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And I mean honest-to-god Spartacus-style bloodletting, man vs. man and man vs. animal in a grand arena with cheering crowds. Real bloodsport, not the sort of halfway comparisons a lot of people often make to boxing or football.

Let’s presume the rise of Christianity never happened and that the Roman Empire either survived in some form up until the 19th century or that some of the Western societies/cultures that arose out of it kept even more of the Roman Empire’s ideas and traditions alive than they already did. Could gladiator games have been one of them? Or is there some economic or political reason they would be doomed to fail in an industrial or post-industrial society?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean like bullfighting? $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Oct 26, 2021 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ This is literally the plot to a Star Trek episode. And not a very good one either. I don't think it would work, but not sure of any concrete reason why. Just keep in mind that while human death was a common and somewhat expected outcome to gladiatorial games, they were still games and not every fight was to the death. I think I heard that the ratio of lethal:nonlethal games was something like 1:10, not as absurdly bloody as the Russel Crowe movie, but more than modern combat sports. $\endgroup$ Oct 26, 2021 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Most gladiatorial fights weren't to the death. Gladiators were expensive to train and keep. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP "if the author wants it" is by far the least useful set of five words on this site. I think you can assume that someone who is asking on this network is trying to find a justification for a phenomenon beyond that they felt like writing it. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ Given what is happening in some corners of this country, I think that fights to the death could get an audience. Today, we have live streaming of suicide getting viewers. In some corners, there are the "snuff films" which are marketed as seeing someone die. It wasn't that long ago that a public lynching would bring a large crowd and people would sell postcards of the event. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Oct 26, 2021 at 23:48

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The invention of the cheap printing press and good portrait art undermined the historic brutality.

As Muyart wrote in the 1700s, several factors started to make public executions (which gladiator fights were essentially) less popular.

The rise of novels made the general populace identify more with strangers. Previously, much of empathy was for people in your tribal group, and the invention of the novel encouraged people to sympathize a lot more with strangers. Reading fiction encourages empathy a lot more than many other portrayals, and makes especially brutal displays less popular.

Solid portrait art also became a lot more popular, along with the idea that we should view people as individuals, rather than representatives of groups.

Together the two ideas, even outside of Christianity, made people less reluctant to see bloody executions. When people watched executions, more and more there was a sad silence, rather than joy and jeering. For example, this visitor to the 1787 France execution of a man by breaking.

The noise of the multitude was like the hoarse murmur caused by the waves of the sea breaking along a rocky shore: For a moment it subsided, and in an awful silence the multitude beheld the executioner take up an iron bar, and begin the tragedy, by striking his victim on the fore arm.

Of course, there was an exception to this empathy that survived to the 1950s- black people. There were regularly vicious and brutal fights arranged by black people, under slavery and after with financial motivation.

One simple change you could make to make gladiator arenas more common is have the confederacy win the war. Then slavery of black people remains common, and brutal displays with black people can remain common.

The confederate America can spread their ideas throughout the world, and encourage people of races they dislike to fight to the death for their amusement.

Later on, seeing the fame that black men would gain from the arena, white men would no doubt demand to fight as well, and all could have race wars in the arena for the pleasure of the American empire.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, but I would add one dimension - fights-to-the-death weren't always executions of criminals; I know that Aztec cultures had such fights as a holy sacrifice. You would be proud of your cousin emulating Tezcatlipoca so well in glorious combat, even if he ultimately loses his head to Quetzalcoatl. I don't think that would necessarily end with egalitarianism - maybe only with secularism. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ Aztecs had flower wars, where they captured rivals to sacrifice in mock gladiator fights to ensure a good harvest. Your cousin would be in another city and probablu not know what happened, and in the modern day we ensure good harvests with fertilizer, not blood sacrifices. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ Gladiator fights were not public executions, not even similar to public executions. What is true is that sometimes (not all that often), public executions were featured as events in the games alongside gladiatorial fights and other events. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure that brutality was necessarily lessened after the 1700s; e.g. it wasn't until much later that dog fighting (not the aircraft kind, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_fighting) became unacceptable in the Western world and it seems to be still practiced in many places today. $\endgroup$ Oct 26, 2021 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't say that the brutality lessened. I said that it became less of an entertainment. People still did it as punishment for people. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Oct 26, 2021 at 15:27
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There's no intrinsic reason why gladiatorial games could not exist in modern industrial or post-industrial societies.

Like any other business, its survival depends on retaining a sufficiently large audience (i.e. a profitable base of customers) and enough support from political elites to maintain legal approval.

Even harmful and dangerous businesses such as tobacco or the sale of assault weapons can thrive in the face of considerable opposition if they can satisfy these two requirements.

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First let's dispel a myth. In Roman times, the fights that ended with the death of the losing gladiator were not so common. Since Roman historians mostly reported special events sponsored by the emperors, they gave the wrong impression.

That said, training people for fights that might cause death or permanent injury was expensive and finding people for it was difficult. Nonetheless it was possible, and it might still be possible. After all something dangerous like bare knuckle fights did not disappear when they were outlawed, they went underground, so people willing to fight and spectators could be found also today. The main issue I suspect would be political, those in power have to show they care for the people even if they don't. It is true that until the 19th century, they carried out public executions, but they were meant to be shocking events. People killing each other on a holiday or a public celebration would not fit well. Probably they would be outlawed even before duels were outlawed.

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As you said, you can go back to the root of the alternative history to Constantine and the battle of Adrianople.

Here is a quote from an article on line called 11 facts you may not have known about Roman gladiators, and may help with your world building details since your world might differ at that point. The article makes two points about the causes of the games ending because of a battle over which religion would be dominant and economics.

"Jews and Christians were likewise seemingly unconcerned about the victims of arena violence. Their arguments in opposition to the games focused on what they viewed as inherent idolatry, as gladiatorial show often occurred during pagan religious festivals, which featured idols and images of pagan gods.

....The gladiatorial games were officially banned by Constantine in 325 CE. Constantine, considered the first “Christian” emperor, banned the games on the vague grounds that they had no place “in a time of civil and domestic peace” (Cod. Theod. 15.12.1). However, there is no evidence to suggest that the ban was implemented for humanitarian reasons. In fact, the would-be gladiators were sent instead to the mines to ensure a steady stream of labor. Further evidence suggests that the games had simply become too expensive and that the recent “Christianizing” of the empire had resulted in fewer combatants."

This information comes from a more in depth article that is called Gladiators, combatants at games from the Oxford Classical dictionary. There is a lot of information in this article that is surprising about the games including the scope of the gladiatorial games which was massive: thousands of combatants, animals, and chariots. The article details that Constantine defeated a pagan opponent named Licinius at the battle of Adrianople, who had sent Christians to the mines, and so Constantine made a political gesture when he did away with the games and sent the gladiators to the mines as well. This was well before the historical Roman Empire began to fall.

Without the specific premise of an alternative history of the Roman Empire, I think that many authors have addressed the ideas of gladiatorial games including The Hunger Games and Squid Game. The authors of these stories have very different creative solutions about how the games might continue into the modern or future era. The games could be publicly broadcast as part of a giant reality TV show sponsored by a repressive government, or they could be entirely secret and organized illegally by a cabal of rich people entirely for their private entertainment.

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