I recently watched a documentary on the Roman Colosseum that described some of the brutal and cruel violence that took place.

The documentary explained that for the citizenry, the violence was justified and acceptable through their relationship with the violence associated with Rome's imperialism.

However were there any notable critics at the time?

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    Pompey once staged a combat where spearmen slaughtered 20 elephants. The distressed cries of the elephants were so disturbing that the whole crowd was moved to tears. Cicero (who was there) wrote about what an unpleasant experience it was later. But I gather from your tags you want to know if there were persistent critics of human slaughter, not a one-time weeping over elephants.
    – two sheds
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 18:59
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    This 'from memory' - source unknown and some while ago but probably searchable should anyone care. Sorry for vagueness : I read an account by one of the notable early Christian writers which was not based per se on concerns re Christians being killed. One of his friends (a religious leader of some sort) had shared his general distaste of the games but had been persuaded to visit by friends. He had instantly been captivated by the spectacle of violent death and had essentially become addicted to it and could not force himself to stop attending what he had once considered deplorable. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 23:42
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    @RussellMcMahon: You might be thinking of a passage from Saint Augustine's Confessions, where he writes about his friend Alypius. Alypius later freed himself from his addiction and went on to become a saint.
    – two sheds
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 23:51

6 Answers 6


The most notable non-Christian Roman critic of gladiatorial games was likely the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Of course Christians like Tertullian had good reason to speak out against bloody spectacles in general, and some of the conquered peoples living under Rome took less joy in the games than did the Romans. But for the most part, even enlightened Romans whom we might expect to criticize the games kept quiet, including Stoics like Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Tacitus mildly disapproved of the games, writing:

"There are the peculiar and characteristic vices of this metropolis of ours, taken on, it seems to me, almost in the mother's womb--the passion for play actors and the mania for gladiatorial shows and horse-racing."

But this is a pretty mild condemnation--he doesn't single out gladiatorial fighting as any worse than plays or horse races.

I see Seneca's name most often associated with criticisms of gladiatorial fights, but he comes off like a lone voice in the wilderness. He thought the games desensitized viewers, and because of them:

Man, an object of reverence in the eyes of men, is now slaughtered for jest and sport ... and it is a satisfying spectacle to see a man made a corpse.

As mentioned, early Christians were obviously critical of entertainments that not only had pagan religious origins but which sometimes featured the grisly deaths of fellow Christians. But interestingly, critics like Tertullian didn't object solely to the human slaughter, but to the spirit of all spectacles. Using some Yoda-esque logic, he writes:

There is no public spectacle without violence to the spirit. For where there is pleasure, there is eagerness, which gives pleasure its flavor. Where there is eagerness, there is rivalry, which gives its flavor to eagerness. Yes, and then, where there is rivalry, there also are madness, bile, anger, pain, and all the things that follow from them and (like them) are incompatible with moral discipline.

In other words, gladiatorial fights epitomized what was corrupt about all circuses, games, plays, shows, and so on. Later Christian writers may have exaggerated the extent of anti-Christian brutality, but there is at least one passion text that purports to be an eyewitness account of Christians being exposed to gladiators and wild beasts in the early 200s.

Finally, gladiatorial shows were less popular outside of Italy, Roman colonies, and Roman military encampments. In some provinces, there was even overt criticism of the games:

When King Herod wished to offer spectacles in an amphitheater he had constructed near Jerusalem, "the Jews found such a cruel pleasure to be impious and an abandonment of their ancestral customs."

Source: Sisella Bok on "The Paradox of Entertainment Violence"

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    "Of course Christians... would have good reason to speak out against the games..." Forgive me, but I'm not familiar with early Christian history in Roman society. Why would Christians in particular be expected to speak out? Were they disproportionately being forced into the arena more than other groups?
    – David H
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 20:05
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    Not related to this topic, but your last quote reminded me of something I read here. It stated that Romans would commonly leave an unwanted newborn to perish by the elements, while the Jews of the time abhorred this act (a similar contrast as the games with Herod).
    – user1973
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 23:00
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    @DavidH, you hit the nail on the head. Christians were widely (and popularly) persecuted in the Colosseum. There's a lot of accounts of professed Christians being put in the pit to be eaten by lions for amusement, etc.
    – Cyprus106
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 19:15
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    "Some conquered peoples living under Rome took less joy in the games" - that's because the games are more enjoyable from the stands than on the stage...
    – corsiKa
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 19:54
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    @supercat -- Mary Beard (either in a TV docu or her book about laughter in Rome) notes that a trope in Roman comedies was families being reunited with an abandoned child through the charms they typically left with the child. So there was definitely a sense of loss over abandoned children, as well as a fantasy rationalization that they found happy homes rather than predators. Commented May 14, 2019 at 18:40

