By Elizabeth Lev
As we enter into the final days of the presidential election in the United States, the constant mantra from the entertainment industry for the reelection of President Barack Obama has been the promotion of “reproductive rights.” Starlets and aging glamour queens have come out of the woodwork to tout the importance of Planned Parenthood (the world’s largest abortion provider), the necessity of taxpayer-funded contraception (including abortifacients and sterilization), and the supposed “war on women” of the Republican party.
In a country faced with real terrorist threats (including the recent murder of US ambassador Chris Stevens), a severe economic crisis and a natural disaster in the form of hurricane Sandy, this fixation on sex and entertainment is bizarre—yet, for students of history, strangely familiar. A similar campaign was waged by Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, when he sought to distract the Romans from fire, ruin and invasion with the games of the Coliseum.
The Coliseum, more precisely known as the Flavian Amphitheater, is probably the best known monument from Ancient Rome. Millions of people flock to its skeletal remains every year, delighting in the tales of the gladiators, marveling at its size, and posing for photographs with costumed Roman soldiers in the arena of death.
The Flavian amphitheater, however, much like the colossal remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, would be much less pleasant if it were still active today. The building should not only serve to delight, but also to teach.
The Coliseum was built during a very precarious era for the Empire. Nero had proved himself not only unworthy of his exalted title of “Augustus,” but had left the city depleted of men and money after the great fire of Rome. His Golden House parked in the middle of Rome’s prime real estate had been the final straw for an exasperated population, which rioted and forced the emperor out of the city, where he ultimately killed himself.
Thus the next Emperor, Vespasian, inherited an angry Empire. Businesses had been lost, life savings dissipated and many lives gone. It would be very difficult indeed to convince the Romans that the Empire was a better solution than the recently extinct Republic. Vespasian, whose greatest gift seems to have been an ability to appear as a “people’s emperor” (history records many down-to-earth quips that still bring a smile today), found a way to quell the rising dissatisfaction: the entertainment industry.
This was not entirely original with him. The Roman Republic had outlawed theaters, claiming they were breeding grounds for rebellion, which captivated the idle with tragic stories designed to incite dissent. Pompey the Great circumvented this law in 52BC, becoming the darling of the people, and Julius Caesar, not one to lose an advantage, quickly built another theater, which he never lived to see completed.
The successful demagoguery of the proto-Emperors was not lost on Vespasian, who knew that, more than appealing to piety or philanthropy (two qualities highly prized by the Romans) the quickest way to make the populace succumb to his will was to give them entertainments, which, in the Empire, were called “munera” or gifts.
Juvenal, a Roman poet who witnessed the first years of the Coliseum, saw clearly the teetering moral foundations of the Empire. In Satire X, he laments,
“The public has long since cast off its cares; the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things—-Bread and Games!”
This was the Rome of Vespasian, a people turned inward to its own desires, ignoring the good of the nation and its nobler pursuits, and seeking only to be fed and amused. In this world, a gladiator could rise to sway the populace as did Spartacus, whose prowess in the arena was equated with the ability to lead the polity.
Our modern age does not throw condemned criminals and prisoners of war into the ring to die for our amusement, although, thanks to cinema and video games, this human appetite is still fully appeased.
Our era, like the Romans, looks to sex for its ultimate entertainment, the unfettered ability to take pleasure however and whenever we like. Seemingly more pacific than the murders in the arena, rampant sexuality encourages people to exploit each other for amusement, under the guise that this is a harmless pastime as long as both are consenting. The philosopher Seneca, watching the games even before the age of the Coliseum, already understoodhow a little “harmless entertainment” would transform his people. He wrote,
“There is nothing so ruinous to good character as to idle away one’s time at some spectacle. Vices have a way of creeping in because of the feeling of pleasure that it brings. Why do you think that I say that I personally return from shows greedier, more ambitious and more given to luxury?”
Pope Benedict XVI has identified the obsession with sexuality as a form of escapism similar to drugs. In his book “Light of the World,” while speaking of sex tourism and drug addiction, the Holy Father noted that the West feels a need for these “drugs” as it has “A craving for happiness has developed that cannot content itself with things as they are…. The destructive processes at work in that are extraordinary and are born from the arrogance and the boredom and the false freedom of the Western world.”
A pagan philosopher and a Catholic theologian singing in harmony?
But are these modern games victimless? Does really no one get hurt? In the arena, the Romans at least threw to the amusements of the people condemned criminals, men who had fought against the empire or disobeyed its most serious laws. In the eyes of the Roman people, these people had lost their status as human beings by defying the might and order of the Empire.
Today the victims that are sacrificed for the pleasures of the citizens are wholly innocent: the unborn. As much as we would like to separate them, sex and human life are still intertwined. But the savage agenda of “reproductive rights,” treats the unborn like the condemned criminal of Rome–as less than human, an unwanted by-product of bedroom entertainments. Unlimited abortion and contraception including abortifacients, paid for by every American taxpayer, wages war on these innocent lives. In Vespasian’s amphitheater, the games were free, a gift of the military spoils of a generous emperor, but in the abortion arena, every American, working to raise a family, will be paying for the emperor’s sinister pandering
There are, of course, many cases where abortion and contraception are resorted to out of hardship, violence and very difficult situations, but Planned Parenthood did not become a 4 billion dollar a year industry by catering to women who are victims of rape and incest. The abortion business has given 12 million dollars to the Obama campaign and Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, has taken a leave of absence to campaign full time for the incumbent.
When those promoting the right to abortion are the same who make sexually provocative entertainments, it is not rape victims they are championing. The Playboy Foundation’s status as major donor to Planned Parenthood is not motivated by concern for victims of rape and incest, but rather seeks to snuff out the unwanted consequences of the freewheeling lifestyle it promotes. A television ad likening voting for the first time to losing one’s virginity, seems par for the course for these people, attempting to titillate young people into the voting booths.
Sadly, among the starlets like Scarlett Johansson and Eva Longoria, Meryl Streep has also declared her belief that the crusade to de-fund Planned Parenthood and place legal limits on abortion amounts to a “War on Women.” She stands like a modern Spartacus, ready to rally others to an ill-conceived and ill-fated quest. Dozens of actors and actresses have spoken out in support of the radically permissive abortion stance of the present administration.
The Romans and Greeks, however, as seduced as they were by the games, were never foolish enough to believe the words of an actor. The Greek word for actor “hypokrites” was understood, at least by the Greek speaking authors of the New Testament, to mean one who says one thing and does another. Actors are paid to make you believe they are aliens or angels, presidents or prostitutes. Indeed, many of our modern “hypokrites” play the noble artist among their fans Stateside, but hawk toothpaste and soft drinks in advertisements on the other side of the globe. Are these the people who should guide Americans in the decisions that will affect their children and their grandchildren?
In the ancient world, it was scholars and philosophers who stood up to decry the folly of a regime that would manipulate its people through bread and circuses. In our own Brave New World, such students of reason are needed more than ever.
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press Fall 2012. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org