- The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games by Jerry Toner
Thanks in part to the cinema, the gladiatorial fantasies of the Emperor Commodus (died ce 192) are well known. Son of the noble philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus abandoned his father’s conquests in Germania and retired to the city to pursue his passions: most famously, the games of the amphitheatre. We know so much about them because they were witnessed, recorded, and vilified by the senator and historian, Cassius Dio. Toner’s little book tries to put Commodus’s gladiatorial interests into context. The book is the first of the new Witness to Ancient History series from Johns Hopkins University Press and its aim is “to provide an up-to-date and graphic analysis of the Roman games for a general and introductory audience,” though Toner also “wanted to develop a number of new ideas” that he had on the topic (p. 121). The result is a small book that takes Commodus’s interests in the arena as a jumping off point into a wider exploration of this key Roman cultural institution.
Toner is aware of the preconceptions that many modern readers, especially those from his target audience, will bring to any study of the Roman [End Page 570] arena and he is keen to put these stereotypes aside. For example, when describing the Roman audience’s willingness to witness fatal spectacles, he notes that while “the modern Western world tends to see most forms of violence in moral terms,” ancient spectators “saw the combination of grace, control, and aggression, when done well, as both beautiful and virtuous” (p. 96). At other times, however, he slips and so we still read of the gladiator “facing death in front of fifty thousand baying Romans” (p. 12) or “the bloodlust” of the crowd (p. 60). And what are we to make of a chapter about the organization of the games entitled “Feeding the Monster”? Still, Toner’s ability to confront and handle such stereotypes, both modern and ancient, is a real strength of the book.
Another strength is Toner’s astute perception of the popular appeal of the performers — the gladiators and the charioteers in particular — especially for the average Roman. While he explores fully the importance of the shows for the elite (“politicized leisure”), it is his understanding of how the poor majority would have seen such men that is so insightful. These men needed to be resourceful, competitive, skilled, and tough to survive, all qualities shared by everyday Romans.
Toner also explores opposition to the games, mostly through a retelling of the Martyrdom of Perpetua in Carthage (ce 203). At one point Toner states that the Romans hunted down and attacked the Christians (p. 110) though on the next page admits that such persecutions were actually rare. Indeed, Hilarianus, the official who condemned Perpetua and her fellow Christians, has been shown to have been an unusually extreme religious fundamentalist (J. Rives, “Piety of a Persecutor,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 4.1 (1996) pp. 1–25). Perpetua’s martyrdom, as Toner notes, is rightly considered a fundamental text for understanding the arena, since it provides one of our few actual accounts from the arena floor. Toner chooses to emphasize the opposition of the Christians to the Roman world and especially to its games: “the Christian goal was to end the inhumane treatment and waste of life of the arena games” (p. 120). But we can read the martyrdoms in another way. Lying in prison awaiting execution, Perpetua dreamed that she was brought into the arena and introduced by an enormous figure wearing a tunic with purple stripes (clavi) and beautiful sandals and holding a wand like that of a gladiators’ trainer. Toner equates him with the emperor and in some ways he is right: Perpetua dreams of the host of the show (p. 108). But we can take this further and see that Perpetua equates the host of...