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Latin Book Club — What Did Cicero Think About Gladiator Games?

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Introduction

Just like every oth­er peo­ple in his­to­ry, the Romans liked to be enter­tained occa­sion­al­ly. They enjoyed an excit­ing horse race, a nice play at the the­atre and a real­ly good fight. Prefer­able by well-trained men in large are­nas with a sprin­kle of lions, tigers, and the occa­sion­al elephant.

Gladiators And Animals

These fights, well, these glad­i­a­tor games, were one of the Romans favorite pastimes. 

The games that enter­tained Romans for cen­turies were bru­tal, bloody, and very well orga­nized. They devel­oped over the cen­turies, and at their peak, they were extreme­ly extrav­a­gant and usu­al­ly com­bined pure glad­i­a­tor bat­tles with wild ani­mals or some­thing else that was spec­tac­u­lar, like a naval bat­tle in the mid­dle of the arena. 

Julius Cae­sar, for instance, threw a game using 320 glad­i­a­tor pairs – that is 640 fight­ing glad­i­a­tors! (Plut. Caes. 5.9) Now, the games were not only enter­tain­ment; they were a dis­play of pow­er, of pol­i­tics, and of appeal­ing to the pub­lic. And the pub­lic loved them. 

Or did they? All of them?

Writing Letters

Most known as one of history’s best rhetori­cians and a Roman sen­a­tor, Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero was an ardent let­ter writer. Many of these have sur­vived the rav­en­ous teeth of time. Cicero wrote to many dif­fer­ent peo­ple ­pub­lic and pri­vate, from his wife and daugh­ter to Pom­pey Mag­nus and Julius Caesar.

It is impor­tant to under­stand that the let­ters we have from Cicero, though pri­vate, inti­mate, and, at times, very per­son­al, were pub­lished in his own time. Some let­ters are writ­ten just at the spur of a moment, per­haps with no thought of pub­li­ca­tion, where­as oth­er let­ters are extreme­ly thought through, dis­cussing, for instance, pol­i­tics, and meant to be pub­lished. But since they all were pub­lished, it is also impor­tant to remem­ber that they were edit­ed and that we do not pos­sess the entire­ty of Cicero’s let­ter col­lec­tion. We have 37 books of Cicero’s let­ters, though at least 35 more books were pub­lished in antiquity. 

It might seem strange to write let­ters to friends, fam­i­ly, acquain­tances, polit­i­cal allies, but not write for their eyes only, but keep the let­ters and pub­lish them for every­one to read. How­ev­er, let­ter writ­ing, or Epis­to­lary, was/is a lit­er­ary genre. Nowa­days, authors use let­ters as a way to add real­ism to their work. Orig­i­nal­ly, how­ev­er, the let­ters them­selves were the work, and pub­lish­ing your let­ters if you were good with a pen was noth­ing strange to the Romans. 

But what does all this have to do with glad­i­a­tors spilling their own blood and other’s in the arena? 

Cicero’s Thoughts On Gladiator Games

Well, in Octo­ber 55 B.C. Cicero wrote to his friend M. Mar­ius from Rome. Mar­ius was stuck in his vil­la at Cumae, look­ing out on the bay of Stabi­ae (close to mod­ern Naples) as he was suf­fer­ing from gout. Mar­ius, there­fore, missed the games held at Rome at the time. Pom­pey Mag­nus threw the games in hon­or of the ded­i­ca­tion of his the­atre and the tem­ple of Venus Vic­trix. The the­atre was sit­u­at­ed on the Cam­pus Mar­tius and was the first per­ma­nent the­atre in Rome and held 40.000 peo­ple. The grand and lav­ish open­ing went on for days, and Cicero, well, he was an opin­ion­at­ed man. He shared his views on the games in a let­ter to his gout-suf­fer­ing friend Marius. 

It is this let­ter that we will read in today’s book club. You will find the Latin text below, along with an Eng­lish translation. 

If you want to learn more about Cicero and his works, check out Chap­ter 5 of our dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy 2000 Years of Latin prose.

Video in Latin

You can down­load a PDF and the Audio here: Get a down­load­able audiofile of this episode and a print-friend­ly PDF of the text and trans­la­tion: Latin Book Club: Glad­i­a­tor Games, Cicero, Ad Famil­iares 7.1.

