When 130 million Americans watched the Superbowl on Jan. 30, 2000, they saw an ad for the upcoming epic historical film Gladiator. The spot rapidly cut between footage of colliding football players in an nfl arena and bloodied gladiators in the Roman Colosseum.
That comparison between the popular entertainment of ancient Rome and that of modern America was more apt than we may want to admit.
When Rome ruled the world, it was flush with prosperity. Pax Romana “made possible the greatest luxury, the most active commercial life the world ever saw,” wrote historian William Stearns Davis. This stoked growing public appetite for amusement. The scale of the entertainments of ancient Rome exceeded that of any prior empire and was likely unsurpassed until modern times.
Roman society transformed from a culture of ambition, industry, virtue, discipline and duty to one of pleasure, idleness, diversion, escapism and ease. As people enjoyed their wealth and the poets and politicians praised Rome as Urbs Aeterna, “the eternal city,” they sowed seeds of their empire’s decline and fall.
The parallels with pleasure-mad, distracted America today are telling—and ominous.
“Only those with an eye on the lessons of history understand the subtle dangers of careless, excessive self-indulgence, self-seeking and hedonism, while the nation faces the greatest problems in its history, demanding the greatest effort and sacrifice,” says The Modern Romans, published by Ambassador College Press in 1971. “However, millions would rather play, escape and indulge themselves in temporary, selfish goals.”
Ponder the decadent and doomed Romans, and take heed.
‘Plentiful and Cheap’
At the height of Rome’s affluence, entertainment was “plentiful and cheap,” wrote historian Will Durant. “Recitations, lectures, concerts, mimes, plays, athletic contests, prize fights, horse races, chariot races, mortal combats of men with men or beasts, not-quite-sham naval battles on artificial lakes—never was a city more bountifully amused” (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, Caesar and Christ).
In the Roman Empire, there were an astounding 76 public holidays each year, on which various plays or games were held. Edward Gibbon described the scene in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “From the morning to the evening, careless of the sun or of the rain, the spectators, who sometimes amounted to the number of 400,000 [the capacity of Rome’s Circus Maximus], remained in eager attention; their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear for the success of the colors which they espoused; and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race.”
Such descriptions have a familiar ring in today’s sports-crazed culture. American football generates $17 billion a year, and it has been setting all-time viewership records this season. The biggest non-Superbowl viewership in nfl history was this past Thanksgiving Day: 138 million viewers watched three games that day—12 million more than the record set in 2016. The Dallas vs. New York game was the most-watched nfl regular-season game in history. The same day, the World Cup match between America and England drew over 15.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched men’s soccer game ever in the U.S. Even the match between Michigan and Ohio State drew 17 million viewers, the largest television audience for a regular-season college football game in 11 years.
This is a tiny measure of an America, like Rome before it, crazy for sports and entertainment. People over age 65 spend about a third of their waking day, almost six hours, watching broadcast tv. Younger people prefer streaming services: Netflix (213 million subscribers), Amazon Prime (175 million), Disney+ (118 million), Peacock (54 million), Hulu (45 million) and other services like hbo Max and Paramount+ absorb lifetimes of human hours daily. Over a quarter of Americans watch movies several times a week. Nearly 1 in 5 adults watches movies daily, including one quarter of people age 18 to 29. More than half of America’s population play video games at least monthly. In 2021, consumers spent $44 billion in gaming software and services. The rise of eSports is an incredible phenomenon: competitions where spectators watch people playing video games. Insider Intelligence estimates 29.6 million monthly eSports viewers in the U.S. in 2022, up over 11 percent from 2021. People simply can’t get enough entertainment: They are even spending hours watching other people entertain themselves.
The mania for spectacle imprinted deeply on Roman life. It brought celebrity and fortune to those who succeeded in the arena, and sometimes freedom. “The charioteers knew glory too—and more,” wrote French historian Jérôme Carcopino. “Though they were of low-born origin, mainly slaves emancipated only after recurrent success, they were lifted out of their humble estates by the fame they acquired and the fortunes they rapidly amassed from the gifts of magistrates and emperors, and the exorbitant salaries they exacted …. At the end of the first century and in the first half of the second, Rome prided herself on the presence of her star charioteers …” (Daily Life in Ancient Rome). This vividly foreshadowed today’s celebrity culture and garish multimillion-dollar sports contracts.
More broadly, these entertainments reflected and influenced public morals. “The games of the circus and the amphitheater absorbed the interest and coarsened the taste of the public,” Durant wrote. The easy luxury, escapism and self-indulgence fed into the spread of immorality, perversion and a lust for sex and violence.
“Almost from the beginning the Roman stage was gross and immoral,” wrote historian Philip Van Ness Myers in 1900. “It was one of the main agencies to which must be attributed the undermining of the originally sound moral life of Roman society” (Rome: Its Rise and Fall).
Dying for Entertainment
Chariot races were perilous, but the Roman public had a growing appetite for even deadlier fare. Many public entertainments “involved wild animals killing men and women who had been sentenced to death for various offenses, including for being Christians,” Rodney Stark explained. “Besides being fed to wild animals, people were executed in the arenas in a variety of sadistic ways—flogging, burning, skinning, impaling, dismemberment and even crucifixion” (How the West Won). Fights to the death among gladiators—most of whom were slaves, often taken as prisoners of war, a great many of whom likely died in their first match—were especially popular.
