Opinion

The Modern Gladiators

Youssef Bounaji

Rabat - Since the beginning of time, the world has never been a quiet place, there were always backstage battles. History has revealed that human beings used to fight nature, beasts and wild animals in order to survive. After that, they started fighting each other for the same reason, but with ethnic, revengeful or egotistic intentions.

Later on, fights became a kind of entertainment. People enjoyed — and are still enjoying — watching other humans’ fights. And they don’t mind if someone was killed as long as it happens under the umbrella of entertainment and amusement which is governed by the law of the game. This kind of entertainment dates back to the Pharaohs’ era, but the most notorious is the age of the Roman Empire.

In ancient Rome, one of the most famous forms of entertainment was the gladiator games. They were held in large, purpose-built arenas across the Roman Empire from 105 B.C. to A.D. 404. The most famous arena was the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheater, where gladiators fought to the death before large audiences. The Colosseum took 10 years to be built by 40,000 slaves, and ironically it was their deathbed. The fights included other gladiators, chariots and sometimes wild animals. Gladiators were generally slaves or prisoners; therefore their death outweighed their life.

Nobody has ever thought about gladiators’ families. Children and wives alike might have witnessed the death of their beloved fathers and husbands. The average of 87,000 spectators’ deafening shouting must have resounded for ages in gladiators’ ears. Many untold stories died in their melancholic memories. Stories of famous gladiators such as Spartacus (111–71 B.C.) and Commodus (A.D. 108–192) have made their way through history. Some of them were notorious and brave enough to refuse to fight, remaining in their cells instead — like the incident that took place in the gladiator games organized by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus in c. 401.

The winners gained the love of both the spectators and certain aristocratic women. There were cases of love affairs and elopements. The losers’ fates, on the other hand, were decided by the shouting of spectators — “Mitte,” let him go, or “Lugula,” execute him — or the move of the emperor’s thumb where up meant life, down meant death. The curtain was closed on the gladiatorial games in 404.

Now, the Colosseum is still there; wrinkles found their way through time to creep up on its face. The shouts are still echoing in its resistant walls. Its wooden floor which was covered by sand couldn’t resist nature and ceased to exist. The Colosseum has become groundless and time has uncovered its underground cages, cells and tunnels. Loud spectators have become silent visitors. The gladiator games have become economic games. Everything is still there, with a slight difference in its nature, except swords, sandals, chariots and shields. Even gladiators are still there, but they are neither behind the Colosseum walls nor are they in its cells.

Gladiators are outside fighting in a larger arena which is more hideous, mysterious and fatal. The arena is insanely huge, and the sun never sets on it. They no longer have weapons nor are they wearing leather clothes. They are dressed in white-collar, pink-collar and blue-collar fashion. In the new and everlasting fighting arena, the spectators are seated in a tiered arrangement. The first class, or the ice-cold class, is the closest to entertainment.

They have the extravagantly furnished front-row seats. The middle class is higher up than the first class and thus farther from the entertainment. This class is the largest and synonymous with mediocrity. It enriches the first class, and it witnesses and fights in nearly all the battles. The poor class is at the top of the arena, the farthest point from entertainment and the only unfurnished place in it. The only common aspect between the classes is fighting. The fight’s hardship may vary, but everybody is taking part.

Spectators, regardless of their class, have become myriad but are far from being interested in the fights of others. Their screams, complaints and yells muffle the gladiators’ cries of pain. Stepping into the arena, even as a spectator, is a declaration of being ready to fight at any given time. The grand size of the arena grants the possibility of having more than one fight. The fights today are circles within circles — everybody is fighting everybody. Allies and enemies are interchangeable. Love vows to become hatred, and hatred vows to become love.

Gladiators were once forced to fight with their feet chained to the floor. But today’s gladiators deliberately, yet unwillingly, chain and obstruct themselves with unbearable chains. Metal chains have become outdated and replaced with unseen ones, untouchable and long. Gladiators fight with burdens on their shoulders that mountains would refuse to carry.

They fight with an uncontrolled and chaotic mind, the core of which is unfathomable. They fight with watery eyes that witness betrayal, treachery, glorified deception and fake values. Sudden darkness is one of the most used obstacles through which gladiators must fight gropingly as they hope against hope to find light. The obstacles have become interrelated and serial, like gems in a tight necklace.

When gladiators are summoned to fight by their circumstances, they do not have time to carefully choose their weapons. Some of them seem suicidal or unthoughtfully bold going unarmed into battles. These options can occur simultaneously because one fighter can take part in many battles — the point is once the battle starts, it never ends.

They are lifelong battles. Fighters may rest for a little while, but they can’t leave. Even losers cannot leave the battle field, they have no option but fighting in order to survive. The winners, likewise, cannot leave because winning is not the end, it is the beginning of greater fights against unbeatable peers. Therefore, today’s winning is short-lived. “Here today, gone tomorrow” joys are the norm.

