Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Four

“Chariot Races,” “Three Theatres,” “An Amphitheatre,” and More: Entertainment in the Campus Martius

Having climbed the slope of the steps of a wooden amphitheater, Corydon, a creation of the poet Titus Calpurnius Siculus, vividly describes taking his seat in the upper level among the poor in their unbleached cloaks and near the benches where women were allowed to view the spectacle below.1 If the events set out in his eclogue took place in 57 C.E., as many scholars believe, then the poet Calpurnius had likely observed the Campus Martius from the recently completed structure built in less than a year under the orders of Emperor Nero.2 Employing a veritable forest of wood, including the largest larch tree ever brought to the capital, Calpurnius/Corydon tells us that the amphitheater rose on interwoven beams above the flat plain of the Campus Martius in two curved sections, creating an oval arena on the center floor.3

From Corydon's words, we might imagine Calpurnius at the amphitheater surveying the crowd and incidents to include in his work. Before the show grabbed his attention, perhaps he looked out across the Field of Mars and saw in the distance the Capitoline Hill,appearing not much taller than the amphitheater itself.4 From his high perch atop the theater, the poet would also have seen a remarkable sight. Once a marshy military exercise ground, the plain was now the premier entertainment district within a bustling, urban landscape. Captured in Calpurnius's view from this impressive, albeit temporary entertainment site, would have been the even more extraordinary and permanent stone theaters and amphitheater constructed by great men during the waning days of the republic. These massive edifices significantly influenced the transformation of the topography of the Campus Martius. The Amphitheater of Statilius Taurus was then approaching its ninth decade of hosting gladiatorial and animal exhibitions. Constructed a century before Nero's temporary structure was raised, the curved walls of Rome's first and largest stone theater, the Theater of Pompey, would also have been visible. Indeed, it rose higher than the amphitheater where Calpurnius sat. About half a kilometer southeast of Pompey's theater, another theater sat close to the riverbank, this one built by Augustus to honor his deceased nephew Marcellus. Yet a third theater and its attached portico, built by a general from Hispania, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, stood approximately equidistant between the other two. The view from the top seats of the amphitheater might have included other nearby venues for occasional sporting events, such as a trigarium, or practice track for horse races, and the Saepta Julia, which was used sometimes for gladiatorial combat and gymnastic competition.

Turning his attention from the skyline to his immediate surroundings, Calpurnius might have marveled at both the amphitheater's ornamentation and the performance staged below. Just above him, an awning, described by Pliny as blue with stars, fluttered in the breeze.5 It covered only part of the audience, with the equestrians and tribunes sitting near the arena floor exposed to the sun and sky.6 In order to awe the audience with a display of imperial wealth, Nero added gilded arcades to this building of wood, as well as a marble wall separating the seats from the arena floor. The low wall, or balteus, ringing the cross aisle of the amphitheater was encrusted with gems. On the day of Calpurnius's visit, ticket holders watched a display of wild beasts, and Corydon lists animals such as bison, bears, “sea calves,” and hippopotamuses among the entertainment. As with similar shows, nets were placed along the edge of the arena floor to protect the viewers from danger. But these were not just ordinary woven ropes. Nero had them made of gold wire suspended from huge white tusks, each reportedly longer than a plow. For added spectator protection, ivory cylinders on wooden axles were placed around the arena ready to spin and throw off sharp claws if an animal attempted to lunge at the closest viewers. Trapdoors were built into the floor to deliver the animals leaping to the surface in a cloud of yellow sand and dust, surprising and delighting the spectators.7

This show, described by Calpurnius in his Eclogues, was the type of spectacle that Romans expected in the Field of Mars in the mid-first century C.E., but the venues in which they were held had developed slowly and with designs and materials varying according to the type of entertainment. The earliest events, such as horse racing, continued over time with – at best – temporary seating. Other diversions, such as theater performances, were ultimately staged in massive stone structures that were to last for centuries, leaving a permanent mark on the landscape of the Campus Martius.

