At last night’s World Series game between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros (which the Astros won), the audience booed the President of the United States. Imitating the crowds at President Trump’s rallies, but turning the chant around, they also chanted “Lock him up!” Other people held up big signs.
Historians see in this a memory of long-ago audiences, with similar chants and signs. And for similar reasons.
Roman Republic and voting
Under the Roman Republic, the citizens of Rome (though only the adult men) were able to vote. They came together regularly on the Campus Martius to make important decisions about their own government: whether to go to war, who should be their leaders, and so on.
The Roman Empire
When the Republic was pushed aside and the Roman Emperors took power into their own hands, people lost their power to vote on political questions. The emperors also didn’t allow people to meet in public for big political protests. When people tried to protest, the emperors sent soldiers to beat them up or kill them.
Protest at races and gladiatorial shows
About the only place where large numbers of people could still get together was the public games at the amphitheater (where gladiators fought) or the circus (where there were chariot races). Roman rulers often came to these events, so people could see them from a place where they could still be reasonably safe. So the audience used these events to show the emperors how they felt about things. Sometimes they booed. Sometimes they chanted. Often they held up signs.
Thessaloniki in the 300s AD
Sometimes these protests got violent. In the 300s AD, some people at a chariot race in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, murdered Roman soldiers who were acting as security guards. They were just angry because their favorite charioteer wasn’t going to be racing. The Roman emperor Theodosius was angry that people had attacked Roman soldiers and killed them, and he wanted to teach them a lesson. He ordered that all the people at the races on a certain day should be killed to pay them back. And Roman soldiers did go and kill all those people, even old people and children who hadn’t done anything – seven thousand people altogether.
The Nika riots in the 500s AD
In the 500s AD, the Nika riots in Constantinople also started at a Roman circus. People started out protesting about some chariot racers who had been arrested, but they were also protesting political issues. The protests lasted five days, and burned down half the city. They almost killed the Emperor Justinian. Then Justinian sent Roman soldiers to end it, and they killed tens of thousands of people.
So, yesterday’s booing wasn’t yet anything like that! Nobody was in any danger. But it’s not a great sign if people feel that the only way they can communicate with their government is at public sports events. It shows that people are worried that their votes don’t really count. The remedy isn’t to shut them up – like Theodosius murdering people in the stands. And it’s not that the President shouldn’t go to the games. It’s that everyone in the government – Members of Congress, Presidents, judges, candidates – should make it absolutely clear that they understand their duty is to the citizens of this country, to do what the people want.
So that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not be replaced by Imperial power and chanting at the games.
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