We Who Aren't About to Die...

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:18

    In One-DimensionalMan, Herbert Marcuse offered a handy metaphor for the ritual use of militarypower in the modern world. This was 1964, full-on Cold War, both the U.S. andSoviet Union bristling with nuclear missiles and racing each other to buildmore, and everyone living under the perceived threat that a nuclear holocaustcould break out tomorrow. If you were born before, say, 1980, you'll rememberthe feeling. Not a day-to-day dread for most people, just a kind of soberingeveryday reality you kept locked away somewhere in the back of your mind. Well, forgetabout nuclear war, Marcuse said. (I'm brutally paraphrasing here, and from memory,but the sense of it's right.) Never happen, he said. The Soviet elite dependon the U.S. elite to stay in power, and vice versa. They need to keep theirhome populations in a constant state of fear, and their economies on a constantwar footing, and they can only do that if each superpower can cite the opposingsuperpower as the cause. So they'll never blow each other up. In fact, Marcusesaid, it's more useful to picture all those missiles not pointing outward atsome enemy across the sea but inward, at their own populations. That's whatnuclear arms are for: not defense against foreigners but to defend the rulingelites against their own citizenry. Crowd control on the grandest scale. Whatwas the term back then? Civil defense? You bet. Rationalrealpolitik types, of course, laughed him off as a silly neo-Marxist academicrehashing 1984. Then, 30 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, notgoing out in a holocaustal blaze but simply, quietly falling in on itself likea pricked souffle, poof. The threat of nuclear war, which many people then livinghad lived with all their lives, suddenly vanished; it's hard now to remembereven what it felt like.

    But theU.S. still maintains its military and it still must be used from time to time.Not to defend us against real threats from real enemies-for now, we seem tohave plenty of enemies, but no real threats. Which may explain why the ritualisticnature of our recent wars has been so uncloaked, their theatrical and propagandisticuses so oddly naked to the eye. Grenada, the Gulf, the Balkans. These days theemperor goes to war naked, as did the Gauls. Scapegoats pop up as needed, liketargets in a firing range: Qaddafi, Saddam, Slobo. Wag the Dog? Marcusemight say this is one dog whose tail hasn't stopped wagging for decades.

    I got tothinking about this reading the new paperback reissue of Paul Plass' 1995 TheGame of Death in Ancient Rome (University of Wisconsin Press, 284 pages,$17.95). I know comparing the United States to imperial Rome is a hoary, simplemindedcliche. Some historian, maybe it was Paul Veyne, has said that for all we thinkwe know about the Romans, for all our false sense of familiarity with them (mostlycoming, among us lay people, from modernizing fictions like Ben-Hur andI, Claudius), a modern dropped into the middle of Augustus' Rome wouldfind it as alien and incomprehensible a society as that of the Iroquois or theIncas. Still, reading about ritual violence like the gladiatorial games, I couldn'thelp thinking there was, if not parallels, at least adumbration.

    ImperialRome was a highly militaristic society, and the ritual violence practiced withinthe imperium reflected the tensions inherent in maintaining order in such asociety. Ruling powers in such regimes make a grand show of using and, mostpointedly, controlling violence as a way to keep the masses docile and pacified.You inflict a little violence on your own people to prevent the people frombreaking out in spontaneous (rebellious or otherwise catastrophic) violencethemselves. Plass marvelously terms the practice "homeopathic counterterror."

    Public crucifixion,for example, was a great tool for scaring people into obedience. Used mainlyon slaves and the lower orders-as in the mass crucifixions of Spartacus' rebels-itwas "intended to reaffirm normal public order by breaching it nightmarishly."In the military, the practice of "decimating" one's own troops (pullingout every 10th soldier and executing him) had similar intent.

    This calculateduse of staged brutality is not to say that some Roman emperors were not alsosimply sadists. Caligula liked to have tortures and executions going on in thebackground while he lunched; Nero burned Christians as human torches duringan evening garden party; and Claudius-the real Claudius, not Graves' stuttering,bourgeois Brit-liked to get up close and study the faces of defeated gladiatorsas their throats were cut.

    The Romans-andthe Etruscans, before the Romans obliterated them-were huge fans of bloody sports.As bad as you may think boxing is today, it's nothing compared to the way theyused to do it. "[I]n the ancient world, [boxing's] object was to inflictdamage as directly as possible," Plass writes. "Since the head, notthe body, was the principal target, the chance for a quick kill (literally,at times) which made rest periods between rounds unnecessary was enhanced bythe caestus or brass knuckles (small metal dumbbells held in the fist).Under the circumstances, sudden bursts of violence resulted in fearful mutilationof the face," leading to a tradition of jokes about a boxer being so batteredhe doesn't recognize himself in a mirror-ha!-or is denied his inheritance byauthorities "on the grounds of failure to prove his identity." TheEtruscans had a game in which you'd put a sack over a guy's head, hand him aclub and then sic a wild dog on him.

    These werenot, in short, pacifistic people, and examples like these help us understandwhy the ruling powers felt the need to control an innately violent populacewith violence. Even ostensibly nonviolent sports like chariot-racing came withtheir own levels of potential death and mayhem, and could whip crowds up intooutbreaks of civil disobedience (not unlike modern soccer, Plass notes). Caligula,ever the kidder and innovator, got bored with horse racing and introduced camelraces to Rome. By that time, the races had become such huge public events thatone magistrate, protesting the ruinous cost, substituted dogs for horses.