Venues for “Chariot Racing and other Equestrian Activities”

Apart from the pomp and pageantry associated with the triumphal parade, the earliest form of organized spectator events in the Campus Martius appears to have been three days of horse racing.8 The Equirria, held in the Campus Martius on February 27 and on March 14, have been associated with the annual military campaign season and must be of very early origin.9 Occasionally, horse races occurred in Rome without chariots, and it is not clear whether the Equirria contests were run with or without chariots.10 We do know that the October Horse was a competition among bigae, two-horse chariot teams. Held on October 15 somewhere in the Field of Mars, the October Horse may date to the sixth century B.C.E.11

The open, flat terrain of the Campus Martius during the republic lent itself well to equestrian events, and its use for that purpose would not have interfered with military training exercises. In fact, such activities reinforced the space's connection to the horses of war. The Field of Mars, however, was by no means the only suitable area of the city for the sport.12 Southwest of the Campus Martius, a long, narrow valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills proved ideal for a track, and it was here that Rome's oldest and largest racetrack, the Circus Maximus, was established.13 Achieving its greatest size and magnificence during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.), the Circus Maximus at that time was a stone stadium three stories high with arcades and engaged columnsalong the exterior perimeter of the lowest level. Its seating accommodated an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 spectators to cheer the chariot drivers racing along an oval track approximately 550 meters long and 80 meters wide.14 Along the center of the track ran thespina that became in the second century C.E. a euripus, a marbled basin filled with water over which bridges were placed at regular intervals leading to islands containing sculpture, obelisks, and pavilions.15

Horse racing was first associated with votive offerings by triumphant generals and was presented periodically as part of the ludi Romani or Roman games.16 In 366 B.C.E., these occasional games became an annual September event with chariot races known as ludi circenses, or circus games.17 Although the races took place in the Circus Maximus, the festival had strong ties with the early uses of the Campus Martius. Dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus, the ludi Romani celebrated peace at the end of the military season, when soldiers returned from war to the Field of Mars. A lengthy procession led by the sons of citizens nearing the age for military service, followed by charioteers and other athletes, wended from the Campus Martius to the Capitoline, through the Forum to the Circus before the start of the games themselves.18

After the mid-fifth century B.C.E., state money was used to supply racehorses for the games.19 It was perhaps at that point in time that organized groups of drivers formed, with colored tunics to distinguish each team: Red (russata), White (albata), Blue (veneta), and Green (prasina) (see Plate VII).20 In addition to the bigae, there were chariots pulled by three horses (trigae) and, most popularly, by four horses (quadrigae).21 The Circus Maximus was large enough for each team to field three quadrigae at a time, allowing twelve charioteers driving forty-eight horses to race at once.22 At the time of Augustus, there were seventeen days of public chariot races on the calendar. By the mid-third century C.E., there were sixty-six days annually.23 At that time, there were as many as twenty-four races in a day, each lasting about fifteen minutes. Although drivers likely competed several times, a large number of fresh horses would have been needed on race day.24

Plate VII Charioteers with horses, four mosaic sections from the Villa of Baccano, Rome (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme) (third century C.E.)

While the Circus Maximus had many days of equestrian events, we know of very few in the Campus Martius. In addition to the two Equirria and the October Horse, one other festival with horse racing, the ludi Taurii, has been clearly associated with the Field of Mars, but it was held only once every five years in the Circus Flaminius, and without chariots.25 Another annual festival, first mentioned in 216 B.C.E., the ludi Plebeii, was held every November with theatrical performances as well as three days of circus games, and while one ancient writer indicated that it was run in the Circus Flaminius, doubt has been cast on that site as the games’ location for very long.26 Notwithstanding these few known equestrian events, in the early imperial era, when the southern and central Campus Martius were filling with structures, Strabo wrote that the plain still afforded “space…without interference…for the chariot-races and every other equestrian exercise.”27 Was Strabo simply referring to the few races known or acknowledging that there were more? If the latter, where were they raced?

