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the day commodus killed a rhino

24 december 2014

On The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino, Jerry Toner explains, the emperor also pot-shot a vast number of other large mammals from a catwalk above the Colosseum floor. Then he went down to the floor himself in the afternoon to compete as a gladiator. Then as I recall, Russell Crowe intervened, but Toner says that's not really what happened.

Commodus didn't die that day at the hands of a belligerent Academy Award winner. He would be assassinated a few weeks later, in a kind of tag-team event involving his wife and a handsome wrestler. But for that one day in the arena, the crazy emperor was a pretty popular guy, at least among the People, if not the Senate, of Rome.

Much of what we know about Commodus, Toner is careful to note, consists of educated guesses made by comparing sources. There really are no surviving contemporary accounts of that day in the Colosseum. (It might not even have been the same year that Commodus was murdered, AD 192.) The historian Dio Cassius was present, and later wrote about the events – much later, though, long after Commodus had been killed and disgraced. Dio was one of the Senators locked in mutual hatred with the emperor. Reading Dio on Commodus is kind of like reading Ted Cruz's Life of Obama, if that imaginary book were the only 21st-century witness to survive.

Toner sets himself the task of explaining the material and cultural realities behind the long tradition of modern mythmaking about Roman games, an ever more tendentious tradition reinforced by Christian church fathers, Victorian novels, Hollywood films, and New Yorker cartoons. We all know the outlines of the myth. The emperors were insane; the crowd fickle, ignorant, and full of bloodlust; the gladiators more bestial than the beasts themselves, with the occasional exception of a Crowe or a Kirk Douglas; and the Christians beatifically stoic as they became large kitty treats.

As to the last, there is little evidence that Christians were fed to lions very often. It seems never to have happened in Rome, says Toner, and rarely in the provinces. For one thing, lions were expensive. Provincial Christians who seemed to need it were more commonly tossed by bulls. And passim, accounts of their martyrdom were exaggerated by writers interested in building up Christian sanctity at the expense of Roman savagery.

Toner pulls no punches: Roman sport culture was something we can barely imagine ourselves sitting down to watch. If you think American football is violent, you would not have done well in a Roman amphitheater. Animals routinely killed condemned prisoners, even if few of them were Christian martyrs. The animals themselves had by far the worst of it, though, succumbing in the hundreds to canned hunts by various unspeakable dignitaries. Gladiators fought towards the death, if not always to it. The best evidence seems to be that most were spared, because people wanted to see good ones fight again. Still, on any given afternoon, you had to be perfectly prepared to see on gladiator kill a defeated opponent, professionally, in cold blood.

And as the Empire and its capital grew more vast, you could see games like this on more and more days of the year. Chariot races were better-attended and even more common than hunts and fights. We may think that Americans spend a lot of time, money, and attention on sports, and on NASCAR weekend or Super Bowl Sunday we may be right. But at the height of the ancient games, there were more days in Rome like NASCAR race day than not. (The Circus Maximus in Rome was probably more capacious than even a modern NASCAR track.) Emperors and lesser officials were locked in a continual round of the circus part of the famous "bread and circuses" formulation. You established your patronage by hosting games, and the more games got hosted, the more fans were sucked into the experience.

Toner argues for the cultural centrality of the games, drawing connections between the skills that Romans admired and the skills they needed to live their lives. All parties were more calculating and more rational than myth would have us believe. The crowd in particular, though fanatical about their favorites, were also deeply into strategies and statistics: there was probably a primeval version of Moneyball circulating, at least orally, in the stands at the Circus. Toner draws attention to the lived experience of gladiators (paradoxically both despised and admired – well, maybe not so paradoxically, if you've heard enough talk radio gab about NFL stars). He looks at those who resisted the appeal of the games (mostly older aristocrats and newer Christians).

Toner's is a brief book for the general reader, but it draws from classical scholarship to make the many facets of a complicated cultural experience come alive. The Day Commodus would make a good book to read between downs of the bowl games this winter.

Toner, Jerry. The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman games. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. GV 31 .T77