spent most of his prize money shortly after earning it.
Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson each earned over four million dollars and
wound up in trouble with the IRS, bankrupt. In 1956, Joe Louis owed $1,250,000 in
back taxes (Robinson, 1969,266-67). Finally, in the late 1960's Louis's third wife,
Martha Jefferson, fortunately a very competent lawyer convinced the IRS that
further pursuit of her husband would only make any employment a futile exercise,
and the IRS consented to tax Louis only on his current earnings (Astor, 1975,270).
A man with considerable pride, Joe Louis was reduced to being a professional
wrestler and later an official greeter at Caesar's Palace. Another less well-known
boxer, Kingfish Levinsky, found work after boxing as an ambulatory tie salesman.
More recently, Roberto Duran attempted a boxing comeback for financial reasons,
against medical advice.
Lurking behind prize fighting is the presence of organized crime. The state of
New Jersey Commission of Investigation issued a report in 1984 on the regulation
of boxing in Atlantic City. They documented the financial involvement in boxing of
Frankie "Frank Flowers" D'Alfonso (Scarfo-Bruno family, Delaware Valley),
Michael "Mad Dog" Taccetta (Luchese family, New York), Frank Scaraggi
(Genovese family of New Jersey and New York), and Frank "Blinky" Palermo
(Scarfo family, Philadelphia), among others (State of New Jersey, 1984). Then-
elaborate network handled closed-circuit TV investments, gambling, fight fixing,
loan-sharking, and pay-offs to the authorities.
It is often thought that the large padded gloves worn by boxers nowadays is a
humanitarian improvement over the bare-knuckle boxing of the last century. In
reality, though the wearing of gloves has encouraged blows to the jaw and skull;
bare knuckle boxers, in order to save broken finger bones, preferred to strike softer
The American Medical Association has described prize fighting as the only
sport in which, within the rules, each contestant deliberately tries to inflict severe
physical injury on his opponent and render him senseless through a Toiockout' blow"
(Battalia, 1983,254). Often times the strength of their blows exceeds 100 Gs of
force. However, research shows that it is not so much the number of knockouts
sustained but rather the total number of bouts fought which correlates most strongly
with the development of chronic brain damage (Lampert and Hardman, 1984,2676).
There is in fact a medical pathology term derived from boxing: "dementia
pugilistica. In the past this brain damage was known as "punch-drunk" syndrome,
named in 1928 by Martland describing slurred speech, obvious brain damage, and a
broad gait (Corsellis, 1973,270). Another common result seen is post-encephalitic
Parkinson's disease (Lampert and Hardman, 1984,2679).
Mohammed Ali currently suffers from Parkinson's. In the last years of his
boxing career, he had not been able to adequately defend himself. After retiring, he
I could see the shot coming, but I couldnt block it fast enough. I
could see an opening for a punch, but by the time my brain sent the
message to my hand to move, the opportunity was no longer there
Four years before Ali stopped fighting, Dr. Edwin Campbell of the New York
State Athletic Commission had recommended in September 1977 that Ali never be
granted a license to fight in the state of New York again, because of severe
permanent damage to his internal organs (Pacheco, 2000,164). We see Ali now,
overweight, with puffy face, his movements, and speech slowed and trembling, in
striking contrast to the youthful and cocky Ali of the 1960s.
Sugar Ray Robinson fought fifteen professional matches in 1965, the year in
which he turned age 44. He later died from Alzheimers disease, which doctors
have linked to trauma to his head (Pacheco, 65,67).
Occasionally there have been deaths caused in the ring. The most famous
recent case was that of South Korean Duk Koo Kim at the hands of "Boom
Boom" Mancini in 1982. Most boxing deaths were shown by Payne (Lindenberg,
1960,440) to be the result of "rotational acceleration to the head causing subdural
hemorrhage. Sugar Ray Robinson put this in terms everyone can understand.
When he appeared before a board looking into the death of Jimmy Doyle in the
ring from his own hand in 1947, and was asked whether he knew that Doyle had
been in serious trouble, Sugar Ray coolly answered, They pay me to get them in
trouble (Wiley, 1982, 33).
Sugar Rays skill in 1951 at getting Jake LaMotta in trouble pointedly showed
the need for referees in the ring to stop a fight. Well into the 1950s, referees did
not normally stop fights if both fighters were still standing (Oates, 1994,48).