Although called a “circus,” the Circus Flaminius space was used generally as a public square for markets, assemblies, and triumphal gatherings.28 Lacking permanent spectator seating, it did host one chariot-less race every five years and perhaps, for a while, theludi Plebeii. Doubt has been cast on its use for other races, and the confined space of the Circus Flaminius would have limited chariot races to a scale much smaller scale than those held in the Circus Maximus. No more than about 500 meters on its long axis before temples confined the space, the open area within the Circus Flaminius shrank considerably by the late second century B.C.E.29 Indeed, once surrounded by buildings, the available space would have confined a track to less than half of the length of the Circus Maximus, allowing four-horse chariot teams to race down the long side in about half a minute.30 Temporary wooden viewing stands would have constricted the tight space even further. This suggests that any races were more likely observed from the surrounding temple steps and porticoes. Unlike the Circus Maximus, the Circus Flaminius was too narrow to accommodate twelve quadrigae at a time. Nonetheless, it was certainly wide enough to allow at least one four-horse chariot for each of the four teams.31

Because the October Horse was run with bigae, the space within the Circus Flaminius was likely sufficient to hold the annual contest, but references to the race in a fourth-century C.E. calendar suggest a wholly separate location for the October Horse, perhaps a kilometer north of the Circus Flaminius where the Tiber begins to narrow the Campus Martius (see Plan 2).32 Whether the Equirria contests were held in this same location is simply unknown.

Some scholars have also argued for the existence of a practice track in the Campus Martius near the Tiber called a trigarium, a name possibly derived from the three-horse chariot team.33 Given the large number of charioteers and horses that participated in Circus Maximus races and the competitive spirit among the four teams, a workout facility appears logical. A dedicated practice area for racing could have been in use year-round, perhaps occasionally with Strabo watching from the sidelines. Strabo states that the charioteers raced “without hindrance,” and as he gives no precise location, it is possible that there was no permanent seating.34 At best, there would have been a wooden viewing stand, possibly erected only on festival days. As for its position, it is unlikely that the central area of the Campus Martius was suitable for the trigarium because by the early imperial era it was fast filling with structures whose exact locations have been identified. One proposed area for the track is the western side of the Campus Martius, near the present-day Via Giulia, following the northwest-southeast line of the Tiber (Plan 3, No. 31).35

Although no direct physical evidence has been found that situates a racetrack in the western Campus Martius, an inscription found in the area refers to horse stables for the Green team. Known collectively as the Stabula IIII Factionum, the stables for all four teams were likely separated but in close proximity to each other. They provided shelter and fodder for the large number of horses required for racing days in the Circus Maximus and likely facilitated daily practice in the trigarium.36 The importance of horse racing and the excesses of the imperial age came together in this location. According to ancient writers, Caligula (r. 37–41 C.E.), an enthusiastic fan of the Green faction, caused an ivory paddock and marble stall to be built at the Green stables for his favorite horse, Incitatus.37 According to Suetonius, the emperor often spent the night there, and just before race day, Caligula would deploy his soldiers to enforce silence in the surrounding area to prevent Incitatus from being disturbed.38

In addition to races on tracks, the Campus Martius provided space for more informal equestrian activities. We know, for example, that the young Octavian used to engage in riding and military exercises in the field and Marius donned armor and participated in mock battles on horseback.39 Until the Augustan building program in the late first century B.C.E., the central and northern portions of the Campus Martius remained open space that could accommodate these activities. Even during Strabo's day, the northern reaches were just beginning to see development, and apart from chariot races, the “other equestrian exercise” could occur there “without interference.”40

While the Campus Martius was likely viewed as little competition for the extraordinary racetrack that was the Circus Maximus, it appears to have provided an important venue for a few races tied to the sanctity of the space such as the October Horse, to have supported the Circus Maximus with practice facilities and paddocks, and, at least through the Augustan principate, to have offered the casual horseman a splendid recreational area among its still-open spaces and manicured parks.

