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Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Approaching the Ancient World)

4.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0415248426
ISBN-10: 0415248426
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Editorial Reviews

Review

'Manages the rare feat of combining a detailed and up-to-date knowledge of scholarship on the subject with an accessible, highly readable, even gripping narrative.' - Phoenix

'Vivid, readable and packed with detail ... an enjoyable and essential work.' - Choice

About the Author

Donald G. Kyle is Professor and Chair of History at the University of Texas at Arlington. An award-winning teacher, he has been honoured by the University as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow. He has published "Athletics in Ancient Athens" (Revised Edition, 1993) and "Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome" (1998) and co-edited "Essays on Sport History and Sport Mythology" (1990). He has appeared in History Channel shows on gladiators (1996) and crime in Rome (2005) and PBS and History Channel shows on the Ancient Olympics (2004).
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Product Details

  • Series: Approaching the Ancient World
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (January 28, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415248426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415248426
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.7 x 11 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #897,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
In his most recent work, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, renowned Roman historian Donald G. Kyle analyzes violence and bloodshed in Roman amphitheaters. However, deviating from traditional gladiatorial surveys, Kyle focuses on the disposal and removal of slaughtered gladiators, Christians and criminal noxii from Roman arenas, for, as Kyle poignantly states, "That we are all equal in death, that death is the great leveler, was a popular idea with the Sceptics and Epicureans; but in Rome individuals were not truly equal in death..." (128). Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome argues that Rome's social pariahs-gladiators, Christians and criminals condemned to death-were not only killed in the arena to feed a general blood craving populace, but the denial of inhumation to damnati corpses reflects the importance of proper burial rites to Rome's worthy citizens: "Just as burial rites and monuments reflected the privileges, pretension, and piety of Romans who died normal deaths, the victims of spectacles at Rome were not equal in life, in death in the arena, or after death beyond the arena" (128).

In the opening chapters of his work, Kyle elucidates the meaning of blood sports in ancient Rome at the imperial level-a modus operandi for the state to exemplify and demonstrate its power, leadership and domain. Yet, as Kyle maintains, to each individual Roman who attended the games "the `blood sports' did not have same, singular meaning...Romans were drawn to the arena by the allure of violence, by the exotic and erotic sights, and by an appreciation of the skill and courage of some participants or by the anticipation of the harsh but necessary punishment of others" (3).
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This book is not aimed at the general reader who only wants a short sally into Roman history. However, if you long for in depth information, this is your book, and it covers topics not usually dealt with at all, such as the disposal of bodies.

At the heart of Roman life was the games. One small terracotta from North Africa neatly captures both the horror and the sheer spectacle of the games. It shows a woman prisoner, bound and helpless to the back of a bull, while a leopard lunges at her throat. A charming little piece to keep about the house where the children could play with it.

The games grew out of munera, which, by Julius Caesar, were little but a formality. Julius Caesar "got past the need for the recent death of a male relative: in 65 he held games for his long dead father" (p 51). Hunting and killing beasts had long been one of the favorite Roman sports. Under Trajan, 11,000 animals were killed in front of the Roman crowds in just 23 days. Perfume was sent sifting down through the air to help with the stench. Naval battles were fought in which the participants died in bloody agony while the spectators hooted and gaped.

Ancient Rome knew nothing of equals rights. The life of a senator was valuable, whereas taking the life of a slave was regarded as hurting the master's property. It is difficult for us even to imagine the brutality of the life of the poor Roman citizen. When a large number of bears died from the summer heat the rotting "carcasses lay in the street. The common people....was forced by their rude poverty...to fill their bellies with the flesh of the bears" (193). No wonder one Roman recipe calls for a sauce suitable for bad smelling meat.
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Well, I won't kid you that this is a grim book and shocking to the sensibilities. However, it seems to me to be very important to know enough about the Roman society to understand how different they are from us and why they did what they did.

Kyle makes it clear that the Roman death spectacles served a serious social purpose, not the least of which was feeding the people with the bodies of the animals killed. You could say that the Roman games were something of an equivalent to modern day factory farming - so we really aren't any better than they were.

Kyle spends some time focusing on the role of gladiators and how it changed over time. In the beginning, they were intended to die in funeral games as an offering to the newly dead and the gods. As time passed, they became far too valuable to just let them get killed off and so their status rose.

The major theme of the book from start to finish is "what did they do with the bodies" of humans killed in the games because, obviously, there were a LOT of them. They were not being eaten as the animals were, so what did they do with all the bodies??? After going through all the literature and archaeology, Kyle arrives at a satisfactory conclusion but you'll have to read the book. In spite of the gruesomeness of the topic, it's a good read. Plus, you'll pick up a LOT of history painlessly! (No irony intended.)
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The Romans' violent sports led to countless killings and a myriad of dead bodies as a result. Since no extant source from antiquity specifically addresses the issue of what was done with all these dead bodies, Kyle found it necessary to explore the problem of "the treatment and disposal of the arena's dead victims" (11). In doing so, he exposits the general history of the Roman spectacles, who the victims were, how the Romans typically disposed of the dead, some possible means of disposal for the arena victims, and specifically what the sources say about the disposal of the Christian victims. Since the victims include both animals and humans, Kyle argues that the animal victims were generally distributed as food, while the humans were, in the majority, disposed of by water (e.g., the Tiber River).

In constructing his argument, Kyle guides his readers step by step through a maze of ancient sources. After introducing his topic in the first chapter, He establishes the basic information for his readership in chapters two, three, and four. The second chapter details the evolution and history of the phenomenon of the spectacles, beginning in their Roman and Italian influences, progressing through the years of Rome's Republic, and bringing the study to its culmination through the time of the Empire. Kyle also discusses the various types of spectacles in which the Romans sought entertainment, reenacted great battles and outstanding conquests, and punished criminals in various degrees (including crucifixion, fatal charades, wild-beast exposure, and burning alive). The third chapter divides up the spectacles' victims into two main groups: the gladiators and the noxii (criminals). Kyle reports the distinctions between the victims of various classes and their respective punishments.
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