The amount of attention focused on celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga is reminiscent of the “hero worship” given to gladiators in ancient Rome. Obviously Ms. Cyrus will not be donning chain mail and fighting to the death for the amusement of others, but the adoration of her fans mimics how gladiators were revered in Rome. There are those who think that current trend in popular culture where average people have become obsessed with the activities of celebrities is a new phenomenon. It is certainly true that changes in technology and the speed of communication have made it easier for the average person to “indulge” in the lives of the rich and famous.
The phenomenon itself is not a new one however. Miley Cyrus and her celebrity kin can be equated with the professional gladiators in ancient Rome. There is a common misconception that all gladiators in Rome were slaves or others forced to do battle for the amusement of aristocrats. This perception has been fueled by popular culture and films such as Gladiator that reinforce that image.
It is true that slaves were used as gladiators, as well as others that the government found “undesirable” at times, such as Christians and other religious minorities. The truth is that this represented only a portion of the gladiator “community.” There was also a class of professional gladiators, and their popularity rivaled that of singer’s like Cyrus or today’s professional athletes.
These professional gladiators were the “superstars” of their time. Just as thousands of fans today hang on every word or action of Miley Cyrus, thousands of fans would follow their favorite gladiators. They were so popular at times that the Roman authorities had to pass laws preventing members of the aristocracy from becoming gladiators. The politicians and other elites in Roman society became jealous of how popular gladiators had become, and so members of that class were becoming gladiators themselves in order to try and obtain some of that popularity. This just demonstrates how the amount of attention focused on celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga is reminiscent of ancient Rome and not a new phenomenon.
This also draws attention to another misconception about Roman gladiators. Just as Miley Cyrus is unlikely to put her life at risk today, many professional gladiators did not fight to the death as portrayed in movies. Obviously accidents happen and people did die, but matches between the most popular of professional gladiators were typically limited to “first blood” and did not require the death of the participants. This makes sense from the perspective that a dead gladiator can no longer make money, and as noted, these are not slaves. This is their livelihood.
The question then is not whether this “hero worship” is a new phenomenon, but rather what the consequences of such worship are for society. Rome had to alter its laws as a consequence of the popularity of gladiators. It is unlikely that any country will have to pass a law to prevent people from imitating Miley Cyrus, there are other potential consequences to be considered.
Cyrus and Bieber as well as other young celebrities pose a particularly difficult question. They attract the attention of an even younger audience than the typical celebrity and are in a position to exert a higher amount of influence. Then when they do things like partake of illegal drugs or promote other questionable behaviors, what will their young fans think? These celebrities may or may not believe they are acting as role models, but the impact can be the same regardless. The amount of attention given to celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga is reminiscent of that given to the gladiators of ancient Rome.
Editorial by Christopher V. Spencer