I have given links before about Steven Pinker’s horrible book The Better Angels of our Nature, which purports to prove that prior times were more violent than the present era. It is by and large weaved with lies and misrepresentations about ancient cultures as well as current cultures, and his analysis of the Roman Empire is no different, according to Jason Colavito:
Pinker discounts the Pax Romana as “alleged” peace because the Romans engaged in external wars, though strangely he thinks that the past fifty years of the Pax Americana have been astonishingly peaceful despite America’s external wars. He rightly condemns the cruel spectacles of the Roman circus games, but these blood sports were not simple exercises in cruelty. At their core, they were extensions of a religious ideology of human sacrifice, where the spilled blood nourished the souls of the dead. Many of those killed in the Coliseum were criminals, who were given the sporting chance of fighting for their lives rather than facing execution. According to an estimate by Cameron Hawkins of the University of Chicago, about 5,000 gladiators died in the Coliseum each year, and no amount of revision can make the savagery of their deaths less troublesome.
However, against the Empire’s fifty or sixty million inhabitants, or even the one million of Rome itself, this number is not especially massive, certainly not enough to significantly move the meter on the overall violence of society. However, it does represent one of the most grotesque of the ancient world’s displays of casual cruelty. The Romans themselves, of course, recognized this but gave the common people their circuses to calm their inborn delinquency (Tacitus Dial. 29; Pliny the Younger Ep. 9.6). Seneca wrote that the games were “an act that was nowise human” (De brev. vit. 13.6). Death as entertainment was still a popular pastime in the nineteenth century, when families would gather to watch hangings.