Private and public games

One of the distinguishing marks of the end of the ancient world is the decline and eventual demise of public games. Races, gladiatorial combat, naval battles, they had all been gone by the 6th century AD. While private games and gaming continued – as they always do in any human society – no public, civic (i.e urban) competitions could be found anywhere in the West. On the one hand, the infrastructure and services required to organise and maintain public games were pretty much gone. On the other, the new Christian leadership was critical of public games, at least of the kind that had been available during the Roman Empire, which, it’s fair to say, was the only variety imaginable and available at the time.

For one reason or another, the games were gone and Europe became less entertainingly cruel, but also less culturally ludic. But not for long. Public games reemerged in the medieval West as chivalric competitions, of which the joust, or tournament is the best known form. What the sand-covered arena and amphiteatre had been for the Romans, the grass-covered jousting grounds became for a West which was slowly relearning the rules of public agonistic entertainment. The mortality rate of Roman games had been massively higher than that of medieval jousting, but the mass entertainment value had also been much higher. But I think the fundamental difference between the Roman games and the medieval lance-tilting was about their justification. Roman games were organised and put up for the benefit of the audience. Panem et circenses. Medieval jousting was conducted for the benefit of the contenders. Honour and glory, as well as some cash thrown in, replaced for a while the circus alongside the Roman bread. In the Roman arena, the real winners were the ticket-paying Roman audience. In the meadows of Europe, the winners were the winners themselves.

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