Most Violent Entertainment Activities in History

Throughout history, humanity has engaged in a wide array of entertainment activities, some of which have exhibited extreme levels of violence. These pursuits, ranging from ancient spectacles to more contemporary events, have captivated audiences despite their brutal nature.

From gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome, where life-and-death battles unfolded before rapt spectators, to public executions and bullfighting, violence has played a central role in various forms of entertainment.

Below, we take a dive into the darkest corners of our past, examining the most violent entertainment activities in history, their cultural significance, and the complex relationship between humanity’s fascination with violence and its entertainment value.

Gladiator Games

Brutal pastimes in history

Pollice Verso (“With a Turned Thumb”), an 1872 painting by French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme

In ancient Rome, gladiatorial games were a popular form of entertainment. Gladiators, often slaves or prisoners, fought each other or wild animals in arenas. These brutal battles were held for public amusement, and the participants often faced life-or-death situations.

Gladiatorial games in Rome can be traced back to the Etruscans and their funeral rites, where combat between slaves was conducted as a form of sacrifice. Over time, these rituals evolved into public spectacles that were organized for various occasions, including funerals, religious festivals, and the entertainment of the masses.

Gladiators were professional fighters, typically slaves or prisoners of war, who were trained in combat techniques and armed with a variety of weapons. They were owned by wealthy individuals or the state and competed against each other or other adversaries in the arena.

The games took place in specialized arenas, the most famous being the Colosseum in Rome. These amphitheaters were large, circular structures designed to accommodate massive crowds. The seating arrangements reflected social hierarchies, with the elite occupying the best spots.

There were several types of gladiators, each with their own distinct weapons, armor, and fighting styles. Some notable types include the murmillo, equipped with a gladius (short sword) and a rectangular shield; the secutor, armed with a short sword and a large round shield; and the retiarius, who fought with a trident and a net.

A few examples of the most well-known Roman gladiators are: Spartacus, Flamma, Crixus, Priscus and Verus.

Roman emperors such as Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Commodus, Caracalla, Geta and Didius Julianus were all said to have performed in the arena, either in public or private. It is important to mention that more often than not the risks to the emperors in the arena were very minimal. In the case of Commodus, the deranged Roman emperor was a big fan of the gladiator schools (i.e. ludi). It is also said that Commodus compelled Rome’s senators to attend his performances as gladiator, bestiarius or venator.

Attending the games became a social event, reflecting the hierarchical structure of Roman society and serving as a means for emperors and elites to display their power and generosity. They represented Roman ideals of bravery, honor, and martial prowess. The fights symbolized the triumph of civilization over barbarism, as well as the embodiment of Roman virtues and the power of the state.

Read More: Most Famous Roman Gladiators

Roman Venationes

Roman Venationes

Venatio, Gladiator and Lion in the Colosseum. Image: Studio artist of Firmin Didot

In ancient Rome, venationes, or beast hunts, were a form of public entertainment where wild animals were pitted against each other or against humans in combat. These spectacles took place in large amphitheaters, such as the Colosseum, and were attended by thousands of spectators.

Venationes were organized to provide thrilling and often brutal displays of combat between exotic animals, such as lions, tigers, bears, elephants, and various species of predators, including wolves and leopards. These spectacles captivated the Roman audience and satisfied their fascination with the wild and dangerous.

The tradition of venationes in Rome can be traced back to Etruscan and Greek influences, where animal hunts were an integral part of religious ceremonies and public festivities. The Romans adopted and expanded upon these practices, transforming them into grand, theatrical events.

Venationes continued for centuries but eventually declined in popularity. They faced criticism from Christian leaders who denounced the violence and cruelty of the spectacles. Emperor Honorius prohibited gladiatorial games and venationes in 404 CE, marking the end of these brutal forms of entertainment in the Roman Empire.

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Vikings Bloodsports

The Vikings, known for their seafaring and warrior culture, also engaged in various bloodsports and games that involved violence and physical prowess. While the term “bloodsports” may conjure images of organized combat or cruelty towards animals, it’s important to note that the Vikings’ perception of these activities differed from modern perspectives.

