Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Circus and spectacle

For this post, I have been indebted, among other sources, to Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010), Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Profile, 2013), and Florence Dupont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Hachette, 1989, Blackwell, 1992). There is also an excellent discussion here.

Mosaic of a chariot race, from Lyon. T
he four teams (Red, Green, Blue, and White) can be clearly seen

'Bread and circuses'
In his Tenth Satire the poet Juvenal (c. 100 AD) stated: 
‘Time was when the plebiscite electedGenerals, Heads of State and commanders of legions: but nowThey’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them Bread and circuses.’
He was referring to the corn dole and to the constant entertainments put on for the population.

In her review of Jerry Toner's The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Johns Hopkins, 2015) Catherine Nixey writes: 
'The games were not some frivolous sideshow to Roman society: they were Roman society: financially, socially and politically they were at its heart.' The Times, 7 February 2105.

Life in Rome was punctuated by great festivals: ancient religious festivals, anniversaries of victories, celebrations of important dates in Rome's own history  - in total, probably over 130 a year. They were originally religious festivals - such as the Ludi Romani dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva - but they gradually lost their religious significance for many people. About half these festivals were celebrated by a wide variety of games and spectacles: chariot races in the Circus Maximus and wild beast fighting in the amphitheatres. In AD 80 the Colosseum was opened by the Emperor Titus.

Festivals were an important safety valve for the people. The gap between rich and poor was very wide; land hunger had led to an influx of landless people into Rome and the creation of a volatile urban proletariat. The games were also useful as propaganda value for the rulers, providing the opportunity of interacting with the people, as the crowds shouted their opinions to the politicians. Julius Caesar had been criticised for conducting business from his box, so Augustus always gave entertainments his full attention. At the climax of a gladiatorial contest the crowd would shout their verdict on defeated - but still living - men; and the emperor could please the people by responding to their demands. 

Chariot racing
The races were the most prestigious and enduring form of Roman entertainment.  Chariot racing had a long history among the Greeks and it had probably come to Rome through the Etruscans. Virgil describes a chariot race in Book V of his Aeneid.

‘At the races passions ran high. Tens of thousands of spectators held their breath, waiting for the starter’s signal. Then, from his platform, the praetor threw down his handkerchief and they were off, into the headlong speed of the chariot race when the chariots hurtle forth from their stalls…the charioteers shake the waving reins wildly over their dashing steeds, bending forward with the lash! Then applause and shouts, and the zealous cries of partisans fill the air.’ 

The Circus Maximus
A rather good view of the Circus Maximus,
taken in 1978
The main site of chariot racing in Rome was the Circus Maximus  - 650 yards long by 220 yards wide, with space for more than 200,000 spectators. The Roman crowds for horse racing are still the largest sports crowds in the history of the world. In Greek races many individual chariots competed but at Rome competitors raced in multiples of four up to a maximum of twelve. 

The horses emerged from the starting stalls (a Roman innovation) and competitors raced seven times, anti-clockwise past a central barrier known as the spina, some 233 yards long, which was decorated with two great obelisks, and around a circuit, manoeuvring a tight turn at each end. The most thrilling moment was when the chariots circled the markers (metae). They had to run very close to them without actually touching the stones. If they went too fast their centrifugal force would make them swerve dangerously, and they might tip over. Accidents were frequent. 

There were four teams, or factions:  Red, Green, Blue and White, each with its own horses and riders. Most charioteers began as slaves; successful ones could eventually buy their freedom. Spectators supported their teams with fierce enthusiasm and riots between fans often broke out. Races were also social occasions - see Ovid's Amores, which has a very full description of how a day at the races could also be an opportunity for seduction.

From the late 30s BC Agrippa was one of the great patrons of chariot racing. He presented the silver dolphins that marked the laps in races in the Circus Maximus. Augustus allowed chariot races to be added to public celebrations of his birthday, and he donated an obelisk celebrating his victory at Actium to the Circus.  Under him twelve races a day were held.

A model of the Circus Maximus,
with the Colosseum
The poet, Ovid's, 'Day at the Races' (scroll down to read it) from Book III of his Amores gives a description of the races and the ceremonies attending them in the context of an attempted seduction. (Reading it, you might understand why Augustus banished him!)

The word ‘amphitheatre’ comes from two Greek words meaning ‘a place with seats for spectators all round’. In an amphitheatre, the seating completely encloses the space. The Romans also used the term ‘arena’ (from the Latin harena for sand) for the building that was used to cover the surface of the sanded performing area. 

Seats in an amphitheatre were carefully ranked. The front rows were reserved for the elite, who enjoyed comfortable seating and a good view, with a barrier keeping them away from those in the inferior seats.  Following rules introduced by Augustus, the women were seated at the back. The seats that survive in amphitheatres are of stone. However, most seats were of wood. Spectators entered by different routes according to where they were sitting.  The Colosseum had cellars and underground passageways beneath the floor of the arena to accommodate the waiting fighters, whether human or animal.

