Reality TV: the Gladiatorial Games of Modern Civilisation?

Regularly paraded to the masses for entertainment, sneered at for their low origins, especially by the upper classes, yet the successful ones become objects of our fascination and in some cases lust. This description may sound familiar to anyone who has seen ‘stars’ of the most popular reality television shows splashed all over newspapers and websites. I have also noted on a frequent basis that it is a description easily applicable to the gladiators of the ancient world.

Gladiators were often slaves or ex-slaves. Some were also criminals condemned to fight or even ex-soldiers who needed to earn a living. However these free people took an oath to be enslaved. When members of the upper classes chose to fight as gladiators, such as the emperor Commodus, it caused an outrage among the senators and the people. It was considered degrading and inappropriate for someone of high rank to be a gladiator, because it was a profession reserved for slaves or people so poor they chose this type of enslavement to earn a living.

If we look at the most popular reality television shows, such as Big Brother, The Only Way Is Essex, and Snog, Marry, Avoid, we will note that part of their popularity stems from the fact that the people in them are the sort of people we like to sneer at. The members of the working class who are uneducated and lack taste. Chavs, for want of a better word. Some of these contestants are actually very well off, however their lack of that thing we British seem to prize a lot, ‘class’, means the more educated viewer can still sneer downwards even if they themselves lack the bling.

In the case of Made In Chelsea, several critics predicted it would flop, because however stupid the contestants are, the privilege they are born into means that the viewer is uncomfortably aware they cannot sneer because these people think they are better than us anyway. I have already cited my opinion on this in an earlier blog post. However I should point out that the people portrayed in the programme are hardly the upper class as a scene in the exclusive night club, Raffles shows. The club had to be hired out during the day to film those scenes as none of the cast are actually elite enough to become members of that club!  So again we see that upper classes of society don’t normally wish to be involved in this spectacle.

Now, not only are the participants in both reality TV and gladiatorial combat both normally from the ‘lower classes’ (I really hate using that phrase and I in no way mean it offensively, I’m just struggling to find a phrase that encompasses both slaves and the working class), they are also especially ostracised for making themselves such a public spectacle.

Gladiators were classed as ‘infames’ alongside prostitutes and actors. This meant that they were not entitled to certain legal privileges, for example they were not allowed to vote. It is interesting to note that these groups of people who were branded as ‘infames’ were all people who made their living out of being essentially available for the entertainment of the public. The lives of the gladiators were quite literally in the hands (well the thumbs) of the audience. Prostitutes’ bodies went to anyone who could pay. These people were considered untrustworthy because their bodies were for sale, despite the hypocrisy that the Romans created the demand for them.

We too are sceptical of reality television stars. We suspect that they are in it for the money and the fame. We doubt the validity of their comments on the show, and the various ‘showmances’ that happen. We snigger when the line up of a series of Strictly Come Dancing is made up of z-list celebrities, because we think they are just trying to boost their career. We do not give them the same respect we would give to say, an Oscar winning Hollywood actor.

These participants in reality television shows have also essentially handed their lives over to audience as well in a bid to boost their lives and careers and we are guilty of thinking we own them. We decide who gets eliminated from shows such as X Factor and Big Brother. The press considers them public property to report on. In the rather uncomfortable case of Jade Goody, her death became a public spectacle too. She even admitted that she was letting it be that way for the money she could then give to her children. (More on her later).

While gladiators were ostracized, the fickle public also gave them status if they were successful. Successful gladiators became sex symbols. Graffiti shows that gladiators were the ‘sigh of the girls’ and there are stories of Roman women arranging clandestine meetings with gladiators who had caught their fancy in the arena. Gladiator souvenirs were also available to buy and a certain artefacts found show gladiators in a rather phallic light, such as the door bell in Herculaneum which shows a gladiator fighting with his large penis that has turned into a wild animal.  To compare, modern reality TV stars often get photo shoots in magazines and are pinned up as totty in the more salacious weekly gossip mags.

Gladiators who died well got the highest amount of respect though. The gladiator’s way of facing death, (calm and offering their throat for the final stroke) was praised by the likes of Cicero and Seneca as true stoic behaviour. I do not think that that many modern reality TV stars have ever been accorded such a high level of respect. Maybe people like Ben Fogle, Lee Mead and some winners of Strictly Come Dancing. But they are never paraded as a philosophical ideal, as I mentioned earlier people are snooty over anyone who has to resort to a reality show to gain success rather than tackle the traditional route of hard graft out of the eye of the television camera.

This topic of the glorious dying gladiator also highlights and brings me on to the major difference between reality shows and gladiator games. The spectacle of death was what the Roman audiences flocked to see. Why exactly is not clear cut. I suspect that the sight of gladiators killing each other brought to life (no pun intended) the mythical battles they were brought up on, and the battles their troops were fighting in foreign lands for the glory of Rome. The beautiful death in battle was a key theme of the Homeric epics the Romans read and suicide was considered an honourable action. Death meant different things to the Romans than it does to us.

In this society death is not so revered. I believe that more people found the spectacle of Goody’s death distasteful rather than entertaining. And it certainly hasn’t called forth a trend for reality television shows filming people as they die. People were angry when images of Princess Diana dying were shown on Keith Allen’s new documentary about her. We are more interested in seeing people live and do stupid things.

A sign we are a more civilised society?

3 thoughts on “Reality TV: the Gladiatorial Games of Modern Civilisation?

  1. Confused Politics

    I’m curious, did top prostitutes achieve the same kind of status in Ancient Rome?

    I think a lot of the contempt for the modern day reality TV person comes from the perception that it requires no talent. This might be why successful reality TVites get maybe a bit more contempt than successful gladiators?

    Actually I’m not entirely sure that people do sneer at reality TV in the way you suggest. I think the educated middle classes certainly do (while avidly engaging in ‘ironic’ viewing) but I suspect that quite a lot of people do aspire to celebrity status and would actually be very keen on getting into reality TV (and not just the desperate).

  2. Pingback: Hidden Treasures of London: The Guildhall, the Guildhall Art Gallery and the Roman amphitheatre « Ploy's Place

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