Super Bowl 242 B.C: How the Games Became So Brutal
The cultural juggernaut known as the Roman Games began in 242 B.C., when two sons decided to celebrate their father's life by ordering slaves to battle each other to the death at his funeral. This new variation of ancient munera (a tribute to the dead) struck a chord within the developing republic. Soon, other members of the wealthy classes began to incorporate this type of slave fighting into their own munera. The practice evolved over time — with new formats, rules, specialized weapons, etc. — until the Roman Games as we now know them were born.
In 189 B.C., a consul named M. Fulvius Nobilior decided to do something different. In addition to the gladiator duels that had become common, he introduced an animal act that would see humans fight both lions and panthers to the death. Big-game hunting was not a part of Roman culture; Romans only attacked large animals to protect themselves, their families or their crops. Nobilior realized that the spectacle of animals fighting humans would add a cheap and unique flourish to this fantastic new pastime. Nobilior aimed to make an impression, and he succeeded.
With the birth of the first "animal program," an uneasy milestone was achieved in the evolution of the Roman Games: the point at which a human being faced a snarling pack of starved beasts, and every laughing spectator in the crowd chanted for the big cats to win, the point at which the republic's obligation to make a man's death a fair or honorable one began to be outweighed by the entertainment value of watching him die.
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