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Over the last few posts, we have seen different approaches to board games about gladiators. Some board games gloss over or elide the reality that gladiators were slaves, while others embrace it, though never quite comfortably. Nearly every game focuses on fights for "glory." Do these games share any other common threads, regardless of approach? I would say yes: Games about gladiators simply do not prick our consciences in the way that games about more recent European colonialism have done. Which leads us to the next question: Why?
The most obvious reason is just distance. While the Romans remain part of our collective consciousness in the United States and Europe, we are not actively living the legacy of what the Romans did in ways we can directly point out. Colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade continue to reverberate through our lives in a more immediate way. We still have monuments to slave traders on public display in the United States. People who participated in human trafficking built many of our universities, wrote many of our laws, and put down the roots of inequities that persist to the present day. Large parts of the world still suffer from the effects of being former colonies, from having their borders drawn by foreign powers, from the legacy of the slave trade that taints many of the heroes (?) of our more recent past. The Romans, too, were a colonial power and committed countless abuses against the peoples they conquered. The Romans, too, built their society on the backs of slaves. But it doesn't look like what we think of when we think of enslavement or Empire, because it is so far away from us and from our understanding of the world.
At the same time, we look back on Rome as a society to admire. Europe and the United States point very directly to the Greeks and Romans as glorious ancestors from whom we got a lot of our best ideas. In my high school Latin classes, and even in my university ones, I felt connected to Rome in a pleasant, distant way. My textbooks wanted to tell me what was cool and interesting about the Romans, about how brilliant a man like Julius Caesar was—even if he did go to Gaul and commit genocide. Latin still has deep cultural resonance as a "fancy," "classy" language, both in Latin programs and in our popular culture. Many people who learn about Rome do so from a perspective that, purposely or not, is sympathetic to Empire. We are drinking that Roman Kool-Aid and drinking it deep.
Our natural sympathy for the Romans must have an impact on how we read the literature they have left behind. Looking at the Roman source material, it is easy to take on the attitudes of the Romans whose words we read rather than the gladiators whose true feelings we will never know—and who were themselves part of Roman culture. For the Romans, slavery was a fact of life, not an atrocity. The value placed on human life, particularly the lives of slaves, was low. For most Romans, no crisis of conscience would have resulted from watching and enjoying a gladiator fight, which means that no crisis of conscience would show up in their writings about the matter. Gladiators’ own tombstones memorialize victories and bemoan defeats, but do not lament the difficulties of their lives. Even sources that are critical of gladiatorial games launch those criticisms from a wholly Roman perspective. When Seneca writes about the impressive nature of the gladiators’ oath, he still despises gladiators as slaves, though his respect for their bravery in the face of death is sincere. The complaints he does voice about the games have nothing to do with ethics. Instead, Seneca is appalled by the brutality of the spectators at gladiator fights, not so much because they enjoy the violence but because of how thirsty they are for it. Murder in public is perfectly fine for a Roman, but loss of self-control is not.
This leaves us as modern players, then, with the responsibility of going beyond uncritical acceptance of what the Romans had to say about themselves and their traditions. Gladiator fights are luridly fascinating—on that, both we and the Romans can agree. It is our responsibility, however, to reflect on the roles we adopt when we reenact them. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy a game about gladiators, including particularly cruel games of Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery. But these games also provide us, as scholars, designers, and players, with an opportunity to critically examine what the Romans tell us about themselves—and what our responses say about us. Who do we sympathize with? Who do we believe? The answers to those questions can help us do history, but more importantly they offer us a mirror, if we can meet our own eyes in it.