Politics are a central instigator for social control as they set out the guidelines for how a culture is directed. During ancient Rome a number of political themes were in evidence as part of gladiatorial spectacles that exhibited social control. The rhetorician and advocate Fronto (no date) was well aware of the political power of the gladiatorial spectacle. He provides a fascinating insight into the political structure of the time, claiming that:
the human drives that lead men to demand the grain dole are less powerful than those which lead them to desire spectacle (Fronto no date, Letters 2.18.9-17)
Fronto is inferring that the power of spectacle outweighs that of life itself; in order to live the Romans require the grain. This is possibly a slightly exaggerated view point expressed by Fronto, as without life the Roman people would not be able to view the spectacle, however it does provide a useful indication as to how powerful the spectacle could be. In the same letter Fronto (no date, Letters 2.18.9-17) also points out the political significance of the spectacle:
that only the people eligible for the grain dole are won over by handouts of grain, and at that individually, whereas the whole people are won over by spectacles
Here Fronto is pointing out that the grain has an impact on the populace on an individual level, however the spectacle can win people over on a collective level. As the Roman games developed through the late Republic and into the empire the Roman games became increasingly more spectacular and more politically charged. Upon the formation of the Empire, Kyle (2007) argues that the Roman people surrendered any freedom that they had and succumbed to autocracy, both of which were substituted for spectacle and free food.
Social control through gladiatorial spectacles could be used to enhance political status, via admiration of the populace and the acquisition of votes. Poliakoff (1987, p109) states that “the arena most clearly displayed the power and control of its organisers”. Fronto (no date, Letters 2.18.9-17), while discussing Trajan, highlights this further, stating that Trajan’s rule was endorsed by the populace as much for the gladiatorial spectacles that he put on as for more serious matters. Fronto also commented on the neglect of both these aspects stated that “serious things are neglected with greater loss, but games, with greater resentment” (Fronto no date, Letters 2.18.9-17).
The abolition of the Republic and formation of the Empire meant there was no longer the need to compete for votes, so the focus of gladiatorial spectacle changed to “fit the Emperor’s agenda” (Futrell 2006, p29). The gladiatorial spectacle provided Emperors with the opportunity to stamp their own authority on the people, Poliakoff (1987, p109) states that the Emperor was “the arbiter of life and death”.
Julius Caesar was fully aware of the power of the spectacle in determining his political status. Plutarch (75 CE) puts forward that he “entertained the people with three hundred and twenty single combats” and …