Jake LaMotta however, refused to go down in the 13th round, miraculously
serving as a human punching bag while no longer being able to raise his arms to
defend against punches. After the fight, LaMotta collapsed in his dressing room,
requiring oxygen to bring him back to consciousness and two hours recovery time
before he could walk out of the arena. Sugar Rays pronouncement on his
opponent: Jake LaMotta was a gladiator (Pacheco, 2000,65).
HOCKEY: FISTICUFFS ON ICE
The appeal of hockey may seem mysterious to some: the action moves faster
than the eye can follow and goals are few and far between, but as Wayne Gretzky
has said "The best shots [in hockey are] on somebodys nose instead of on
somebody's net" (Nelson, 1995,43).
Offhand remarks and interviews with hockey insiders including coaches,
players, referees, and sport writers clarity the role of fighting in hockey. Here is a
newspaper account of a fight involving yesteryear's hockey legend Gordie Howe:
Fontinato slammed into Howe from behind, taking the Red Wings
ace by surprise. The Ranger bully then unleashed a series of blows
that would have finished off most men. However, Howe, though
staggered, weathered the worst of the attack and somehow managed
to recover. Then it was his turn. The Detroit legend, a tough man
and renowned pugilist in his own right, retaliated with a bevy of jabs
to the nose and eyes that completely disfigured Fontinato's face"
It should also be pointed out that not only fists are used in these fights. "After
breaking their sticks on each other, they continued to attack with the splintered
shafts in a bloody brawl...'Evans hacked me' remembers Zeidel,...rHe carved me
up"'(Nelson, 1995,47). There is even special terminology for jab techniques with
hockey sticks in this game. Said Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay, 'I've been slashed,
speared, elbowed, butt-ended and board-checked as much as anybody who ever
played. I had a broken shoulder, broken instep, broken hand, and a couple of
hundred sticks in my face'" (Nelson, 1995,42).
Professional hockey has often-injured men far more seriously than Lindsay
Boston Bruins defenseman Ted Green nicknamed 'Terrible Ted' for
his intimidating style of play, had reigned as one of hockey's leading
badmen for eight years. He was so unpopular outside Boston that
spectators used to throw flashlight batteries at him from the
balconies,...St Louis Blues left winger Wayne Maki first slashed then
speared the Boston defenseman, who retaliated both
times...Maki...leaped to the next level, viciously pole-axing Green on
top of the head with his stick. Green crumpled to the ice, his skull
fractured. Surgeons required two delicate operations to remove skull
fragments from Green's brain (Ross, 1999,122).
The second surgery involved the insertion of a metal plate into Green's skull;
however, he returned to the game of professional hockey to play several more
seasons. (McFarlane, 1998,47).
The fans love fighting, and most players do not seem to object it either. One
hockey player describes,
So I jumped on him and hit him a few more times and nobody broke
us up. Finally, I got up off him and saw him twitching there, out
cold. The twitching frightened me. I knew every time I had hit him
his head hit the ice and I figured he was in pretty bad shape. But
then my natural instincts took over and I said to myself, 'so what?'
Gerry Cheeverrs, Boston Bruins goalie from 1965-1972 and 1975-1980, and
head coach from 1980-1985, says it simply: "Fighting is part of hockey" (Ross,
Sociologist Max Weber made a distinction between expressive behavior and
goal oriented, instrumental behavior. This classification clearly applies to hockey.
Sometimes fighting is purely expressive, an outburst of temper, which sends, sticks
flying and gloves dropping. Other times the fighting is purely instrumental,
intended to help win the game or serve other purposeful aspects of hockey.
Retired NHL referee Jack Mehlenbacher claims, "The big wheels of the NHL
figure they have to have blood to fill the arenas. During my years in the league that
was all they were interested in" (Nelson, 1995,51). Hockey observer Jack Ludwig
is likewise not so worried about the expressive violence as he is the institutionally
intended fight: "It's not the chance fight that one is concerned about. It's the staged
roller-derby, wrestling, Big Show scrap that league officials think is box office and
is just dandy. More; it's the fight as intimidation, a strategy to even things up when
the other side is too talented, too fast, too good" (Nelson, 1995,45).
Besides fighting as sideshow entertainment, it can also be a part of the strategy
to help the team win. Says Boston Bruin player Derek Sanderson; "If I play badly
HI pick a fight in the third period just to get into a fight. Til break a guys leg to win,
I don't care" (Nelson, 1995,42).
