Are Football Players Really Modern-Day Gladiators?

Comparisons between American football and Roman gladiator games are common. Do historians think they're apt?

by Andrew Heisel
Dec 4 2015, 1:20pm

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If you've read anything at all about football's brain injury crisis in recent years, you know one thing for certain: players are "modern-day gladiators." It's a comparison so ubiquitous that a series of hyperlinked words can hardly do it justice.

The analogy is nothing new. In 1881, a New York Times editorial lamented the brutality of this "modern gladiatorial contest." Since then, every time football's violence has caused concern, observers and critics have heard the clashing weapons of ancient Rome. The similarities seem obvious. Brutal conflict. Cheering fans. Competitors who end up broken or dead.

But is it that simple? While journalists, fans, and even many players are convinced that football is a rebirth of gladiatorial combat, what about people who actually know stuff about gladiators?

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Looking for answers, I called Mark Golden, an emeritus professor of classics at the University of Winnipeg. A hockey fan who said he would enjoy the sport more without the fighting, Golden kindly put the Winnipeg Jets game on mute as we spoke.

He was familiar with the gladiator comparison, but didn't think much of it.

"If there's anything gladiators didn't do, it was fight in teams," he said. "Gladiators are like boxers. They're not really like football players at all."

Golden suggested I talk to Garrett Fagan, who recently wrote a book using modern social psychology to understand the Romans' love of vicious entertainment. A professor of ancient history at Penn State, Fagan said that he doesn't watch American football, but he knew enough about the sport to find fault with the comparison.

"I've heard people say modern football players are gladiators, but I don't think they are," he said over the phone, from Rome, the home of gladiatorial combat. "The closer match is mixed martial arts people who make a living beating each other up. Their sport entails breaking people's bones and stuff that we accept as a part of the fight in a way that wouldn't be acceptable in American football."

Like Golden, Fagan emphasized that football's team dynamic made it a poor parallel. Instead, Fagan said, football is more akin to Roman chariot racing.

Chariot racing was violent. It was a team game. It had a more regular schedule. And, like football, it was the most popular sport in its respective empire.

Gladiatorial contests, by contrast, were special occasions. "More like a big-time prize fight," Golden said.

Fagan concurred. "Just judging from arena size, chariot racing far outstripped gladiatorial games as popular events."

Rome's favorite pastime. Courtesy YouTube

Fine. Makes sense. Still, we've been doing the football-as-gladiatorial-combat thing for 130 years. Before we drop it, let's make sure we consider the details.

Generally speaking, the comparison between American football and Roman gladiators focuses on the two sports' shared glorification of violence. There's something to this, but it also seems flawed. Football isn't solely about violence—it's about all kinds of incredible athletic feats and tactical maneuvers. By contrast, gladiator games were just about dudes killing one another.

Or maybe not. As Fagan writes in his book, the Romans weren't quite as bloodthirsty as we tend to imagine. Most spectators were not filling the Coliseum to watch people being massacred but instead "expected quality exhibitions of artistry and daring." Just as you'd rather watch the New England Patriots play the Denver Broncos than, say, a Cowboys-Cleveland Browns game—even though the amount of violence on display is about the same no matter which teams are playing—the Romans wanted to see talented performers. In fact, the gladiators presented the least violent event in a day of spectacles, which proceeded from humans slaughtering animals, to animals slaughtering humans, to humans slaughtering humans in staged executions.

The main event, the gladiatorial combat, was also the most humane event. Really. In most fights, both parties survived. A study of matches from around the first century AD found only about 19 out of 200 combats ended in death. At its worst, a few centuries later, roughly half did.

This survival rate likely reflected economics more than morality. "[Gladiators] were valuable pieces of merchandise," Golden said, "so you didn't want to have them used for a spectacle in which they might be killed because then it would be hard to replace them." Owners rented gladiators out to spectacles around the empire, and they'd collect an extra fee if their fighter died. Gladiators received good health care during their career.

Most eventually died in combat, but one could be a great gladiator without killing. A famed fighter named Hermes was celebrated by the poet Martial for knowing how to "win without wounding." One gladiator's epitaph reads, "Spared many lives." Other epitaphs praise successful gladiators for having "harmed no one."

It wasn't just murder. It was a sport. There were two referees monitoring the action, holding long sticks, presumably to intercede should a fighter try an illegal move. Combatants might fight until one struck a mortal wound, or simply until one was disarmed or held at the point of a blade. The overwhelmed gladiator would raise a finger to signal submission, turning his fate over to the man staging the games, who would usually let the audience decide. Fans adored those who demonstrated skill and spared their lives. They loathed those who fought scared or simply "by the book" with no individual panache.

