In his most recent work, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, renowned Roman historian Donald G. Kyle analyzes violence and bloodshed in Roman amphitheaters. However, deviating from traditional gladiatorial surveys, Kyle focuses on the disposal and removal of slaughtered gladiators, Christians and criminal noxii from Roman arenas, for, as Kyle poignantly states, "That we are all equal in death, that death is the great leveler, was a popular idea with the Sceptics and Epicureans; but in Rome individuals were not truly equal in death..." (128). Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome argues that Rome's social pariahs-gladiators, Christians and criminals condemned to death-were not only killed in the arena to feed a general blood craving populace, but the denial of inhumation to damnati corpses reflects the importance of proper burial rites to Rome's worthy citizens: "Just as burial rites and monuments reflected the privileges, pretension, and piety of Romans who died normal deaths, the victims of spectacles at Rome were not equal in life, in death in the arena, or after death beyond the arena" (128).
In the opening chapters of his work, Kyle elucidates the meaning of blood sports in ancient Rome at the imperial level-a modus operandi for the state to exemplify and demonstrate its power, leadership and domain. Yet, as Kyle maintains, to each individual Roman who attended the games "the `blood sports' did not have same, singular meaning...Romans were drawn to the arena by the allure of violence, by the exotic and erotic sights, and by an appreciation of the skill and courage of some participants or by the anticipation of the harsh but necessary punishment of others" (3). Hence, when Rome executed social outcasts via gladiatorial combats, mauling by beasts or any other form of spectacular killing, the rationalization was simply to protect and purify Rome, thereby ensuring the safety of the state (265).
Further, Kyle observes that the manner in which Rome disposed the corpses of those killed in the arena is highly significant. Although gladiators were seen as pollutants to Roman society, for those whom were extremely well-trained and talented they often received proper burials and, in some cases, commemorative epitaphs. However, for the vast majority of gladiators and noxii criminals, their corpses were thrown into the Tiber River, effectively ridding Rome of the pariahs and symbolically cleansing the state of those despised socially through the primordial waters of purification. Lamentably, an egregious exception to this standard was the disposal of Christians.
Seen as a collective enemy to the state, Christians were viewed through a lens of disloyalty and hostility by pagan Rome. "Christian abstention (e.g. from the games, sacrifices, and the emperor cult) was seen as a hostility to Rome, as religious treason threatening the pax deorum, and as insolence against the majesty and divinity of emperors" (243). With the Christians' exclusivist convictions, treason and sacrilege overlapped, allowing the masses to demand the most heinous punishments be delivered to the Christians. "They died in the arena," writes Kyle "but not as gladiators; they were thrown to the beasts, but not as bestiarii. As cheap, non-bellicose noxii, they suffered the worst atrocities of summa supplicia" (244).
Additionally, with Christian dogma proclaiming a resurrection, many Romans decided to add further insult by activity seeking to destroy and disperse the remains of martyrs. Kyle, quoting Eusebius, records, "And so the bodies of the martyrs, exposed in every possible way and left unburied for six days, were then burned and reduced to ashes by these vicious men and swept into the river Rhone which flows hard by, so that not a single relic of their bodies might be left on earth" (251).
In our current world, filled with devastating civil wars, savage conflicts between nations, and atrocities committed, it is extremely important that we examine our own past of human brutality. To Kyle, introspection to our own "violent nature drives us back further and deeper into our past, with a mandatory stop at Rome along the way" (265).
Adding his pebble into the large bedrock of Roman historiography, Kyle's Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome uses the texts of ancient authors as well as current research and modern archeological findings to guide and sculpt his thesis. Further, Kyle writes in outstanding prose, thereby fulfilling his desire to create a text that is "reasonably accessible to students and non-experts interested in the history of Rome, violence, and death" (xi). By letting historical evidence be his jury and offering a novel perspective on a thoroughly researched subject, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome will give readers new vistas to ponder and will serve as a useful instrument in analyzing the past of Rome.