Latin audio

Lis­ten to the audio only, here or in your favourite pod­cast app:

Latin Text (Ad fam. VII.1)

M. CICERŌ S. D. M. MARIŌ.

Sī tē dolor aliquī cor­poris aut īnfir­mitās valētū­di­nis tuae tenu­it, quō minus ad lūdōs venīrēs, fortū­nae magis tribuō quam sapi­en­ti­ae tuae; sīn haec, quae cēterī mīran­tur, con­tem­nen­da dūx­istī et, cum per valētūdinem pos­sēs, venīre tamen nōluistī, utrumque lae­tor, et sine dolōre cor­poris tē fuisse et ani­mō valuisse, cum ea, quae sine causā mīran­tur aliī, neglēx­eris, modo ut tibi cōn­sti­ter­it frūc­tus ōtiī tuī, quō qui­dem tibi per­fruī mīri­ficē licuit, cum essēs in istā amoen­itāte paene sōlus relictus.

Neque tamen dubitō, quīn tū in illō cubiculō tuō, ex quō tibi Stabiānum per­forāstī et pate­fē­cistī Mīsēnum, per eōs diēs mātūtī­na tem­po­ra lēc­tiun­culīs cōn­sūmpseris, cum illī intereā, quī tē istīc relīquērunt, spec­tārent com­mūnēs mīmōs sēmi­som­nī. Reliquās vērō partēs diēī tū cōn­sūmēbās iīs dēlec­tātiōnibus, quās tibi ipse ad arbi­tri­um tuum com­parārās, nōbīs autem erant ea per­pe­tien­da, quae Sp. Mae­cius probāvisset.

Omnīnō, sī quaeris, lūdī apparātis­simī, sed nōn tuī stom­achī; coniec­tūram enim faciō dē meō; nam prī­mum honōris causā in scē­nam redier­ant iī, quōs ego honōris causā dē scaenā dēces­sisse arbi­trābar; dēli­ci­ae vērō tuae, nos­ter Aesō­pus, eius­modī fuit, ut eī dēsinere per omnēs hom­inēs licēret: is iūrāre cum coepis­set, vōx eum dēfēc­it in illō locō: “sī sciēns fal­lō.” Quid tibi ego alia nār­rem? nōstī enim reliquōs lūdōs, quī nē id qui­dem lep­ōris habuērunt, quod solent medioc­rēs lūdī; apparā­tus enim spec­tātiō tol­lē­bat omnem hilar­itātem, quō qui­dem apparātū nōn dubitō quīn ani­mō aeq­ui­s­simō carueris; quid enim dēlec­tātiō­nis habent sex­cen­tī mūlī in Clytaem­nēstrā aut in Equō Troiānō crēter­rārum tria mīlia aut armātūrā var­iā ped­itā­tus et equi­tā­tus in aliquā pugnā? quae pop­ulārem admīrātiōnem habuērunt, dēlec­tātiōnem tibi nūl­lam attulissent.

Quod sī tū per eōs diēs oper­am dedis­tī Prō­to­genī tuō, dum­mo­do is tibi quid­vīs potius quam ōrātiōnēs meās lēger­it, nē tū haud paullō plūs quam quisquam nos­trum dēlec­tātiō­nis habuistī; nōn enim tē putō Graecōs aut Oscōs lūdōs dēsīderāsse, prae­ser­tim cum Oscōs vel in senātū vestrō spec­tāre pos­sīs, Graecōs ita nōn amēs, ut nē ad vīl­lam qui­dem tuam viā Graecā īre soleās. Nam quid ego tē āth­lētās putem dēsīderāre, quī glad­iātōrēs con­tempseris? in quibus ipse Pom­pēius cōn­fitē­tur sē et oper­am et oleum per­didisse. Reli­quae sunt vēnātiōnēs bīnae per diēs quīnque, magnificae—nēmō negat—, sed quae potest hom­inī esse polītō dēlec­tātiō, cum aut homō imbē­cil­lus ā valen­tis­simā bēstiā laniā­tur aut prae­clāra bēs­tia vēnābulō trānsver­berā­tur? quae tamen, sī viden­da sunt, saepe vīdis­tī, neque nōs, quī haec spec­tāvimus, quidquam novī vīdimus. 

