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Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Approaching the Ancient World) [Paperback]

Donald G. Kyle
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Dec 2000 Approaching the Ancient World
The elaborate and inventive slaughter of humans and animals in the arena fed an insatiable desire for violent spectacle among the Roman people. Donald G. Kyle combines the words of ancient authors with current scholarly research and cross-cultural perspectives, as he explores
* the origins and historical development of the games
* who the victims were and why they were chosen
* how the Romans disposed of the thousands of resulting corpses
* the complex religious and ritual aspects of institutionalised violence
* the particularly savage treatment given to defiant Christians.
This lively and original work provides compelling, sometimes controversial, perspectives on the bloody entertainments of ancient Rome, which continue to fascinate us to this day.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (7 Dec 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415248426
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415248426
  • Product Dimensions: 23.3 x 16.2 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 710,385 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'Manages the rare feat of combining a detailed and up-to-date knowledge of scholarship on the subject with an accessible, highly readable, even gripping narrative.' - Phoenix

'Vivid, readable and packed with detail ... an enjoyable and essential work.' - Choice

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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The death of humans (and sometimes even of animals) usually constitutes a spectacle, a disturbing sight which is awful in both senses of the word, an eerie yet intriguing phenomenon demanding acknowledgement and attention. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
For several years before "Gladiator" came out I had been swirling in a happy vortex of reading about the mysterious world of Roman entertainments -- chariot races, games, mock sea battles, gladiatorial combat,animal hunting, etc. My fascination ran so deep that I even built a model of a Roman arena in my garage with plastic toy soldiers. But nothing gave me so much to think about as Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. From its first creepy, unsettling question - What did they do with all the bodies of dead gladiators and victims slaughtered in Rome's entertainment centers? - to its chilling description of the real emperor Commodus, far worse than anything depicted in the movie Gladiator, this book was absolutely riveting. I spent weeks mining the footnotes for clues about the strange attitudes of the ancient Romans to death and combat. This book is an excellent companion for anyone who was fascinated by Gladiator and now wants to know more about this peculiar chapter in history.
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10 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not for seekers of blood-fest fun 30 Aug 2002
Format:Paperback
This is not a Gladiator in terms of entertainment value - although if you're writing a paper on social anthropology it might be some use. A sentence from the Introduction should give you some idea: 'Sophisticated theoretical and symbolic interpretations of the arena in metaphorical, allegorical, or abstract terms take a rather intellectualist, cerebral approach to a social phenomenon that was primarily visual and atavistic.' Great, but not for the Philistine like me who wants to be entertained with tales of ancient excess.
Kyle is an Associate Professor, and writes like one. He takes the irritating art of the footnote to dizzying heights: almost half the book is footnotes. Footnotes follow, and often exceed in length, each chapter. Ch 3 'The Victims: Differentiation, status and supply.' (not a gripping title: but a fair reflection of its content) 24 pages followed by 25 pages of footnotes - in smaller print - 185 of them! In places there are footnotes at the end of every sentence, some adding an interesting detail, but many just a list of five or six sources where you can read the same thing again.
I should feel guilty slating such an erudite work - but it's not a cheap book and if you're simply following up a layman's interest in the subject there's lots of more informative, accessible and entertaining stuff on the subect to be found free on the internet.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Death and Disposal in Ancient Rome 13 Dec 2002
By Seth Zajac - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, but not for the faint of heart 14 Jan 2008
By Jeri Nevermind - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is not aimed at the general reader who only wants a short sally into Roman history. However, if you long for in depth information, this is your book, and it covers topics not usually dealt with at all, such as the disposal of bodies.

At the heart of Roman life was the games. One small terracotta from North Africa neatly captures both the horror and the sheer spectacle of the games. It shows a woman prisoner, bound and helpless to the back of a bull, while a leopard lunges at her throat. A charming little piece to keep about the house where the children could play with it.

The games grew out of munera, which, by Julius Caesar, were little but a formality. Julius Caesar "got past the need for the recent death of a male relative: in 65 he held games for his long dead father" (p 51). Hunting and killing beasts had long been one of the favorite Roman sports. Under Trajan, 11,000 animals were killed in front of the Roman crowds in just 23 days. Perfume was sent sifting down through the air to help with the stench. Naval battles were fought in which the participants died in bloody agony while the spectators hooted and gaped.

Ancient Rome knew nothing of equals rights. The life of a senator was valuable, whereas taking the life of a slave was regarded as hurting the master's property. It is difficult for us even to imagine the brutality of the life of the poor Roman citizen. When a large number of bears died from the summer heat the rotting "carcasses lay in the street. The common people....was forced by their rude poverty...to fill their bellies with the flesh of the bears" (193). No wonder one Roman recipe calls for a sauce suitable for bad smelling meat.

Famously, Seneca felt no compassion for the noxii who were sent to the games, but he was concerned about the impact of all that killing upon the spectators. What effect did the games have on the Romans? And why did the games increase in ferocity until forcibly closed down by the Christians?

Christians loathed the games, called them corruptive, and refused to attend the games unless condemned and dragged to them as participants. Christians infuriated the spectators by their refusal to bend to authority. "An aged victim, Pothinus, defiant before the governor...was dragged and beaten, and bystanders attacked him with their hands and feet" (p 249).

