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How Ancient Warriors Coped with the Brutality of War

How Ancient Warriors Coped with the Brutality of War

As many as 7% of armed forces personnel suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and that figure is expected to rise as the full impact of a decade of war in the Middle East makes itself felt. But, while government failure to tackle the rise of PTSD among military personnel is the shame of our society, PTSD as a side effect of war is not a new thing. The language we use to describe the experience of PTSD might be modern – it was only introduced into the medical dictionary in 1980 – but ancient cultures were well versed in it. Many had rituals to help ease the ruptures experienced by those traumatised by warfare, which we could learn from today.

Coming home from war is difficult. Reintegration into civilian life, especially, is hard. The difficulty of warriors returning home from battle is an old, old story. The psychiatrist Jonathan Shay outlines the nature of this old story in his analysis of the tale of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey .

After victory at Troy, it takes Odysseus ten years to make it home and when he does he is a different man – quite literally, thanks to the disguise he wears. He is emotionless and blank in the face of his wife’s distress. He mistrusts those around him and is uncomfortable in a crowd. The valid adaptations to danger, which kept Odysseus safe during wartime, have persisted into a time of safety. This is a classic experience of PTSD; Odysseus has suffered the three traumatic ruptures of self, time, and cognition.

Odysseus showed signs of PTSD upon his return. Gustav Schwab

Three ruptures

These three ruptures characterise the experience of trauma. First, trauma ruptures a person’s sense of identity. They no longer know who they are. They struggle to identify with the person they were before they experienced the trauma. They may even feel that that person is dead. In the aftermath of trauma, there is therefore a need for people to redefine themselves and their relationship with the world they used to know.

The second rupture is one of time. For many sufferers of PTSD, the past continues to invade the present in the form of repeated nightmares, flashbacks, and repeated experiences of the trauma. The sufferer of PTSD lives in the shadow of the trauma, never quite knowing when it will rear its head once again. Recovery must therefore begin in a place of bodily safety and security.

The third rupture caused by trauma is a rupture in cognition. This is characterised by a failing of words and an inability to talk about the experience that they’ve had because it doesn’t make any sense to them. This applies to both their ability to talk about what they experienced, as well as how they feel. Not being able to talk about it is incredibly detrimental to the recovery process.

Ritual cleansing

Ancient cultures understood better than us the need to aid warriors when they returned from war and many had rituals that helped heal these ruptures. For example, in Rome, the vestal virgins would bathe returning soldiers to purge them of the corruption of war. The Maasai warriors of East Africa had purification rites for the homecoming of their fighters. The Native Americans held sweat lodge purification rituals for returning warriors in which their stories could be told and their “inner pollution” could be left among the hot stones, evaporating into steam and cleansing the warrior.

Maasai warriors had purification rituals. Paul/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is some understanding of the need to purify soldiers after warfare, too. In the Bible, the Hebrews are instructed to purify themselves before entering back into the camp after battle. This process also found its way into Christian penances.

In medieval warfare, all those who fought in battle were required to do penance (confess their sins, receive absolution, and make an outward expression of their repentance), even those who did not kill. Those who did kill were required to undertake extra penances. This requirement was obviously connected to the need to assuage a sense of guilt and culpability – giving relief from shame.

These ancient cultures understood something fundamental about returning soldiers and PTSD and mobilised the rituals of their cultures to support their transition and heal their traumatic ruptures. A similar effort is needed to support armed forces personnel today.

The beginning of a military career is characterised by ritual. Daily patterns, drills, uniforms, and passing out parades mark out the first few months of life in the armed forces. But coming home after war is a different story. A ritualised homecoming, drawing on the practices of faith where appropriate, might help to promote the healing of PTSD.

Mongol Warfare

The Mongols conquered vast swathes of Asia in the 13th and 14th century CE thanks to their fast light cavalry and excellent bowmen, but another significant contribution to their success was the adoption of their enemies' tactics and technology that allowed them to defeat established military powers in China, Persia, and Eastern Europe. Adapting to different challenges and terrain, the Mongols became adept at both siege and naval warfare, very different pursuits from their nomadic origins on the Asian steppe. In addition, diplomacy, espionage, and terror were used in equal measure to win many a battle before it had even begun. Ultimately, the Mongols would establish the largest empire the world had ever seen, and their ruthlessness in battle would cast a long shadow of fear over those they conquered with generals earning fearsome nicknames such as the 'hounds of war' and their soldiers being labelled 'the devil's horsemen.'

A State for War

One of the main sources of legitimacy for a Mongol tribal leader was his ability to successfully conduct warfare and acquire booty for his followers. Under Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227 CE), the founder of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368 CE), the Mongol people were thus reorganised to specifically gear the state for perpetual warfare. 98 units known as minghan or 'thousands' were created (and then later expanded) which were tribal units expected to provide the army with a levy of 1,000 men. The khan also had his own personal bodyguard of 10,000 men, the kesikten, which was the elite standing army of the Mongols and which trained commanders for the other divisions. A third source of troops was the armies raised from allies and conquered states, these outnumbered the Mongol contingents in the campaigns in China and Persia. Later, when Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1294 CE) established the Yuan dynasty in China (1271-1368 CE), Mongol armies there were composed entirely of professional soldiers.


Mongol leaders ensured loyalty and increased their chances of success by promoting commanders based on merit rather than the use of clan seniority as had been the case before Genghis. Motivation was high because booty was shared equally, and there was even a dedicated body, the jarqu, which ensured booty was distributed correctly (for example, horses, slaves, precious metals, textiles, high-quality manufactured goods, and even food). Commanders could expect to receive both booty and land or tribute from conquered peoples. Ordinary soldiers could expect rewards, too, some compensation for their conscription, which any Mongol male from 14 to 60 years old was liable for.

At the same time as being generous with rewards, Genghis insisted on discipline and any soldier or commander who disobeyed orders was severely punished, lashings being the commonest method. An ordinary soldier could expect nothing less than the death penalty for desertion, retreating when not ordered to, or sleeping when on sentry duty. Nevertheless, the khan did give his commanders great autonomy on the field of combat, and this flexibility usually reaped rewards.


Planning and logistics were another carefully considered area, best seen in the complex campaigns in southern Russia and Eastern Europe of 1237 to 1242 CE when multiple Mongol armies engaged their individual targets and then regrouped at predetermined times and locations. A significant help in knowing where both allies and enemies were at any one time was the excellent Mongol messenger service, the yam, with its series of posts stocked with supplies and fresh horses. Smoke signals were also used as a means of communication between separated divisions. Another strength was the willingness to recruit non-Mongols. Uyghur Turks were enrolled in large numbers, as were Kurds and Khitans, while Koreans and Chinese were a significant part of the forces which invaded Japan in 1274 and 1281 CE. In short, then, the Mongols were made perpetually ready for war.

Training & Weapons

Warriors were prepared from childhood thanks to the Mongol tradition of having both young boys and girls participate in competitions of athletics, horse racing, wrestling, hunting, and archery. The Mongol warriors - mostly men but also sometimes women, too - were, then, already proficient at using battle axes, lances (often hooked to pull enemy riders from their mounts), spears, daggers, long knives, and sometimes swords which were typically short, light, and with a single cutting edge.

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The Mongol weapon of choice was the composite bow, which could fire arrows double the distance of those in competing armies. In addition, warriors could shoot with accuracy while riding their horses at speed thanks to stirrups and wooden saddles with a high back and front which gave better stability so that an archer could turn and fire in any direction, including behind him. The composite bow was made of multiple layers of wood, bamboo or horn, making it both strong and flexible. As it was strung against its natural curve, the Mongol bow required some strength to draw but then fired arrows with a high degree of accuracy and penetration.

Arrowheads tended to be made from bone and, much more rarely, metal while shafts were made from wood, reed, or a combination of both, and fletchings from bird feathers. Arrow designs varied depending on their purpose - to wound at close range, fire at distant targets, carry poison, penetrate armour, or even whistle as a signal to other units. A typical mounted archer carried two or three bows and around 30 light and 30 heavier arrows in a quiver. Additional standard equipment included a horsehair lasso, a coil of rope, an axe, a file for making arrowheads, a sewing repair kit, a leather bag for food and to use as a float when crossing rivers, two leather bottles for liquids, and a cooking pot. Men slept in light versions of the classic yurt tent, one carried for every ten riders.


To the Mongols, horses were everything - a means to travel, a source of wealth and a way to measure it, food, and the source of their great mobility in warfare. Mongol horses were relatively small but sturdy beasts with dense hair and capable of enduring hardships. They had excellent stamina, which allowed cavalry to travel a very impressive 95-120 kilometres (60-75 miles) in a single day. The Mongols had both light and heavy cavalry, and each rider typically had up to 16 spare horses giving them a very long range of manoeuvre. On the battlefield, cavalry units responded to orders conveyed by gongs and drums (although curiously the very first attack was always conducted in silence). Horses could also be a source of nourishment while on campaign by letting blood from the neck. This would have supplemented dry rations like cheese curd and cured meat.


Mongol armour was light so as to not impede the speed of cavalry riders, but if worn, it was typically made of thick quilted felt or leather. Sometimes this soft armour, like the heavy coats many riders wore, could be strengthened by adding strips of metal, bone or hardened/lacquered leather but plate armour and chain mail were rare, although that captured from the enemy was sometimes worn. Learning from the Chinese, a silk undershirt might be worn as this had the handy consequence of wrapping around the arrowhead if one was struck, protecting the wound and making the arrow easier to withdraw.


