I've always had a kind of fascination with the ancient Roman games, or ludi. By the games, I don't mean gladitorial combat exclusively, but will include for purposes of this post the beast hunts and fights (man and beast, beast and beast), the execution of criminals and objectionables in the ampitheatres.
These were significant throughout the Roman Empire (mostly in the west) for centuries, of course. Certain of the philosophers would write of them disparagingly, but it seems they disliked them more because they were a spectacle and unseemly than immoral. Even "good" emperors such as Augustus enjoyed them. Marcus Aurelius found them dull, and attended them only as a kind of obligation, annoying the crowd by working through them rather than observing them keenly. But he did attend them, and made no serious effort to ban them.
The games of the ampitheatre seem to have been a peculiarly Roman custom, something characteristically Roman (possibly Etruscan in origin). They spread as Rome spread. Some of those incorporated into the Empire apparently came to enjoy them as well.
History tells us that death in the gladitorial games was not as prevalent as some have come to believe. They were well regulated, for the most part, and the death of one of the contestants was not required. The emphasis was more on skill than slaughter, it seems. And, it is clear that the games didn't invoke solely the baser aspects of human nature. Crowds were sometimes moved to pity, for gladiators and beasts. Elephants in particular seem to have favored and admired.
But death was essential. Those who died were expected to die well, without fear. Some Romans claimed that the games taught bravery and fortitude, and were justified on that basis.
Comparisons are made with modern sports, such as football, boxing, and more recently the "extreme" forms of fighting one gets to see on TV if one is so inclined. But the presence, and the acceptance, of death simply is not there as it was in the case of the Roman games.
Does this fact indicate that we are better, or more civilized, than the Romans? I wonder if the fact that we no longer tolerate death in our amusements as they did merely perpetuates the violence we are willing to accept. How many would participate in such sports if death was as likely now as it was then? The great majority of those who participated in the Roman games were slaves; they had no choice. A few freeman opted to join the games. Imagine how many would have, though, had death not been such a risk, and the rewards so high as they are now.
Perhaps in our love for violent sports we simply are not as honest and forthright as the ancient Romans. It's clear we are attracted to violence, and will pay to see it. We simply don't want to face its inevitable result when allowed to take its course, i.e. when the violence is serious. We play at violence in our sports. Perhaps we are not better than the Romans; we just lack their nerve, and the clarity of their perception in this.