There is also the jailhouse mentality of visibly assaulting someone so that others
will not pick on you. Says Doug Harvey, All-Star defenseman, "Either you give it
right back or the next thing you know everybody and his brother will be trying you
on for size" (Nelson, 1995,41). "Enforcer" Barclay Plager concurs: it is not who
wins the fight that is important; it is being willing to fight. If you get challenged and
renege, everyone will take a shot at you" (Nelson, 1995,42). League officials are
frustrated with the situation. NHL referee Bruce Hood feels that most fights are
needless. Many times players don't even want to fight but do because they have to
keep up the image of being a rough, tough hockey player" (Nelson, 1995,44).
Indeed coaches encourage their players to fight. Says Billy Reay, former coach of
the Chicago Blackhawks, 'Tm not going to condemn my players for fighting. That's
what they're supposed to do when challenged, or theyd be run out of the league"
The fans themselves are another group that clamor for fights, and ultimately the
game is paid for with their money. East Coast writer George Plimpton goes to
hockey games but claims to not like the fights (he actually may dislike fighting,
being the blue blood that he is). Plimpton expresses dismay with fan behavior,
"shouting for more mayhem, the mood everywhere in the arena so ugly" (Nelson,
One New York Rangers player notes a difference between Canadian fans and
American fans. With the Americans, "many of them cry for blood the minute the
puck is dropped, and the night isn't complete without one full-scale brawl" (Nelson,
Sometimes coaches and even fans become involved in the fights. In a game
between the New York Rangers and the Detroit Redwings, New York coach Emile
Francis got into an argument with a referee, which angered several fans. The coach
belted one fan, which incited two other fans to hit the coach, costing him six stitches
in the face. In a later civil case, the three fans were awarded $80,000 in damages by
a jury. Afterwards in the courtroom, the plaintiffs approached the coach for his
autograph (McFarlane, 1998,175-76).
One night in 1978-1979 seasons Denver player Wilf Paiement attacked Detroit
Redwing player Denis Polonich with his hockey stick, swinging it like a baseball
bat. Polonich received severe facial injuries and consequently a civil settlement for
over one million dollars, to be paid over the next twenty years (McFarlane, 1998,
168). Minnesota North Stars player Dino Cicarelli was not sued for the beating he
inflicted on a rival player in 1988. He was sentenced in criminal court to a jail
sentence, but predictably, he spent most of his time there signing autographs
The violent games examined in this paper have broad similarities, but each
reflects the specific society that produced it. The Romans may be seen as relying on
bureaucratic order, visible hierarchy, and cruelty as amusement. Sociologist Keith
Hopkins has described how the Romans practiced decimation, the drawing of lots
and execution of every tenth man in a military unit, which was thought to have
behaved in a cowardly fashion. The unlucky soldier chosen by luck of the draw
was clubbed to death by his comrades, sometimes amounting to the unjust killing of
a brave and innocent brother-at-arms. Roman values expected and demanded
unflinching obedience for the societys common good (Hopkins, 1983, 1-2). The
concept we have today of "human rights" would probably seem foreign to them.
Medieval jousting differed considerably from the Roman games. For one thing,
jousters entered a match voluntarily, for another, they did not intentionally fight to
the death. They jousted within a narrow code of honor, but for the Roman
gladiators honor had nothing to do with it. The Roman games were about control
In contemporary American society, professional athletes fight in order to receive
millionaire paychecks. The exhibitions are staged for profit. The dominant moral
seems to be that hard work, competition, and winning will be rewarded.
Contestants have been selected in a highly competitive and regulated process,
reflective of our entire society.
Evolution of the sports has been interesting. The gladiatorial games began with
a funeral rite, caught on with popular culture, became a craze, and were then
expropriated by the emperors to further their own political interests. The medieval
tournament went from being a wild free-for-all for armed knights, with hardly any
spectators at all and condemned by church and state, to jousting with blunted lances
at lavish fairs, with elaborate ritual, costumes and flowery demonstrations of
Arthurian romance, all finally with the approval of clergy and royalty. American
sports have gone from a climate of gentlemans chivalry to mob cynicism in less
than a hundred years. Walter Camp wrote to Yale football fans in 1893," It is not
courtesy upon a ball field to cheer an error of the opponents...Moreover, if there are
remarkable plays made by your rivals you yourselves should cheer" (Riess, 1984,
166). From early football chivalry, to fans now being encouraged to drown out the
opposing team's ability to communicate; the latter behavior was previously subject
to penalty and considered bad sportsmanship, but now a large screen instructs the
crowd, flashing, "make some noise!"