The head was protected by either an iron or hardened leather helmet, sometimes with a neck guard and a central top spike or ball and plume. An alternative was the traditional Mongol fur hat with side flaps and upturned brim. Shields, if used, were typically only carried by infantrymen and were most commonly small, circular, and made of wicker or hardened leather. Horses were sometimes given armour, made from the same materials mentioned above. Plate armour was restricted to the horse's head but, otherwise, some mounts were completely covered with padded armour.


One of the important reasons for the Mongol success in warfare was their preparation before even meeting the enemy. Spies in the form of travelling merchants or priests and defectors gathered intelligence on the enemy's strengths and weaknesses and revealed if there were any dissenters either within or between the enemy's allies who could be a potential aid to the Mongol cause. A great meeting or kurultai of Mongol leaders was held before a large campaign to discuss plans and strategies in detail. Once in the field, intelligence continued to be gathered and scouts operated up to 110 kilometres (70 miles) ahead and either side of dispersed Mongol columns to ensure they were not caught off-guard or fell foul of an ambush.

Mongol armies moved extremely quickly and attempted to outmanoeuvre their opponents using speed and coordination. The aim was to only engage the enemy when absolutely necessary and to commit large numbers only when a specific weak spot had been identified. This strategy was designed to give maximum results for minimal losses. Cavalry units of around 1,000 men (a minghan) were subdivided into units of 100 (a jagun), which was in turn divided into units of 10 (an arban).


A Mongol army in the field was typically divided into wings operating either side of a central force and a vanguard. Indeed, even a Mongol camp was divided according to these groupings. A Mongol cavalry army rarely exceeded 10,000 riders in any one place at one time, even the very largest campaigns such as in Europe probably contained only three such 10,000-men divisions (tumens), the rest of the army, perhaps triple the size of the Mongol cavalry in some cases, was made of allies who conducted warfare according to their own traditions. The Mongols were usually outnumbered by their enemies in field battles but overcame this disadvantage by superior speed and tactics. A disadvantage of fielding relatively small armies was the difficulty in replacing casualties. Often vanquished troops were enlisted but in such campaigns as Eastern Europe, where loyalties were stronger, it did sometimes necessitate a withdrawal until reinforcements could arrive from Mongolia.

A classic Mongol strategy was to attack with a small force and then feign a retreat which only led the enemy back to a larger Mongol force. Another favoured manoeuvre was the tulughma, that is to attack with a central body of cavalry - heavy cavalry in the front lines and lighter units behind, who then moved through gaps in the front lines - and while these moved forward as one, cavalry units moved on the wings to envelop the enemy forces. The tactic was a smaller-scale version of the nerge, the Mongol hunting strategy used over vast areas of steppe to corner wild game. Sometimes these wings were very extended and so allowed the Mongols to entirely surround an opposing army. A reserve of heavy cavalry then moved in for the kill and any escaping enemy troops were ruthlessly pursued, often for days after a battle.

Ambush was another common tactic, as was using smoke from burning grass or dust clouds to mask troop movements, or attacking at the least expected time such as during a blizzard. The Mongols also employed some unusual strategies to out-fox their enemies. For example, they sometimes used felt dummies and set them on horses in amongst cavalry units to make the enemy think they were facing a far larger force than they actually were. Another innovative strategy was to drop leaflets from kites over the besieged Jin city of Kaifeng (1232 CE) which encouraged people to defect for a cash reward.

One of the most successful strategies employed in Mongol warfare was terror. When a city was captured, for example, the entire civilian population could be executed - men, women, children, priests, even the cats and dogs - with a handful of survivors allowed to escape and tell of the atrocity in the neighbouring towns. Consequently, when towns heard of the Mongol's approach many surrendered without a fight in the hope of clemency, which was often given. An even subtler strategy was used in the conflict with the Jin Jurchen Dynasty of northern China in the first decade of the 13th century CE when the Mongols repeatedly sacked cities, sometimes the same city several times, and then allowed the Jin to retake them, obliging them to deal with the chaos.

Another utterly ruthless strategy was to use prisoners as human shields when Mongol troops advanced on a fortified city unwise enough to put up resistance, even to dress up prisoners as Mongol warriors and march them in the front ranks so that defenders wasted their precious arrows on killing their own compatriots. A further source of terror was the Mongol treatment of the dead bodies were mutilated and warriors often took trophies from the fallen, usually the ears of their victims.

In summary, then, the Mongols were unstoppable in field battles for all of the above reasons combined, as the noted military historian S. R. Turnbull remarks:

Mongol field warfare was therefore an almost perfect combination of firepower, shock tactics and mobility. The moves themselves, built on a sound framework of experience, training and discipline, were performed like clockwork…They believed themselves to be invincible, and most of the vanquished believed it too, regarding them as a visitation from heaven and a punishment for sin. (27-8)

Siege & Naval Warfare

The Mongols had one other ace up their armoured sleeves, the ability to adapt to new types of warfare. Siege warfare, for example, became necessary when the Mongols came up against such enemies as Song China, Persia, and Eastern European kingdoms. At first, the task of breaking down well-fortified cities tested Mongol resolve, but they soon learnt from their enemies and local advisors how to use gunpowder weapons such as small handheld cannons and bombs containing Greek Fire, sulphur gas, or shrapnel that were hurled over city walls. They also had rockets, triple-firing crossbows, and large catapults powered by torsion, counterweights, or men pulling multiple levered ropes. Some catapults were mobile while others could be mounted in ships.

Some sieges could still last for years despite the bombardments, such as that at the Song fortified city of Xiangyang, brought down by battering rams and catapults designed by two Islamic engineers. These static armies also required a much greater logistical support than the traditional cavalry units which were expected to live off the land as best they could until resupplied by trains of carts, packhorses, and camels, which were often managed by Mongol women. Another steep learning curve was how to master naval warfare. By the 1270s CE and the defeat of the Song, the Mongols had command of their own naval fleet which was comprised of 5,000 ships and 70,000 sailors, which were used at sea and on rivers. Massive fleets manned by Chinese and Koreans invaded Japan and Southeast Asia, but these larger ships were really designed for use as troop carriers (they were actually the same as merchant trading vessels) rather than as fighting ships. As ever, the cavalry was supposed to win the day once the expedition was established on dry land.


The Mongols may have carved out an empire which stretched from the Black Sea to the Korean peninsula but they were not always successful in their campaigns. Some cities did prove too tough to break down and logistical support was an ever-growing problem the further they campaigned away from their heartlands in Mongolia. Both invasions of Japan were foiled by a combination of stiff resistance and storms. The campaigns in Southeast Asia had some success but gave a mixed set of results overall, the Mongols struggling to cope with tropical jungle terrain, heavy rains, diseases, unfamiliar weapons like poisoned darts from blowpipes, war elephants, and effective guerrilla warfare tactics by the enemy. Even in China, they succumbed to the new great power in East Asia: the Ming Dynasty. By 1368 CE, the Mongols were weakened by a series of droughts, famines, and dynastic disputes amongst their own elite. Indeed, one might say that the once-nomadic Mongols were really only defeated by themselves for they had become a part of the sedentary societies they had so long fought against.

The U.S. Military Needs Citizen-Soldiers, Not Warriors

The brave women and men of the U.S. armed forces need no longer dine in the soft confines of a cafeteria. Instead, a recent effort attempted to renamed U.S. Army dining facilities as “warrior restaurants.” The renaming was eminently risible but highlights the U.S. Army’s recent love affair with the term. Recruits are asked “what’s your warrior?” in recruitment ads, the Army has a “warrior ethos” (complete with a stylish wall poster), and there is even a “Best Warrior Competition.”

There are only two small problems: U.S. military personnel are not warriors, and more importantly, they should never become warriors. Indeed, the very nature of a warrior is inimical to a free people under a constitutional government. The United States needs citizen-soldiers and has no use for warriors on the battlefield or at home. To understand why, it is worth probing what these words mean and their wider implications.

The brave women and men of the U.S. armed forces need no longer dine in the soft confines of a cafeteria. Instead, a recent effort attempted to renamed U.S. Army dining facilities as “warrior restaurants.” The renaming was eminently risible but highlights the U.S. Army’s recent love affair with the term. Recruits are asked “what’s your warrior?” in recruitment ads, the Army has a “warrior ethos” (complete with a stylish wall poster), and there is even a “Best Warrior Competition.”

There are only two small problems: U.S. military personnel are not warriors, and more importantly, they should never become warriors. Indeed, the very nature of a warrior is inimical to a free people under a constitutional government. The United States needs citizen-soldiers and has no use for warriors on the battlefield or at home. To understand why, it is worth probing what these words mean and their wider implications.

Most native English speakers recognize there is a meaningful difference between the words “soldier” and “warrior” and the ideas they represent. The phrase “Civil War warriors” feels wrong, just as referring to a Homeric hero or a Mongol horseman as a soldier does. Achilles moping in his tent was a warrior, not a soldier.

The words are clearly different, but the precise distinction can be elusive. Here, the etymologies are informative a warrior is one who wars, of course (from northeastern Old French werreier). In contrast, “soldier” comes (by a roundabout route) from the Latin solidus, a standard late Roman coin. A soldier is thus someone who is paid by a higher authority, a relationship that naturally placed them in groups raised by some other political entity—be it a king, parliament, or congress. This did not mean mercenary service—there were other words for that—but rather, soldiers fought as their occupation, either as amateurs or professionals. For the warrior, war is an identity. For the soldier, it is a job done in service to a larger community, polity, or authority.

