No wonder Romans liked the arena. There, they could see this competition out in the open. They could also judge how well a man died – one of the indicators of a man’s worth. No wonder too that Romans spent their own money in building public buildings. This generosity to their community improved their excellence, their value, in the eyes of others.
At this time, any moral code was limited to achieving the best image of yourself within society, a dutiful worship of the Olympian gods as part of this, and looking after your family.
This pursuit of being the best as others perceived it was the absolute goal in life for men. Women were expected merely to behave chastely and modestly. Greek men even veiled their women in public much like the the Afghanis do today. Only prostitutes and Spartan women were free of this veiling.
In the relentless competition by men to be the best, the ‘aristos’, there were many who came second in this great contest. For them, there was nothing but heartbreak, shame and self loathing.
In the fourth century BC, all began to change. The four ancient philosophy schools outlined the beginning of a moral code. Sadly, this code tended to be adopted only by the intellectual elite. Also, at this time, Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics outlined a softer ‘arete’ that incorporated virtues, other than those of excellence particularly in war. These were values like justice and self-restraint. However, these were values that were still judged only within a social context.
The most important change around this time was the rise of the various Mystery Religions. The most famous was the Eleusinian Mysteries held once a year at Eleusis near Athens. Everyone who was anyone, who could speak Greek and who could affort the trip became an initiate. Women, men and even slaves became initiates of a Mystery Religion. The Eleusinian Mysteries revolved around Persephone and her time in the underworld as the unwilling bride of Hades. Others revolved around the death and resurrection of Dionsyos.
Emperor Theodosius I banned the Eleusinian Mysteries in 396AD after more than six hundred years of the Mysteries’ existence.