Death spectacles from the Romans to ISIS
Images are an important means of conveying messages. In antiquity, sculptures and bas-reliefs often served as ideological iconography loaded with messages, especially when they were related to those who were in power.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the recent spectacle staged (and recorded) by the Islamic State (ISIS): The execution of 25 Syrian soldiers by teenage boys in the ancient Roman theatre of Palmyra, performed in front of male spectators.
In Roman civilisation, the theatre was the symbol of high culture and refinement. Any city that aimed to be recognised as Roman and belong to the civilised sphere had to boast at least one theatre. Political elites competed, in the patronage fever that animated their careers, to sponsor the construction of theatres and to pay for the actors.
The theatre was meant to host comic shows and, thus, bring entertainment, pleasure and happiness to the general public. It also offered more serious tragedies, which could only be followed by the social and educated elites. However, the deaths and suicides acted out on stage were never real. They were lyrical, designed to evoke models of heroism, sacrifice for family and country, abnegation and altruism.
Theatres reflected the skills of Roman architects, who built solid edifices capable of hosting thousands of spectators while providing efficient acoustics. Thousands of theatres were built across the Roman Empire and had an important role in projecting high culture, which the Greeks called paideia, and the Romans humanitas.
It is hard to imagine how the builders of the magnificent theatre at Palmyra would react to the ISIS video.
One cannot idealise the Romans. We know more than enough how cruel and ruthless they were in pursuit of imperial greatness. They destroyed all that was in their way. But they replaced it by a structured and cultured civilisation.
The amphitheatre, which is a Roman architectural invention, epitomises both the greatness and the vileness of Roman civilisation. The building reflects the greatest of Roman technical achievements. But in contrast to theatres, what happened inside amphitheatres was cruelty: Fights to the death by gladiators (mostly slaves), public executions of Christians and other atrocities.
The Romans were able to conceive and build structures according to the need and the use — theatres for comedies and dramas; amphitheatres for bloody combat and death penalties.
In the case of ISIS, the show organisers are incapable of building anything. Rather, they merely used an edifice erected by a former advanced civilisation and perverted its use for macabre purposes, instead of for happiness and culture. This is consistent with ISIS’s ideology and techniques, which damns Western culture and all things civilised, while using and abusing the inventions of the West, such as social media.
ISIS organisers of the macabre spectacle at Palmyra were similar to the Romans in two respects: in their use of the theatre for tragedy (although in their case, for real tragedy) and in their anti-feminism, for the public includes only males.
In the ISIS video, we see an audience which is calm and disciplined, much like the attendees of real theatres. I surmise that this audience was dragged by force to attend the executions and are frozen on their seats in terror under the menacing eyes of machine gun-toting jihadists.
The bloody Roman amphitheatre shows were meant as an example, to establish order and to protect the empire from internal and external dangers, because the victims were domestic outlaws or foreign enemies. With the ISIS spectacle, it is the opposite: Barbarians butchering regular soldiers who served their own country, which protected this theatre and used it for joyful festivals.
History has witnessed cultural destruction before, often during times of war, and ISIS’s pillaging of Palmyra will certainly not be the last example. But ISIS went further. By staging their inhuman spectacle in an ancient edifice of architectural and cultural grandeur, they are committing a perversion against civilisation and an assault on humanity.