The distinction between the roles of warrior and soldier is not unique to English or even modern languages. It runs along almost the same lines in Latin and Greek. Greek has machetes (literally “battler”) and polemistes (“warrior”), but these words are used mostly in poetry to describe mythical heroes. Common Greek soldiers were stratiotes (“army men”), defined by their membership in and subordination to an army (a “stratos”) led by a general (a “strategos”). Likewise, Latin has bellator (“warrior”), but members of the Roman army were effectively never bellatores (except in a poetic sense and even then, only rarely) but rather milites, which comes from the same mil-root as the word “mile,” signifying a collection of things (a Roman mile being a collection of a thousand paces). Roman milites were thus men “put together,” defined by their collective action in service to a larger community. Soldiers belong to groups, whereas warriors, being attached to war by their own personal identity, may not.

Consequently, to the warrior, war is an irremovable part of their individual identity. Although warriors might fight in groups, they fight for individual reasons rooted in that identity, and so a warrior remains a warrior when fighting alone. Moreover, a warrior remains a warrior even when the war ends because there is no retirement from that core identity. Warriors do not retire.

A 13th century Mongol warrior was a warrior because in relatively unspecialized Mongol society, being a free adult male meant being a warrior such a Mongol remained a warrior for his whole adult life. He could no more easily abandon his warrior identity than he could his adulthood. Likewise, medieval knights generally did not retire except occasionally to take monastic orders and shift to an equally totalizing calling. Such individuals were born warriors and would die warriors the label was as inextricable to them as their ethnic, religious, or gender identity.

Warriors are thus definitionally a class apart, individuals whose connection to war sets them outside civilian society. This apartness is expressed quite vividly in their attitude toward civilians, which generally drips with unveiled contempt. Consequently, in societies with meaningful degrees of labor specialization, to be a warrior was to sit, permanently, outside of the civilian realm. It was, of course, a short leap for such men to assume that, because violence set them outside of civilian society, it also set them above it and therefore, they were its natural rulers. For any number of warrior-aristocrats, to fight was to rule, with civilians fit only to be ruled. Warriors are forever the enemies of free societies.

In contrast, a soldier both serves a larger community and serves in a larger unit. A soldier without a community stops being a soldier and becomes a mercenary. Soldiers, when their terms of service end, become civilians again. The ability to take the uniform off is what defines the soldier. The soldier only momentarily leaves civilian society, destined to rejoin it again at the end of the war, at the end of the tour, or at the end of a career. It is this act, rejoining civilian life, that the warrior is incapable of.

The current U.S. all-volunteer force that so eagerly embraces warrior ideals is predicated, as U.S. military service has been since its very beginning, on the assumption that soldiers complete a period of service and then return to being civilians. Indeed, the 1970 Gates Commission report, which advocated shifting away from conscription, relied on the assumption that “men who join the volunteer force will not all become long service professionals” and the inflow of new volunteers and outflow of veterans would prevent the force from becoming “isolated or alienated from society.” Yet, this turn to see U.S. service personnel as warriors runs directly against this imperative to knit military and society together in shared citizenship.

This turn to a warrior posture in the Army comes at a time when it is clear the realization of the citizen-soldier ideal and the attendant civil-military relationship is strained. The civil-military gap grows, and endless pressure to re-up (or enact “stop-loss’ extensions) already encourage soldiers to see war as their permanent vocation rather than merely their temporary occupation. Even after leaving the military, many veterans go into law enforcement veterans make up 6 percent of the general population but 19 percent of police officers. Law enforcement is another occupation with a warrior problem, where officers who conceive themselves as violence-dealing “sheepdogs” amid a population of harmless sheep and dangerous wolves also set themselves fundamentally apart from the people they serve. It’s an ideology where police officers are also cast as warriors, with predictably tragic results of both poor policing and excessive violence.

It is easy to see the appeal of adopting the label of warrior precisely because it sets soldiers and police forces apart from society, assuring them they are special and the provision of violence is not merely a virtue but the highest virtue. Warrior ideology also encourages soldiers to see themselves as the modern incarnations of ancient warriors like King Leonidas and his Spartans. That the Spartans were a small warrior aristocracy ruling with particular brutality over a large enslaved population has not kept novels glorifying a white-washed version of their history off reading lists at the U.S. Military Academy or the Marine Corps’ Basic School.

It also seems of little accident that this ideology has flourished at a time when U.S. service personnel have faced what is now two decades of long deployments in conflict areas both far from sight and often far from the minds of most Americans. As the “forever wars” have increasingly separated U.S. military personnel from civilian society, those personnel, in turn, have gravitated toward an ideology that declares they are a class apart—but also a class above.

Such ideologies have still darker roots. There is indeed a secular ideology that posits all “life is permanent warfare” and as such, “everybody is educated to become a hero,” developing the capacity for violence and orienting themselves toward “heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life.” And that ideology, as Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco famously pointed out, is fascism.

As Eco writes, the drive to elevate the warrior and his profession of violence as the highest good leads not to an ethos of service but rather to a contempt for those who instead perform the necessary jobs to enable survival, which is to say civilians. By embracing warrior ideology that has found its way into reading lists at major military academies and penetrated deeply into the mentality of modern U.S. policing, many soldiers and police officers are being quietly indoctrinated into what is, at its core, a fascist ideology, albeit in forms often unrecognized by modern proponents of warrior-soldiers and warrior-cops.

In short then, the ideology that sits behind “warrior restaurants” is both essentially un-American and fundamentally poisonous to the very free society U.S. soldiers swear to protect. Although many soldiers may not be aware of this long history, they will grasp the linguistic implications of the words, the subtle suggestion that leads English speakers to instinctively sense that Conan the Barbarian is a warrior but Private Ryan is not. After all, Ryan went home, raised a family, and had a civilian life, an idealized (and, of course, fictional) portrayal of a soldier leaving war behind.

As the United States looks to leave its “forever war” in Afghanistan, it is long past time for policymakers and the public to engage in a real discussion concerning the civil-military relationship and the role soldiers take in U.S. society. Because although the United States needs more soldiers who can serve and then leave war behind, it has no need at all for warriors.

Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.

16 Facts About the Brutality of Viking Life

Sea-faring Danes invading England (c. 10th Century) Pierpont Morgan Library/ Wikimedia Commons.

14. Homosexual rape was commonplace in Viking culture, with defeated enemies typically becoming victims of sexual assault in a show of domination and humiliation

Unlike early Christianity, Viking culture did not regard homosexuality as innately evil or perverted. However, this does not mean that the Vikings did not attach certain stigmas to homosexual conduct, in particular, to those who received rather than gave. Symbolically seen as a surrendering of one&rsquos independence in violation of the Viking ethic of self-reliance, a man who subjected himself to another sexually was perceived as likely to do so in other areas and thus untrustworthy and unmanly. Being used in a homosexual nature by another man was equally connected to the trait of cowardice, an immensely shameful description in Viking society, due to the historic custom of sexual violence against a defeated enemy. This was recorded in the Sturlunga saga, Guðmundr captures a man and a wife and intends to rape both as a form of domination over his new property.

This use of rape to solidify authority over an individual, not unique to the Vikings but rather a recurrent feature of many hyper-masculine early civilizations, was reinforced by the frequent practice of castration for defeated opponents. Whilst the klámhogg (&ldquoshame-stroke&rdquo) on the buttocks was ranked alongside penetrative wounds: a clear symbolic reference to forced anal sex. Due to this cultural connection of homosexual conduct with submission, dominance, and defeat, the engagement of same-sex consensual relations with a close friend was regarded as an immensely offensive and shameful deed. The act was viewed as a humiliation of the vanquished to participate in intercourse with a friend was not seen as a loving gesture but instead to betray that friend and shame him.

How War of the Vikings respects historical fidelity, brutality and women warriors

The moment that I knew I wanted to be a Viking was the moment that I pushed another man off a cliff. I didn't mean to do this, but gravity and circumstance joined forces and suddenly he was gone. I suppose I didn't know my own strength. I suppose I also ignored the clues to my own strength that included: my big suit of armour, my big helmet, my big sword, my big shield.

War of the Vikings follows on from the messy melee of War of the Roses, and it will feel immediately familiar to veterans of that conflict. Its third-person combat is directed by nudges of the mouse that determine the direction of swings or parries, with timing the difference between life and death, but executive producer Gordon Van Dyke insists that a great many improvements have been made behind the scenes: "There's some similarities, obviously, but it's not just a re-skin of War of the Roses."

Most apparent is the sense of momentum that combat now has. While many of the weapons in War of the Roses certainly felt powerful and heavy, even a strong blow or a ringing shield bash would do little to shift an opponent. Now, a thrust or a charge carries weight and clashing warriors can force each other back or cause far more serious injuries as they land their strikes. This can work both ways, too, and my most grievous injury came as a result of my running right into an enemy's thrust. I did an excellent job of skewering myself in a manner that felt entirely deserved.

As well as tweaked combat mechanics, the same Bitsquid engine that powered War of the Roses has been given an update. Behind the scenes, a new anti-cheat system is being deployed, while improved visual effects present a grimmer, grimier world. Combat is also a little messier this time around, though Van Dyke says the intention isn't to be over-dramatic.

"It is a bit more gory," he explains. "We wanted to reflect that time period and the combat would've been more gruesome, but it's not going to be like some of our competitors where it goes over the top. Pointless gore isn't going to make our game better." Nevertheless, he adds, the intention was to make a game that was rougher, meaner and faster experience, a game where bodies fall faster and fall harder. There's no need to execute any of War of the Roses' clinical finishing moves and there's fewer of that game's lengthy, measured duels.