Today we have also lost any ties to a mythic past in our professional games. Our
sporting events are sterile with scant references to any cultural past; at best naming
ball teams the Braves, Indians, Redskins, Chiefs or Cowboys. Where once games
were tuned to historic commemorations, Roman religious days, or feudal Saints
Days, we now have corporate bowl games. Sporting events once celebrated
victories, weddings, or challenges issued by city leaders. They featured a cultures
legendary characters such as Hercules, Icarus, or King Arthur. Knights would pass
through a labyrinth called the perilous passage of great adventure, dressed as a
ritual hero, or as a bold and proud, exaggerated version of self. For us today
costumes are uniforms, dictated by a bureaucracy, with licensing rights owned by
Just as Emperor Augustus learned to be a visibly attentive sports fan at the
games, American Presidents throw out the first ball of the baseball season and make
diplomatically neutral statements about who will win the Stanley cup and Super
Bowl. Just as medieval towns in Europe competed to host jousting fairs for the
economic boom they would bring, American cities are not above illegal bribery in
order to host the Winter Olympic Games. Just as medieval writers complained that
knights no longer followed the pure values from days of old, we today lament the
loss of role models who have become over-paid violence-prone cocaine-users.
The use of film and videotape has greatly expanded the potential for violence as
entertainment in our society. It has given rise to certain pseudo sports such as roller
derby, "American Gladiators" television show, and "tough man fights without rules
on closed-circuit television. Beyond the scope of this paper but worth mentioning
nevertheless, most of the violence-as-entertainment offered today is not in the form
of sports at all, but rather fantasy dramatizations in film and television; beyond
dramas, we are titillated with endless journalistic videotapes of violent tragedies, the
news", which we apparently enjoy re-living again and again. Television journalism
increasingly focuses on illicit violence in sports, on freak shows even, and aberrant
behavior. Mike Tyson biting off Evandear Hollyfields ear is shown hundreds of
times in slow motion; Dennis Rodman kicking a photographer in the groin is
highlighted on the ten o'clock news. Rodman is suspended indefinitely and ordered
to go into counseling; he forgoes the counseling and is miraculously back playing in
two weeks. Mike Tyson is released from a lengthy prison sentence for sexual
assault so that he can fight in the ring; after biting off someones ear he must go
through a charade hearing to see if he is emotionally healthy enough to fight for us
again. He passes. Big money dictates judgement.
The Marxist critique of spectator sports in capitalist society is relevant. While
workers consciousness could attend to social conditions and blatant exploitation
from an unseen ruling class, Americans are lulled by meaningless hyped trivia on
the playing field, the boxing ring, and over the media airwaves. Usually too
alienated to have our own spontaneous playfulness, we sit back passively and watch
vicariously as others compete and aggress each other. The neo-Marxists of the
Frankfurt School claimed that while most of our psychosexual energy is tapped by
the workplace, some is left over, which threatens the capitalists order. The purpose
of spectator sports then, is to drain off the rest of our repressed energy and to
displace our anger at the ruling class onto the enemy sports team. Two thousand
years ago the Roman poet Juvenal described in his Tenth Satire a similar process,
where the restless mobs were placated with grain subsidies and public games, which
he called bread and circuses. Romes populace was kept diverted and docile with
garish entertainment and gifts, which they thought were free. An ancient anecdote
has it that the actor Pylades told Emperor Augustus that he ought to be glad that the
populace was interested in entertaining shows rather than politics. Likewise, the
Roman historian Sallust wrote a letter to Julius Caesar advising, the people be kept
occupied to prevent their interfering in politics (Wiedemann, 1992,169). Years
later Emperor Trajan decided in favor of investing in gladiator games over free
distribution of grain and other subsidies, because it not only brought him popularity,
it also occupied the peoples mind and diverted their attention (Fronto in
While we may today be lulled into complacency by spectator sports, not so long
ago in the United States we had our own orders of knighthood. Teddy Roosevelt
and the Rough Riders, Buffalo Bills Wild West troupe, and before them the
enthusiastic cavalrymen of George Custer and J.E.B. Stuart all were proud of a
chivalrous spirit. By contrast, they show just how much we have moved from being
active participants to television spectators who live vicariously through
entertainment. If we today still have errant knights who champion ladies and seek
combat at the crossroads, they live in the illicit outcast form of teen gangs.
