Throughout history, stadia have entertained and distracted the public from the plundering of the public purse by ambitious empire builders.
By Michael Borrelli
Published January 27, 2011
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions - everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
-- Juvenal's Satires, circa 100 A.D.
A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire.
-- The Annals of Tacitus, 116 A.D.
The Romans, experts at harnessing political power and building structures, left an indelible mark on their Empire, and those that would come after. One can still cross Europe from Spain to Turkey, or Britain to Libya, and see the remains of what was once the world's most powerful consolidating socio-political force.
Republican Rome spent considerable resources in exporting the Roman ideal to the hinterland. Fora and libraries were built in colonies and regional centres, and Roman methods of urban planning were adopted.
But perhaps the most iconic of Roman structures that still stand today are the few remaining stadia located in such far-flung locales as Tunisia and Bulgaria, and epitomized by the massive Coliseum that has survived right in the heart of Rome.
The Amphitheatrum Flavium represents not only the height of Roman ingenuity in architecture and engineering, but also speaks volumes about the social structures that produced it.
Stadia in the Roman Empire were as much about population control as they were about entertainment and exalting the feats of athletes and gladiators. Even at the dawn of the 21st Century, these public works still serve the same function, albeit with a significant tweak.
True, the construction of stadia remains primarily the domain of governments, as few private interests have the wealth necessary to build one on their own. But the spectacles have been outsourced to private interests who produce content that drives spectators through the gate, generating private revenue and (perhaps) value for the surrounding area.
Public spectacles like those that lured the Roman rabble serve another valuable purpose. By diverting attention away from their former-Republic's descent into autocracy, and from the largess and greed that accompanied it, Imperial Rome's dictators were able to keep their impoverished and often restive citizens.
Popular legend says Nero played the lyre while Rome burned in 64 A.D.; the crazed Emperor later redeveloping huge swaths of prime land for his villa, Domus Aurea (although Tacitus' tale says Nero was in Antium during the fire).
Less than a decade later, the Emperor Vespasian commissioned a 50,000 seat stadium on a piece of once-densely populated brownfield that Nero seized for his vacation home following the Great Fire.
There, spectators could cheer on the mauling of Christians (who some blamed for the fire), or watch the exploits of their favourite gladiators. Most of all, they could forget that their Empire was being milked dry by its dictators, its greatness diminishing.
Some may have even remarked on the irony of sitting in a structure built with taxes more or less extorted from Roman citizens, but also from massive subsidies plundered from the Empire's vast provincial holdings, yet named after the Caesar that commissioned it (Flavian being Vespasian's family's name).
Here in Hamilton, our Emperor and rubber-stamp Senate is similarly eager to leave their mark on history. Surprise back-room deals with billionaires and Provincial governors, involving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars (and remember - there is only one taxpayer), are de rigueur as the clock ticks down.
Citizens are arguably more fixated on the stadium drama than they ever would be by anything that might play out on its field.
For our Emperor, grandiose plans to blow money on a stadium is certainly a comfortable diversion from thinking about our $153M civic infrastructure deficit.
For the Province, a story about building urban spaces is a nice diversion from stories about their ham-fisted attempts to stop developers from gobbling up the last of the green space in the region.
And for the Feds, should they become involved? Well, any diversion will be appreciated in this town. You see, since early November, 900 fellow Hamiltonians have been locked-out by their employer, US Steel, in a dispute over their future livelihoods.
You'll remember that US Steel is the same employer who promised The Pope and his favourite Cardinal that it would maintain jobs when it bought Stelco in 2007, but wasted no time in laying off hundreds of workers. Ottawa approved the deal, but threw up their hands when job-losses came, saying they couldn't do anything.
Like their scuttling of Nortel's pensions, they figured no one would care.
This Saturday, citizens and workers from across Ontario will be converging on Hamilton City Hall to rally in support of USWA 1005's workers and pensioners, and to stand up for everyone who has seen their current and future livelihoods put at risk by big companies, domestic (Nortel) and foreign (US Steel, Siemens).
It's also an opportunity to rightly voice opposition the governments, local, provincial, and federal, who would irresponsibly risk our civic futures, our environment and our jobs to facilitate the private accumulation of wealth.
I urge all Hamiltonians committed to social and environmental justice to come together on Saturday at 1pm at Hamilton City Hall, and send a message to our leaders that we are watching them, and we will hold them accountable.
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