"I picked this time period because I wanted a more aggressive game," Van Dyke says. "The technology and the way fights unfolded in the War of the Roses area meant they lasted longer and they were more about precision. Often you didn't actually kill your opponent, it was more about disabling them. During the Viking age, that wasn't an option. A Viking wanted to die in battle, to go to Valhalla. They'd have never ever wanted to be wounded and held hostage, that would've been the worst thing that could've happened to them."

There's as much of an effort to provide historical realism as there is to provide a quicker, crueller combat model. Historical fidelity is a subject that Van Dyke, who has consulted archaeologists and visited historic sites, keeps returning to. Enemy warriors call out battle chatter in the languages of the era, warning each other of archers or attackers, and while teammates hear these calls in English, their enemies will hear them in Icelandic or Old English. "It avoids us having to put in too much of that other interface and HUD stuff that can become overwhelming," says Van Dyke, who believes it's a practical addition, but it also happens to be a very neat idea that works very well.

While the time period opens up the possibility for a host of new tools to hurt other people with, including many more ranged weapons that will keep both Vikings and Saxons on their toes (including throwing daggers, axes and spears), Van Dyke isn't just laying on the weapons for the sake of it. He wants to make a game that paints a plausible picture of the past, of the battlefields of old. That includes not only representing its combat, equipment and language correctly, but also its warriors appropriately.

Knocking or stabbing people off high spots is both possible and very pleasurable.

History has obscured some of the specifics but evidence has repeatedly suggested that sometimes both men and women fought for the Viking cause, taking up arms together to face their enemies. As Van Dyke shows a forthcoming character concept for a woman warrior, it's refreshing to see that she looks, well, rather normal. There's no exposed flesh, shaped armour or elaborate metal corsets, though there is a very mean stare.

"We really wanted her to look like someone who would go into a fight in that time period and be dressed properly for that. Not to be dressed for Comic Con," explains Van Dyke, who has a lot to say about the character design and the concept of women warriors coming from a society that wasn't "Christian and patriarchal" and which sometimes trained women in combat. "These women wouldn't have been running around pushing their cleavage out. They were there to fight, to succeed, and you need to reflect that."

Is he frustrated by the typical chainmail corsets and bikini-armour that woman warriors often find themselves wearing in games? "I get more frustrated if people are trying to present it as plausible gear. If that's not what you're doing, then by all means. I'm not a fan of it myself, but people have the freedom to do what they want," he answers. "But if I'm in charge, and it's a project that I'm working on and can influence, then I want it to be realistic and believable."

Success is what matters, not a warrior's gender, and Van Dyke says that the only metric worth measuring a fighter by is their ability: "Back then, you didn't always have the luxury of choosing who was going to fight alongside you. You wanted someone who was going to help you out. If you're in that situation, why the hell would you care whether it's a woman or not?"

An axe in a Saxon is worth two in the hand.

It's an attitude that reflects the broader philosophy behind War of the Vikings, the idea that the only thing you really have to be is good and there's no need to grind to unlock weapons or equipment or special bonuses. While earning experience allows players to progress up the game's many tiers, it doesn't afford them extra advantages or unlock more powerful gear. Instead, it allows for more cosmetics, further character customisation cooler shields and flashier swords, all wielded by men and women alike.

Van Dyke says that he wants players to know that, when they're facing a Viking with a great grey beard or a stout old shield, they're fighting someone who has a lot of experience but who holds no other advantages. "We want players to identify how prestigious their opponents are, to think 'Okay, this guy knows what he's doing.' We want a lot of those visual cues."

Fatshark are busy adding many of the historical details that they want to decorate their game with, but it's already a brutal, satisfying and sometimes very messy affair that honours the cruel and even slapstick combat of War of the Roses. There are still many decisions to be made, including how Saxon women warriors might be represented ("They would've come from money," suggests Van Dyke. "The sort who has a father who is more able to let their daughter do what they want."), but it looks like War of the Vikings will not only present players with a faithful and brutal portrait of Viking combat, but also a refreshingly respectable representation of women warriors.

This article was based on a press trip to Miami. Paradox paid for travel and accommodation.

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History of the Aztec Warriors: The Grim Fighters of Mexico

Illustration by Kamikazuh, DeviantArt

Posted By: Dattatreya Mandal November 6, 2017

From the etymological perspective, the term Aztec is derived from Aztlan (or ‘Place of Whiteness’ in connotative meaning), the mythological place of origin for the Nahuatl-speaking culture. Now in spite of their fascinating achievements in the avenues of rich culture and sophisticated agricultural practices, our popular notions tend to gravitate towards the Aztec grisly practices entailing human sacrifice. While the latter was indeed a part of the Aztec domain, there was more to these people than their ritualistic penchant for blood suggests. To that end, let us have a look at the origins and history of the Aztec warrior culture that paved the way for one of the greatest empires in the Western Hemisphere.

The Ascendancy of the Mexica –

Source: ThingLink

The very term ‘Aztec’ doesn’t pertain to a singular group (or tribe) of people that dominated Mexico in the 15th century. In fact, the legacy of the Aztecs directly relates to that of the Mexica culture, one of the nomadic Chichimec people that entered the Valley of Mexico by circa 1200 AD. The Mexica were both farmers and hunter-gatherers, but they were mostly known by their brethren to be fierce warriors. And on the latter front, they were tested – by remnants of the Toltec Empire.

In fact, according to one version of their legacy, it was the Toltec warlords who pursued the Mexica and forced them to retreat to an island. And it was on this island that they witnessed the prophecy of “an eagle with a snake in its beak, perched on a prickly pear cactus” – which led to the founding of the massive city of Tenochtitlan in circa 1325 AD, by ‘refugees’. Suffice it to say, in these initial years when Tenochtitlan was still considered as a backwater settlement, the Mexica were not counted among the political elite of the region. As such many of them peddled their status as fearsome warriors and inducted themselves as elite mercenaries of the numerous rival Toltec factions.

However, as historian John Pohl mentioned (in his book Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521), it was this continued association of the Mexica to military matters that ultimately provided them with the leverage to influence political decisions and even attract royal marriages. This shift in the balance of power (in their favor) fueled the Mexica to a dominant position in the region. And together banding with their culturally-aligned, Nahuatl-speaking brethren from the allied cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, the Mexica nobles and princes formed what is known as the Aztec Triple Alliance or the Aztec Empire. This super-entity ruled the area in and around the Valley of Mexico from the 15th century till the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

The ‘Ten Eagle’ Cuauhtli –

As we can gather from the earlier entry, the Aztecs (pertaining to an alliance of Nahuatl-speaking people) were first and foremost a warrior society. To that end, it doesn’t come as a surprise that most adult males had to provide some form of mandatory military service. In fact, the boys born under the day sign of Matlactli Cuauhtli (or ‘Ten Eagle’) were compulsorily assigned (by revered soothsayers) as future warriors of the Aztec military state, irrespective of their statuses as commoners or nobles.

Relating to the last part of the statement, while the nobles and high-ranking members of the Aztec society played their crucial roles in both the political and military affairs, the Aztec military structure (at least during the first half of 15th century) theoretically adhered to the ideals of meritocracy. Simply put, a commoner could also rise up to the rank of an Aztec warrior, on the condition that he proved his ferocity and valor in battle by not only killing but also capturing a certain number of enemies. On occasion, even honorary (but non-hereditary) noble titles were bestowed upon some of these battle-hardened ‘commoner’ warriors, like Cuauhpipiltin (Eagle Nobles) – and they formed the elite fighting force of the Aztec state.

The Rigorous Road to Becoming an Aztec Warrior –

Aztec children being punished with the smoke from burning peppers.

Much like the ancient Spartans, the Aztecs perceived warfare as one of the ‘pillars’ of their thriving society. And for those chosen as future warriors of the state, their ‘training’ started from as early as five years of age. One of the first tasks the small boy had to perform related to the intensive physical labor of carrying heavy goods and crucial food supplies from the central marketplace.

And for that, he was only provided with a frugal meal of half a maize cake at the age of three, a full maize cake at the age of five, and one-and-a-half maize cake at the age of twelve. These paltry portions encouraged the would-be Aztec warrior to subsist on meager food items. Such ‘spartan’ nutrition patterns were only supplemented by ritual feasts conducted on particular days of the month.

By the age of seven, the Aztec boy had to learn to maneuver his family boat and fish on Lake Texcoco. And as expected, idleness was not only frowned upon but actively punished by elders, with the punishments ranging from beatings to stinging with agave thorns to even having their faces and eyes ‘incensed’ with the pernicious smoke from roasted chili peppers.

The Telpochcalli –

Now we did mention that the Aztec military during the first half of the 15th-century theoretically adhered to a merit-based system. However, as referenced in the Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521 (by John Pohl), on the practical side of affairs, the warfare and military campaigns were conducted by the noble houses, who formed their own religiopolitical institutions.

This scope was reflected by the Calmecac (or ‘House of the Lineage’), a separate school for (mostly) nobles, where the candidates were trained for both priesthood and warfare. The Telpochcalli (or ‘House of Youth’), on the hand, was founded for the commoners (mostly) who were to be trained as warriors after they crossed the threshold of 15 years, thus being somewhat akin to the ancient Spartan concept of the Agoge.

Many of these schools were run by veteran warriors who were barely older than the pupils themselves, thus alluding to the demand and progression of military duties in the Aztec society. In any case, one of the first tasks assigned to the teenager trainees focused on teamwork, and as such entailed investing their time in repairing and cleaning public works like canals and aqueducts.

This notion of societal interdependence was imparted from a very early age in most Aztec boys – which in many ways rather reinforced their sense of fraternity during actual military campaigns. The menial tasks were accompanied by group-based drills that tested their physical fortitude, with the ‘masters’ often resorting to intimidation and downright abuse to bring the best out of their pupils.