Pitirim Sorokin perceived a cycle between sensate and ideational societies.
There is much evidence to suggest that medieval Europe was in an ideational phase
with its emphasis on religion and chivalry and the acting out of values thought to be
pure. The Romans on the other hand seem to fit squarely within Sorokins sensate
society. Ever on the quest for spectacular new sensations, the gladiator games were
but one symptom of a senate society they chased after appetites and pleasures, which
could never be satisfied for long, spending their energies and finances on lavish,
exotic creations. For example, the emperor Vitellius concocted a food recipe, which
called for pike livers, pheasant and peacock brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey
eel spleen, coming from the far comers of the empire. The emperor Elagablaus
cooked a meal of camel heels, cock combs, parrot heads, mullet beards, and
nightingale tongues (Barton, 1993,53).
A yearning for the ultimate, a defiance of all normal limits, seems to characterize
Roman capacities for entertainment from the start of the empire. Suetonius records
that at parties they purposely vomited in order to eat more. Seneca wrote that it was
sometimes Roman custom to fast before drinking alcohol, in order to feel its effects
more powerfully (Barton, 1993,71). The rich built paupers huts near their
palaces, so that they might experience poverty and deprivation now and then
(Epicurus in Barton, 1993,71-72). (The ancient writer Martial finds it hilarious that
the rich man, Olus, having built himself a paupers hut, is compelled by
bankruptcy to actually live in it).
In the arena in Rome, Julius Caesar once sponsored a match to the death
between 10 elephants and 500 infantrymen. In contemporary America a satellite
dish will bring the viewer over 400 television stations; anything imaginable can be
ordered at ones fingertips over the Internet.
Can one imagine what the Romans might have done had they had cameras and
videotape technology? A big screen in the arena would probably have projected a
close-up of the fight. Television would have aired the fights, and promoted the
mystique around the Games. An official Gladiator Hall of Fame would be erected
somewhere in the empire. A lore of gladiator greats and record fights to
remember would be manufactured by their media. Slow motion replays of
wounding and killing sword strokes would be aired. Grudge matches would be
If Medieval Europe had had this hypothetical videotape industry the emphasis
would probably have been quite different. Images of feminine purity would
frequently be featured: big screen images of some high status noble woman would
hold crowd interest. Dramatic treatment of morally conflicted heroes would be of
core focus. The climax might arrive with the shattering of lances and an uncertain
outcome, until we see the hero open the visor of his helmet and receive his symbolic
reward from his lady amid crowd adulation. That is what would entertain the
medieval audience, and uphold the values they held in common.
Durkheim pointed out that rituals reinforce solidarity, binding people together.
Randall Collins adopted some of Durkheims perspective with his interaction ritual
chains. Collins described individuals at social rituals sharing a common mood,
experiencing elevated energy levels, and projecting negative attitudes toward those
not honoring ritual symbols. Thus in Roman times, the Roman public became
annoyed with the emperor Augustus for conducting business and writing letters
from his box at the gladiator games. He became aware of this and transformed
himself into a mesmerized fan. Caligua had one visiting diplomat, who offended
him by wearing purple robes in the midst of a sea of white togas at the Colosseum,
thrown down into the arena and forced to fight against a professional gladiator. In
addition, gladiators who were not perceived to be competing with their best efforts
were sure to earn the scorn of the audience, and might well get their throats slit.
There was enormous pressure to behave and believe collectively and serious
sanctions for those who acted contrary to mass ritual.
Many American intellectuals and pundits expressed horror when Duk Koo Kim
was killed in the boxing ring in 1982. George Will noted that "some entertainments
are coarsening" (Will, in Poliakoff, 1987, 89). John Hoberman claimed that,
"democracies do not need boxing, or the cult of aggression which sustains it"
(Hoberman, in Poliakoff, 1987, 89). Another flatly wrote, "Duk Koo Kim (1959-
1982), he gave his fife to provide some entertainment on a dull Saturday afternoon
in November" (Montville, in Poliakoff, 1987, 90). Yet compare this with what
Roman writers and philosophers wrote in their day of death in the ring: they thought
the killings were instructive, even inspiring. One dissenting voice though was
Neros resident philosopher, Seneca, who like George Will, worried about the
coarsening effects on the audience.
