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?