Escapism & Distraction As a Social Control During the Roman Empire


Escapism and distraction are social controls that can be employed by a governing body to hide inadequacies or divert attention from themes that can cause malcontent among the populace. It is important to distinguish between the two; distraction refers to anything that can take the attention of the populace away from the inadequacies of the government where as escapism refers to specifically removing the minds of the individuals from the situation that they are in, in order to escape anything that brings discontent to their lives.


Distraction was a tool that could be used by Emperors both to divert attention from current objectionable events. Impending risk of warfare increased anxiety within Roman society, the development of gladiatorial spectacle could both demonstrate the continuing competence of the governing body of Rome, even during a crisis (Futrell 2006). Not only could the gladiatorial spectacle distract the citizens from contemporary issues but it could also “erase public memories of political blunders” in the past (Shelton 1998, p333).

Distraction from warfare was an obvious connection, however distraction could also be used to keep “the populace amused and out of mischief” (Lewis and Reinhold, 1990, p142). Auguet (1994, p185) further added weight to this view by describing gladiatorial spectacle as “a first rate means of keeping people amused”. Grant (1967, p104) also agreed with this concept exclaiming that Emperors expressed the wish that the “potentially unruly and dangerous city population” be “amused”, also adding the idea that this would and keep them “quiet”.

As stated earlier (see Literature Review) the first reported date of the gladiatorial spectacle was in 264 BCE and at the time of the First Punic War. The second recorded date of the gladiatorial spectacle was not until 216 BCE again coinciding with a year of war in which the battle of Cannae took place (Shadrake 2005). This leaves a gap of almost 50 years in which there is no record of any gladiatorial spectacle having taken place in the Roman Empire. It seems too much of a coincidence that these two sets of gladiatorial spectacle positioned almost 50 years apart, just happened to fall on times of conflict. A more likely explanation is that these gladiatorial spectacles were put on to distract the people from the turmoil of war. Another explanation is that there were gladiatorial spectacles that fell within this 50 year gap, but they were not particularly noteworthy, and greater publicity was generated for these two recorded games again for the purpose of distraction of the masses.


Escapism could well be the biggest factor in social control that gladiatorial spectacles had over its audience. In contemporary society there are a number of escapisms that are available even to those who do not have a large disposable income. Some of the most popular escapisms in modern society such as television, the internet, film, and computer games were not accessible to the Romans. Granted they had food, literature and recreational games, but none of these can draw comparison with the hold that television and the internet has on society today. This is where the gladiatorial spectacles came into play; they provided the audience with a complete distraction from their mundane day to day lives. The comradery of sitting amongst their peers, the historical stories that some of the spectacles told, and the opportunity to wrap oneself up in the glory of Rome, provided the ideal escape from issues of war, disease, political unrest that may have otherwise had a more detrimental affect on the psychology of the population.

Kyle (2007, p301) stated that attendees of gladiatorial spectacles, utilised them to “escape their deplorable living conditions”. Shelton (1998, p334) further elaborates declaring that political figures hoped that these diversions would “take people’s minds off problems like unemployment and food shortages”. According to Shelton (1998, p349) viewing the gladiatorial spectacles would allow “people who themselves felt powerless and brutalised” to find “some satisfaction in watching the infliction of pain on others”.

Source by Peter Benjamin Bisset


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