Most gladiators fight purposelessly, especially the ones with blue collars; they don’t have clear goals in their minds. Instead they adopt the mainstream goals that fit everybody. Those ready-made goals don’t require any planning. All gladiators have to do is to follow their fellows slavishly. They don’t have personal and unique goals. Barking up the wrong trees is their lifestyle. The whirling battles overwhelm everybody in the field and force them to cling to any misleading spark of light that might show them a way to an unknown end.

There is no life outside the arena. The arena is life and vice versa. There are no witnesses, no referees and no judges but time. Time was, is and will always be witness to the arena’s battles — justice and injustice, war and peace. Gladiators’ days are lifeless, their paths are aimless, their dreams are fragile and their salvation is pale. Life starts as soon as gladiators step in the arena.

This is the only short moment when they can freely watch the games, get in touch with the arena’s nature and entertain themselves. But when they grow older, stronger and venture farther, they start making relationships, connections and contracts which eventually swallow them and throw them into the battle’s depths regardless of their readiness to fight. Life is a gladiator’s smiling, melancholy portrait. It is painted with tears, displays a background of fighting, and is framed by time.

The arena is fair in only one aspect, death. It is the equalizer, the cup from which everybody will drink, no matter how it tastes. Gladiators used to kill or spare their opponents at the end of battles. But currently, the option of sparing lives is no longer valid.

Today, death has become an exit — it is considered to be as merciful as a euthanasia that puts a gentle end to gladiators’ incurable sufferings. Gladiators may lose battles, but the moment they surrender or stop fighting, they are declared dead. The wheel of battles doesn’t cease rolling forward, it doesn’t wait for anybody and neither does time.

Those who were left behind should fight earnestly, otherwise they will be trod on and eventually considered dishonorably dead. Their death is inglorious, with no funeral, no burial and no cemetery. The only sanctuary their souls have in their wounded pride is the deathly silent corners and the uncounted time they spend watching the wheel passing them by.

Blacksmiths use fire to melt iron and make different shapes out of it. Fire’s flames, iron’s solidity and the hammer’s blows that shake the blacksmith’s body are his only way to make a piece of work that draws a satisfactory smile on his face. The blacksmith’s swords and shields used to be gladiators’ weapons, but those weapons have become primitive and unlawful.

Today, a gladiator’s only weapon is shapeless. It has no beginning, no end and no handle. Its source is divine, and its secrets require a lifelong journey to be discovered. Swords need to be sharpened and guns need ammo, but this weapon needs to be fed, or it will die. Everyone has this weapon, but having it isn’t the same as being in control of it. No matter how skillful gladiators are, controlling the weapon requires fighting it and conquering it. Otherwise it will unquestionably and stealthily take them over —then consume, harness and lead them, like an adopted pet, to the death pit.

The long and perpetual battle to survive in the arena is actually a quest for salvation. The gladiators are yearningly looking for freedom, which eventually materializes in front of them as an illusion. They want to feel freedom, to see it and live it. They have been told that they are free, and that the eras of slavery are long over. Contrarily, they can’t dream without being trapped in reality, they can’t talk without being allowed to, they can’t move without being checked and they can’t cheer without expecting sadness. The arena’s unsteady and ambiguous winds vehemently blow gladiators’ minds like shabby kites on a stormy night. In the storm-like battles, gladiators seem ashen, lost and indecisive.

The brightness of the moon is the sun’s borrowed rays, but the very same rays, being banned by deep sorrows and disappointment which hover over the arena, fail to brighten the gladiators’ dim, vague and tear-soaked eyes. They seek the physical light and wonder why it does not illuminate their lives. The light that is meant to be sought is within the gladiators, not outside of them. The physical light illuminates the arena, but it doesn’t illuminate the gladiators’ eyes. The inner light is the sun that never sets on the gladiators’ inner realm in which they are kings and queens crowned with inner freedom which they seek in the unjust outside world.

The gladiators’ situation bribes everybody to pity them, yet self-importantly ignore them. They might seem identical, with the same surroundings, the same ground, the same life, the same orders and goals, but never the same inner life, the same heart and surely never the same weapon. A peaceful fighter is more focused than an aggressive and unsettled one. Concentration is the magnet of consciousness and awareness that every gladiator should possess throughout the battles. The arena’s seemingly chaotic nature deepens concentration and gives rise to oblivion.

“And in your own selves. Will you not then see?” The Holy Quran 51:21. No light will shine, no chains will be unshackled and no life will be lived, unless gladiators redirect their attention towards the light, freedom and life that reside inside their forgotten, deep and deserted selves.

A “Roman” bird’s-eye view of the arena is notably similar to a modern bird’s-eye view. The arena and the gladiators are still experiencing permanent and interconnected battles — with loud cries here and there falling on deaf ears. Regardless of how unpredictable and chaotic this might seem, every gladiator in the arena experiences the same happiness, the same sadness, the same dreams, the same nightmares, the same burden, the same relief, the same beginning and the same end.

Gladiators might all seem weary, with darting eyes and a perceivable unwillingness to fight, but those who maintain the harmony between the inner peace and the outer war are the ones who can keep fighting, struggling, striving, learning, hoping and living.

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