Besides the 50,000-seat Colosseum in Rome, 251 more amphitheaters dotted the Roman Empire, many of which seated 20,000 or more; the smallest could hold 7,000. “It is credibly estimated that at least 200,000 people died in the Colosseum,” Stark wrote. “It seems quite conservative to estimate that an average of at least 10,000 would have died in each of the other 251 amphitheaters, or another 2.5 million. All of this for amusement!” These bloody exhibitions had a coarsening, benumbing effect on the public. To be entertained by such brutality is truly a mark of moral sickness and satanic influence.
Yet these bygone bloodthirsty spectators would find plenty to keep them sated today. Violence is conspicuous in modern entertainment. It is literally the point of live contests like boxing and mixed martial arts, and it features heavily in sports like football and ice hockey that fill today’s coliseums and arenas. Television and movies routinely showcase simulated brutality, and with unprecedented detail and realism. Studies show that more than 9 in 10 movies on tv contain violence, including extreme violence. Every hour of prime-time tv depicts an average of nine weapons. Horror and slasher films draw huge crowds to see gore far more graphic and up-close than anything a spectator in the Roman arena would have witnessed.
Some may minimize the comparison to live gladiatorial slaughter. But fake though most of it is, its intensity is magnified not only by its hyperrealism but also by its ubiquity. Rather than taking an occasional visit to the Colosseum, people effectively live there: The average American household has five connected devices—ultra-high-def tvs, smartphones, tablets, laptops, gaming devices and more. Teenagers average more than seven hours a day with entertainment screen media, the American Academy of Family Physicians reports. Before age 18, the average American youth will witness 200,000 violent acts on tv. Close to 100 percent of teenagers play video games, and about two thirds of these are action games that tend to include violence. Many are ultraviolent games that have the player committing grisly acts of mayhem and murder. The most-played, most-watched games in the world are “battle royale” style—where dozens of players thrown into a virtual environment replete with weapons, and they kill each other to the last man standing. The concept comes straight from Rome’s gladiators.
What are the effects of people’s minds being glutted on such savagery? “[V]iolence can have a demonic, pornographic appeal,” Dr. Ted Behr, publisher of Movie Guide, wrote. “The Roman Empire featured spectacles of live violence. Gladiators fought to the death, Christians were fed to lions, and all manner [of] horrible killing was offered as entertainment to a stadium full of spectators. This same demonic taste can be fed with movies, videos, games and online content. It is, in fact, a stage into which many people addicted to pornography sink. What may start out as simple sexual attraction devolves into darker and darker pits of hell.”
Like the Romans watching the gory spectacles in the arenas, our people are, as Carcopino wrote, “learning nothing but contempt for human life and dignity” (op cit).
This doesn’t even address the sexuality, immorality and perversion that are also pervasive today, particularly online. Studies show around 80 percent of men and 45 percent of women watch pornography weekly. The sexualization of society is evident in countless lamentable ways: In many respects, it is turning our world upside-down (read more in “When Family Falls, Society Falls,” page 4).
“These violent delights have violent ends.” Shakespeare’s maxim applied to Rome, and it applies to America.
Draining Public Funds
The ravaging effects of this trend on public morality were matched by the effects on the Roman Empire’s resources. Government officials were under growing pressure to provide lavish entertainments to gain public acclaim or to pacify unruly mobs. “Elaborate circuses and gladiator duels were staged to keep the people happy,” Lawrence W. Reed wrote. “One modern historian estimates that Rome poured the equivalent of $100 million per year into the games” (Are We Rome?).
Interestingly, that is only about one third of what the U.S. government spends renovating nfl stadiums. That’s right: Federal taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually to subsidize construction and renovation on dozens of stadiums nationwide. (So comparing Biden to Diocletian is kind of insulting to Diocletian.)
The epic scale of these ancient spectacles was staggering. To take one example, “In a.d. 108–109, Emperor Trajan employed 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 wild animals in an entertainment lasting 123 days. Such entertainments continued until banned by Christian emperors in the fourth century,” Stark wrote.
All these attractions diverted the attention of the Roman people away from weightier issues, such as the governance and defense of the empire. “So absorbed did the people become in the indecent representations of the stage that they lost all thought and care of the affairs of real life,” Myers wrote (op cit).
“With the economic and military position of the empire too hopelessly complicated for the crowd to comprehend, they turned more and more toward the only thing that they could understand—the arena,” wrote Daniel P. Mannix. “The name of a great general or of a brilliant statesman meant no more to the Roman mob than the name of a great scientist does to us today. But the average Roman could tell you every detail of the last games, just as today the average man can tell you all about the latest football or baseball standings, but has only the foggiest idea what nato is doing or what steps are being taken to fight inflation” (Those About to Die).
