The Brutality That Was Rome

Keith Hopkins over at History Today tells us why Christians who try to frame the limits of ethical acts (particularly nonviolence) through the question, “But what about Hitler?”, really need to remember how essential and foundational were cruelty, brutality, and violence to the Greco-Roman world and Roman civic and social order:

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. [Emphasis mine] 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.

Slavery and military disciplines. Hopkins notes that decimation — the choosing by lots to kill one of every ten soldiers in a disobedient or cowardly military unit — was a punishment the Romans inflicted upon themselves. (Specifically, the soldiers left unselected did the killing of their former mates.) “When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect?” he asks. And he’s correct.


The Nazi Final Solution may have been the logical outcome of party ideology, but it was primarily the product of total war, the brutal and bloody fighting in the east, where lawlessness and desperation made possible (and maybe even necessary) the methodical extermination of human beings on an industrial scale. But the Final Solution lasted only a few years; the Romans managed their brutality and killing for centuries.

They were very, very, very good at it.

So when we consider the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t just talking about rude and obnoxious and impolite people, or mere sinners — he’s also talking about conquerors and occupiers who don’t even hold the lives of their fellow Romans and soldiers in high regard. Beating and enslaving and killing is easy for them. It’s sport, politics, and public devotion all wrapped into one. And these are the people we are commanded to “turn the other cheek” to and go a second mile when compelled to walk one.

These are the enemies and the persecutors Jesus calls us to love.

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