Contrary to popular ideas, discipline was one of the mainstays of the Aztec military – so much so that drunkenness during training could even result in the death penalty (on rare occasions). And once again drawing its comparison with the Spartan Agoge, the Telpochcalli youths were also encouraged to take up singing and dancing as leisurely activities during evenings, with former ‘designed’ to convey spiritual nurturing through the various vibrant Aztec god myths and the latter expected to enhance their agility in the long run.

The Ritual Training of the Aztec Warriors –

Ritual combat conducted during a festival. Illustration by Angus McBride.

The youths were however introduced to real combat scenarios only during the major religious festivals that were mostly held in the central district of the city. One of these series of ceremonies held between February and April was dedicated to the Aztec storm god Tlaloc and the war god Xipe, and the festivities inexorably brought forth their versions of vicious ritual combats. Some of these scenarios sort of bridged the gap between bloody gladiatorial contests and melee fighting exhibitions, with high-ranking prisoners-of-war being forced to defend themselves from heavily armed Aztec opponents – which often resulted in fatalities.

At the same time, the veteran masters from both the Calmecac and Telpochcalli schools were asked to train their pupils in the art of handling various weapons, starting from slings, bows to spears and clubs. These students were then encouraged to take part in mock battles against each other as teams, with reward systems of food and gifts. These staged combat scenarios were perceived as rites of initiation for the young warriors, and as such the victors were often inducted into advanced training programs that focused on the handling of heavier melee weapons reserved for the elite fighters of the Aztec military.

The Xochiyaoyotl or ‘Flower Wars’ –

Source: Pinterest

The scope of ritual combat in the Aztec military was not just limited to the ceremonial confines of city-temple precincts, but rather extended to actual battlefields. The Xochiyaoyotl (Flower Wars or Flowery Wars) mirrored this relentless ambit where religious inclinations fueled the ‘need’ for warfare. Possibly a practice started by Tlacaelel, a high ranking prince who was one of the chief architects of the aforementioned Aztec Triple Alliance, the core doctrine of the Flower Wars called for blood – as ‘nourishment’ for Huitzilopochtli, the Mesoamerican deity of war and sun. In fact, by the early 15th century, Tlacaelel elevated Huitzilopochtli as the patron god of the very city of Tenochtitlan, thus intrinsically tying up the ‘hunger’ of gods with the Aztec penchant for ritual war.

Interestingly enough, many of these Flower Wars (participated by the young Calmecac and Telpochcalli warriors) were conducted against the Tlaxcalans, who themselves constituted a powerful people with a Nahua cultural affinity shared with the Aztecs. On occasions, the Aztecs reached a status-quo agreement with the mighty Tlaxcalans which outlined that the Xochiyaoyotl would be conducted in a bid to capture sacrificial prisoners, as opposed to conquering lands and taking away resources.

On the other hand, the status (and rank) of an Aztec warrior often depended on the number of capable enemies he had captured in battle. In essence, the Flowers Wars, while maintaining their seemingly vicious religious veneer, pushed the Aztec military into a nigh perpetual state of warfare. Such ruthless actions, in turn, produced the most fierce, battle-ready warriors who were required by the realm to conquer and intimidate the other Mesoamerican city-states in the region.

The Atlatl and Macuahuitl –

Illustration by Adam Hook.

As we fleetingly mentioned before, the Aztec warriors used a range of weapons in combat scenarios, from slings, bows to spears and clubs. But the signature Mesoamerican weapon preferred by some Aztec warriors pertained to the atlatl or spear-thrower. Possibly having its origins in the coastal hunting weapons furnished by their predecessors, the atlatl was commonly used by various Mesoamerican cultures like Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Maya. According to expert Thomas J. Elpel –

The atlatl throwing board consists of a stick about two feet long, with a handgrip at one end and a “spur” at the other end. The spur is a point that fits into a cavity at the back of a four to six-foot-long dart (spear). The dart is suspended parallel to the board, held by the tips of the fingers at the handgrip. It is then launched through a sweeping arm and wrist motion, similar to a tennis serve. A fine-tuned atlatl can be used to throw a dart 120 to 150 yards, with accuracy at 30 to 40 yards.

Suffice it to say, the atlatl as a precise weapon was pretty difficult to master, and as such was possibly used by a few elite Aztecs warriors. The macuahuitl (roughly translating to ‘hungry-wood’), on the other hand, was a more direct and ‘brutal’ melee weapon, comprising a saw-sword (differing in sizes from one-handed to two-handed) carved of hardwood and then embedded with obsidian razor blades (secured by bitumen adhesives). On the battlefield, the macuahuitl was also accompanied by a longer halberd-like weapon known as the tepoztopilli, and it was probably used by less-experienced warriors whose job was to fend off enemy charges from the rear ranks.

The Rank-Based Distinction of Armor –

Source: Codex Mendoza

The aforementioned heavy weapons were complemented with defensive (76-cm diameter) shields known as chimalli, made of fire-hardened cane reinforced with heavy cotton or even solid wood sheathed in copper. These relatively large shields were bedecked with intricate featherworks, hanging cloth and leather pieces (that doubled as light defenses for the legs), and heraldic insignias. To that end, the image of a ferocious Aztec melee fighter with his gruesome macuahuitl and sturdy decorated chimalli is indeed an intimidating one.

But, as John Pohl mentioned, the scope was made even more terrifying with the adoption of specialized armor with their variant motifs – all based on the hardy quilted cotton set known as ichcahuipilli. Like we mentioned before, the status (and rank) of an Aztec warrior often depended on the number of capable enemies he had captured in battle. And this achieved rank was signified by the uniform-style armor he wore on the battlefield.

For example, a Telpochcalli trained Aztec warrior who had captured two enemies was entitled to wear the cuextecatl, which comprised a conical hat and a tight bodysuit decorated with multi-colored feathers like red, blue and green. A warrior who succeeded in capturing three of his foes was gifted with a rather long ichcahuipilli with a butterfly-shaped back ornament. The Aztec warrior who captured four men was given the famed jaguar suit and helmet, while the warrior who captured more than five, was awarded the tlahuiztli (or green feather) along with xopilli ‘claw’ back ornament.

It should be noted that the Calmecac priests, many of whom were accomplished noble warriors in themselves, were also presented with their rank-signifying armor sets. For example, the greatest of these warrior-priests, who were relentless (and lucky) enough to capture six or more enemies, were specially awarded coyote uniforms with red or yellow feathers and wooden helmets.

The Eagle and Jaguar Warriors of the Aztec Military –

Units made famous by the real-time strategy game Age of Empires 2, the eagle warriors (cuāuhtli) and jaguar warriors (ocēlōtl) possibly comprised the largest elite warrior band in the Aztec military, and as such when fielded together, were known as the cuauhtlocelotl. Pertaining to the former, eagles were revered in Aztec cultures as the symbol of the sun – thus making the eagle warriors the ‘warriors of the sun’. Suffice it to say, these Aztec fighters draped themselves in eagle feathers and eagle-inspired headgears (often made of sturdy wooden helms) – and most of them, with obvious ‘commoner’ exceptions, were recruited from the nobility.

The jaguar warriors, on the other hand, covered themselves in pelts of jaguars (pumas), a practice that not only enhanced their elevated visual impact but also pertained to a ritualistic angle wherein the Aztec warrior believed that he partly imbibed the strength of the predator animal. It can be hypothesized that these elite warriors also wore the quilted cotton armor (ichcahuipilli) under their animal pelts, while higher-ranking members tended to flaunt their additional apparels in the form of colored feathers and plumes.

Now going by the aforementioned parameter of ranks in the Aztec military, a fighter had to at least capture more than four enemies (some sources mention the figure as 12, while others mention the figure of 20) to be inducted into the order of the cuauhtlocelotl. In any case, often placed at the fore of the Aztec war-band, members of the cuauhtlocelotl were expected to be granted lands and titles by their lords – irrespective of their noble or commoner status, thus in many ways mirroring the early knightly class of medieval Europe.

The Cuachicqueh or ‘Shorn Ones’ –

The ‘Shorn One’ on the left side. Illustration by Angus McBride.

Interestingly enough, beyond the order of the cuauhtlocelotl, the Aztecs possibly fielded a separate division of their most elite warriors, who were known as the cuachicqueh (or ‘shorn ones’). Though not much is known about this unique band of Aztec fighters, some sources mention them as being akin to the ‘berserkers’ – and thus their ranks only included esteemed warriors who had dedicated their lives to the pursuit of warfare, instead of titles and land grants. Simply put, the cuachicqueh possibly comprised full-time soldiers who had proved their flair in battles with courage, ferocity and downright fanaticism.

As for the moniker of ‘shorn ones’, the elite Aztec warrior probably shaved his entire head with the exception of a long braid over the left ear. One half of this bald patch was painted with blue, while the other half was painted with red or yellow. Now according to a few sources, the cuachicqueh had to take a remorseless oath of not moving backward (in retreat) during battles, on pain of death from their fellow soldiers.

And as was the system followed by the Aztec military, the tlacochcalcatl (roughly a rank equivalent of the ‘chief of armory’), usually the second or third most powerful man in the Aztec hierarchy, was an honorary member of the cuachicqueh. Other officers beneath him were known to flaunt their ritzy attires in the form of unusually long wood poles (pamitl) with the feathers and banners fastened to their backs, much like the famed Winged Hussars of Poland.

