Jordan Behnke’s Book Critique

This book critique was written by Jordan Behnke in his History 101:  History of Civilization–Cultural Traditions course in Spring 2015.

Fagan, Garret G.  The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

In his book The Lure of the Arena, Garret Fagan tackles the question, why were the Roman people attracted to the violent spectacle of the gladiator games? Many have sought to answer this using historical facts; slave cruelty, support for the emperor and justice meted out for criminals. Although these are valid reasons, Fagan is the first to look at the games through the lens of social psychology; what was the mindset of the Romans of the day that drove them to attend these bloody spectacles in throngs? Fagan uses current principles of psychology and applies them to historical evidence from Ancient Rome in order to make it relatable to the reader, arguing that the physiology and psychology of the human brain is as universal today as it was in Ancient Rome.

Using both historical facts and modern research allows Fagan to jump around in history to find other examples that mimic human attraction to violence en masse. Fagan discusses the popularity of violent spectacles in history from executions in Europe to the T’ang Dynasty in China. Fagan doesn’t limit the scope of his study to violence however, for he argues that watching the gladiator games was psychologically comparable to watching modern sporting events. The entire experience was designed to be entertaining. For those who would contend that sporting events are markedly different than the violence experienced in Roman arenas, Fagan confidently states that if we were to fill a modern-day stadium with death row prisoners and call it a “Spectacle of Justice” all seats would sell out.

Although it can be difficult for a reader of The Lure of the Arena to wrestle with Fagan’s assertions that our ‘civilized’ society might contain the same ingredients that made the gladiator games of Ancient Rome possible, he makes a convincing argument. Fagan believes that group mentality heavily influenced the crowds at the games. One of the main ideas of group mentality is ‘groupthink’ when a crowd of people lose their individual identities and beliefs in order to become one voice. Groupthink has been known to sway the gentlest of people into rage and aggression. Fagan also discusses the Roman’s desensitization to violence by watching their soldiers fight and die violently in battle. These concepts illustrate Fagan’s point beautifully as they can be found in both ancient and modern society.

Fagan successfully weaves social psychology with historical facts to create a fascinating and fresh perspective on Ancient Rome, but it is not without its weaknesses. Mainly, there is a lack of historical material regarding the Roman era and what historians do have is skewed – as it was often a production of the wealthy and biased in their favor. That presents a problem because if that material is sensationalized or misleading, then Fagan’s argument being predicated on it might also be inaccurate. The other issue is the weight to which Fagan gives the influence of social psychology on culture and not necessarily the influence of culture on social psychology. Since we have no way of corroborating the historical facts, it is hard to cross-examine Fagan’s assertions. These are small issues in the grand scheme of things however, for Fagan has managed to spark an exciting new way in which to perceive and discuss ancient history in a relatable fashion to our modern era.

Last Updated June 11, 2015