Gladiatorial contests were the oldest of the Roman blood sports. Scholars are still debating when and where gladiators originated, whether they came via the Etruscans or from the south.  Some have argued for prehistoric origins in human sacrifice. Florence Dupont argues that 
‘it is no accident that they were introduced to Rome at a time when the city had embarked on an expansionist policy and when Rome was assuming its position at the centre of the world and of civilisation’. 
The first gladiatorial combat was staged in Rome in 264 BC, though there might have been earlier ones in southern Italy. 

Gladiatorial displays began as private displays at funerals, but then became the ‘gift’ or ‘promise’ of prominent men who were celebrating triumphs or bidding for yet more honours (like Julius Caesar as aedile in 65 BC). Custom-build amphitheatres first appeared in veterans’ colonies in Italy and the sport was then spread widely by Roman army camps abroad.

The amphitheatre at Pompeii
The ruins of Pompeii provide a great deal of information about how gladiatorial contests and wild-beast hunts were organised. Posters advertising their shows have survived and the graffiti they scrawled on the walls of their barracks have survived. The amphitheatre where the shows took place is one of the best preserved and most impressive of the city’s monuments. It was constructed on the edge of the city by Caius Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius in the 70s BC and it is of a substantial size even by the standards of Rome. It could accommodate some 20,000 people. 150 years later the Colosseum was built in Rome. This catered for a city of a million people, but was only twice as big, catering for some 45,000 spectators with perhaps 5,000 more standing.

When the amphitheatre at Pompeii was excavated in 1815 it was found to be richly decorated. The decorations disappeared, but not before they had been copied by artists. One picture depicted Victory, with a globe and a palm branch, but the majority evoked scenes of combat in the arena with scenes of wild animals in what was thought to be their natural environment.

The advertisements at Pompeii seem to show that five days is the longest series of gladiatorial shows held in the town. Many are advertised just for a single day. It has been estimated that there could not have been more than twenty days of shows in the Amphitheatre each year.

Many gladiators were slaves, others were condemned criminals. Some were volunteers, signing up as a way of escape from destitution or a change of glory and riches. The gladiators were under the control of the troupe manager, the lanista.  An advertisement in the Forum at Pompeii gives notice that ‘the gladiatorial family of Numerius Festus Ampliatus will fight again…on 15 and 16 May’. The lanista had to acquire the gladiators, and this meant scouting for talent at slave auctions. The men then had to be trained. 

A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident, 
in this mosaic from  the villa at Nennig, Germany, 
c. 2nd–3rd century AD.

The Romans gave considerable thought to the physique of the gladiator. He should be fleshy because surface wounds in fat produce a lot of blood without a lot of damage. 

The following list of types of gladiator is not exhaustive. See here for more detail.

The ‘Thracian’ (Thrax) fought with a short, curved sword and a small shield.
The murmillo (fish-head), so called because of the emblem of the fish on his helmet was armed with a Roman sword and a large, long shield. He was heavy-armed but slow.
The secutor was similarly armed.
The net-man (retiarius) fought with a net and trident. He was less well-armed but more nimble.
The andabata fought with a helmet that acted as a blindfold and fought on tiptoes.
Asymmetrical pairs were selected for combat. Each gladiator was therefore too heavily or too lightly armed.  A murmillo against a retiarius was a popular combination.

Death was not the essence of the show. A gladiator stood a one in ten chance of being killed in his first bout, but after this the odds improved.  Gladiators were expensive to buy and train and the lanista did not want to lose too many. Sometimes a fight was declared a draw, or was ended when a wounded man surrendered. We hear of gladiators who survived thirty fights.  Skilled gladiators were major celebrities.

Other blood sports
Apart from gladiators, there were three other types of slaughter: battles between wild animals (first staged in the 180s BC), hunts between wild animals and humans, and mock sea-battles. Their origins go back into the Republic, but they expanded greatly under the emperors. The greatest sufferer was north Africa, which suffered a huge loss of animal life.

The most recent of these sports was the sea-battle, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC.  In 2 BC Augustus built an artificial lake in Rome in which he stated a vast mock sea-battle. Wild beast hunts appear to have originated in Carthage, with its access to the wild life of north Africa. During the Punic Wars elephants were shown in Rome and shot to death. In 167 BC we hear of criminals and prisoners of war condemned ad bestias – to be offered up to wild animals.

Conclusion: political significance
Blood sports were intensely political. Ambitious politicians felt they needed to provide entertainments for the people. With the ending of the Republic the emperors monopolised triumphs. In the Res Gestae Augustus claimed:
 ‘Three times I gave shows of gladiators; … in these shows about 10,000 men fought. … Twenty-six times, under my name or that of my sons and grandsons, I gave the people hunts of African beasts in the circus, in the open, or in the amphitheatre; in them about 3,500 beasts were killed.’ 
He was proud of that! The emperor Trajan went one better. In one set of games he gave the equivalent of the entire mammal population of London zoo was destroyed every two days.