From Temple Steps to Stone Seats: Spaces for Theater

Though it would seem that the earliest form of public entertainment in the Campus Martius left no permanent imprint on the space, the next type of performances staged there ultimately shaped the landscape in ways still visible. The scenic games (ludi scaenici) evolved into theatrical events held in massive stone theaters that remained mostly intact until the end of the empire. According to Livy, the first of the ludi scaenici came to Rome in the mid-fourth century B.C.E. “This was a new departure for a warlike people, whose only [earlier] exhibitions had been those of the circus.”41 The scenic games were a simple combination of music and movement and appear to have been introduced through contact with the Etruscans to the north. At the first Roman Games, according to Livy, “Without any singing, without imitating the action of singers, players who had been brought in from Etruria danced to the strains of the flautist and performed not ungraceful evolutions in the Tuscan fashion.”42 The Romans also likely were exposed at this time to the slapstick comedy performed with masks by their southern neighbors, the Oscans, as well as to the farcical dramas known as phlyakes performed in the Greek colonies on the Italian Peninsula.43 The first scripted dramas did not arrive in Rome for another century, until just after the close of the First Punic War.44 Two decades later, the first historical dramas, or fabulae praetextae, were performed, and in the period between the First and Second Punic Wars, some festivals became associated with scenic entertainment.45 Theludi scaenici were not wholly separate from the ludi circenses discussed earlier, because both could be employed as part of the same festival, as with the ludi Romani and the ludi Plebeii.46 By the mid-second century B.C.E. there were approximately twenty days ofludi scaenici on the calendar, and by the time of Augustus in the late first century B.C.E. there were fifty-six days set aside for theater, showing the growing popularity of the performing arts at the end of the republic.47 Beacham has summarized the situation well: “Public demand for entertainment encouraged prudent politicians and rulers as well as ambitious patrons to provide generous sponsorship and support.”48

It is believed that the first theaters in Rome were little more than wooden stages set up in the Forum, the Circus Maximus, or before a temple. Generally tied to religious festivals, ludi scaenici would be performed in the vicinity of a temple, the god of which was honored by the celebrations.49 When a stage was erected in front of a temple, the steps leading to the podium often doubled as seating.50 Although ancient literary sources do not provide explicit evidence for annual festival plays held at the temples in the Campus Martius, given the explosion of temple construction occurring in the plain just as ludi scaenici were coming to Rome, it is reasonable to presume that they were. We do know that a contract was awarded by Aemilius Lepidus for the construction of a theater near the Temple of Apollo in 179 B.C.E., likely to be used in connection with the ludi Apollinares held every July. In this case, however, rather than employing the improvised seating of temple steps, audience seats were to be constructed along with a stage. The theater seating possibly remained in place for several years and was reused for other performances, although it has been questioned whether the structure was actually built at all.51 The dedication six years later of the Temple of Fortuna Equestris (in the general vicinity of the later-built Theater of Pompey) also included four days of theatrical entertainment, although the location of the performances is not identified.52

Scenic games were limited neither to temple dedications nor to annual religious celebrations, but were sometimes performed in conjunction with triumphs, as in 167 B.C.E. when ludi scaenici were held on a large stage, complete with an orchestra for dancers, in the Campus Martius.53 Indeed, triumphal parades that formed up in the Campus Martius sometimes brought to the viewers lining the route a theater in motion with “a chorus of musicians and pipers, in imitation of an Etruscan procession, wearing belts and golden crowns, and they march evenly with song and dance.”54 Julius Caesar sponsored stage plays, which were performed “by actors of all languages” in every ward of the city as part of the quadruple triumphs celebrated in 46 B.C.E. Suetonius tells us that in one such play a Roman knight “acted a farce of his own composition, and having been presented with 500,000 sesterces and a gold ring, passed from the stage through the orchestra and took his place in the…rows” reserved for knights.55 Particular favorites of the Roman audiences were mimes, plays with lascivious and mocking themes, and pantomimes, solo dancing by masked actors accompanied by music and often based on Greek themes.56

