If you'd ever studied any kind of classical subject, you've probably come across part of this passage at some point. It's really popular (for instance it's on the GCSE Latin syllabus, in the Sources for Latin paper – it even made the exam last year).
(Alypius) hadn't yet left behind the worldly habits he'd inherited from his parents when he'd gone up to Rome to study law. There he'd been grabbed to an extraordinary degree by an equally extraordinary enthusiasm for the gladiatorial games. He'd originally held them in contempt and avoided them. But one day, he'd bumped into some friends and classmates of his who were coming back from dinner, and they invited him to come along. He'd refused vehemently, so they dragged the struggling young man with a kind of friendly force into the cruel amphitheatre, on the day of the lethal games. Now, he said, “You might drag my body into this place, but you're never going to get my eyes and mind to watch the show! I'll be there in body but not in spirit, and I'll beat them and you.”What Latin textbooks tend to leave out (and I'm looking at you, OCR Sources for Latin) when they include this in the part about gladiators is of course the fact that it's by Saint Augustine, that it's written a good three hundred years later than most of the other classical texts quoted about gladiators (Martial, for instance, or Seneca), and that it's addressed directly to the Christian God. It's from a different world. Alypius, too, is in fact Saint Alypius of Thagaste. These men, real men, are also figures of religious myth (and I use “myth” here in its anthropological sense – a myth is not an untrue thing, but it has a significance that extends beyond bare historical facts). Miracles are attached to them, and while they're not party to the circus parade of prodigies that accompanies someone like, for example, Martin of Tours, people still pray to the ascended souls of Augustine and Alypius for intercession.
His friends heard this and took him with them anyway, wanting to put this to the test. So they went in and found a place where they could sit. The whole place was roiling with the most unholy delights. He shut his eyes tight and forbade his mind to entertain such terrible things.
Oh, but if only he'd covered his ears. A man fell in combat and a huge, enthusiastic cheer rose from the whole crowd, and it hit him, hard. He was overcome with curiosity. As though he was ready to see what what it was, as though he was ready to overcome the sight and despise it, he opened his eyes. Alypius took a harder wound in his soul than the man whom Alypius had wanted to see had taken in his body. He fell more pathetically than that other man whose fall had roused the cheer which entered through Alypius's ears and opened up his eyes, and left his soul wide open, which was braver than it was strong and all the weaker because he was depending on himself when he should have been depending on You.
Because, when he saw the blood, he drank from something unholy at the same time, and he didn't turn away. No, he became intent on the contest, swallowing down madness without even knowing it, deriving intense excitement from the evil games, and getting drunk on the bloody entertainment. He wasn't who he had been when he came in – he was just one of the crowd he'd joined, and now a true companion to the people who brought him here. What else is there to say? He watched, he cheered, he burned. And he took away with him a fandom that made him come back, and not just with the friends who'd dragged him here in the first place, but even ahead of them, and sometimes dragging along other people too.
And yet You, with a powerful and merciful hand, pulled him out of all this, and You taught him not to rely on himself, but on You. But that wasn't until a long time afterwards.
Augustine, Confessions VI. 8.
Here though is one of those stories that isn't a myth, and it's an ambivalent sort of story. As an outsider, Augustine of course has a view on this stuff. It would be in Augustine's lifetime that gladiatorial combats would be banned for ever (although the element of the shows where warriors faced and fought fierce animals survived well into the Middle Ages and in Spain at least survives into the present day), at the behest of Christian bishops, but it's evident that right up to the end, people still went to see the shows. If they hadn't have had some degree of popularity, no one would have bothered to write about how terrible they were. You don't rail against how terrible a thing is if no one likes it.
I'll be honest, Alypius seems to be a bit of a prig at the start of this story, and although Augustine himself clearly thinks that they committed a terrible crime, clearly Alypius's mates, when they drag him into the show (I imagine them, one under each elbow, dragging him in backwards, him protesting helplessly), seem to think they're doing a favour. They just want to share something they like.
And yes, astute readers might have noticed that I picked the word “fandom” where most translators use “obsession” or “addiction” or addiction or “madness” (I translated the word insaniam in fact, which means “sickness”). But then that's why it strikes me that Alypius had simply become a fan.
Now, while Augustine often seemed implacably opposed to taking pleasure in anything at all, ever, it seems undeniable to modern eyes that the gladiatorial contests weren't quite right. And this was actually the case back then. They weren't a thing everyone approved of.
Earlier on in Roman history, there was always no shortage of writers ready to condemn the circus (the chariot-races) and the gladiatorial shows (with the public executions, beast fights, and light entertainment shows in tow); even the ones who might have enjoyed a show or two themselves held themselves apart from it, as if somehow soiled. When the bitter satirist Juvenal wrote in the second century CE about free bread and circuses (panem et circenses, Satires X. 81) as a way to keep the ordinary people in check, he was maintaining a distance, as if the whole thing was sort of embarrassing. Martial, Juvenal's direct contemporary, took the mickey out of gladiatorial fandom (“Hermes! His own substitute bench!” – Epigrams V. 24, a single line which, if you think about it, tells us an awful lot about what people expected of gladiatorial shows). Seneca, back in the time of Nero, wrote about how awful this whole gladiator business was. Sure, gladiators rarely died in the arena (they were far too expensive), but there was blood and there was death and there was a theatre of cruelty, implicit and explicit. Gladiators may not have bought it every time, but people did die in the arena. On the other hand, while writers complained about the cruelty of the arena, they complained about its dumbed-down entertainment and bad taste just as much, if not more.
We don't actually know what the gladiatorial shows were like in the time of Augustine. When Alypius was a graduate law student, the Gothic Wars were going on in the east, and Magnus Maximus was making his play in the West. We don't actually know if the trappings of the arena were still as they were a few hundred years before, or if the shows were more bloody, or, less bloody, or well, anything. Only that people cared.
Here's the thing that strikes me about the fandom of the soon-to-be-mythologised young man who was totally sold on the arena after his first show: Where do we draw the line?
One of the things I often say when it comes to the things people like is that it's OK to like problematic things. Not least because if we didn't, we probably wouldn't like anything. And that's fair to a degree, but where do we draw the line? I mean, clearly some people thought it was fine to enjoy the arena, and dragged their mates along to share in the fun. Some people, like Augustine here, were basically moralistic killjoys, but just because someone is a moralistic killjoy, it doesn't mean they're always wrong. I don't know, is the answer. The gladiators may have stopped, but the animal fights continued. The cruelty didn't go away, in which case, were the gladiatorial fights even the problem? What sicknesses do our societies have, and are our entertainments the problem or the symptom?