    Gladiatorialcombat was originally "a ritual response to the death of prominent membersof the community," Plass writes. The staged combat-reenactments of waron a small scale-as well as less violent contests of strength, suggested "renewalof life through vigorous, hazardous physical activity."

    Later, thegames became unconnected from specific funerals and took on a larger civic lifeof their own. Under the emperors they grew into enormous, bloody spectacles."At the first gladiatorial show in 264 B.C., 3 pairs of contestants fought;by 174 B.C. there were 37 pairs." Caesar upped it to 320 pairs, "andAgrippa set 700 pairs of criminals against each other (with all being killed)."By Trajan's reign, as many as 10,000 gladiators were fighting in a single year(in Rome, with untold numbers participating in smaller spectacles out in theprovinces). The emperors also enjoyed staging large-scale naval battles in giantpools created in the city: They were among the special effects marvels of theirtime. Claudius pitted 19,000 fake sailors against one another in one mock battle.

    Along withgrandiosity, the emperors enjoyed the grotesque. Dwarf combat was popular, aswas combat between men and women. Caligula liked to make fun of the whole thingby placing the old, feeble and just plain clumsy into the arena and watchingthem ineptly bash each other. (The Romans also loved their equivalent of sideshowacts, and suitors competed to present the emperor with the most unusual freaksas gifts. Pet dwarfs were quite common. "A team of hermaphroditic horsesand a boy who did everything with his feet because he had no arms or shoulderswere amazing for their quality, the bones of people more than nine feet tallwere amazing for their size, and a four-headed boy appealed on both scores.")

    And as weall know from our Christian lore, thousands of animals killed and were killedalong with all those gladiators, Christians, runaway slaves, captured foreignsoldiers and the criminal element in general. The Romans had an insatiable curiosityfor exotic animals-the more exotic the better-and yet "fascination withunusual fauna at Rome never led to the establishment of a true zoo, perhapsbecause display for its own sake could not meet Roman social needs. Instead,an element of danger, along with strangeness and vast scale, was...a major ingredientin the appeal of animal shows." Titus staged the slaughter of 9000 wildand tame animals to dedicate the Colosseum; crowds were entertained not merelyby "slaughter of animals in immense numbers but of exotic species fromexotic places-elephants, ostriches, deer, chamois, boars, crocodiles, hyenas,seals, antelopes, aurochs, panthers, bulls, bears, rhinoceroses, hippopotami."They also liked to see animals fight one another-bears versus pythons, elephantsagainst bulls-and, of course, nothing was more fun than to see Christians fedto lions or captured enemy soldiers trampled by elephants.

    The pointof all this display, Plass contends-all the savagery and death, all the exoticismand freakishness, all the grandiosity and grotesqueness-was to show the statein control of it all, wielding apparently limitless life-and-death power overall of society, even all of nature: gladiators and slaves, ostriches and bears,hermaphrodites and dwarfs-and, not coincidentally, everyone seated in the audience.It was a ritual show of power "during which a high level of public tensionwas 'entertained' in both senses of the word: 'diverted' by the absorbing performance,more seriously 'dealt with' as something demanding attention...

    "Whatin real crises is a matter of life and death becomes absorbing entertainmentprecisely because at another place and time it is an extraordinary matterof life and death... The aim was to acknowledge danger without losing control;the violence is real enough where it is, but where it is is not the everydayreal world."

    It was nosecret that the arena was a savage metaphor for the whole empire: that it representedthe empire in microcosm. For example, it was not lost on anyone in attendancethat seating was strictly regulated, each rank and class of citizen in theirspecified sections; I think they were even "color-coded," since onlycertain ranks could wear cloaks of certain colors. Plass cites the French historianClavel-Leveque: Symbolicprotection of society reaches its high point...when the spectators, arrangedin good order-important people dressed in signs of their status, soldiersin their parade uniforms, and the emperor in triumphal garb-assist with eliminating,crushing, and forcing submission of all enemies, real or potential, of order:those condemned to the beasts or the sword, rebels and brigands, prisonersof war, dangerous barbarians, or slaves, always the object of fear. How betterto associate the masses with rejection of all rebels and troublemakers ofevery sort, enemies internal and external? What better way to spread amongthe masses the lessons of fear overcome, of discipline, submission, courage,and virile violence-all of which these diminished creatures, even women andon occasion dwarfs or children, exemplify? Plass writes,"Resemblances of one kind or another between gladiatorial games and modernsports readily come to mind," citing hockey, football, boxing, etc., butespecially professional wrestling, because the violence there is the most controlledand theatrical, the ritualized opposition of good and evil most overt.

    Well, muchas I like wrestling, you know what I think: The best contemporary resemblanceisn't any sport at all, it's the modern televised ritual of arcade-game warfare,tape-looped violence endlessly repeated as lesson, entertainment and demonstrationof power all in one, safely confined in the "arena" of the tv screen,near and yet at the same time unreal, etc. etc. I won't hammer the cliche. It'sobvious enough.