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Violence, Pleasure, Civilization: Roman Gladiators and the Writing of History Open Access


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Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Stepney, Erin M
Supervisor and department
Haggerty, Kevin (Sociology)
Examining committee member and department
Gow, Andrew (History and Classics)
Hijmans, Stephen (History and Classics)
Datta, Paul (Sociology)
Rossiter, Jeremy (History and Classics)
Department of Sociology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Abstract This dissertation takes Foucault’s statements regarding political strategies of historical discourse in modernity, from the Enlightenment to the present, and through this lens reads the historiographic study of gladiators as a text which reveals deeper truths about the modern west’s self-image as the seat of ‘civilization’. In Society Must Be Defended, Foucault claimed that the modern discourse of history is essentially structured as a ‘discourse of perpetual war’, which narrates a permanent state of conflict between history’s speaking subject and a constructed figure of the barbarian against which ‘civilized society’ defines and defends itself. The construct of civilization exists in a complex and perplexed relation to the ‘barbarism’ of violence, and successive strategies of historical writing have, in Foucault’s terms, applied different models of filtering such barbarism. Within this discursive framework, classical historiography, particularly with respect to ancient Rome, performs a foundational function as a myth-history of ‘western civilization’. This dissertation takes the historical image of gladiators, especially insofar as this image signifies the intersection of violence with pleasure, as a particular barbarism which troubles the myth-historical narrative of western civilization, and critically examines the shifts of scholarly opinion surrounding three linked dimensions of the practice: its origin, the ‘nature’ of the crowd of spectators, and the concomitant interpretations of the meaning of both the violence and the pleasure of gladiators in terms of the sub-discourses of race and class struggle. The persistent imperative to account for the anxiety invoked by gladiators as a ‘barbarism within civilization’ reveals a deeper discursive structure of power and legitimacy surrounding the linked constructs of nation and State. A selection of scholarly texts from the mid-eighteenth to the early twenty-first centuries tracks the course through which the interpretation of gladiators, in the context of changing strategies of historical discourse, has shifted from violence to non-violence, from illegitimate to legitimate pleasure, and from barbarous to civilized.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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