Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
The only merit of the administration of Carinus that history could record, or poetry celebrate, was the uncommon splendor with which, in his own and his brother’s name, he exhibited the Roman games of the theatre, the circus, and the amphitheatre. More than twenty years afterwards, when the courtiers of Diocletian represented to their frugal sovereign the fame and popularity of his munificent predecessor, he acknowledged that the reign of Carinus had indeed been a reign of pleasure. But this vain prodigality, which the prudence of Diocletian might justly despise, was enjoyed with surprise and transport by the Roman people. The oldest of the citizens, recollecting the spectacles of former days, the triumphal pomp of Probus or Aurelian, and the secular games of the emperor Philip, acknowledged that they were all surpassed by the superior magnificence of Carinus.
The spectacles of Carinus may therefore be best illustrated by the observation of some particulars, which history has condescended to relate concerning those of his predecessors. If we confine ourselves solely to the hunting of wild beasts, however we may censure the vanity of the design or the cruelty of the execution, we are obliged to confess that neither before nor since the time of the Romans so much art and expense have ever been lavished for the amusement of the people. By the order of Probus, a great quantity of large trees, torn up by the roots, were transplanted into the midst of the circus. The spacious and shady forest was immediately filled with a thousand ostriches, a thousand stags, a thousand fallow deer, and a thousand wild boars; and all this variety of game was abandoned to the riotous impetuosity of the multitude. The tragedy of the succeeding day consisted in the massacre of a hundred lions, an equal number of lionesses, two hundred leopards, and three hundred bears. The collection prepared by the younger Gordian for his triumph, and which his successor exhibited in the secular games, was less remarkable by the number than by the singularity of the animals. Twenty zebras displayed their elegant forms and variegated beauty to the eyes of the Roman people. Ten elks, and as many camelopards, the loftiest and most harmless creatures that wander over the plains of Sarmatia and Aethiopia, were contrasted with thirty African hyaenas and ten Indian tigers, the most implacable savages of the torrid zone. The unoffending strength with which Nature has endowed the greater quadrupeds was admired in the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus of the Nile, and a majestic troop of thirty-two elephants. While the populace gazed with stupid wonder on the splendid show, the naturalist might indeed observe the figure and properties of so many different species, transported from every part of the ancient world into the amphitheatre of Rome. But this accidental benefit, which science might derive from folly, is surely insufficient to justify such a wanton abuse of the public riches. There occurs, however, a single instance in the first Punic war, in which the senate wisely connected this amusement of the multitude with the interest of the state. A considerable number of elephants, taken in the defeat of the Carthaginian army, were driven through the circus by a few slaves, armed only with blunt javelins The useful spectacle served to impress the Roman soldier with a just contempt for those unwieldy animals; and he no longer dreaded to encounter them in the ranks of war.
The hunting or exhibition of wild beasts was conducted with a magnificence suitable to a people who styled themselves the masters of the world; nor was the edifice appropriated to that entertainment less expressive of Roman greatness. Posterity admires, and will long admire, the awful remains of the amphitheatre of Titus, which so well deserved the epithet of Colossal. It was a building of an elliptic figure, five hundred and sixty-four feet in length, and four hundred and sixty-seven in breadth, founded on fourscore arches, and rising, with four successive orders of architecture, to the height of one hundred and forty feet. The outside of the edifice was encrusted with marble, and decorated with statues. The slopes of the vast concave, which formed the inside, were filled and surrounded with sixty or eighty rows of seats of marble likewise, covered with cushions, and capable of receiving with ease about fourscore thousand spectators. Sixty-four vomitories (for by that name the doors were very aptly distinguished) poured forth the immense multitude; and the entrances, passages, and staircases were contrived with such exquisite skill, that each person, whether of the senatorial, the equestrian, or the plebeian order, arrived at his destined place without trouble or confusion. Nothing was omitted, which, in any respect, could be subservient to the convenience and pleasure of the spectators.
They were protected from the sun and rain by an ample canopy, occasionally drawn over their heads. The air was continually refreshed by the playing of fountains, and profusely impregnated by the grateful scent of aromatics. In the centre of the edifice, the arena, or stage, was strewed with the finest sand, and successively assumed the most different forms. At one moment it seemed to rise out of the earth, like the garden of the Hesperides, and was afterwards broken into the rocks and caverns of Thrace. The subterraneous pipes conveyed an inexhaustible supply of water; and what had just before appeared a level plain, might be suddenly converted into a wide lake, covered with armed vessels, and replenished with the monsters of the deep. In the decoration of these scenes, the Roman emperors displayed their wealth and liberality; and we read on various occasions that the whole furniture of the amphitheatre consisted either of silver, or of gold, or of amber. The poet who describes the games of Carinus, in the character of a shepherd, attracted to the capital by the fame of their magnificence, affirms that the nets designed as a defence against the wild beasts, were of gold wire; that the porticos were gilded; and that the belt or circle which divided the several ranks of spectators from each other was studded with a precious mosaic of beautiful stones.
— Edward Gibbon
It’s worth noting the opposite political climates that built the Colosseum and that put on such an extravagant spectacle of wild beasts.
The Colosseum was built during a period when in-fighting among the elite was on a steady decline, beginning with Augustus and ending around Marcus Aurelius. When the elite are restraining their individual ambitions for the cohesion of the greater nation, they use public funds to provide the public with well-built architecture that makes use of advanced engineering. These buildings were meant to serve the public forever, and were built to last. The Colosseum is still standing today.
When elite in-fighting begins to ramp up, as it did during the Crisis of the Third Century — which lasted through the reign of Carinus — they waste public funds on evanescent spectacles. The only way we know about such extravagance is through oral or written testimony, since the experience was not meant to serve the public beyond the moment. Unfettering ambition leads to decadence.
America’s last period of increasing restraint and cohesion was roughly 1910 to 1980, when more or less all of our civic infrastructure was built — and is still in pretty good working order, despite shameful neglect over the past several decades, and regardless of its aesthetic qualities if it was built during the Brutalist period.
Since the ’80s, public funds have been funneled instead toward providing bread-and-circus spectacles, such as the massive drain that pro sports team leech from the local tax base. Or turning the Iraq War into a kind of video game where the public gets to feel like a vicarious badass on an endless live-streaming binge-a-thon.
Good point, though, that the public itself demanded this kind of fleeting decadence. It wasn’t foisted on a civic-minded public by emperors of the opposite temperament.
Same goes for America today: sports teams drain so much public money because the public wants the spectacle. Ward Cleaver was not willing to sacrifice so much public funding just to get off on an endorphin rush from watching a bunch of half-feral beasts battle each other on game day. Football was pretty tame, uneventful, and boring back in the ’50s, and Ward would have preferred to watch baseball over football anyway.
Gibbon is still the king of English prose. Oh, to be able to write a single paragraph like any of those.
His footnotes are even more exquisite.
Pingback: Scholarly Writing and “The Fall of Rome” | Uncouth Reflections