It is well known that the ancient Romans had a penchant for feeding people to animals. The practice was called damnatio ad bestias, or "condemnation to wild [animals]," and was a popular style of public execution often performed as a morning warm-up for the day's gladiatorial entertainments.
Rome's bloody displays have long been used as evidence of the empire's moral decay, and any civilization that engages in similar spectacles today inevitably draws unflattering comparisons to the Senatus Populusque Romanus in decline.
Enter Discovery Channel and its recent two-hour special, "Eaten Alive," in which 27-year-old "naturalist" Paul Rosolie tried to get himself devoured by a 20-foot-long anaconda. I write "tried" because Rosolie wasn't eaten alive. Dressed in a farcical medieval-looking protective suit, he goaded the disinterested snake into attacking him, after which it began the slow, brutal work of constricting and eating him. When Rosolie felt his arm was about to break in the animal's grasp, he tapped out.
Outrage at the stunt began before it started, with tens of thousands of people signing a petition begging Discovery not to do it. Thousands more took to Twitter following the show on Dec. 7, angry not at the obvious harassment of the snake—or the gory scenes of Rosolie being squeezed to death—but that he hadn't been eaten.
Either way, it was a ratings win for Discovery and a clickbait boon for news sites, which, of course, was the point all along: spectacle feeds reaction, reaction feeds spectacle and so on. Like the ouroboros—the mythical snake that consumes itself for eternity—everything old is new again.
There's little comfort in that, considering we're 23 years from the 2,000th anniversary of Caligula's ascension as emperor of Rome, which touched off a heyday for murderous games in the Coliseum. The inconvenient truth is that the citizens of Rome loved him and his extravagant bloodsport (the ancient equivalent of reality TV)—at least for a while.
We all know how that story ended. Call it damnatio ad history.