Gladiators in the 21st Century

Last weekend I watched the movie Gladiator for the millionth time.

I love watching Russell Crowe’s portrayal of a soldier (Maximus) driven to heroism by love of–and grief for–his family, and intense motives of revenge, anger, friendship, and brotherhood fan the story to a white heat. The screenwriting is amazing: What we do in life echoes in eternity. Chills. The depth of the characters and the complexity of their relationships keeps me watching, even though I have a notoriously weak stomach for blood and guts.

As I watched the movie this time, though, what struck me most was not the violence of the gladiator fights (though they are intense) but the enthusiasm of the crowd who watches them. The unpopular Emperor Commodus tries to mollify the Roman mob with free food and gladiator fights. And it works! The people crowd into the Colosseum to cheer and boo the men in the sand who are fighting viciously to come out alive. Maximus must use the same ferocity he employed in the Roman army to overcome his opponents, but now it is not for the empire or for duty or glory: it is for entertainment. Ordinary citizens, all the way down to the children, sit in the stands and laugh as the gladiators struggle and bleed, kill and die.

What kind of bestiality does it take to be entertained by such horrific violence between real people? To laugh and applaud while our own kind torture and kill each other? It must be a sort of moral cannibalism. Or perhaps it is the sick pleasure of saying: “better him than me”?

My first reaction was to say, “Those horrible Romans. They must have been little better than animals to take pleasure in such brutality.”

But then I had this uncomfortable realization. Our sadistic delight in watching humans torture each other didn’t end with the closing of the Colosseum. We still support “gladiator sports” in our entertainment today.

Think about reality TV. It’s not just Survivor, where people are pushed to painful physical endurance challenges for our entertainment. It’s also The Bachelor, where an immature single male plays among a harem of 25-30 women, making light of their hearts, bodies, and lives for several months at a time, harming them and himself, with no guarantee of commitment anywhere. What for? Money–and an hour of mind-numbing entertainment a week.

Yes, the contestants now voluntarily participate in these brutal forms of entertainment, rather than being captured and sold into the trade as slaves. But the reason TV stations continue to produce reality shows is because we, the audience, continue to watch them. Obviously, we still like to watch our own kind suffer.

I guess human nature isn’t so different now than it was in the times of the Roman Empire, when gladiators looked up at the emperor and the crowd and said “We who are about to die salute you!”

And as long as human nature remains the same, sadistic forms of human-mutilating entertainment will continue to exist.

What do you think? Is reality TV today’s “gladiator sport”? What other cruel forms of entertainment does our human nature still enjoy today?

9 thoughts on “Gladiators in the 21st Century

  1. Boy, this is a topic I’ve thought a lot about. I remember how horrified I was when Survivor first came on, thinking it sounded so cruel. And now it seems like one of the “nicer” reality shows. As we become slowly more comfortable with this type of behavior, we become slowly less human.


  2. I too have seen The Gladiator more than once 🙂 …and that eternity quote you posted stops me short every time I hear it. The Bachelor is not something I can comment on without really watching a few episodes. I have seen many, many episodes of Survivor. However, when I think about representations of 21st Century gladiators I think more of the arena type games of today like boxing, hockey and football.I admit to being a fan of the show Survivor and even though one could argue the point you make I have quite a different perspective. Contestants are evaluated physically and psychologically before they are invited onto the show. Violence and blood letting is frowned upon. In Survivor there are a lot of races and events where agility, endurance and the ability to work out puzzles win you a prize. Pitting oneself against the elements and challenges earns you a place in the game and on your tribe. Learning to cooperate with others by working hard at camp, forming tight knit groups for mutual support and voting power is how you stay in the game. So, I had a hard time connecting to the idea of Survivor and The Gladiator. Watching Survivor to me has been like reading the stories in the Bible where the arrogant are humbled, the weak realize how strong they really are, and that without the support of others no one wins…because to become the “winner” of Survivor, the people you lived with and played against vote for you in the end based on how you played the game.


  3. Wow, that’s a really neat perspective! So maybe the show holds up an example of teamwork and mental prowess rather than just giving viewers an arena in which to watch people suffer? Thanks for your thoughtful input!


    1. I am amused by the idea of me watching Survivor because I want to watch people suffer 🙂 . It is amazing to witness what people are willing to put themselves through to maybe win the prize money, but as they exit the show most say that the prize they won was getting to know themselves better and what the important things in life really are…friends and family who support and love them. I think that is why I enjoy watching Survivor so much, it is witnessing the ways some of the contestants grow and seeing their joy as they discover these part of themselves they never knew existed.


  4. I agree that there is a difference between The Gladiator and Survivor, but not so with The Bachelor, though I’ve only watched parts of one show of each. The comments of “Anonymous” (we all know who you are :D!)are very thoughthful and accurate, in my opinion, as there is a sense of purpose and a desire to improve, to challenge oneself to be better. Whereas the thing that most puzzles me from The Bachelor is that all of these young men and women seem to be attractive, high functioning people who then set themselves up to be either ‘chosen’ or ‘discarded’, rather than to work towards a goal that will make them or those around them better people. What must such a person think of him/herself in order to submit to such humiliation? THAT I believe, is the modern day arena, where the participants are slaves to external definitions of what makes one valuable and important, much as the gladiators were slaves to the traders and rulers. It grieves me to think of how these contestants might view themselves before, during and after such a sport! What would it take for you (readers) to sign up today to be one of the ‘contestants’ in The Bachelor/Bachelorette???


  5. I agree with you here. It’s one thing to be objectified (treated as an object) by someone else; it’s another to objectify yourself voluntarily. My fear is that many women sign up for The Bachelor (or men for The Bachelorette) because they have a low opinion of themselves: that they might as well try to find a mate through a game show as anywhere else, that they’re not a prize worth waiting for. It breaks my heart, because once people view themselves as objects, they start getting used as objects. All for entertainment value.


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