June 13, 2024


Law can do.

Social Control During the Roman Empire – Politics

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.

Political Status

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 that consequently he “threw into the shade all the attempts that had been made before him”. Spectacle under Julius Caesar was stretched so far that it scared other politicians to the point where they passed legislation that limited “the number of gladiators which anyone was to be allowed to keep in the city” (Suetonius 121 CE, 15). Julius Caesar was also the first person to use only silver and no other metal within the arena (Pliny Natural History 33.53 cited Futrell 2006).

During the reign of Augustus, praetors who performed as editore to gladiatorial spectacles were restricted in terms of resources. This meant that the gladiatorial spectacles that were associated directly with the Emperor would receive greater accolade, and the crowd would “clearly see to whom their gratitude was owed” (Shadrake 2005, p63). This shows that Augustus was aware of the power of the spectacle in enhancing political status, and that in order to increase his own status, stifling other political figure’s control over it was an effective means. Augustus provided eight gladiatorial spectacles in which 10,000 men fought, “thus eclipsing forever the memory of Julius Caesar‘s grand games” (Shadrake 2005, p63)

The reign of Commodus provided a more violent indication of how the games could be used to achieve political status. Cassius Dio (CE 54-211, 73.20) reports that Commodus

gathered all the men in the city who by disease or some other calamity had lost their feet, had fastened some dragon’s extremities about their knees, and after giving them sponges to throw instead of stones had killed them with blows of a club, on the pretenCE that they were giants.

Although this account by Cassius Dio appears horrific when compared to modern morals, at the time it showed the Emperors “divine role as Herculean exterminator of monsters” (Grant 1967, p113). Here Emperor Commodus is attempting to convince the audience through this very public metaphor that he is divine. Suetonius (121 CE, Caligula) depicts the extravagance under the rule of Caligula; upon being crowned Emperor “more than a hundred and sixty thousand victims are said to have been slain in sacrifice.”

The way that the spectacles were used by political figures varied between the Republic and Empire. During the Republic there was a need to defeat political competitors and to win votes from the populace. In contrast the Empire did not present the head of state with competition as there was an autocracy in place. Beneath the Emperor however, other political figures such as aediles, praetors and generals wanted to use these spectacles in order to exhibit social control over the population and win votes. The main feature in heightening political status would be for the Emperor to impose his own personal stamp on the gladiatorial spectacle as Caligula and Commodus did. Evidence here has shown that political figures have used spectacle to enhance their political status through grandeur and the ability to shock.


Cassius Dio (CE 54-211, 73.20) discussed why some of the spectators chose not to attend the spectacle, there was rumour that Commodus planned to shoot some of the spectators to emulate Hercules; “for they were partly ashamed of what was being done and partly afraid.”

Domitrian also liked to portray fear through the gladiatorial spectacle to control the populace. After an outspoken member of the audience questioned a decision he had made: “he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: “A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.”” (Suetonius 121 CE, Domitrian).

This political tool of fear can be employed by an Emperor to control any danger of citizens apposing his authority.