The Advanced Systems of Military Structure and Communication –

Illustration by Timi Hankimaa. Source: ArtStation

As author John Pohl mentions (in his book Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521), Aztecs had the capacity to raise armies that possibly numbered in six figures by sheer virtue of their ability to amass both food and resources. Such impressive logistical feats were achieved with the help of innovative land reclamation techniques, chinampa (shallow lake bed) agricultural advancements, and storage-based infrastructural facilities that acted as strategic supply depots for the marching armies.

In many ways, the large number of troops fielded by the Aztecs provided them with a tactical advantage in campaigns that went beyond obvious numerical superiority. To that end, the Mexica army was often divided into units of 8,000 men known as the xiquipilli. Each of these xiquipilli units probably acted as self-sufficient ‘mini-armies’ in themselves who were not only trained to take alternate campaign routes to circumvent enemy positions but were also capable of pinning down their foes until the arrival of larger reinforcements.

Pertaining to these battlefield tactics, the Aztec war machine focused on the entrapment of their enemies, as opposed to choosing preferential areas for conducting their military actions. Simply put, the Aztecs favored the use of flexible maneuvers that required an ambit of signals and communications that could ‘outwit’ their enemies, thus relegating the need for advantageous terrains and positions.

Some of these signals were based on a relay-system composed of runners spaced at equal distances from the lines. Other alerting mechanisms were based on smokes and even mirrors (made of polished iron pyrites) that aided in communication over long distances between the xiquipilli units. And once the battle commenced, commanders had to keep an eye on the order of ornamental standards that synchronized with the blaring of conch shells and beats of drums.

The ‘Economy’ of Conquest –

Reconstruction of Tenochtitlan. Source: MexicoCity

The royal strongholds of Mesoamerican cultures centered around the Valley of Mexico, from circa 14th century onwards, doubled as commercial nerve-centers that comprised both trading facilities and craft-producing workshops, with the latter often contained within the rulers’ palatial complexes (and supervised by royal women).

These craft-producing establishments were known to manufacture exotic goods (like intricate featherworks) and luxury items (like exquisite jewelry) that sort-of flowed as currency between the princely classes of the various city-states. To that end, the greater capacity (and ability) to craft such ritzy commodities mirrored the higher statuses extended to many of these royal houses – thus resulting in a competitive field encompassing a complex nexus of alliances, gift-sharing, trading, rivalries, and even military raids.

The Nahua-speaking Aztecs, on the other hand, sought to supplant this volatile economic system with the aid of their martial acumen. In essence, by conquering and taking over (or at least subduing) many of the royal strongholds, the Aztec nobles forced their own commercial road-map on the aforementioned craft-producing workshops.

Consequently, as opposed to competing with the neighboring city-states, these establishments now produced opulent commodities for their Aztec overlords. These goods, in turn, were circulated among the Aztec princes and warriors – as incentives (in forms of gifts and currencies) to raise their penchant for even more military campaigns and conquests. So simply put, the conquests of the Aztecs fueled a (noble-dominated) practical cyclic economy of sorts, wherein more territories brought forth the enhanced capacity to produce more luxury items.

Honorable Mention – Ullamaliztli or the Aztec Ball Game

Source: Pinterest

Previously in the article, we mentioned how the Aztec warrior trainees took part in exercises that promoted agility and strength. One of these recreational exercises managed to reach political heights, in the form of the Ullamaliztli. The game probably had its origins in the far older Olmec civilization (the first major civilization centered in Mexico) and was played in a distinctive I-shaped court known as tlachtli (or tlachco) with a 9-pound rubber ball. Almost taking a ritualistic route, such courts were usually among the first structures to be established by the Aztecs in the conquered city-states, after they had erected a temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. As for the gameplay, the Aztec-History website makes it clear –

The teams would face each other on the court. The object, in the end, was to get the ball through the stone hoop. This was extremely difficult, and so if it actually happened the game would be over. In fact, according to historian Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, some courts didn’t even have rings. Another important rule was that the ball was never allowed to touch the ground. Players couldn’t hold or even touch the ball with their hands – only the elbows, knees, hips and head were used. As you may imagine, this made for a very fast-paced game, and the players had to constantly throw themselves against the surface of the court to keep the ball from landing. The players were skillful, and the ball could stay in the air for an hour or more.

Suffice it to say, like many things ‘Aztec’, the Ullamaliztli was a rigorous game that often resulted in grave injuries, especially when the players, often protected by deerskin gears, had to throw themselves to the ground. In any case, the ball game transcended into a true spectator sport that attracted kings, nobles and throngs of commoners among audiences, while pitting city-states against each other that usually took a political turn. In fact, the popularity of Ullamaliztli rose to such dizzying heights that it fueled gambling businesses on the side where one could sell his featherworks, belongings, and even himself (as a slave) to work off the debts.

Featured Image Credit: Illustration by Kamikazuh, DeviantArt

Book References: Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521 (By John Pohl) / Empire of the Aztecs (By Barbara A. Somervill)

And in case we have not attributed or misattributed any image, artwork or photograph, we apologize in advance. Please let us know via the ‘Contact Us’ link, provided both above the top bar and at the bottom bar of the page.

Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome

Gladiatorial shows turned war into a game, preserved an atmosphere of violence in time of peace, and functioned as a political theatre which allowed confrontation between rulers and ruled.

Rome was a warrior state. After the defeat of Carthage in 201 BC, Rome embarked on two centuries of almost continuous imperial expansion. By the end of this period, Rome controlled the whole of the Mediterranean basin and much of north-western Europe. The population of her empire, at between 50 and 60 million people, constituted perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth of the world's then population. Victorious conquest had been bought at a huge price, measured in human suffering, carnage, and money. The costs were borne by tens of thousands of conquered peoples, who paid taxes to the Roman state, by slaves captured in war and transported to Italy, and by Roman soldiers who served long years fighting overseas.

The discipline of the Roman army was notorious. Decimation is one index of its severity. If an army unit was judged disobedient or cowardly in battle, one soldier in ten was selected by lot and cudgelled to death by his former comrades. It should be stressed that decimation was not just a myth told to terrify fresh recruits it actually happened in the period of imperial expansion, and frequently enough not to arouse particular comment. Roman soldiers killed each other for their common good.

When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect? Small wonder then that they were sometimes forced to fight in gladiatorial contests, or were thrown to wild beasts for popular entertainment. Public executions helped inculcate valour and fear in the men, women and children left at home. Children learnt the lesson of what happened to soldiers who were defeated. Public executions were rituals which helped maintain an atmosphere of violence, even in times of peace. Bloodshed and slaughter joined military glory and conquest as central elements in Roman culture.

With the accession of the first emperor Augustus (31 BC – AD 14), the Roman state embarked on a period of long-term peace (pax romana). For more than two centuries, thanks to its effective defence by frontier armies, the inner core of the Roman empire was virtually insulated from the direct experience of war. Then in memory of their warrior traditions, the Romans set up artificia1 battlefields in cities and towns for public amusement. The custom spread from Italy to the provinces.

Nowadays, we admire the Colosseum in Rome and other great Roman amphitheatres such as those at Verona, Arles, Nimes and El Djem as architectural monuments. We choose to forget, I suspect, that this was where Romans regularly organised fights to the death between hundreds of gladiators, the mass execution of unarmed criminals, and the indiscriminate slaughter of domestic and wild animals.

The enormous size of the amphitheatres indicates how popular these exhibitions were. The Colosseum was dedicated in AD 80 with 100 days of games. One day 3,000 men fought on another 9,000 animals were killed. It seated 50,000 people. It is still one of Rome's most impressive buildings, a magnificent feat of engineering and design. In ancient times, amphitheatres must have towered over cities, much as cathedrals towered over medieval towns. Public killings of men and animals were a Roman rite, with overtones of religious sacrifice, legitimated by the myth that gladiatorial shows inspired the populace with 'a glory in wounds and a contempt of death'.

Philosophers, and later Christians, disapproved strongly. To little effect gladiatorial games persisted at least until the early fifth century AD, wild-beast killings until the sixth century. St Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of a Christian who was reluctantly forced along to the amphitheatre by a party of friends at first, he kept his eyes shut, but when he heard the crowd roar, he opened them, and became converted by the sight of blood into an eager devotee of gladiatorial shows. Even the biting criticism quoted below reveals a certain excitement beneath its moral outrage.

Seneca, Roman senator and philosopher, tells of a visit he once paid to the arena. He arrived in the middle of the day, during the mass execution of criminals, staged as an entertainment in the interval between the wild-beast show in the morning and the gladiatorial show of the afternoon:

All the previous fighting had been merciful by comparison. Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder. The combatants have no protective covering their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. No blow falls in vain. This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests, and even to those which are put on by popular request. And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armour? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.

In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.

You may object that the victims committed robbery or were murderers. So what? Even if they deserved to suffer, what's your compulsion to watch their sufferings? 'Kill him', they shout, 'Beat him, burn him'. Why is he too timid to fight? Why is he so frightened to kill? Why so reluctant to die? They have to whip him to make him accept his wounds.

Much of our evidence suggests that gladiatorial contests were, by origin, closely connected with funerals. 'Once upon a time', wrote the Christian critic Tertullian at the end of the second century AD, 'men believed that the souls of the dead were propitiated by human blood, and so at funerals they sacrificed prisoners of war or slaves of poor quality bought for the purpose'. The first recorded gladiatorial show took place in 264 BC: it was presented by two nobles in honour of their dead father only three pairs of gladiators took part. Over the next two centuries, the scale and frequency of gladiatorial shows increased steadily. In 65 BC, for example, Julius Caesar gave elaborate funeral games for his father involving 640 gladiators and condemned criminals who were forced to fight with wild beasts. At his next games in 46 BC, in memory of his dead daughter and, let it be said, in celebration of his recent triumphs in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar presented not only the customary fights between individual gladiators, but also fights between whole detachments of infantry and between squadrons of cavalry, some mounted on horses, others on elephants. Large-scale gladiatorial shows had arrived. Some of the contestants were professional gladiators, others prisoners of war, and others criminals condemned to death.

