The Empress Livia is said to have complained once that gladiators in the Roman circus were play-acting their fight-scenes, using animal blood to make the contests look realistic. She wanted them to give the crowd a real fight. When the crowd was promised a fight-to-the-death, she wanted one gladiator to kill the other one. For a time, the gladiatorial contests must have increased in intensity, with a corresponding increase in fatalities. Yet, economic forces probably played a role in reversing the decision. Whatever the attitude of the gladiators toward a winner-take-all contest, they represented valuable property to their owners, who rented them out for shows and contests. The owner had to weigh the promise of higher immediate returns from the larger crowd size against the possibility that his entire investment would be lost. There was little to be gained if death was the outcome of every contest.
Not only did they watch as gladiators killed each other, they saw animals turned loose on defenceless victims, observed recreations of ancient sea battles in which slaves drowned when their ships sank, and watched plays in which actors were burned to death, as part of the script. The Emperor Caligula is said to have fed his wild animals with criminals because butcher's meat had become too expensive.
Panem et circenses, bread and circus games, were the essential elements which kept the Roman plebe quiet.
Times change… seemingly, but the circus still exists to keep the modern plebe quiet. TV, Internet, web cam, street cam, mobile cam… Big Brother in every aspect. Every war scene from every angle like a hard-core porn, every misery, injury in slow motion, every bedroom secret available to everyone who has a credit card.
His name was Eric Arthur Blair, born 100 years ago, on the 25th June 1903 in the Indian city of Motihari/Bihar. After service with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927, he returned to Europe to become a writer. He lived for several years in poverty. By 1936, Blair had joined the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. He was critical of Communism but basically considered himself a Socialist. He was wounded in the fighting. Late in the war, he fought the Communists and eventually had to flee Spain for his life. Blair documented many of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War in his Homage to Catalonia.
George Orwell was the pen name of the English author, and his various experiences with totalitarian political regimes had a direct impact on his prose. Orwell's best-known books reflect his opposition to totalitarianism: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The astonishing thing about him is that his own life is documented on film as well, hours and hours of George Orwell talking in front of a camera, giving interviews, writing in bed, walking…
Talking about Orwell would fill pages and pages (and this is not a literary magazine). Talking about totalitarianism on an International Online magazine is not what I intend and besides, everyone knows, force alone cannot keep any party in power indefinitely. It is when the psychology of society is altered that true totalitarianism can occur.
What kept the Roman plebe quiet -- does it keep us quiet as well?
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--for ever."
Happy Birthday, Mr. Orwell!
Panem et circenses
©2003 Andrea Kapsaski
For more commentary and articles by Andrea Kapsaski, check the Archives.
Andrea Kapsaski is a Ph.D scholar, translator,
theatre and film producer, and a hell of a cook.
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