SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read further if you have not seen at least to the mid-season break of the current Walking Dead season!
I have been dying to find a link between The Walking Dead and the classical world for some time now and this season the creators of the show decided to just lob in a softball for me. In this season with the addition of The Governor of Woodbury, there have been some awesome twists and a couple of potential references to the Classics, but none more obvious than the arena fighting. Depending on the way things turn out I may come back to this season to discuss some similarities to Roman Empire politics, but that will have to wait. For now let’s jump into The Walking Dead’s version of the Colosseum. First some Colosseum facts, this is not Coliseum the punk rock band (I don’t know of them, but MS Word tells me this is the correct spelling, I say it is the rock spelling not the amphitheater spelling, and Colosseum gets an underline even though I know it’s correct, bizarre). The COLOSSEUM was built in 72AD under the emperor Vespasian and was finished in 80AD. Some scholars say, and I believe it is commonly accepted now, that it was built by four different “architecture firms” and that is why parts are deteriorating at different rates. It is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater in case the whole Colosseum and Coliseum debate bothers you.
The important part of the Colosseum, for this posts purposes, is that gladiatorial games took place there as well as in many smaller amphitheaters throughout Italy. In the most recent season of The Walking Dead, The Governor decided that similar bloodshed was a great way to entertain the people of Woodbury. In Rome the gladiators were often slaves, criminals, or (as seen in the famous Russel Crowe movie) prisoners of war. The Governor makes a similar decision when he places Daryl and Merle in the ring against each other. I think we can call Daryl a prisoner of war now that a true war has broken out between the prison and Woodbury.
The parallels between Woodbury and Ancient Rome after the fall of the republic are quite striking. The people are living in a time of great fear and panic in both situations. A “great” ruler leads them into a peaceful time and earns the respect of the people he governs. Both hold over his people the power of life and death (we’ve seen this a handful of times with the governor). The governor like some emperors of Rome decided the best way to please the people was to hold these bloodbaths. He does add an interesting component by placing the walkers (zombies) in the arena although since the walkers are often seen as animalistic and not human I would say this compares to putting lions and other animals in the Colosseum. After the scene of the arena style fighting in The Walking Dead it is revealed that the winner of fights was often predetermined. This was known to occur in Ancient Rome as well. The arena fighting in this show was clearly meant to evoke the gladiatorial games.
During the decline of the Roman Empire Juvenal wrote that the Roman people only wanted two things, “Panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses.” He actually says, “The common people-rather than caring about their freedom-are only interested in bread and circuses” (Satire 10.81). This is also true of the people of Woodbury. They will follow their leader as long as he provides them with the comforts of home, food and entertainment. It is incredible that we continue to show the same scenes of what happens in times of great instability, but in most cases people are put in power who take advantage of that situation. We shall see how The Walking Dead turns out, but I think The Governor is just a serial killer, psychopath who had enough charm and guns to make people follow him. Charm and an Army got Julius Caesar pretty far, and even put his (adopted) son in power for years after his assassination.
Juvenal Book IV Satire X ll 78-81:
nam qui dabat olim
imperium fasces legiones omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses