Gladiators: New Metaphors and Old Problems


For years there has been an on and off debate of the value of the term ‘warrior’ in the US military (see, but recently the image of the gladiator has become more popular. For a recent example, see the following social media post  and the discussion of the trend by @cdrsalamander on his blog  (

As a philosopher and ethicist who wrote on the warrior archetype in my first book, now immersed in the Navy’s term, ‘warfighter,’ this caught my attention. What are we to make of the use of ‘gladiator’ as an image for the American military? (Please note that I am not trained as a classicist and am happy to be corrected on any assumptions in this post by my colleagues in that discipline!)

Note what we normally associate with this image: a slave or other person (captured in war, sentenced to punishment) who has not given what we might consider informed consent to participation, or someone who began that way and then becomes a ‘professional’ gladiator.  This person participates in highly structured ‘games’ with various scripts, characters and plots designed for performance (battle as performance, if I may) for an audience.  The audience participates in and watches the games as entertainment that provided a communal experience, but also often served as historical and cultural reinforcement of patriotic themes like the greatness, military prowess and exceptional nature of Rome.  These performances involved death and other forms of physical (and likely other) harms to the gladiators and others (including animals); the audience was consuming and being entertained by a form of collective and political violence on a regular basis and a communal and social ritual seen as part of being a citizen of part of the political community.

What does all this convey as an image appealed to by military members (mostly male, it ought to be noted at least in social media) of the Profession of Arms in a contemporary military? While the warrior discussion is well trod, the gladiator angle is less so. While there are elements that seem incongruous as an image for members of a contemporary, professional military (as well noted by @cdrsalamader), there are some ways in which this image is apt, perhaps unintentionally so.  Arguably we are in a period of American history where (especially relative to the military) there seem to be some marks of empire and the kinds of wars involved in being or being seen to be imperial. Consider the GWOT, Long War and/or the Forever Wars where members of the military went to fight on behalf of the political community with perhaps varying motives and degrees of consent (knowledge, belief, economic and educational pressures, family tradition can all be said to impact/influence the nature and degree of consent), although not literally as slaves or captured peoples.

Ok, but surely these are citizens fighting for State and political interests and protection of those interests, not for entertainment!  While it is true that State and political interests are the focus of the Profession of Arms (acting as an agent to enact those interests for the American people), it is really hard to avoid the conclusion that entertainment also enters into the equation. The performative nature of war is not a new idea, and even if that is not the intention of war, its hard to ignore its role in a 24/7 news cycle with social media, military and political blogs/media/personalities who frame and influence narratives about events and also shape or undermine public support (approval and disapproval.)

Consider what happens when the audience (the American people and their political representatives) lose interest and do not like the performance, the season or the show?


Consider also the harms involved: death, of course, and bodily injuries of all kinds; PTSD and moral injury, as well as domestic and family violence, pain, grief and loss; and community impacts of all kinds that have consequences for the very fabric and cohesion of society.

And towards what ends? Certainly the protection and defense of the State, the political community and its interests matters, but its hard to ignore the reality of war as a performative way to reinforce and transmit certain kinds of patriotic narratives (and reject/marginalize others;) reflect historical pride and understandings that provide the identity and meaning for the political community (as a community of practice, to borrow Alasdair MacIntryre’s term;) and finally to underline American exceptionalism – particularly with respect to military power.

The parallels are striking. I suspect that, as with the terms warrior and warfighter, the allure of gladiator (in addition to the cool flick with Russell Crowe and a lovely, ill-fated tiger) is in the masculine, the fighting and battle imagery. This imagery is of tough, duel-like violence. This violence is personal, intimate, involves skill and endurance and ultimately happens within a context where it provides meaning and reinforcement of shared narratives and identity.  This is an image of war with meaning, war where the individual matters. So perhaps, given the character of some contemporary warfare (technological, asymmetric, morally complex) its understandable that images like the gladiator have resonance.

Finally, it might be worth considering the Stoic connection, and given the current popularity of certain Stoics (notably Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) whether the appeal of gladiators has a philosophical dimension. The connection is quite explicit in the film with Russell Crow and the tiger, which might be an interesting starting point for reflection and analysis of our own moment and the place of gladiators in it.





Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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