There is nothing more harmful to ones character than attendance at
some spectacle, because vices more easily creep in to your soul while
you are being entertained. When I return from some spectacle, I am
greedier, more aggressive, and more addicted to pleasurable
sensations; I am more cruel and inhuman (Seneca in Grant, 1967,119).
In the eighteenth century the most popular spectator entertainment was public
execution. Although we now have laws that prevent capital punishment from being
seen by the public, one wonders what the Neilson ratings would be if executions
Prurient killing has gone underground. We are now titillated with hints and
winks of violent previews seeping out from numerous entertainment outlets, while
at the same time a moralistic, politically-correct message is ever-present, reassuring
us that we are so very civilized. In spite of this reassurance, people are entertained
by thousands of hours of video taped killing, simulated killing, and expensively
staged violent sports. While we are confident that we are moral and righteous, we
watch spellbound as violence is repeatedly shown to us in slow motion, over
televised news broadcasts. With an inferred wink from the pious newsman, we are
warned that the upcoming segment will be violently graphic. Our heartbeat
quickens as we focus more closely on the TV screen without consciously realizing
it. Subtly seductive media has expanded the scope of the gladiator arena, and we
camouflage it in ways with which the Romans would never have bothered. We
differ from the Romans in that we have a civilized image to uphold.
It can be concluded that contemporary American society is not unique in
showing a fascination for fights as entertainment, staged as public games. At least
ancient Rome and medieval Europe, and probably other societies as well, have
developed highly elaborate institutions for viewing "combat sports. Today
authority officially frowns upon serious injury or death resulting from professional
sports, but there is also a countervailing force, a restless rebel dark side, that revels
in viewing rare illicit violence. The mass media caters to this voyeurism by
showing slow motion video footage of violent incidents cloaked in sports, and in the
guise of serious journalism. Popular footage includes Mike Tyson biting
Hollyfields ear, Dennis Rodman kicking a black photographer, police beating
Rodney King, and O.J. Simpson fleeing police in his white Bronco.
The range and amount of violence shown today as entertainment circumvents
the moral idea that we should not take pleasure in others pain. It leaves us with a
cosmetic standard whereby we can still spectate at numerous fights and killings, and
at the same time to think that we are more civilized than past cultures.
Combat sports have had a tendency to start out as small and informal affairs,
which grow into mass spectacles receiving official sanction. The behind-the-scene
sponsors of these games historically seek to increase their own prestige,
acquisitions, and power. The values of a particular culture are celebrated and
articulated in every facet of the sports spectacle. This in part helps commentators
throughout history to see virtuous themes in the arena or in the fight ring, to see
beyond and perhaps deny the appeal of raw violence.
Values of chivalry are more likely to be found in more informal associations,
what Habermas has called the Lifeworld. In contemporary society, these are not
likely to be found so much in the mainstream, as in marginal groups such as teen-
age gangs, idealistic college students, and New Age romantics. Overall sports
spectacles in American society, more closely resemble Roman society than the more
decentralized medieval world.
As much as providing answers this paper raise new questions, areas for further
research. First, to be addressed must be an examination of the glamorous appeal of
violence among fans of combat sports. This effect could be documented by
interviewing fans exiting some violent sporting event and comparing their view of
violence with those who do not watch such events. Then other questions could
begin to be examined. For instance, what is the difference between actually going to
an event vs. watching it on television? In addition, why do so many people prefer
watching to participating in sports? To what extent does sports violence and news
footage appeal to the same interest?
The nature of watching sports violence as a leisure activity should be addressed
cognitively, as well as sociologically. When sports spectators view aggression, do
they experience catharsis, displacement, or both? (Lorenz, 1966). To what extent
does sports violence reflect the larger society?
Finally, there are sports and violence questions, which are specific to
contemporary society in the twenty-first century. What is the role of the new
pseudo sports vs. legitimate sports? What is the significance of the increasingly
violent incidents in basketball and baseball? What about fan violence and sports
riots? How is sport handled dramatically in Hollywood?
Violent spectator sports are obviously a rich area for future studies.
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