At the same time that the Romans viewed performances in simple, improvised venues or watched them pass along the parade route, theatergoers elsewhere on the Italian Peninsula and in Sicily enjoyed such spectacles from stone seats built into the curve of a slope, both natural and man-made. The audiences faced a raised stone stage (-pulpitum) with tall scene buildings (scaenae frons) as a background and set.57 The large theater in Pompeii, for instance, dating to the second century B.C.E. was built against a lava and earth slope and had a seating area (cavea) approximately forty-nine meters wide with a stage placed almost two meters higher than the orchestra.58 Some of the theaters were large enough to seat as many as 14,000 theatergoers, although most held far less.59 Not all shows outside of Rome were performed in large permanent venues, however. The phlyakes were held on temporary wooden stages with decorated cloth or wooden backdrops, and it is thought that the first Roman theaters were possibly modeled on these Greekstructures.60

Not until Pompey the Great erected his enormous concrete and stone theater, dedicated in 55 B.C.E., did Romans see in their capital a permanent structure for theatrical entertainment similar to those found elsewhere in Italy. Numerous causes have been offered for this state of affairs, but generally scholars have settled on attempts by the aristocracy to maintain control over theatrical performances for various reasons. These include a desire to restrict shows to specific holidays, fear that a conspicuous display through construction of massive buildings would engender resentment by the lower classes, and the inappropriateness of the permanent glorification of a wealthy benefactor.61 The impracticality of building a permanent theater for each honored god and the poor quality of concrete available in Rome for use in large structures have also been offered as explanations for the existence of only temporary theaters in the Campus Martius before the mid-first century B.C.E.62

In 154–150 B.C.E., an attempt by the censors to build a permanent theater was thwarted after materials had been gathered and construction almost completed. Using the stated reason that permanent theaters were “useless and injurious to public morals,” the Senate on the urging of the statesman Scipio Nasica brought the project to a halt.63 To make the point, a law was passed at that time prohibiting sitting at public games within a mile of the city. Moreover, any theater seating that had been erected as of this date in Rome was now off-limits.64 According to Appian, writing more than 200 years after the fact, the demolition was carried out either to eradicate a likely source of intrigue or to keep Romans from becoming accustomed to Greek recreation.65 Because Greek theatrical performances were not prohibited, the latter reason rings hollow. As Gruen suggests, it may have had more to do with the desire of the magistrates to use temporary theaters to keep drama dependent on their annual approval.66

Even within the temporary theaters, rules were developed to impose social order and reinforce conservative norms of morality. Until the beginning of the second century B.C.E., members of the various classes and both sexes intermingled at performances, but in 194 B.C.E. special seats near the stage were reserved for Senate members.67 At some point men and women were segregated during performances, and when dividing the viewers did not resolve upper-class concerns about the theater promoting unacceptable moral behavior, other measures were taken. In 115 B.C.E., for instance, actors and all theater personnel were temporarily banned from the city.68 Stricter rules for audience class divisions were adopted under Augustus through a law known as the Lex Iulia Theatralis.69Theatrical performances appear to have become caught in the culture wars, with plays considered by some in the upper class as subversive and interjecting dangerous foreign ideas.70

Despite efforts to control theatrical displays, the simple wooden affairs for performances at religious holidays had evolved into elaborate edifices by the first century B.C.E. Awnings were added and stages were embellished with silver, gold, and ivory ornamentation.71 Perhaps the most extraordinary “temporary” theater in Rome during the republic was the one constructed in 58 B.C.E. by Aemilius Scaurus. Standing for several years in the Campus Martius, the wooden theater held approximately 20,000 spectators.72 It had a scaenae frons with 360 columns divided evenly among three levels.73 The columns on the lowest level were of marble, those on the second of glass mosaic surmounted by gilt wood columns on the third. It was further decorated with 3,000 bronze statues. Five years later, a tribune erected two large wooden theaters, likely in the Campus Martius, whose semicircular seating were back-to-back, allowing two separate performances to occur simultaneously. In an amazing feat of engineering, thecaveae, resting on pivoting platforms, were turned in the afternoon, even with the audience in place, transforming the double caveae into an amphitheater suitable for gladiatorial combat.74 Writing more than a century after the fact, Pliny the Elder was contemptuous of the way in which the audience was placed in such danger:

