Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872, by Jean-Léon Gérôme
A recent essay in the London Review of Books (subscription required, alas) — on Death in Ancient Rome by Catharine Edwards and The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint by Emily Wilson — drew my attention to the following passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book VI), which describes how his young and virtuous friend Alypius became corrupted by the sight of gladiatorial combat. Though the Roman aristocracy made a great show of drawing moral lessons from public displays of death, the line between philosophy and merely sadistic voyeurism was a thin one indeed:
Chapter 8. The Same When at Rome, Being Led by Others into the Amphitheatre, is Delighted with the Gladiatorial Games.
13. He, not relinquishing that worldly way which his parents had bewitched him to pursue, had gone before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away in an extraordinary manner with an incredible eagerness after the gladiatorial shows. For, being utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by various of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them.” They hearing this, dragged him on nevertheless, desirous, perchance, to see whether he could do as he said. When they had arrived thither, and had taken their places as they could, the whole place became excited with the inhuman sports. But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on You. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others. And from all this did Thou, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, pluck him, and taughtest him not to repose confidence in himself, but in You – but not till long after.