One such activity was knattleikr, a precursor to modern hockey, where two teams competed using sticks to strike a ball or stone. The ball was made of animal bladders or leather. The objective was to score by getting the ball into the opponent’s goal, and physical contact and tackles were allowed. While not inherently violent, it could become physically intense and occasionally resulted in injuries.

Holmgang was a form of Viking dueling or personal combat. It was a ritualized fight between two individuals to settle disputes or assert one’s honor. Participants would meet on a designated piece of land or a small island and engage in single combat until one surrendered or was incapacitated.

Wrestling, known as “glíma,” was a popular sport among the Vikings. It involved grappling, throws, and holds, with the objective of forcing the opponent’s back to touch the ground.

Pankration in ancient Greece

Pankration

Pankration embodied the Greek ideals of physical prowess, competition, and martial skills. It was seen as a reflection of the warrior ethos and celebrated the virtues of strength, skill, and bravery. Image: Detail from an Ancient Greek Attic red-figure kylix, 490–480 BC, from Vulci. British Museum, London.

Pankration was an ancient Greek martial art and combat sport that combined elements of boxing and wrestling. It was one of the most brutal and intense athletic competitions in ancient Greece.

The game had few rules, allowing almost all forms of striking, grappling, and submission techniques. The only prohibited actions were eye gouging and biting. These loose regulations made it a no-holds-barred combat sport.

Pankration was included as an event in the ancient Olympic Games. Introduced in 648 BC, it became one of the original combat sports of the Olympics alongside boxing and wrestling. Victors in Pankration were highly esteemed and received significant recognition.

Pankration matches often resulted in severe injuries or even death. Participants engaged in brutal striking and grappling techniques, including punches, kicks, joint locks, chokeholds, and throws. The objective was to incapacitate or submit the opponent by any means necessary.

There were legendary figures associated with Pankration, such as Polydamas of Skotoussa, Theogenes, Arrhichion and Dioxippus, who achieved notable victories in the sport. Arrhichion, for instance, won a posthumous Olympic victory even after dying from a chokehold applied by his opponent.

Despite being choked by his opponent, Arrhichion demonstrated remarkable resilience, refusing to tap out. He valiantly fought on, and in his final moments, he executed a forceful kick that dislocated his opponent’s ankle. The excruciating pain compelled the adversary to yield, even as Arrhichion tragically succumbed to asphyxiation. In a testament to his indomitable spirit, Arrhichion’s lifeless body was declared the winner.

Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad Bestias (Execution by Animals) in Rome

Leopard attacking a criminal, Roman floor mosaic, 3rd century AD, Archaeological Museum of Tunisia

Damnatio ad bestias, which translates to “condemnation to beasts,” was a brutal form of execution employed in ancient Rome.

In certain cases, criminals or prisoners would be executed by being thrown into an arena with wild animals, such as Barbary lions or wolves. This form of execution offered a horrifying display of human vulnerability against the ferocity of the animals.

The condemned individual would be placed in the arena, often unarmed or with limited means of defense, while the wild animals were released upon them. The individual would face the risk of being mauled, bitten, or trampled by the animals, leading to a brutal and often fatal outcome.

Damnatio ad bestias

Like the gladiatorial games, these executions typically took place in amphitheaters, such as the Colosseum, which were designed to accommodate large crowds and provide optimal viewing of the events. The arenas were specially constructed with underground passages and cages to house the animals used in the executions.

Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this form of capital punishment was handed out to the worst of criminals, runaway slaves, and even Christians.

Damnatio ad bestias

Publicly binding women to pillars or poles and forcibly removing their clothing was a prevalent practice used to shame and condemn Christian women, especially during the early years of the Church. Image: Faithful Unto Death by English painter Herbert Schmalz.

Lingchi

Lingchi

In ancient China, fights to the death, known as “lingchi,” were organized as a public spectacle. Prisoners or condemned individuals were subjected to slow and excruciating deaths through methods like dismemberment or prolonged torture. Image: An 1858 illustration from the French newspaper Le Monde illustré, of the lingchi execution of a French missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine, in China.