Seneca's letter to a friend:

There is nothing so ruinous to good character as to idle away one's time at some spectacle. Vices have a way of creeping in because of the feeling of pleasure that it brings. Why do you think that I say that I personally return from shows greedier, more ambitious and more given to luxury, and I might add, with thoughts of greater cruelty and less humanity, simply because I have been among humans?

The other day, I chanced to drop in at the midday games, expecting sport and wit and some relaxation to rest men's eyes from the sight of human blood. Just the opposite was the case. Any fighting before that was as nothing; all trifles were now put aside - it was plain butchery.

The men had nothing with which to protect themselves, for their whole bodies were open to the thrust, and every thrust told. The common people prefer this to matches on level terms or request performances. Of course they do. The blade is not parried by helmet or shield, and what use is skill or defense? All these merely postpone death.

In the morning men are thrown to bears or lions, at midday to those who were previously watching them. The crowd cries for the killers to be paired with those who will kill them, and reserves the victor for yet another death. This is the only release the gladiators have. The whole business needs fire and steel to urge men on to fight. There was no escape for them. The slayer was kept fighting until he could be slain.

'Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive!' (the spectators roared) '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 as 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.

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    Sounds like more of a critique of this game for being poorly run than of games themselves...he wants relaxation between the sights of blood, not wall to wall blood. He's not saying blood is bad at all.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 22:55

Small point. Though the spectacles were bloody, as Seneca notes, they were rationalized on the assumption that those who were killed had been condemned for a crime, thus, it was a sort of capital punishment, and tolerated, by those who did not enjoy it, on that basis. From the Roman point of view, no "innocent" victims were being murdered, but rather, condemned criminals were being executed. Given Seneca's report, it seems that the crowd did not make this distinction, and did not particularly care, being motivated by blood lust, but in legal terms, it did have a shadow of justification.

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    True. It does seem like most of the critiques have less to do with concern for the victims, and more to do with the effects watching such gore will have on the spectators.
    – two sheds
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 21:06
  • I agree and part of my motivation for the question was my curiosity about the variety of opinion on cruel capital punishment.
    – DQdlM
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 14:02
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    Is that true ? Were there no gladiators who were simply slaves, without having perpetrated any particular crime ?
    – Joël
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 1:57
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    Gladiators were not criminals for the most part. In the later Empire when slaves were rare, it was a career move for a fit, skilled man because of the wealth and renown you got if you won. And despite Hollywood, losers did not always die.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 0:16
  • @Oldcat I have read in various books that gaadiators quite seldom died. They were expensive to feed, train and maintain, so letting them live to fight again made eccinimic sense. And some were virtual celebrities, like the elite sports stars of today.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 3:41

Augustine's Confessions criticizes gladiatorial shows several places in Book 6. One example is below (emphasis added):

For being utterly averse to and detesting spectacles, he was one day by chance met by divers of his acquaintance and fellow-students coming from dinner, and they with a familiar violence haled him, vehemently refusing and resisting, into the Amphitheatre, during these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: "Though you hale my body to that place, and there set me, can you force me also to turn my mind or my eyes to those shows? I shall then be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them."

(From http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0006)


I don't have the book in my hand, so I can't quote directly, but Will Durant's "Caesar and Christ" a history of the Roman Empire, mentions at one point that Christian ministers in general opposed gladiatorial battles (but had difficulty stopping their congregations from attending because of the general popularity). As for his source, I don't know.

Ignatius of Antioch's epistle to the Romans comes about as close to the spectacle as anyone could - in it he intimated that he himself was condemned to be fed to wild beasts:

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.

When he wrote this, Ignatius was on his way to Rome for execution. That he went to the Colosseum is not an unreasonable assumption. Ironically, even his quote doesn't seem to condemn the spectacle does it?!


Don't know the source of the quote but found it used in this video @3:24:46 content: https://youtu.be/o2zcieLqkHQ

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