In the early years Anno Domini a popular and defining entertainment in the cities of the Roman empire, the highest point of human civilization obtained to that time, was the gladiatorial contest: men killed animals, animals killed men, men killed men, all under the enthusiastic eye of a certain segment of Roman society. Every city of any size had its venue.
How are we to understand this? Heartless, bloodthirsty people with no moral compass? Bored, diminished people with no interests beyond the most immediate and dramatic sensations? A deeply divided and class based society in which some humans were considered human and others were rejected from the human family? A society that valued on the basis of some artifice and not the living condition?
I remember the shock that attended my first learning of gladiators; not the moment itself (most likely associated with a Hollywood film), but the sensation of disbelief laid over by the certainty of actuality; an incomprehensible abyss separating two clearly true and incompatible things. It is a sensation that has revisited me many times and that is as poignant today as at its first occurrence.
‘There must have been something wrong with the Roman people, with their leaders and societal trendsetters.’ This was as far as my thinking went for many years. The details of a world in which slavery was common place; where war was conducted ‘man on man’ from arm-length distances with knives; where the elite didn’t do any work other than to manage their social relations and wealth; a supporting caste saw to the delivery and distribution of goods and services; and a vast population of poor supplied the muscle and struggled with daily survival needs; this was all foreign to my small town experience and formal education about the rights and plights of humanity. Understanding that place and time has become more and more important as my own immediate society begins to look more and more like the Roman society that I could not comprehend as a child (not only the Romans, they just stand as the pinnacle example).
I am not making the facile comparisons of real gladiators with the WWF or wage slavery with the indentured slavery of Rome. It is rather a whole set of designs and behaviors adapted to our time and technologies: it is a descent into meanness of spirit and narrowness of vision; it is about easy fear and easy escape from fear; it is about all the normal and expected human behaviors made bigger and more concentrated than a society can stand.
Rome is only a metaphor. I don’t really care about Rome. It is now, yesterday and tomorrow that I care about. “Think of the children” is not trite. If you believe this trite and simple minded, then I would happily remove your head with a short sword. The people of Rome were not thinking of the children. The elite made their children into monsters. We are making our children into monsters; because children will be made into the image of their society. The children, in their biological wisdom fight back until they are ultimately overwhelmed with materialism and the incomprehensible abyss; they do give up. Giving up means that the human body and mind are distorted into some, primarily, economic form and are left to express what is left of their humanness in twisted and destructive ways like depression, obsession with powerful biological drives and (mostly) passive violence.
In Rome the people had each other. In today’s world we have media. Nothing of consequence was delivered into the homes of the Roman citizen, and so they had to come out. There was money to be made by giving them a place to go. For our world there is money to be made, vastly more, by delivering into the home something to do. This changes things.
I believe that the concentrating effect of mass activities led to the bloody arena, but it was forces like those that we experience today that supplied the push. We are able, today, to design and deliver all manner of distraction. While Rome did have pictures, it did not have moving ones. Movement requires real bodies; real bodies in real movement bleed real blood. We might be a very long time away from real killing as public entertainment, but we are fully in the world of the twisted. Our media, be it information media or the distracting media, is filled with images of power; power abused, power used, power vastly more accessible than it is in our daily lives: it is in the gun, it is in the martial artist, it is in the wealthy, it is in the supernaturally stimulated, it is in the ruthless and the mad. And it is to power which we, like remora, wish to attach ourselves no matter how tenuously.
A design begins to reveal itself. As the people feel power in their own lives they do not support and sustain the power of their leaders, but rather expect them to function as organizers and suppliers of the services of governance. As the people feel less and less power the more they grow the image of power in others to whom they may attach in some fashion – primarily that of believing the powerful to be representatives of their needs and safety. This draws out the most distorted of behaviors the way a poultice is supposed to draw out the puss from a sore.
The individuals drawn to power over others are never those who can be trusted with such power. Some people will accept the need to take on a responsibility, but to actively seek authority over other human beings is a pathology rather than a vocation. In a world where everyone has personal power in their own lives sufficient to see themselves as in charge of their destiny, those who seek more power must simply serve to attain some sense of authority; and they will always be ‘brought up short’ by their community when they overstep (which they will do consistently).
If the people become less personally powerful, due to some perturbation in their world, an opening is made for the power-hungry to begin the process described above. And such perturbations always come. So it is that human societies have cycled through egalitarian and despotic governance. Despotism will, like a bad parasite, kill its host, the people will be thrown back onto their own resources and, in being personally powerful again, require governance that supports the community and not just the interests of the leadership.
Another dynamic is that the power-hungry are certain to come to an understanding of the role of distributed personal power in their quest for power over others. Since it is to their advantage to reduce both the real power (difficult) and the perceived power (much easier) of the people, ‘those who would be King’ make such reduction a major goal. They are supported in that effort by all the parts of the society that are disbenefited by empowered, self-possessed individual citizens.
From here we can return to Rome, to the Coliseum, to the cheap seats, to the psychological needs and state of a people without sufficient power to control their lives. No one person or group of people conspired to create a stadium, a city, an empire full of people whose dependencies reduced their personal power to such a low point that the most basic needs for security and safety sought a source of power outside of themselves. It was the combination of population growth, economic growth and design, rapid social change exacerbated by the very process of empire; and the release of the power-hungry (amplified by the systemic real powerlessness of a society out of control) to dominate others.
It was not the blood on lascivio agri that drew the Romans to the stadiums; it was the hole in their souls, hollows left by the loss of their immediate and daily capacity to be in charge of their own life experience.
It is not the mature pleasure in CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, The Terminator, Batman and the others in the endless string of blood sport “entertainments” that fills the couches and the lazy-boys in isolated living rooms across the nation; it is the holes in our souls.
I think of the prescient observers of the decline of their Rome looking desperately for some salvation, something to change the course of events. Eventually even they must have said, “Let’s just get this over with.” Our situation today is different in a number of regards. One is the desperation of facing a biological limit for all of our actions, but another is that the tools of our distractions have the potential to communicate rapidly and clearly with huge numbers of people. Our direction is actually changeable.
The Great Many have been diminished in their sense of power, even as they still retain real power if they could recognize their own best self-interests and organize around them. And the dangers are not 100 years, 300 years in the future: the barbarians are at the gates in the form of ecological collapse. Those “leaders” who refuse to see the immediacy of our dangers are, everyone, benefited in the moment by that refusal. The acquired ‘helplessness’ of the Great Many must be recognized for the terrible, perhaps insurmountable, problem that it is and must be given the deepest consideration, but assuming that it is addressable:
The present world is not Rome, but has come to its own and new place driven by the same human forces. Getting it wrong this time will not simply lead to the rise of Constantinople and the empires of a new Middle East, but will shock the biosphere and change all of life on earth.