Here [C. Scribonius] Curio staged fights between gladiators – although the Roman people found themselves in even greater danger than the gladiators, as Curio spun them around. It is difficult to know what should amaze us more, the inventor or the invention, or the sheer audacity of the conception. Most amazing of all is the madness of a people rash enough to sit in such treacherous and unstable seats! What contempt for human life this shows!…Here the whole Roman people, as if put on board two ships, were supported by a pair of pivots and watched themselves fighting for their lives and likely to perish at any moment should the mechanism be put out of gear!75

With temporary structures becoming more and more elaborate and plays gaining in popularity, the time was ripe in the mid-first century B.C.E. for another attempt to count Rome among the numerous other cities in Italy that allowed stone and masonry venues for theatrical performances. The grip of the conservative Senate over the physical development of the city was weakening as power increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy men who used conspicuous display as a political tool.76 Nevertheless, it took the stature of Rome's then greatest general to bring about the completion of Rome's first permanent theater. With its flat expanse, the Campus Martius provided the ideal location. According to Plutarch, Pompey the Great developed the idea of constructing a permanent stage and seating in 63 B.C.E. while viewing a stone theater at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos.77 With extraordinary spoils from his eastern campaign at his disposal, Pompey returned to Rome two years later with conceptual drawings for Rome's first permanent theater and the means to realize them.78 Construction for the massive structure began following his third triumph in 61 B.C.E. It was completed six years later and was unlike anything Rome had seen previously built. Although supposedly inspired by the Greek theater Pompey had admired on his campaign, the structure was far grander, becoming and remaining the largest theater built by the Romans.79 The cavea was approximately 150 meters across, or eight times as large as the one on Lesbos, and rose from the flat earth of the central Campus Martius instead of being built up against a hillside in the Greek style.80 At an estimated height of approximately 44 meters, it stood 18 meters higher than the modern Capitoline piazza, and including the appended quadriportico, the area of the theater was more than half that of the Capitoline hill.81 As Sear observed, Pompey's theater “established a new type of civic building, a totally integrated and unified structure, independent of its surroundings because of its exploitation of concrete vaulting,” the end product of previous efforts elsewhere in Italy to free stone cavea from earthen support.82 The seating capacity at the time it was built is unknown, but by the fourth century C.E., and after several renovations, the theater is thought to have held between 11,000 and slightly more than 17,000 spectators.83

To assure its permanence, the structure was built of concrete walls 1.5 meters thick and faced in stone.84 Theatergoers entered through forty-four arched passageways along the outer wall.85 The third-century Severan Marble Plan shows an elaborate scaenae frons with two deep, semicircular niches flanking a central rectangular one, all fronted by a colonnade (Figure 15).86 The decorative elements around the exterior of the cavea are unknown, but with respect to the interior, beautiful statuary has been excavated in the vicinity, allowing for the possibility that Pompey's theater held sculptures in the tradition of Scaurus (Figures 16 and 17).87 The solidity of Pompey's grandiose theater achieved the goals of its patron. Almost 500 years later, in the fourth century C.E., the theater was still noted to be one of the tallest structures in the city.88 Even today, its footprint is reflected in the curve of the buildings resting on its arcades (Figure 18).

