Violence, Pleasure, Civilization: Roman Gladiators and the Writing of History

Author/s: Erin M Stepney, PhD
Availability: Open Access
Type: Thesis
Year: 2013

Abstract: Abstract This dissertation takes Foucault’s statements regarding political strategies of historical discourse in modernity, from the Enlightenment to the present, and through this lens reads the historiographic study of gladiators as a text which reveals deeper truths about the modern west’s self-image as the seat of ‘civilization’. In Society Must Be Defended, Foucault claimed that the modern discourse of history is essentially structured as a ‘discourse of perpetual war’, which narrates a permanent state of conflict between history’s speaking subject and a constructed figure of the barbarian against which ‘civilized society’ defines and defends itself. The construct of civilization exists in a complex and perplexed relation to the ‘barbarism’ of violence, and successive strategies of historical writing have, in Foucault’s terms, applied different models of filtering such barbarism. Within this discursive framework, classical historiography, particularly with respect to ancient Rome, performs a foundational function as a myth-history of ‘western civilization’. This dissertation takes the historical image of gladiators, especially insofar as this image signifies the intersection of violence with pleasure, as a particular barbarism which troubles the myth-historical narrative of western civilization, and critically examines the shifts of scholarly opinion surrounding three linked dimensions of the practice: its origin, the ‘nature’ of the crowd of spectators, and the concomitant interpretations of the meaning of both the violence and the pleasure of gladiators in terms of the sub-discourses of race and class struggle. The persistent imperative to account for the anxiety invoked by gladiators as a ‘barbarism within civilization’ reveals a deeper discursive structure of power and legitimacy surrounding the linked constructs of nation and State. A selection of scholarly texts from the mid-eighteenth to the early twenty-first centuries tracks the course through which the interpretation of gladiators, in the context of changing strategies of historical discourse, has shifted from violence to non-violence, from illegitimate to legitimate pleasure, and from barbarous to civilized.

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