Lingchi, also known as “death by a thousand cuts,” was a form of execution practiced in ancient China.  It was also used in Vietnam and Korea.

Basically, it was a gruesome and prolonged method of capital punishment designed to inflict extreme pain and suffering on the condemned individual.

The execution method involved systematically cutting the body of the condemned person in multiple areas. The process typically began with the removal of flesh from less critical parts of the body, such as the limbs, and gradually progressed to more vital areas. The intention was to prolong the suffering of the individual rather than causing immediate death.

Lingchi was not only a means of execution but also a public display of punishment intended to deter others from committing similar crimes. The process was often conducted in a public setting, with spectators witnessing the grisly spectacle.

Also known as “the lingering death” or “slow slicing”, lingchi was primarily used for severe crimes such as treason, matricide/patricide, mass murder, or rebellion against the state. The severity of the offense and the individual’s social status often influenced the decision to employ lingchi as a form of punishment.

It was officially abolished in China in 1905, as part of legal reforms during the late Qing Dynasty. The practice was considered inhumane and barbaric, and efforts were made to move towards more humane methods of execution.

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Other forms of violent pastimes in history:

Death of the Picador by Spanish romantic painter Francisco de Goya, c. 1793

Public Executions

Public executions were common forms of entertainment in many societies throughout history. They served as spectacles of punishment and deterrents against crime. Methods of execution varied, including beheadings, hangings, and public burnings.

Bear-Baiting and Bullfighting

In medieval Europe, bear-baiting was a popular form of entertainment where bears were pitted against dogs. Similarly, bullfighting in Spain and other countries involved the confrontation between humans and bulls in an arena.

Torture Gardens

In the Renaissance period, wealthy elites would create torture gardens where they could witness and participate in the infliction of pain and suffering upon captured individuals or prisoners.

Cockfighting

Cockfighting, a bloodsport where two roosters fight each other in a ring, has a long history in many cultures. It has been practiced in various parts of the world, including Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Brutal pastimes in history

Colonel Mordaunt’s cockfight in Lucknow, 84–1786, by German neoclassical painter Johann Zoffany

Crucifixion and Crucifixion Games

Crucifixion, a form of execution where the condemned person was nailed or tied to a cross, was practiced by various ancient civilizations, including the Romans. In some instances, crucifixion games were organized, where multiple individuals were crucified simultaneously for entertainment purposes.

Did you know…?

According to Greek mythology, Heracles was credited with the invention of pankration during his encounter with the legendary Nemean Lion.

Conclusion

Recognizing and understanding the varying levels of dangers of entertainment activities helps us appreciate the historical context and the evolution of our values over time. It also prompts us to reflect on the progress we have made as a society in rejecting or reevaluating practices that were once considered acceptable forms of entertainment, highlighting the importance of empathy, compassion, and the pursuit of more humane alternatives in our modern world.

Questions & Answers

What were the most brutal forms of entertainment in ancient Rome?

Gladiatorial games were one of the most iconic and brutal forms of entertainment in Rome. Slaves, prisoners, and even some free citizens known as gladiators fought each other, as well as wild animals, in grand arenas like the Colosseum. These fights often resulted in severe injuries and death, providing a spectacle of violence for the cheering crowds.

Beast hunts, known as venationes, involved the hunting and killing of wild animals in arenas. These animals, such as lions, bears, and elephants, were imported from various regions of the Roman Empire to be pitted against each other or against human hunters. The hunts could be highly dangerous and deadly for both the animals and the participants.

Munera were gladiatorial games held as funeral spectacles to honor the deceased. These events often involved multiple gladiators fighting each other, with the intensity and brutality heightened to entertain and honor the deceased.

How did public executions serve as entertainment in medieval Europe?

Public executions attracted large crowds who came to witness the spectacle and drama of the event. The anticipation of the condemned person’s fate, the display of power by the ruling authority, and the shock value of the execution itself provided a morbid form of entertainment for the spectators.

