Once upon a time, Roman gladiators fought against one another in massive arenas surrounded by the deafening cries of thousands of blood-thirsty spectators who craved to see no less than blood carpet the ground, gouged eyes brandished like a cowboy’s lasso and decapitated heads affixed to the sharp end of swords like skewered kebabs.
One would need to momentarily turn a blind eye to the fierce brutality of what was once upon a time considered a magnificent sport, if they would like to perceive the noble elements of the game. Just as the crowds used to, long ago. For in their hearts, the audience longed for more than just the sight of blood. With determined eyes, they religiously followed each swing of the mighty sword as it cut through the air toward their opponent’s body. With each breath they impatiently waited to witness the manifestation of ideals and virtues that long confirmed the elegance of the sport.
The crowd held strong admiration for those who fought valiantly and displayed great courage.
When a gladiator put on a good show and revealed integrity, he or she was showered with gifts, honours, sexual partners and even freedom. In other words, the gladiator received a bonus.
Though those days have long gone, except in the imagination of a few poor yet ambitious Hollywood scriptwriters aspiring to bring to life the next great Ancient Roman blockbuster, some practices remain.
Just as many forms of punishment once open to the public moved behind closed doors, so too have some of today’s gladiator games. In particular those that involve financial combatants. Though they are out of sight, they persist within the halls of global investment banks.
Origins and the present
Gladiators usually came from one of two places. They were captured soldiers who had fought and lost against Rome. Or they were slaves. Through their status as gladiators they would have the opportunity to redeem themselves and potentially attain freedom. Perhaps even fame.
Times have changed. What we now see is the predominance of slaves in the arena of investment banking. And, paradoxically, it is free men and women who willingly agree to become enslaved. They renounce their freedom, what former gladiators fought and died for, and enroll to become contenders in the financial arena. They do so usually, but not always, understanding the risks of the game.
Punishments no longer celebrated
In Rome, on the day of the games, both punishment and reward were afforded to the contenders.
In investment banking, punishment is served throughout the year. Special arrangements or gatherings are not required. Oftentimes, the victim is blithely unaware of his or her fate until a distracting shadow appears before him or her. Just then, the banker looks up to meet the sharp end of an axe. Unfortunately, by that time there is only time for one or two final words, at most.
Rewards, on the other hand, are celebrated but once a year in investment banking.
Survival of the fittest
Each year sees a new intake of bankers (gladiators). Many have been trained from birth in the arts, physical education and mathematics. They have generally fared well in their former settings and most likely stood out as champions in their respective little villages and depressing outposts. But when they come together in an arena of a major metropolis, such as London, New York or Hong Kong, they find themselves facing other champions. What they’ve trained for their whole life is here. The real competition begins. The strongest and the brightest from around the world in one place.
Within a year the weak die out and Darwin continues to gain more credibility posthumously. Some of the contenders can no longer shoulder the hours, the intense training or the competition from other in-house gladiators whose insatiable ambitions leave no place for the weak. What remains are those with a high threshold for pain, a level of diligence few humans possess and an acute commercial sense for how to make money.
The competition intensifies and in time emerge leaders from this pack of young blood. Their scars reveal their sacrifice. Their eyes are reminiscent of a hunger seen on the faces of famished felines shown in wildlife television programmes. They will ultimately win prizes and admiration from the arena’s important crowd, senior management. In time, they will single-handedly make economies turn.
This is where the arena of investment banking differs from Roman times. Where once the audience numbered in the thousands and gladiators were few in numbers, now the audience is small in numbers and gladiators many.