Extrē­mus ele­phan­tōrum diēs fuit: in quō admīrātiō magna vul­gī atque tur­bae, dēlec­tātiō nūl­la exsti­tit; quīn eti­am mis­eri­cor­dia quaedam cōnsecū­ta est atque opīniō eius­modī, esse quan­dam illī bēlu­ae cum genere hūmānō societātem. 

Hīs ego tamen diēbus, nē forte videar tibi nōn modo beā­tus, sed liber omnīnō fuisse, dīrūpī mē paene in iūdi­ciō Gal­lī Canīniī, famil­iāris tuī. Quod sī tam facilem pop­u­lum habērem, quam Aesō­pus habuit, liben­ter mehercule artem dēsinerem tēcumque et cum sim­ilibus nos­trī vīverem; nam mē cum anteā taedē­bat, cum et aetās et ambitiō mē hortābā­tur et licē­bat dēnique, quem nōlēbam, nōn dēfend­ere, tum vērō hōc tem­pore vīta nūl­la est; neque enim frūc­tum ūllum labōris exspec­tō et cōgor nōn­numquam hom­inēs nōn opti­mē dē mē mer­itōs rogātū eōrum, quī bene mer­itī sunt, dēfendere.

Itaque quaerō causās omnēs ali­quandō vīvendī arbi­trātū meō tēque et istam ratiōnem ōtiī tuī et laudō vehe­menter et probō, quodque nōs minus inter­vī­sis, hōc ferō ani­mō aequiōre, quod, sī Rōmae essēs, tamen neque nōs lep­ōre tuō neque tē—sī quī est in mē—meō fruī licēret propter molestis­simās occupātiōnēs meās; quibus sī mē relaxārō—nam, ut plānē exsolvam, nōn pos­tulō—, tē ipsum, quī multōs annōs nihil ali­ud com­men­tāris, docēbō pro­fec­tō, quid sit hūmāniter vīvere.

Tū modo istam imbē­cil­litātem valētū­di­nis tuae sus­ten­tā et tuēre, ut facis, ut nos­trās vīl­lās obīre et mēcum simul lec­tīculā con­cursāre pos­sīs. Haec ad tē plūribus ver­bīs scrīp­sī, quam soleō, nōn ōtiī abun­dan­tiā, sed amōris ergā tē, quod mē quā­dam epis­tulā subin­vītārās, sī mem­o­riā tenēs, ut ad tē aliq­uid eius­modī scrīberem, quō minus tē praeter­mī­sisse lūdōs poen­itēret: quod sī assecū­tus sum, gaudeō; sīn minus, hōc mē tamen cōn­sōlor, quod posthāc ad lūdōs veniēs nōsque vīsēs neque in epis­tulīs relin­quēs meīs spem ali­quam dēlec­tātiō­nis tuae.Join our Newslet­ter because we send out tips, updates and learn­ing material.

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English translation

TO M. MARIUS
If some bod­i­ly pain or weak­ness of health has pre­vent­ed your com­ing to the games, I put it down to for­tune rather than your own wis­dom: but if you have made up your mind that these things which the rest of the world admires are only wor­thy of con­tempt, and, though your health would have allowed of it, you yet were unwill­ing to come, then I rejoice at both facts—that you were free from bod­i­ly pain, and that you had the sound sense to dis­dain what oth­ers cause­less­ly admire. Only I hope that some fruit of your leisure may be forth­com­ing, a leisure, indeed, which you had a splen­did oppor­tu­ni­ty of enjoy­ing to the full, see­ing that you were left almost alone in your love­ly coun­try. For I doubt not that in that study of yours, from which you have opened a win­dow into the Stabi­an waters of the bay, and obtained a view of Mis­enum, you have spent the morn­ing hours of those days in light read­ing, while those who left you there were watch­ing the ordi­nary farces half asleep. The remain­ing parts of the day, too, you spent in the plea­sures which you had your­self arranged to suit your own taste, while we had to endure what­ev­er had met with the approval of Spurius Maecius.

