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Roman circus and gladiators: 3rd c. BC - 4th c. AD

'Bread and circuses' is famous as the Roman prescription for keeping a brutal populace docile. But the gladiators - the main ingredient of circus entertainment - are in origin Etruscan. They derive from fights to the death at Etruscan funerals. The underlying purpose is probably to provide the dead man with attendants in the next world.

The first gladiatorial contests in Rome take place at a funeral in 264 BC. Proving very much to the public taste, they soon become frequent spectacles. Death remains the central theme. Each gladiator tries to kill his opponent. If he merely wounds him, either the sponsor or the crowd will give thumbs up or down for mercy or death.

The gladiators, mainly criminals and slaves, are trained for a particular form of combat. Some fight from chariots, some in armour, some with lassoos, some with nets. Considerable fame goes to a gladiator who kills many opponents, with the possibility of being released from the profession. But any man reluctant to take part in the day's entertainment is driven into the arena with whips and red-hot irons.

Another popular circus theme involves wild animals. These either fight to the death against gladiators, or are given an easier outing in the pursuit of unarmed criminals or high-principled Christians.

Of many permanent amphitheatres built for these entertainments in the Roman empire, the most spectacular is the Colosseum in Rome. It holds nearly 50,000 spectators. In AD 80 it is inaugurated by the emperor Titus with public games lasting 100 days.

Some 5000 wild animals and 4000 tame ones are killed in various imaginative ways during these games. In macabre fashion the circus now borrows something from the theatre. Among carefully constructed scenery of hills and groves, a criminal dressed as Orpheus fails to charm the wild beasts with his music; he is torn to pieces by bears. On another day a woman, dressed as Europa, thunders round the arena tied to the back of a bull.

Gladiators are not always compliant. Under the leadership of Spartacus they achieve one of the most serious uprisings against Roman authority. As a profession, they have every reason to complain. At celebrations for the 1000th anniversary of Rome some 2000 of them are billed to die, along with 230 wild animals. When Trajan celebrates a triumph in AD 107, he uses no fewer than 5000 pairs of gladiators to entertain Rome - half of whom may expect this day to be their last.

Constantine, the first Christian emperor, bans gladiatorial contests in AD 325 - apparently with incomplete success, for they are outlawed again in 404.

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