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Death in the Afternoon

"For men will make greater demands upon themselves, if they see that death can be despised even by the most despised of men."

Seneca, Epistles (LXX.22)

"Just look at the gladiators, either debased men or foreigners, and consider the blows they endure! Consider how they who have been well-disciplined prefer to accept a blow than ignominiously avoid it! How often it is made clear that they consider nothing other than the satisfaction of their master or the people! Even when they are covered with wounds they send a messenger to their master to inquire his will. If they have given satisfaction to their masters, they are pleased to fall. What even mediocre gladiator ever groans, ever alters the expression on his face? Which one of them acts shamefully, either standing or falling? And which of them, even when he does succumb, ever contracts his neck when ordered to receive the blow?"

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (2.41)

"I turned in to the games one mid-day hoping for a little wit and humor there. I was bitterly disappointed. It was really mere butchery. The morning's show was merciful compared to it. Then men were thrown to lions and to bears: but at midday to the audience. There was no escape for them. The slayer was kept fighting until he could be slain. 'Kill him! flog him! burn him alive' was the cry: 'Why is he such a coward? Why won't he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won't he die willingly?' Unhappy that I am, how have I deserved that I must look on such a scene as this? Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games, I pray you. Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them. So stay away."

Seneca, Epistles (VII)

"You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a strongest understanding. Any man will be but mocking you, if he declares that this is an effeminate and easy kind of soldiering. I will not have you deceived. The words of this most honourable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: "through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword. From the men who hire out their strength for the arena, who eat and drink what they must pay for with their blood, security is taken that they will endure such trials even though they be unwilling; from you, that you will endure them willingly and with alacrity. The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born."

Seneca, Moral Essays (XXXVII.1)

In this relief, which is in the Musée Archéologique de Dorres (France), the Thraex, who can be identified by the griffin on his plumed helmet, submits to a piercing wound to the spine. It is a reminder that the gladius was designed to thrust and not to slash.

"They [the legionaries] were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action."

Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De Re Militaris (I.12)

References: Amphitheatres & Gladiateurs (1990) by Jean-Claude Golvin and Christian Landes; Flavius Vegetius Renatus: The Military Institutions of the Romans (1767/1944) translated by Lieut. John Clark.

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