While the Romans wanted artistry, they also sought the blood that proved a fighter was really willing to sacrifice. The great orator Cicero wrote, "We usually loathe the cowardly suppliants who beg to be allowed to live, while we want to spare the brave and vigorous ones who enthusiastically expose themselves to death." Historians speculate that fighters bulked up purposely to allow bloody flesh wounds that would appease the audience without endangering life. (Bulking up to appease the audience: perhaps pro wrestlers are actually our modern-day gladiators). The well-trained fighters, Cicero wrote, "prefer to accept a wound rather than disgracefully avoid it."

It's easy to imagine Cicero praising Marshawn Lynch for forcing contact to get those extra yards, or lambasting a quarterback for a hook slide short of the first down. It's also easy to imagine American fans who lionize football players for competing despite severe physical injury—think Ronnie Lott's severed finger; Emmitt Smith's separated shoulder; Brett Favre's beat-up body and brain—revering gladiators for doing the same.

Some of Romans' sporting values, however, were dramatically different. For instance, the defeated were not expected to give any credit to the victor. Epitaphs of losing fighters refer to being "deceived by fate, not by man." As one epitaph put it, "I was not beaten by skill, but a young man overpowered an old body." Another reads, "No adversary killed me; rather, I died on my own." This is what happens when you don't have TV personalities standing by to diagnose your character issues.

Pop quiz: Is the above a scene from STARZ's "Spartacus," or the NFL Draft Combine? Courtesy YouTube

Since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, American football has been seen not just as entertainment but also as a character-building exercise, a man-molding sport that would prevent the nation from producing "mollycoddles instead of vigorous men." Similarly, Roman gladiators were said to impart virtue. "There could be no sturdier training for the eye against pain and death," Cicero wrote. The historian Pliny wrote that the sport taught men "to accept lovely wounds and hold death in contempt, since even in the bodies of slaves and criminals was seen a love of glory and a lust to win."

This was the games' justification. "Of all the spectacles that they write about," Fagan said, "the only one that they have anything good to say about at all is the gladiatorial spectacles." It was taken as a sign of cruelty in a person—be it an audience member or an emperor like Claudius—to actually sit through the lunchtime executions, but gladiator combat was said to be valuable in helping accustom Roman society to the indifference to death needed for war.

It helped that many gladiators were themselves prisoners of war and often adopted armor and weapons of foreign peoples. Sometimes the Roman military would even fight in gladiatorial styles. It's the kind of intimate connection between sport and war that the American military's propagandists can only dream of—in a pinch, gladiators could even be conscripted right into the military.

They were slaves, after all, completely at the whims of their owners. Unlike NFL players, they had neither a union nor a collective bargaining agreement. (Perhaps rights-deprived, relatively powerless "amateur" NCAA football players would be a closer parallel.) Noting that many football players tend to come from "a lower social class, and this is an avenue for them to make it in America," Fagan said that a career as a gladiator could result in Roman society's underclass suddenly enjoying fame and wealth. To wit: gladiators could earn more in a single combat than a schoolteacher in a year. Plus ça change.

Some parallels between then and now are downright eerie: in Rome and in America, fans bet on the fights. Music was played during the action. The fighters were popular with women, and brides had their hair parted by a spear dipped in gladiator blood to increase fertility. The gladiators could hydrate during breaks. Other aspects fail to line up: gladiator blood was used as a cure for impotence and epilepsy. A man with a hammer put dying fighters out of their misery by bashing their skulls in. Rich people had gladiators fight to the death at their homes during dinner parties. All told, about 8,000 gladiators from across the Roman Empire were killed each year.

Are you not entertained? Photo Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports (right); YouTube (left)

Fagan's book argues that "comparable psychological responses" were felt in the crowds at gladiator games and at modern sporting events: after all, the bloodthirsty Roman spectators were as human as we are. Still, we're far enough away from classical antiquity to make any analogy tricky. Football players could be modern-day gladiators, but they could also be modern-day chariot racers. Boxers could be modern-day gladiators, but then what of ancient-day boxers? Mixed martial arts seem like a pretty good fit, but then again, MMA also seems more like pankration.

According to Golden, comparisons between football and gladiator combat are less revealing than the fact that we keep making them. "We focus on gladiatorial combat to a degree which I think expresses our own interests," he said.

Historically speaking, gladiator games were popular, but not that popular. They were deadly, but not as deadly as we tend to think. In some ways, they were similar to football; in other ways, the two have nothing in common. Ultimately, the analogy is flawed—but the flaws are what make it relevant. Within our cultural imagination, the Roman gladiators are a kind of limit case of sporting brutality, the starting block from which we run. We like to think of ourselves as evolved, enlightened, far removed from our ancestors' mistakes. Yet when doubt creeps in—about our overtaxed global empire or our brain-battering national pastime—we have a habit of looking backward, of asking Are We Rome? Comparing football to the gladiators has nothing to do with ancient savagery, and everything to do with modern anxiety.

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