As a young man Marcus himself was fond of boxing and wrestling. He was fit enough to spear wild boars from horseback, and to practice fighting in armour. However, some said that as he became more committed to his studies of literature and philosophy, he neglected his body, and these sort of activities, and so gradually became less physically fit and strong, and less interested in watching the games and races. As a child, his first tutor taught him that it was wise not to take the side of the Green Jacket or the Blue in the races, or to back the light-shield champion or the heavy-shield in the lists, and so on (1.5). His brother Lucius was completely caught up in these tribal attitudes about the races and games but to Marcus it was an absurd distraction from his duties as emperor.
He came to loathe the amphitheatre and similar public spectacles but felt obliged to attend, at the insistence of his friends and advisors. Marcus was so averse to the thought of unnecessary bloodshed that when the audience insisted that a lion that had been trained to devour humans should be brought into the arena he refused to look at it. The people demanded that the lion-trainer should be made a citizen and frequently protested about this but Marcus, who was normally in favour of greater enfranchisement of slaves, refused and even had it publicly proclaimed that the man had done nothing to deserve his freedom. Indeed, it was said he restricted the gladiatorial games in many ways. He insisted that the gladiators before him would use blunted weapons, fighting like athletes, without any risk to their lives. He likewise introduced a law requiring that the young entertainers who danced on tightropes should be given safety nets, to prevent any of them being injured.
Later, during the first Marcomannic War, at the height of the plague, Marcus was forced to take emergency measures to replace lost troops and defend Rome against the barbarian incursions. He recruited gladiators, taking them away from the arena, arming them and calling them The Compliant. When he did this there was unrest among the people who complained that he was going to take away their entertainment and drive them all to the study of philosophy. He was careful not to openly criticise their crass tastes but nevertheless it was well-known that he looked down on such things, and some people resented him for doing so.
They openly ridiculed him as a snob and a bore because they could clearly see that though present at the circus he was ignoring the games to read documents and discuss them with his advisors. Marcus was told he had to show his face at these events, to keep the Roman people happy, but the entertainments bored him and he wanted to use the time instead to address the serious business of running the state. Though he would allow himself to be persuaded to go to the games, and theatre, and hunting, etc., his heart was no longer in these pursuits. Even his close friend, his rhetoric tutor, Fronto tells Marcus that he’d criticized him in this way:
On occasion, in your absence, I have criticized you in quite severe terms in front of a small circle of my most intimate friends. There was a time when I would do so, for instance, when you entered public gatherings with a more gloomy expression than was fitting, or pored over a book at the theatre or during a banquet (I am speaking of a time when I myself did not yet keep away from theatres and banquets). On such occasions, then, I would call you an insensitive man who failed to act as circumstances demanded, or sometimes even, in an impulse of anger, a disagreeable person.
When required to attend, Marcus tried to make best use of the situation by treating it as an opportunity to practice contemplative exercises, viewing the games he observed as spiritual metaphors, through the lens of Stoic philosophy. Although the crowds were addicted to them, the shows seemed very monotonous to him so he contemplated their tedious and repetitive nature as symbolising the whole of human life. There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything is familiar, from the Stoic perspective (6.46). Different fighters and animals enter the arena but fundamentally it’s the same thing over and over again. Every day our lives are superficially different but from a deeper perspective, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re still facing the same fundamental challenges. Pain and suffering may take countless different forms but the wise man is still faced with the same basic challenge of enduring them. Marcus tells himself:
Remaining no better than you are and allowing yourself to be torn apart by such a life is worthy of a foolish and greedy man, and resembles the life of the wild-beast fighters who are half-devoured in the arena, who through a mass of wounds and gore, beg to be kept until the next day, only to be thrown again, though wounded, into the arena, to be rent by the same teeth and claws. (10.8)
Marcus himself had boxed and wrestled as a youth and was particularly interested how the violent sport known as pankration, which combined boxing, wrestling, kicking and choking, could serve as an allegory for life. As he watched the pankratiasts, for example, he told himself that life is more like wrestling than dancing because we have to be ready to stand unshaken against every assault, no matter how unforeseen (7.61).
Elsewhere, Marcus seems to draw on his personal experience of wrestling as an analogy for coping with challenging people in life generally, without taking offence at their behaviour.
In the gymnasium, someone may have scratched us with his nails or have collided with us and struck us a blow with his head, but, for all that, we do not mark him down as a bad character, or take offence, or view him with suspicion afterwards as one who wishes us ill. To be sure, we remain on our guard, but not in a hostile spirit or with undue suspicion; we simply try to avoid him in an amicable fashion. So let us behave in much the same way in other areas of life: let us make many allowances for those who are, so to speak, the companions of our exercises. For it is possible, as I have said, to avoid them, and yet to view them neither with suspicion nor hatred. (6.20)
We can also learn something about how to deal with overwhelming events from the training of these sportsmen:
Analyze a piece of music into its notes and ask yourself of each in isolation: “Does this overpower me?” The same is true in the pankration; if you analyze the fight into each individual move, it will seem less overwhelming. Do this with everything except with the good, with virtue. But dissect all external things objectively, into smaller parts, until they lose their power over your mind (11.2).
Indeed, Marcus tells himself that in his use of Stoic philosophical doctrines, he should imitate the pankratiasts, who box and wrestle, rather than the gladiators. The gladiator lays aside the sword he uses, and picks it up again. But the barehanded fighter is always armed and needs only to clench his fist. (12.9)
Marcus had trained in painting as a youth, indeed it was his painting teacher Diognetus who introduced him to philosophy. So with the eye of a painter he also considers how beauty can be found even in these tiresome spectacles, such as the wild beasts released against the animal-fighters.
The byproducts of natural processes have a particular type of charm when viewed in the right context, as part of something greater. The cracks that appear when bread is baked are like random flaws but stimulate our appetite. Even the furrowed brow of an angry lion in the arena, or the foam dripping from a wild-boar’s jaws during a hunt, are not things of beauty when viewed in isolation, but as part of a magnificent creature, they lend something to its overall appearance. The wise man sees beauty in all things, even if it is only as a byproduct of something else’s beauty. He will even look on the fearsome gaping jaws of real wild beasts with no less pleasure than the representations of them in works of art by painters and sculptors. There are many such things that the foolish cannot appreciate but in which the wise can learn to distinguish a different kind of aesthetic value (3.2.1-2). Indeed, all things come from the same source, from Nature, even the terrifying jaws of the lion and such things are but side-effects of the grand and beautiful. So do not be alienated even from these things but see them as part of the whole, and originating in the one source of all things (6.36.2).
This is how Marcus passes his time at these events. As a Stoic, his duty is to try to respond with wisdom and virtue in even the most banal environment, even when bored and confronted with something that seems the opposite of edifying to him. He does this by making meaning from the situation, like an artist, viewing the fighters and the animals as expressing something greater and more noble, providing him with a way to reconnect with his spiritual and philosophical values, and to transcend the mediocrity of his surroundings, and to rise above the clamour of the baying crowd that surround him. In later years, on campaign in the northern frontier, he would use some of the same mental strategies that he’d been rehearsing for years trapped in his seat at the circus, to retain his composure when faced with the real horrors of war.