“Life simply became too complex for the average Roman,” Mannix continued. “But the continuous staging of games and spectacles—cleverly promoted by the caesars to keep the people’s minds occupied—was something to which he could relate. The caesars, said one historian, ‘exhausted their ingenuity to provide the public with more festivals than any people, in any country, at any time, has ever seen’”—that is, one could easily argue, until this people, in this country, in our time.
The stupefying effects of such pervasive recreation on the public have shown themselves repeatedly in history. When people grow affluent and glutted on luxury and diversion, their character suffers and societal decline sets in.
Ignoring Real Issues
America is following Rome’s example, not just in its addiction to entertainment but also in the fact that this craze is distracting us from nation-threatening problems.
What is particularly jarring is that right now, America faces a leftist government that is trashing our Constitution, discarding the Bill of Rights, jailing dissenters, imposing censorship, stealing elections, permitting unchecked illegal immigration, sinking the nation in debt, sending inflation soaring, sabotaging energy production, destroying public education, trashing history—changing the nature of our republic. And those in power are getting away with these things because nobody is holding them to account. When the public is wrapped up in nonsense, they ignore real problems. They simply can’t be bothered.
If America could get even a fraction of the people who are absorbed in a fantasy football league to devote their attention to election integrity, the course of the nation could well turn in a different direction.
The world today is bristling with dangers. You see Russia systematically crushing Ukraine; Putin deliberately freezing people to death; China chewing up territory; Xi Jinping anointing himself dictator for life; preparations to conquer Taiwan; efforts to expand global trade that locks out America; initiatives that could upend the global economy; Iran on the cusp of nuclear weapons, openly flaunting international efforts to stop it; North Korea launching cruise missiles; and many more. The enemies of America are working actively and successfully to upend the current U.S.-led world order.
Yet none of this is rousing America to real action. We are too absorbed in House of the Dragon and League of Legends.
How long can America retain its position of global power when our priorities are so misguided and self-indulgent?
The Bible is full of warnings against such individual- and nation-destroying excesses. In Amos 6, for example, God condemns those who are “at ease” during a time of great peril. These people “put far away the evil day,” assuming destruction is nothing to fear. “How terrible for you who sprawl on ivory beds and lounge on your couches, eating the meat of tender lambs from the flock and of choice calves fattened in the stall. … You drink wine by the bowlful and perfume yourselves with fragrant lotions. You care nothing about the ruin of your nation” (verses 4, 6; New Living Translation). People should be grieving about what is happening to America and Britain today. But we truly are the modern Romans, enchanted with pleasures and amusements.
Such richness, such ease, such excess dulls its possessors to reality and erodes vigilance against danger and willingness to sacrifice for a larger cause. Today, our educational system teaches only hatred toward the Constitution and American history. Forty-eight percent of Americans cannot name the three branches of government; 19 percent can’t name any First Amendment rights. Over three in four 17-to-24-year-old Americans are unfit for military service.
Anciently, the actual physical defenses of Italy and of “the eternal city” itself fell into disrepair, but people inside believed their power, wealth and entertainments would last forever. When Alaric prepared to sack Rome, its defensive walls were easy to breach, and the Romans couldn’t raise a real army from among the Italians to defend the empire or even themselves. They had been dulled to the danger of collapse. To those engrossed in selfish pursuits, the fall was sudden and calamitous.
‘You Have Destroyed Yourself’
The Modern Romans makes an important point: It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with entertainment when used properly. “But when an entire nation seems to have nothing but the pursuit of money, gadgetry, pleasure, escape and thrills as its national goals—that nation is in serious trouble! Today, millions have no higher ideal or purpose than to get out and indulge themselves in a particular personal pleasure. So wrapped up and involved are millions in these short-range pleasures that few are willing to endure any discomfort or privation to solve national problems or threats.”
“Why has such crass materialism and pleasure become the overriding concern of millions?” it asks. “Because the nation has lost a sense of national purpose or higher ideals other than personal selfish ones.”
This booklet was first published more than 50 years ago. The trends it discussed regarding sports and entertainment are far more intense today.
The Apostle Paul prophesied in 2 Timothy 3:1-2: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers”—and several other characteristics that would mark these “last days.” People love themselves—more than family, community, nation! They are “without self-control,” Paul prophesied—and “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.” What an apt description of our peoples today. That is fulfilled prophecy in America: We love pleasures more than we love freedom, justice or anything honorable.
Americans are among the modern descendants of ancient Israel. God loves Israel and has used it through the millenniums in a special way to eventually benefit all nations. But we have turned from that purpose, turned away from God, and are rapidly accelerating toward the fulfillment of our prophesied collapse—following the same course toward our own destruction that Rome and so many other great powers have throughout history.
God laments in Hosea 13:9: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself ….” We are doing this to ourselves.
We need to realize the same thing God implored our ancestors to realize: “[B]ut in me is thine help. I will be thy king: where is any other that may save thee in all thy cities?” (verses 9-10). Surely we should be able to recognize by this point that no one but God can save us.
God is reaching out! He would help us, He would solve our problems—He would be our King—if only we would repent, embrace His law and submit to His rule!
God loves America. He wants to prevent our destruction if He can. But He will only do so if we allow Him to.