Why does Miss Maudie compare watching the trial to a Roman carnival in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Miss Maudie compares watching the trial to Roman carnival because both were bloodthirsty events in which crowds enjoyed another being's suffering.

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In chapter 16, the residents of Maycomb County gather to witness the Tom Robinson trial and treat the court case as a celebratory event, where they are excited to watch Tom become the victim of racial injustice. Jem, Scout, and Dill watch as the entire community rides into town with their families and picnics outside of the courthouse. The racist citizens of Maycomb understand that Tom Robinson has no chance of winning the case but look forward to watching him fight for his life, which is disturbing, inhumane, and uncivilized.

While the country folks ride their wagons and mules towards the town square, Jem and Dill ask Miss Maudie if she will be heading to the courthouse. Miss Maudie responds by saying,

"I am not. ‘t’s morbid, watching a poor devil on trial for his life. Look at all those folks, it’s like a Roman carnival." (Lee, 161)

Roman carnivals were bloody, savage events, where people would celebrate the deaths of humans or animals. By comparing the enthusiastic citizens to a Roman carnival, Miss Maudie is commenting on the violent, uncivilized celebration surrounding the trial, which the racist community members treat as an entertaining spectacle. Similar to a Roman carnival, the crowd is depicted as bloodthirsty and ruthless as they rejoice another person's suffering. Overall, the community members of Maycomb resemble the brutal, savage crowds during a Roman carnival as they celebrate Tom Robinson fighting for his life.

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Miss Maudie is an enlightened soul, a female counterpart to Atticus. She is sharply critical of the Tom Robinson trial. She compares it to a Roman carnival because Roman carnivals and other spectacles were usually bloodthirsty events ending in human or animal deathsand crowds enjoyed witnessing these deaths.

As everyone in Maycomb knows, Tom Robinson's conviction for rape is a foregone conclusion. The word of white will always be believed over the word of a black. The white community comes out to enjoy this predictable drama being played out, treating the trial as if it were a show. People bring picnics. Children and babies are part of the scene, revealing how early white Maycomb residents are exposed to the idea that it enjoyable and acceptable to condemn blacks for crimes, whether they committed them or not. Miss Maudie is appalled that a man's fight for his life with almost no hope of winning is treated as joyous, festive event.

What Lee describes as the atmosphere around the court house when the large crowd gathers is reminiscent of what can be seen in lynching photographs. These photos often show lynchings as fun family outings.

With her words, Miss Maudie condemns her fellow Maycomb whites as insensitive for their attitude toward the trial.

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A Roman Carnival has been defined as an event which resembles Mardi Gras. A tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, this celebration is, to this day, a popular event in Italy, and other countries such as Brazil (whose carnival in Rio is the largest in the world).

Traditionally, Roman carnival consisted of a large public celebration that lasted 8 days, ending the night of Fat Tuesday, the day marking the beginning of Lent . . . During Carnival, the most famous streets and squares would be filled with spectators captivated by the shows, music, masked processions and stands selling goods.[http://www.welcometorome.net/en/about-rome/roman%20culture/roman-carnival]

Miss Maudie's allusion is an apt one, as people from all over the county come to Maycomb's square where the courthouse is located. The parade of odd folks in wagons and other residents of the city set up "picnic parties" on the lawn. When Dill asks Miss Maudie if she is not going, this sensible woman answers that she refuses to engage in such a morbid activity as "watching a poor devil on trial for his life." (Ch.16) 

Interestingly, too, is the fact that during the Roman carnival, pigs were herded to an area where there was a cliff. There these animals were forced to jump to their deaths, and the Romans were allowed to collect them and take them home to eat. This practice suggests the concept of a sacrificial animal, which is not unlike what Tom Robinson later becomes for the Jim Crow Southern town.

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Watching the small town of Maycomb gather with crowds of spectators arriving to see the trial of Tom Robinson reminded Miss Maudie of a carnival atmosphere. A wagonload of Mennonites rode by, followed by another wagon full of "stern-faced citizens" who heckled Maudie with a bible scripture; Maudie defiantly responded with one in return. Dolphus Raymond rode his thoroughbred; X Billings passed by on his mule. The public hitching rail soon was full. "The courthouse sqare was covered with picnic parties..." Children played games and babies suckled at their mothers' breasts. Other friends and neighbors gathered on the street to gossip and speculate about the trial. For such a solemn and serious event, it seemed like a carnival to Maudie.

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Miss Maudie says this in Chapter 16.

I think that she is comparing the trial to the gladiatorial contests that Romans used to watch.  I think that she is saying that the people of Maycomb are like the Romans were.  I think that what she is thinking is that both the Romans and the people of Maycomb are getting entertainment by watching other people fighting for their lives.  She thinks that it is disgusting to do that sort of thing for fun.

I'm not convinced she's right, though.  The Romans watched other people that they didn't even know dying.  The people in Maycomb actually care what happens -- most of the whites probably think it will be a good thing if Tom Robinson is killed.  They think it will preserve their way of life.  So I don't think they're just watching for fun the way the Romans did.

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