Monday, March 7, 2011

Not Just Blood and Gore?


I’ve taught about Roman gladiators for years. Yes, you know, the dudes that beat up on each other in ancient arenas, and fought to the death for the amusement of onlookers. This year, after starting jiu jitsu, I find myself thinking about the whole topic differently.

Gladiators are one of the students’ favorite units. They ask a lot of questions. Being on the spot in front of a class, one develops a sense of anticipation to questions that might be thrown at you. So, as students ask one question, I answer it, and my mind moves forward to prepare answers to branching questions that could come out next. (Kind of like all you great BJJers do when you plan to submit me. You think of all the moves that could follow whatever just happened, and then next thing I know . . . ARMBAR!)

Today we talked about how there were different types of gladiators, differently armed, and the Romans liked to pit them against each other to see how they used their advantages and disadvantages. All that was going through my head was jiu jitsu:
Kind of like when someone has long legs and I have short legs and I have to figure out how the hell to get out of his guard! That must be fun for some people to watch!
Then students discussed the pros and cons of a gladiator that fought with a net and trident. They recognized that this gladiator would prefer to fight from a distance, since his weapon was longer than his opponent’s. One student said that the guy could throw his trident. All that was going through my head was jiu jitsu:
Yes, but then he would be unarmed. His next step would be to close the gap and wrestle his opponent to the ground, try to control him so he couldn’t use his short, thrusting sword. Better for him to keep his trident and keep his opponent at bay, just like those long-legged folks keep me from passing their guard.
And as I looked over the questions I assigned for homework, meant to explore how the students viewed fighting and violent entertainment, all that was going through my head was jiu jitsu:
I wonder if anyone tomorrow will say that they feel like fighting can be an art form and that it might be fun to watch highly-skilled fighters from a purely artistic perspective.

Many of the spectators at gladiatorial shows would not be strangers to combat themselves. Perhaps they were war veterans, or would be joining the military themselves in a few years. Surely most had lost loved ones due to combat. State-sanctioned combat was a more present part of a Roman’s life than it is to me and my students today. Why wouldn’t people well-versed in fighting find it interesting to watch a match?
Of course, the killing part at the end: not so much fun. But exploring the art of jiu jitsu has allowed me to look at gladiatorial combat from a perspective other than blood and gore. I can just see the looks on my students’ faces now when they ask Latin Teacher a question about Roman gladiators and Shark Girl responds.

13 comments:

  1. gladiators are so interesting! no wonder it peaks their interest

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  2. Ooo, you're a Latin teacher? I used to love Latin at school. That's mainly because I enjoy both languages and history, especially ancient history.

    I'm still proud of getting 10/10 on every single Latin vocab test I ever did (although I guess it is just memorising a list of words, so not all that hard if you have a good memory for that kind of thing). Shame that we moved away from that area, so I think I only had a couple of years of Latin.

    I also still remember something my Latin teacher said about gladiators, which was that "thumbs up" meant "stick it up his throat", while "thumbs down" meant "put your weapons down."

    I've forgotten most of my Latin, unfortunately. Just the odd phrase like "Quintus est filius": I've got a vague picture in my head of the textbook that came from, which I think was all about some family living in Pompeii. Can't remember who his pater and mater were, though. ;)

    Doing a quick internet search, might have been the "Cambridge orange and green books", which I'm guessing they wouldn't use in the US anyway.

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  3. @slidey: I teach from that same series, believe it or not! (Caecilius and Metella are the pater et mater, and how could you forget Grumio? He's everyone's favorite for his shenanigans.) Just today we discussed the thumbs up thing. Congratulations on your awesome memorization skills! Sorry your Latin studies were cut short. But it's never too late to pick it up again! : )

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  4. Ha - awesome! I'd love to sit in on some of your classes some time. :)

    Grumio sounds vaguely familiar, but for some reason Quintus is the name that really stuck with me. And something about wolves and moons. Was there a bit about werewolves, or am I completely imagining that?

    Kinda cool that the same books are still in use, as I think my Latin classes were almost two decades ago now.

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  5. Love how BJJ creeps into EVERYTHING.

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  6. @Megan: I know! I would never have guessed.

    @slidey: You are correct in remembering a werewolf story. It's actually a "remake" of an actual Roman werewolf story from the author Petronius. You can sit in on my class any time you are across the Pond. Meanwhile, you might take a walk down memory lane with this link: http://www.cambridgescp.com/Lpage.php?p=clc^top^home
    Most of the stages are password protected, but some you can explore without paying the registration fee.

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  7. Thanks for the link: that was great! Remembered more than I expected. Getting back to Latin is definitely on the very long list of 'must do that some time.' Would actually be quite handy for some of the PhD work I'm doing now, specifically the metrical side of things.