Up to this time, gladiatorial shows had always been put on by individual aristocrats at their own initiative and expense, in honour of dead relatives. The religious component in gladiatorial ceremonies continued to be important. For example, attendants in the arena were dressed up as gods. Slaves who tested whether fallen gladiators were really dead or just pretending, by applying a red-hot cauterising iron, were dressed as the god Mercury. 'Those who dragged away the dead bodies were dressed as Pluto, the god of the underworld. During the persecutions of Christians, the victims were sometimes led around the arena in a procession dressed up as priests and priestesses of pagan cults, before being stripped naked and thrown to the wild beasts. The welter of blood in gladiatorial and wild-beast shows, the squeals and smell of the human victims and of slaughtered animals are completely alien to us and almost unimaginable. For some Romans they must have been reminiscent of battlefields, and, more immediately for everyone, associated with religious sacrifice. At one remove, Romans, even at the height of their civilisation, performed human sacrifice, purportedly in commemoration of their dead.

By the end of the last century BC, the religious and commemorative elements in gladiatorial shows were eclipsed by the political and the spectacular. Gladiatorial shows were public performances held mostly, before the amphitheatre was built, in the ritual and social centre of the city, the Forum. Public participation, attracted by the splendour of the show and by distributions of meat, and by betting, magnified the respect paid to the dead and the honour of the whole family. Aristocratic funerals in the Republic (before 31 BC) were political acts. And funeral games had political implications, because of their popularity with citizen electors. Indeed, the growth in the splendour of gladiatorial shows was largely fuelled by competition between ambitious aristocrats, who wished to please, excite and increase the number of their supporters.

In 42 BC, for the first time, gladiatorial fights were substituted for chariot-races in official games. After that in the city of Rome, regular gladiatorial shows, like theatrical shows and chariot-races, were given by officers of state, as part of their official careers, as an official obligation and as a tax on status. The Emperor Augustus, as part of a general policy of limiting aristocrats' opportunities to court favour with the Roman populace, severely restricted the number of regular gladiatorial shows to two each year. He also restricted their splendour and size. Each official was forbidden to spend more on them than his colleagues, and an upper limit was fixed at 120 gladiators a show.

These regulations were gradually evaded. The pressure for evasion was simply that, even under the emperors, aristocrats were still competing with each other, in prestige and political success. The splendour of a senator's public exhibition could make or break his social and political reputation. One aristocrat, Symmachus, wrote to a friend: 'I must now outdo the reputation earned by my own shows our family's recent generosity during my consulship and the official games given for my son allow us to present nothing mediocre'. So he set about enlisting the help of various powerful friends in the provinces. In the end, he managed to procure antelopes, gazelles, leopards, lions, bears, bear-cubs, and even some crocodiles, which only just survived to the beginning of the games, because for the previous fifty days they had refused to eat. Moreover, twenty-nine Saxon prisoners of war strangled each other in their cells on the night before their final scheduled appearance. Symmachus was heart-broken. Like every donor of the games, he knew that his political standing was at stake. Every presentation was in Goffman's strikingly apposite phrase 'a status bloodbath'.

The most spectacular gladiatorial shows were given by the emperors themselves at Rome. For example, the Emperor Trajan, to celebrate his conquest of Dacia (roughly modern Roumania), gave games in AD 108-9 lasting 123 days in which 9,138 gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were slain. The Emperor Claudius in AD 52 presided in full military regalia over a battle on a lake near Rome between two naval squadrons, manned for the occasion by 19,000 forced combatants. The palace guard, stationed behind stout barricades, which also prevented the combatants from escaping, bombarded the ships with missiles from catapaults. After a faltering start, because the men refused to fight, the battle according to Tacitus 'was fought with the spirit of free men, although between criminals. After much bloodshed, those who survived were spared extermination'.

The quality of Roman justice was often tempered by the need to satisfy the demand for the condemned. Christians, burnt to death as scapegoats after the great fire at Rome in AD 64, were not alone in being sacrificed for public entertainment. Slaves and bystanders, even the spectators themselves, ran the risk of becoming victims of emperors' truculent whims. The Emperor Claudius, for example, dissatisfied with how the stage machinery worked, ordered the stage mechanics responsible to fight in the arena. One day when there was a shortage of condemned criminals, the Emperor Caligula commanded that a whole section of the crowd be seized and thrown to the wild beasts instead. Isolated incidents, but enough to intensify the excitement of those who attended. Imperial legitimacy was reinforced by terror.

As for animals, their sheer variety symbolised the extent of Roman power and left vivid traces in Roman art. In 169 BC, sixty-three African lions and leopards, forty bears and several elephants were hunted down in a single show. New species were gradually introduced to Roman spectators (tigers, crocodiles, giraffes, lynxes, rhinoceros, ostriches, hippopotami) and killed for their pleasure. Not for Romans the tame viewing of caged animals in a zoo. Wild beasts were set to tear criminals to pieces as public lesson in pain and death. Sometimes, elaborate sets and theatrical backdrops were prepared in which, as a climax, a criminal was devoured limb by limb. Such spectacular punishments, common enough in pre-industrial states, helped reconstitute sovereign power. The deviant criminal was punished law and order were re-established.

The labour and organisation required to capture so many animals and to deliver them alive to Rome must have been enormous. Even if wild animals were more plentiful then than now, single shows with one hundred, four hundred or six hundred lions, plus other animals, seem amazing. By contrast, after Roman times, no hippopotamus was seen in Europe until one was brought to London by steamship in 1850. It took a whole regiment of Egyptian soldiers to capture it, and involved a five month journey to bring it from the White Nile to Cairo. And yet the Emperor Commodus, a dead-shot with spear and bow, himself killed five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros and a giraffe, in one show lasting two days. On another occasion he killed 100 lions and bears in a single morning show, from safe walkways specially constructed across the arena. It was, a contemporary remarked, 'a better demonstration of accuracy than of courage'. The slaughter of exotic animals in the emperor's presence, and exceptionally by the emperor himself or by his palace guards, was a spectacular dramatisation of the emperor's formidable power: immediate, bloody and symbolic.

Gladiatorial shows also provided an arena for popular participation in politics. Cicero explicitly recognised this towards the end of the Republic: 'the judgement and wishes of the Roman people about public affairs can be most clearly expressed in three places: public assemblies, elections, and at plays or gladiatorial shows'. He challenged a political opponent: 'Give yourself to the people. Entrust yourself to the Games. Are you terrified of not being applauded?' His comments underline the fact that the crowd had the important option of giving or of withholding applause, of hissing or of being silent.

Under the emperors, as citizens' rights to engage in politics diminished, gladiatorial shows and games provided repeated opportunities for the dramatic confrontation of rulers and ruled. Rome was unique among large historical empires in allowing, indeed in expecting, these regular meetings between emperors and the massed populace of the capital, collected together in a single crowd. To be sure, emperors could mostly stage-manage their own appearance and reception. They gave extravagant shows. They threw gifts to the crowd – small marked wooden balls (called missilia ) which could be exchanged for various luxuries. They occasionally planted their own claques in the crowd.

Mostly, emperors received standing ovations and ritual acclamations. The Games at Rome provided a stage for the emperor to display his majesty – luxurious ostentation in procession, accessibility to humble petitioners, generosity to the crowd, human involvement in the contests themselves, graciousness or arrogance towards the assembled aristocrats, clemency or cruelty to the vanquished. When a gladiator fell, the crowd would shout for mercy or dispatch. The emperor might be swayed by their shouts or gestures, but he alone, the final arbiter, decided who was to live or die. When the emperor entered the amphitheatre, or decided the fate of a fallen gladiator by the movement of his thumb, at that moment he had 50,000 courtiers. He knew that he was Caesar Imperator , Foremost of Men.

Things did not always go the way the emperor wanted. Sometimes, the crowd objected, for example to the high price of wheat, or demanded the execution of an unpopular official or a reduction in taxes. Caligula once reacted angrily and sent soldiers into the crowd with orders to execute summarily anyone seen shouting. Understandably, the crowd grew silent, though sullen. But the emperor's increased unpopularity encouraged his assassins to act. Dio, senator and historian, was present at another popular demonstration in the Circus in AD 195. He was amazed that the huge crowd (the Circus held up to 200,000 people) strung out along the track, shouted for an end to civil war 'like a well-trained choir'.

Dio also recounted how with his own eyes he saw the Emperor Commodus cut off the head of an ostrich as a sacrifice in the arena then walk towards the congregated senators whom he hated, with the sacrificial knife in one hand and the severed head of the bird in the other, clearly indicating, so Dio thought, that it was the senators' necks which he really wanted. Years later, Dio recalled how he had kept himself from laughing (out of anxiety, presumably) by chewing desperately on a laurel leaf which he plucked from the garland on his head.

Consider how the spectators in the amphitheatre sat: the emperor in his gilded box, surrounded by his family senators and knights each had special seats and came properly dressed in their distinctive purple-bordered togas. Soldiers were separated from civilians. Even ordinary citizens had to wear the heavy white woollen toga, the formal dress of a Roman citizen, and sandals, if they wanted to sit in the bottom two main tiers of seats. Married men sat separately from bachelors, boys sat in a separate block, with their teachers in the next block. Women, and the very poorest men dressed in the drab grey cloth associated with mourning, could sit or stand only in the top tier of the amphitheatre. Priests and Vestal Virgins (honorary men) had reserved seats at the front. The correct dress and segregation of ranks underlined the formal ritual elements in the occasion, just as the steeply banked seats reflected the steep stratification of Roman society. It mattered where you sat, and where you were seen to be sitting.

