New evidence says ancient Jews watched but didn’t participate in gladiatorial games

Ordinary Jews in Rome frequently disobeyed rabbinic prohibitions on blood sports


(JNS) A new scholarly paper has found “inconclusive” evidence that Jews participated in the ancient Roman gladiatorial games, but almost certainly watched as spectators

According to new research by Haggai Olshanetsky, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Basel, ancient Jews defied rabbinic admonitions and attended the games rather than competed.

The article, titled “Were There Jewish Gladiators? A Re-Evaluation of the Available Archaeological and Textual Evidence,” by Olshanetsky—who has also studied Jewish participation in the ancient Roman army—appeared online on June 29 in issue 11 of the Israeli journal ‘Atiqot.

Olshanetsky notes in the article that there has been relatively little scholarly attention paid to Jewish participation in the gladiatorial games.

“Although the possibility that Jewish gladiators were active in the first-fourth centuries C.E. cannot be ruled out entirely, the evidence remains inconclusive, suggesting that their number was very limited at best,” he wrote.

The rabbis opposed Jews watching gladiatorial games, but there is historical evidence that Jews attended anyway. An inscription dated between the second and third centuries C.E. identifies a particular seating area in the theater of Miletus, in western Anatolia (present-day Turkey), as “place of Jews who (are also known as) the ones who fear God.” Another translation renders it “both of the Jews and of the Godfearers,” but either way, Jews are singled out.

“They often had to succumb to the will of the ordinary people, who continued to do things that the rabbis did not approve,” Olshanetsky told JNS.

Even if Jews ignored rabbinic bans on attending the games, Olshanetsky thinks that if there were Jewish gladiators, they would have preferred fighting animals to fellow humans.

Gladiatorial games are not among the few exceptions the Torah provides to the rule that it is sinful to spill human blood, but JNS asked Olshanetsky about the prohibition on torturing animals too.

“I presume that the Jews really wanted to take part in the games, and that they compromised,” Olshanetsky told JNS. “For them, fighting animals was the lesser evil. I presume that when you really want to do something, you can always find a justification, so that the animals’ welfare was not an obstacle for those that decided to participate in that capacity.”

Olshanetsky’s article addresses many pieces of evidence that have been cited as proof of Jewish gladiators, and he finds them all wanting to some degree. He told JNS, however, that there still could have been Jewish gladiators.

“Most of what existed is gone, and what we have is fragments. It is like a puzzle where you don’t have a reference to what you are making, and most of the pieces are missing,” he said. “You try all the time to understand how you can combine the pieces that remain to see the bigger picture, while trying to find more pieces."

Although there is no clear evidence for Jewish gladiators, he said, "and only slightly better evidence for Jewish venatores, there is always the chance that this is just pure luck, statistics, and that there were, in fact, many Jewish gladiators. But the only reconstruction I can offer is according to what we actually have, which is meager.”
The evidence doesn’t point to plentiful Jewish gladiators or venatores.

“On the other hand, I can say that there were plenty of Jews in the audience, who enjoyed cheering those fighting in the arena,” Olshanetsky said. “For this, we have plenty of evidence.”

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