Executions were conducted in public spaces, such as town squares or prominent locations, to serve as a public display of the ruling authority’s power and to deter potential criminals. The gruesome and public nature of the execution aimed to instill fear in the minds of the population and reinforce the authority’s control over law and order.

Executions were sometimes presented as moral lessons, showcasing the consequences of sinful or criminal behavior. Publicly witnessing the punishment of wrongdoers was believed to serve as a deterrent and a reminder of the consequences of transgressing societal norms and religious principles.

In the lead up to executions, businessmen and women would set up temporary stalls selling food, drinks, and other items to cater to the crowds attending the executions. It became a commercial enterprise, with vendors capitalizing on the event to make a profit.

How did bullfighting evolve into a popular form of entertainment in Spain?

Bull worship and rituals involving bulls have existed in the Iberian Peninsula since ancient times. Pre-Roman civilizations in Spain engaged in bull-related ceremonies, which laid the foundation for the cultural significance of bulls in the region.

During the Moorish occupation of Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries, bullfighting took on a different form. The Moors introduced horsemanship and skills with weapons, such as the use of lances and swords, in bullfighting practices.

Bullfighting gained royal patronage and support during the reign of Alfonso VIII in the 12th century. Spanish nobility and the monarchy played a crucial role in promoting and institutionalizing bullfighting as a noble pastime.

In the 18th century, professional matadors emerged as the central figures in bullfights. These skilled and charismatic performers captured the public’s imagination and elevated the artistry and theatricality of bullfighting.

As the pastime grew in popularity, it became intertwined with the Spanish national identity, representing bravery, honor, and tradition. It became a symbol of Spanish heritage and a way to assert cultural distinctiveness.

It must be noted that despite its popularity, bullfighting remains a controversial activity, with critics arguing against its cruelty towards animals.

Were there any restrictions or regulations on the violence in past brutal pastimes?

In various periods of history, there were indeed restrictions and regulations imposed on the violence and conduct of brutal pastimes. While the specific rules and regulations varied depending on the activity and the society in which it took place.

For example, the Roman Empire had specific rules and regulations for gladiatorial games. Officials called “Aediles” were responsible for overseeing the games and ensuring their proper organization. They enforced regulations regarding the fair treatment of gladiators, limiting certain types of weapons and tactics, and maintaining a semblance of order and fairness.

In some societies, regulations were imposed to protect the welfare of animals involved in brutal entertainment activities. For example, laws were enacted in ancient Rome to prevent excessive cruelty during venationes (beast hunts) and to limit the number of animals that could be killed in a single event.

What were the most gruesome methods of execution in history?

Crucifixion was a common method of execution used by different civilizations, including the Romans. The condemned person was nailed or tied to a wooden cross and left to die slowly and painfully. Crucifixion could last for days, with the victim experiencing excruciating pain and eventual asphyxiation.

Execution by drawing and quartering was particularly prevalent in medieval Europe, primarily in England. The condemned person would be hanged, then disemboweled while still alive. The body would then be divided into quarters, often displayed in public as a warning to others.

Flaying, or skinning alive, involved the removal of a person’s skin from their body. This method was employed in different cultures throughout history, such as ancient Assyria and Mesoamerica, as a particularly gruesome form of punishment.

Scaphism, an ancient Persian method of execution, involved trapping the victim between two boats or in a hollowed-out tree trunk. The person would be force-fed milk and honey, leading to diarrhea and attracting insects. The victim would then be left exposed to the elements, with the accumulation of waste and insect bites eventually causing a slow and agonizing death.

Impalement was a method commonly associated with Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure who inspired the character of Dracula. The victim would be pierced with a long stake, typically inserted through the rectum or the abdomen, causing a slow and agonizing death.

Sawing, also known as sawing asunder, was an execution method where the condemned person would be hung upside down, and a large saw would be used to cut their body vertically from the groin to the head. The process was slow, causing intense pain and often resulting in death due to blood loss or shock.

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