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Of all aspects of Roman culture, the gladiatorial contests for which the Romans built their amphitheatres are at once the most fascinating and the most difficult for us to come to terms with. Since antiquity, a number of theories have been put forward to explain their importance. They have been seen as sacrifices to the gods or, at funerals, to the souls of the deceased; as a mechanism for introducing and inuring young Romans to the horrors of fighting; and as a substitute for the warfare which the Roman people were no longer directly invoved in after the emperors imposed peace in the first two centuries A.D. Thomas Wiedemann considers why these theories cannot by themselves explain the importance of the Games', their association with the emperors, and their decline as the Roman world became Christian.
He begins by examining the role of public ceremonies in the context of competition with the Roman elite, as public demonstrations both of the power of the Roman community as a whole, and of the virtue' of a particular public figure; and it ends by examining how emperors, often seeking to identify themselves with the civilising hero Hercules, used the games in the amphitheatre to advertise the legitimacy of their government. In between, gladiatorial duels are considered in the context of the destruction of wild beasts and of criminals in the arena; in comparison with the Romans' natural and human enemies, gladiators symbolised the possibility of re-integration into Roman society by proving that they possessed the most crucial Roman virtue, fighting ability. Gladiators were marginal' ambivalent figures, and therefore heavily criticised by many ancient writers. But these objections were not humanitarian in any modern sense.
When Christian Romans rejected gladiatorial games, it was because they were a rival representation of the possibility of resurrection: Easter and Christmas replaced gladiators Emperors and Gladiators is fully illustrated and it draws on the latest epigraphical evidence in order to present an original and comprehensive study of the changing significance of gladiatorial contests to Roman culture.