Gladiatorial shows were political theatre. The dramatic performance took place, not only in the arena, but between different sections of the audience. Their interaction should be included in any thorough account of the Roman constitution. The amphitheatre was the Roman crowd's parliament. Games are usually omitted from political histories, simply because in our own society, mass spectator sports count as leisure. But the Romans themselves realised that metropolitan control involved 'bread and circuses'. 'The Roman people', wrote Marcus Aurelius' tutor Fronto, 'is held together by two forces: wheat doles and public shows'.

Enthusiastic interest in gladiatorial shows occasionally spilled over into a desire to perform in the arena. Two emperors were not content to be spectators-in-chief. They wanted to be prize performers as well. Nero's histrionic ambitions and success as musician and actor were notorious. He also prided himself on his abilities as a charioteer. Commodus performed as a gladiator in the amphitheatre, though admittedly only in preliminary bouts with blunted weapons. He won all his fights and charged the imperial treasury a million sesterces for each appearance (enough to feed a thousand families for a year). Eventually, he was assassinated when he was planning to be inaugurated as consul (in AD 193), dressed as a gladiator.

Commodus' gladiatorial exploits were an idiosyncratic expression of a culture obsessed with fighting, bloodshed, ostentation and competition. But at least seven other emperors practised as gladiators, and fought in gladiatorial contests. And so did Roman senators and knights. Attempts were made to stop them by law but the laws were evaded.

Roman writers tried to explain away these senators' and knights' outrageous behaviour by calling them morally degenerate, forced into the arena by wicked emperors or their own profligacy. This explanation is clearly inadequate, even though it is difficult to find one which is much better. A significant part of the Roman aristocracy, even under the emperors, was still dedicated to military prowess: all generals were senators all senior officers were senators or knights. Combat in the arena gave aristocrats a chance to display their fighting skill and courage. In spite of the opprobrium and at the risk of death, it was their last chance to play soldiers in front of a large audience.

Gladiators were glamour figures, culture heroes. The probable life-span of each gladiator was short. Each successive victory brought further risk of defeat and death. But for the moment, we are more concerned with image than with reality. Modern pop-stars and athletes have only a short exposure to full-glare publicity. Most of them fade rapidly from being household names into obscurity, fossilised in the memory of each generation of adolescent enthusiasts. The transience of the fame of each does not diminish their collective importance.

So too with Roman gladiators. Their portraits were often painted. Whole walls in public porticos were sometimes covered with life-size portraits of all the gladiators in a particular show. The actual events were magnified beforehand by expectation and afterwards by memory. Street advertisements stimulated excitement and anticipation. Hundreds of Roman artefacts – sculptures, figurines, lamps, glasses – picture gladiatorial fights and wild-beast shows. In conversation and in daily life, chariot-races and gladiatorial fights were all the rage. 'When you enter the lecture halls', wrote Tacitus, 'what else do you hear the young men talking about?' Even a baby's nursing bottle, made of clay and found at Pompeii, was stamped with the figure of a gladiator. It symbolised the hope that the baby would imbibe a gladiator's strength and courage.

The victorious gladiator, or at least his image, was sexually attractive. Graffiti from the plastered walls of Pompeii carry the message:

Celadus [a stage name, meaning Crowd's Roar], thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls' heart-throb, and Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.

The ephemera of AD 79 have been preserved by volcanic ash. Even the defeated gladiator had something sexually portentous about him. It was customary, so it is reported, for a new Roman bride to have her hair parted with a spear, at best one which had been dipped in the body of a defeated and killed gladiator.

The Latin word for sword – gladius – was vulgarly used to mean penis. Several artefacts also suggest this association. A small bronze figurine from Pompeii depicts a cruel-looking gladiator fighting off with his sword a dog-like wild-beast which grows out of his erect and elongated penis. Five bells hang down from various parts of his body and a hook is attached to the gladiator's head"so that the whole ensemble could hang as a bell in a doorway. Interpretation must be speculative. But this evidence suggests that there was a close link, in some Roman minds, between gladiatorial fighting and sexuality. And it seems as though gladiatoral bravery for some Roman men represented an attractive yet dangerous, almost threatening, macho masculinity.

Gladiators attracted women, even though most of them were slaves. Even if they were free or noble by origin, they were in some sense contaminated by their close contact with death. Like suicides, gladiators were in some places excluded from normal burial grounds. Perhaps their dangerous ambiguity was part of their sexual attraction. They were, according to the Christian Tertullian, both loved and despised: 'men give them their souls, women their bodies too'. Gladiators were 'both glorified and degraded'.

In a vicious satire, the poet Juvenal ridiculed a senator's wife, Eppia, who had eloped to Egypt with her favourite swordsman:

What was the youthful charm that so fired Eppia? What hooked her? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called 'The Gladiator's Moll'? Her poppet, her Sergius, was no chicken, with a dud arm that prompted hope of early retirement. Besides, his face looked a proper mess, helmet scarred, a great wart on his nose, an unpleasant discharge always trickling from one eye, But he was a Gladiator. That word makes the whole breed seem handsome, and made her prefer him to her children and country, her sister and husband. Steel is what they fall in love with.

Satire certainly, and exaggerated, but pointless unless it was also based to some extent in reality. Modern excavators, working in the armoury of the gladiatorial barracks in Pompeii found eighteen skeletons in two rooms, presumably of gladiators caught there in an ash storm they included only one woman, who was wearing rich gold jewellery, and a necklace set with emeralds. Occasionally, women's attachment to gladiatorial combat went further. They fought in the arena themselves. In the storeroom of the British Museum, for example, there is a small stone relief, depicting two female gladiators, one with breast bare, called Amazon and Achillia. Some of these female gladiators were free women of high status.

Behind the brave facade and the hope of glory, there lurked the fear of death. 'Those about to die salute you, Emperor'. Only one account survives of what it was like from the gladiator's point of view. It is from a rhetorical exercise. The story is told by a rich young man who had been captured by pirates and was then sold on as a slave to a gladiatorial trainer:

And so the day arrived. Already the populace had gathered for the spectacle of our punishment, and the bodies of those about to die had their own death-parade across the arena. The presenter of the shows, who hoped to gain favour with our blood, took his seat. Although no one knew my birth, my fortune, my family, one fact made some people pity me I seemed unfairly matched. I was destined to be a certain victim in the sand. All around I could hear the instruments of death: a sword being sharpened, iron plates being heated in a fire [to stop fighters retreating and to prove that they were not faking death], birch-rods and whips were prepared. One would have imagined that these were the pirates. The trumpets sounded their foreboding notes stretchers for the dead were brought on, a funeral parade before death. Everywhere I could see wounds, groans, blood, danger.

He went on to describe his thoughts, his memories in the moments when he faced death, before he was dramatically and conveniently rescued by a friend. That was fiction. In real life gladiators died.

Why did Romans popularise fights to the death between armed gladiators? Why did they encourage the public slaughter of unarmed criminals? What was it which transformed men who were timid and peaceable enough in private, as Tertullian put it, and made them shout gleefully for the merciless destruction of their fellow men? Part of the answer may lie in the simple development of a tradition, which fed on itself and its own success. Men liked blood and cried out for more. Part of the answer may also lie in the social psychology of the crowd, which relieved individuals of responsibility for their actions, and in the psychological mechanisms by which some spectators identified more easily with the victory of the aggressor than with the sufferings of the vanquished. Slavery and the steep stratification of society must also have contributed. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners. Those who were destroyed for public edification and entertainment were considered worthless, as non-persons or, like Christian martyrs, they were considered social outcasts, and tortured as one Christian martyr put it 'as if we no longer existed'. The brutalisation of the spectators fed on the dehumanisation of the victims.

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: 'when they have finished dining and are filled with drink', wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, 'they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight'. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.

Popular gladiatorial shows were a by-product of war, discipline and death. For centuries, Rome had been devoted to war and to the mass participation of citizens in battle. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country. The arena provided a living enactment of the hell portrayed by Christian preachers. Public punishment ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed.

When long-term peace came to the heartlands of the empire, after 31 BC, militaristic traditions were preserved at Rome in the domesticated battlefield of the amphitheatre. War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death. But order still needed to be preserved. The fear of death still had to be assuaged by ritual. In a city as large as Rome, with a population of close on a million by the end of the last century BC, without an adequate police force, disorder always threatened.

Gladiatorial shows and public executions reaffirmed the moral order, by the sacrifice of human victims – slaves, gladiators, condemned criminals or impious Christians. Enthusiastic participation, by spectators rich and poor, raised and then released collective tensions, in a society which traditionally idealised impassivity. Gladiatorial shows provided a psychic and political safety valve for the metropolitan population. Politically, emperors risked occasional conflict, but the populace could usually be diverted or fobbed off. The crowd lacked the coherence of a rebellious political ideology. By and large, it found its satisfaction in cheering its support of established order. At the psychological level, gladiatorial shows provided a stage for shared violence and tragedy. Each show reassured spectators that they had yet again survived disaster. Whatever happened in the arena, the spectators were on the winning side. 'They found comfort for death' wrote Tertullian with typical insight, 'in murder'.

Keith Hopkins is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Brunel University and the author of Conquerors and Slaves (CUP, 1978).

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