Terrorists and Gladiators

Posted by Barry Strauss under on May 8, 2009

Attorney General Eric Holder testified in the Senate Thursday that no terrorists would be released from Guantanamo Bay Prison into the United States – or anywhere else. Presumably, those Guantanamo prisoners whom he has earlier said would be released are not terrorists.

Terrorists are about as welcome in most countries as a plague bacillus, to recall Churchill’s statement about the shipping of Lenin into Russia in 1917 by the German Army. They transported the communist in a sealed train car, so that Lenin could sap Russia’s war effort without “infecting” German-held territory.

All this reminds me of Rome’s attitude toward gladiators after the Spartacus War. Romans still treated gladiators as sports heroes, but terrifying ones. They had led a two-year rampage throw the Italian countryside between 73 and 71. Then, in the 50s B.C., gladiators served as hit men for the political rabble-rousers Milo and Clodius.

When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 B.C., his rival Pompey’s supporters looked nervously at the huge number of gladiators – 1,000 men – owned by Caesar in Capua. Like terrorists, the gladiators represented a threat to public order. Instead of transporting them far away from the Roman public, to an island offshore, say, Pompey actually gave them to the Roman public. He distributed the gladiators among the Roman settlers of Capua, two per household.

It says something about a Roman family’s toughness that they were able to keep two gladiators locked up in the spare room.

“Take two terrorists and call me in the morning” would not go over well in the United States today, not even as a way to close Guantanamo.

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