    I've only ever been able to read classical meter applied to English, like elegiac distich, meaning it has to be shoehorned into accentual-syllabic. Would be great to read the major Roman poets in the original Latin (or indeed Greek, but I'm that would be much tougher.)

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  8. So, when I perfect my time machine, want to take a trip back to ancient Rome for a day or two to watch the gladiators in mortal combat? I think we protest too much when we condemn the Romans for enjoying something it is really so natural for human beings to enjoy, a no-holds barred fight to the very end. Don't you agree?

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  9. Yes, I will go with you! Is it okay if I turn away, though? That blood stuff is not for me. I can't watch horror movies and I get weak in the knees sometimes even in hospitals.
    Anyway, I agree and disagree with you. I agree that we condemn the Romans too much. It was a different time and a different place with different rules. It's not fair to judge their society by our standards. On the other hand, as Husband would say, throughout history there are people who know what is "right" and follow that, no matter what the cultural standards are. So, I don't think it's right to slaughter people or watch them be slaughtered. But I also don't think that we as a society are really all that removed from the Romans and that desire, and I agree with you that there is something in humans that wants to see that. Otherwise, explain the success of violent entertainment and the fact that we still have capital punishment. Many of the ancients fighting in the arena would have been there for just that . . . capital punishment.
    And now for my extended response to your so nice offer: My best understanding of this phenomenon is that we as a species evolved with the stress of survival. Now that, for the most part, we have removed the stress of survival, we seek that same "thrill" in other ways. For example, I wonder if someone who really has to fear for their lives on a daily basis would enjoy (or "need") the thrill that a roller coaster provides. Daily life would give that o them, and they would seek to avoid that kind of thrill. Any thoughts? Thanks for reading!

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  10. There are still plenty of blood sports, most notably bullfighting and hunting, though fortunately most of them are illegal. So if you really enjoy seeing suffering and death in front of you, head along to those, or like Shark Girl says, go watch an execution in a place that allows capital punishment.

    Still, I'm not sure I'd feel entirely morally justified in condemning those kind of practices, given that I do enjoy eating meat. No doubt some of the stuff I've eaten wasn't killed in a particularly pleasant fashion (even though I'd like to think it was, I'm sure dodgy practices slip under the legal radar).

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  11. Shark Girl, the more civilized a people becomes, the more violent their entertainment becomes. Civilization requires immense repression of aggressive instincts and outlets will eventually be made for these instincts one way or another. I personally think it is better to have socially sanctioned outlets in broad daylight rather than underground channels where things fester and take on a cancerous life of their own. As long as people are not coerced into gladiator style matches, as they definitely were in Rome, I do not think it would be immoral for gladiator fights to be revived and for people to enjoy watching them. There would be a huge audience for it, and it would not be an audience of only low-brow, retrogressive brutes. For instance, you yourself seem to be a reasonably refined and sensitive person, yet, despite your squeamishness, you gave a very strong "Yes" to my query. And if VOLUNTARY gladiator fights in a rebuilt Colosseum were revived in the near future (as they may well be, since the Colosseum is being slowly refurbished to its original condition), would you refuse to attend the opening inaugural Games for ethical considerations? Or would your answer be "Yes" once again? I know you will answer honestly.

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  12. Hey Anon,
    First, thanks for your compliments! And I will of course answer you as honestly as I can. First off, I pay good money to train jiu jitsu and really love it. I don't like hurting people, though, and I don't like being hurt. But I do like the physical sparring, and as any of my sparring partners could tell you, I can be competitive and aggressive.
    I would agree with your statement about civilization--it is a veneer we put on so that we can live together peaceably. We agree to subjugate certain primal desires in order to live ourselves in relative peace. For example, we may covet something another person has (which I believe is also a primal instinct), but have laws against stealing and agree that it's "wrong" so that we ourselves do not get stolen from as we live in community with each other. But the desires do not go away.
    I also agree that if gladiator fights were revived, it would appeal to all different kinds of people, not just certain groups considered to be "low-brow." When we cover gladiators, I usually poll the class and ask them if they would go see a show today if it were available. Sometimes most of the class says "yes."
    But honestly, if there were real fights to the death, I would not go see them. I don't even click on the youtube clips with titles like, "A Real 'Snap' Arm Bar." For me, even if it were completely voluntary, in some way it would not be completely voluntary. For example, there are certain people who would choose to risk their lives in exchange for that kind of fame and money, and those people are usually marginalized. The same reason military recruiters tend to concentrate in inner cities; people there usually have the most to gain, while suburban young men and women already have access to other, less dangerous opportunities.
    But these, however, are my own personal feelings. Now I have a question for you. I don't want to assume, but from your post it sounds like you would watch deathly entertainment. Would you choose to participate in it, as well, or just watch?

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