Not to be missed.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How the Romans Discarded Their Dead 28 Aug 2007
By Brandon Wason - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Romans' violent sports led to countless killings and a myriad of dead bodies as a result. Since no extant source from antiquity specifically addresses the issue of what was done with all these dead bodies, Kyle found it necessary to explore the problem of "the treatment and disposal of the arena's dead victims" (11). In doing so, he exposits the general history of the Roman spectacles, who the victims were, how the Romans typically disposed of the dead, some possible means of disposal for the arena victims, and specifically what the sources say about the disposal of the Christian victims. Since the victims include both animals and humans, Kyle argues that the animal victims were generally distributed as food, while the humans were, in the majority, disposed of by water (e.g., the Tiber River).

In constructing his argument, Kyle guides his readers step by step through a maze of ancient sources. After introducing his topic in the first chapter, He establishes the basic information for his readership in chapters two, three, and four. The second chapter details the evolution and history of the phenomenon of the spectacles, beginning in their Roman and Italian influences, progressing through the years of Rome's Republic, and bringing the study to its culmination through the time of the Empire. Kyle also discusses the various types of spectacles in which the Romans sought entertainment, reenacted great battles and outstanding conquests, and punished criminals in various degrees (including crucifixion, fatal charades, wild-beast exposure, and burning alive). The third chapter divides up the spectacles' victims into two main groups: the gladiators and the noxii (criminals). Kyle reports the distinctions between the victims of various classes and their respective punishments. In the fourth chapter, the author discusses the how the Romans viewed death and disposal within the context of social strata. Burial functioned as a necessary component for the dead, because without it there is no guarantee of a successful afterlife. Though burial was important, the Romans would refrain from employing it as a means of punishment to criminals. Kyle also discusses similar situations in which spectacles occurred--or the dead were disgraced--in non-Roman societies (mainly those of the Assyrians and Amerindians).

In what seems to be the second major section of the book (chapters five, six, and seven) Kyle discusses various solutions to the dilemma of the arena disposal. The fifth chapter introduces the spoliarium where the bodies of the arena's deceased are held and verified as dead. The spoliarium, however, only functioned as a temporary holding place, which fails to answer the question as to where the bodies were ultimately disposed. Gladiators who fought well and had secured a certain amount of status were able to enjoy proper burial rites. Those gladiators who were unable to attain status or showed themselves as cowards were ill-treated and given the status of a noxius. It is likely that some of the noxii were buried in great pits like the potter's fields found in biblical and medieval records. One possible location for this is beyond the Esquiline Gate outside the western city limits of Rome. Yet, the shear number of dead and the impracticalities of such a pit as the city expanded forces Kyle to consider other means of disposal. Crucifixion was not an option because it took a great deal of work per noxius and it was itself a means of death, but the noxii from the arena were already dead. Disposal by fire was impractical because it required an excessive amount of effort (the victim had to be burned twice) and was dangerous as it could cause possible fire disasters.

Kyle discusses the idea of consumption as means of disposal in the sixth chapter. For many reasons, it is very unlikely that either humans or beasts consumed the human victims of the arenas, however, Kyle demonstrates that it is probable that the meat of the beasts were distributed to the Roman people for consumption.

Since the previous suggestions for the disposal of the noxii was not satisfactorily solved, Kyle turns to the theory that the mass of bodies were thrown into the Tiber in the seventh chapter. Large numbers of people were thrown into the Tiber through the periods of the Republic and the Empire, with the example of Commodus serving well (he died as one of the noxii and was dragged by the hook and thrown into the Tiber).

Finally, in chapter eight, the author addresses the problem of disposal with specific reference to Christian victims. In doing so, Kyle offers very interesting history regarding Christian martyrology, however, no new methodologies of disposal are discussed (Christians were sometimes buried, sometimes left out to rot, and sometimes disposed by way of water).

The book's conclusion wraps up some of the points alluded to in the former chapters by showing that when the noxii were punished in the arenas, the Roman people acted as witnesses, commentators, and judges, who not only sought the physical punishment of the noxii, but also their spiritual punishment in their means of disposal. Casting the corpses of the noxii into the Tiber was not only an instrument of purification, it also served as a safeguard against the ghosts of the unjust haunting the city.

The book is organized nicely and logically. In dividing the main content into two major categories (background information and possible means of disposal) the author makes the work accessible to both scholar and non-expert alike. To those familiar with the history of the spectacles, Kyle's second and third chapters will be refreshing. Those who are new to this aspect of Roman history will find the same chapters very informative. As far as the sections of the book that deal with the various proposals of disposal, Kyle organizes his research in a classic way (first the non-significant options of disposal, then the solution for the animal corpses, and then the solution for the human corpses).

Kyle's book is an important publication in that it does not consider only the logistical aspect of disposal, but it also takes into account the mindset of the Roman people as they dispose of these bodies. It is likely, as is argued by Kyle, that the bodies were not disposed of in a reconciliatory manner, but they were not buried in order to further punish the criminals. The Romans had in mind something more than punishment in this world, but they found it their duty to punish a man in the world to come as well.

Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome is not a book designed for the student who simply wants to learn some general information about ancient Rome. Since it is so specialized, it serves well as a book used to fill in someone's knowledge in a specific aspect of Roman history. All in all, the book was well written and an important addition to this area of Roman history.
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