Gladiator

"Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant" by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859. (Credit:  Yale University / Wikimedia Commons)

“Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859. (Credit: Yale University / Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Montgomery Bird wrote his drama The Gladiator in 1831 for Edwin Forrest’s yearly competition of original American plays. In his story—the rebellion of slaves led by Spartacus against Rome—commentators have assumed that Bird had in mind the American Revolution against Britain, or that he had written a dramatic poem reflecting the abolitionist sentiments of northern states.

Cabinet card image of American author and playwright Robert Montgomery Bird (1805-1854). TCS 1.2515, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

Cabinet card image of American author and playwright Robert Montgomery Bird (1805-1854). TCS 1.2515, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

Spartacus is brought in chains from his native Thrace to Rome and the following dialogue ensues:

SPARTACUS: Is not this Rome? The great city?…. They said, that spoke of it, it was the queen of cities, the metropolis of the world. My heart grew big within me, to hear of its greatness. I thought those men who could make it so, were greater than men; they were gods.

LENTULUS: And are they not, sirrah?

SPARTACUS: How many palaces, that look like the habitations of divinities, are here about me!… Gold, and silver, and purple, and a million of men thronging the pillared hills!

BRACCHIUS: And what thinkest thou, now thou hast seen it?

SPARTACUS: That—if Romans had not been fiends, Rome had never been great! Whence came this greatness, but from the miseries of subjugated nations? How many myriads of happy people—people that had not wronged Rome, for they knew not Rome—how many myriads of these were slain like the beasts of the field, that Rome might fatten upon their blood, and become great?… There is not a palace upon these hills that cost not the lives of a thousand innocent men; there is no deed of greatness ye can boast, but it was achieved upon the ruin of a nation; there is no joy you can feel, but its ingredients are blood and tears.[1]

As we read Bird’s play today, we find a prophetic and daring critique of the notion of American exceptionalism and of imperial aspirations, penned almost two centuries ago.

OG

[1] Robert Montgomery Bird, “The Gladiator,” in Jeffrey H. Richards, ed., Early American Drama (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 179-180.

Illustration from "Story of the Romans" by Helene Guerber, 1896.

Illustration from “Story of the Romans” by Helene Guerber, 1896.

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