On the whole, if you care to know, the games were most splen­did, but not to your taste. I judge from my own. For, to begin with, as a spe­cial hon­our to the occa­sion, those actors had come back to the stage who, I thought, had left it for their own. Indeed, your favourite, my friend Aesop, was in such a state that no one could say a word against his retir­ing from the pro­fes­sion. On begin­ning to recite the oath his voice failed him at the words “If I know­ing­ly deceive.” Why should I go on with the sto­ry? You know all about the rest of the games, which had­n’t even that amount of charm which games on a mod­er­ate scale gen­er­al­ly have: for the spec­ta­cle was so elab­o­rate as to leave no room for cheer­ful enjoy­ment, and I think you need feel no regret at hav­ing missed it. For what is the plea­sure of a train of six hun­dred mules in the “Clytemnes­tra,” or three thou­sand bowls in the “Tro­jan Horse,” or var­ie­gat­ed armour of infantry and cav­al­ry in some bat­tle? These things roused the admi­ra­tion of the vul­gar; to you they would have brought no delight. But if dur­ing those days you lis­tened to your read­er Pro­to­genes, so long at least as he read any­thing rather than my speech­es, sure­ly you had far greater plea­sure than any one of us. For I don’t sup­pose you want­ed to see Greek or Oscan plays, espe­cial­ly as you can see Oscan farces in your sen­ate-house over there, while you are so far from lik­ing Greeks, that you gen­er­al­ly won’t even go along the Greek road to your vil­la. Why, again, should I sup­pose you to care about miss­ing the ath­letes, since you dis­dained the glad­i­a­tors? In which even Pom­pey him­self con­fess­es that he lost his trou­ble and his pains. There remain the two wild-beast hunts, last­ing five days, magnificent—nobody denies it—and yet, what plea­sure can it be to a man of refine­ment, when either a weak man is torn by an extreme­ly pow­er­ful ani­mal, or a splen­did ani­mal is trans­fixed by a hunt­ing spear? Things which, after all, if worth see­ing, you have often seen before; nor did I, who was present at the games, see any­thing the least new.

The last day was that of the ele­phants, on which there was a great deal of aston­ish­ment on the part of the vul­gar crowd, but no plea­sure what­ev­er. Nay, there was even a cer­tain feel­ing of com­pas­sion aroused by it, and a kind of belief cre­at­ed that that ani­mal has some­thing in com­mon with mankind. How­ev­er, for my part, dur­ing this day, while the the­atri­cal exhi­bi­tions were on, lest by chance you should think me too blessed, I almost split my lungs in defend­ing your friend Caninius Gal­lus. But if the peo­ple were as indul­gent to me as they were to Aesop, I would, by heav­en, have been glad to aban­don my pro­fes­sion and live with you and oth­ers like us. The fact is I was tired of it before, even when both age and ambi­tion stirred me on, and when I could also decline any defence that I did­n’t like; but now, with things in the state that they are, there is no life worth hav­ing. For, on the one hand, I expect no prof­it of my labour; and, on the oth­er, I am some­times forced to defend men who have been no friends to me, at the request of those to whom I am under oblig­a­tions. Accord­ing­ly, I am on the look-out for every excuse for at last man­ag­ing my life accord­ing to my own taste, and I loud­ly applaud and vehe­ment­ly approve both you and your retired plan of life: and as to your infre­quent appear­ances among us, I am the more resigned to that because, were you in Rome, I should be pre­vent­ed from enjoy­ing the charm of your soci­ety, and so would you of mine, if I have any, by the over­pow­er­ing nature of my engage­ments; from which, if I get any relief—for entire release I don’t expect—I will give even you, who have been study­ing noth­ing else for many years, some hints as to what it is to live a life of cul­ti­vat­ed enjoy­ment. Only be care­ful to nurse your weak health and to con­tin­ue your present care of it, so that you may be able to vis­it my coun­try hous­es and make excur­sions with me in my let­ter. I have writ­ten you a longer let­ter than usu­al, from super­abun­dance, not of leisure, but of affec­tion, because, if you remem­ber, you asked me in one of your let­ters to write you some­thing to pre­vent you feel­ing sor­ry at hav­ing missed the games. And if I have suc­ceed­ed in that, I am glad: if not, I yet con­sole myself with this reflex­ion, that in future you will both come to the games and come to see me, and will not leave your hope of enjoy­ment depen­dent on my letters.

Trans­lat­ed by Eve­lyn S. Shuck­burgh (1908).

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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