15. Detail, Vat. Lat. 3439 f.23r. Theater of Pompey and the connecting portico after the Severan Marble Plan (sixteenth century). (Photo: with permission of Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, with all rights reserved)

16. Satyr (ca. second century C.E.) found in the vicinity of the Theater of Pompey. Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums. (Photo: Vanni / Art Resource, New York)

17. Seated muse (late republican) found in the vicinity of the Theater of Pompey. (Photo: Paul Jacobs with permission of Roma, Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini)

18. Location of the cavea of the Theater of Pompey, Via di Grotta Pinta, Rome. (Photo: Paul Jacobs)

Along the top curve of the cavea, Pompey built a temple of Venus Victrix, and at least by the reign of Claudius, there were four additional shrines above the seating area.89 Tertullian, a second-century C.E. writer, claimed that when it came time to dedicate the structure, Pompey issued invitations not to the dedication of the theater but instead to the Temple of Venus, asserting that the theater was merely a stairway to the temple. This was, according to Tertullian, an excuse for Pompey to avoid the opprobrium associated with permanent theater structures, putting it in the same category as manubial temple construction.90 The invitation may have been made in jest, as recognition of a proscription that had little application to someone of his stature and power. Though he was harshly criticized for building the theater, had there been a serious attempt to thwart its construction, it would have been made before the concrete had set.91

On the eastern side of the colonnaded park behind his theater and flanking the back of the temples in the Largo Argentina, Pompey constructed a meeting room (curia) used by the Senate, in which stood a large statue of Pompey himself. Because he was proconsul, Pompey could meet with the senators outside the pomerium in a space that he built.92 Ancient sources tell us that on the eve of his battle with Julius Caesar at Pharsalus, Pompey dreamed of walking into his theater complex to the sound of applause and of decorating the Venus Victrix with the spoils of war, but Pompey never returned to receive the adulation.93 Instead, a golden throne for Caesar would grace the theater.94 Four years later, however, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.E., Caesar met his demise in thecuriabehind the theater, at the foot of Pompey's statue.95 Later, Augustus removed the statue, placing it on a marble arch behind the scaenae frons. He then walled up the curia.96 The meeting room was converted to a latrine that is visible today behind Temple B in the Largo Argentina (Figure 19).97 Stretching more than 300 meters from the modern Largo Argentina to the Campo dei Fiori, the theater and portico complex occupied an extraordinary amount of prime real estate in the heart of the central Campus Martius, rising above the plain to the approximate height of the Capitoline Hill. It dominated all of the structures nearby. The Theater of Pompey was, according to Dyson, a “manubial shrine, a place of entertainment, and a porticus, where programmatic sculptures and spoils of victory would be combined for the glorification of the imperator.”98 Even when viewed at a distance, it reminded residents and visitors to the city of the tangible munificence of Rome's great generals, as well as the vagaries of political and military fortune, and that the Campus Martius itself was a large stage for the presentation of these themes.

19. Latrine on the west side of the Largo Argentina. (Photo: Paul Jacobs)

For centuries, Pompey's theater presented spectacles, not only on the stage but also in the cavea. To display his status as sole ruler in the manner of a Hellenistic monarch, Julius Caesar wore a crown with rays to a performance there, and at a rededication of the theater, Emperor Claudius first made sacrifices to the gods at the temples above the cavea and then with great solemnity walked down the steps to his seat as the audience sat in silence.99 Pompey's structure was often on the itinerary of foreign visitors to Rome such as Germanic tribal kings in 58 C.E.100 To impress the visiting King of Armenia in 66 C.E., Nero had the interior of the theater gilded and raised over it a purple awning or vela that displayed golden stars and a portrait of the emperor riding a chariot.101 During one extravagant third-century performance, the stage accidentally caught fire.102 Whatever concerns republican aristocrats had with the potential of permanent theaters to lessen their control over social order, the emperors of Rome were able to take full advantage of Pompey's imposing theater as a stage from which to project the power of the principate. This, in turn, assured that the center of the Campus Martius remained for centuries an important venue for imperial political display.

It remains a matter of speculation why Pompey chose the Campus Martius as the location for Rome's first stone theater. A number of factors – geographic, religious, political, and perhaps technological – plausibly informed the choice. First, the theater may have been erected on property that Pompey owned, since Plutarch tells us that he built a small house for himself directly behind the theater, “like a small boat towed by a ship.”103 Second, because the complex, including the portico, was enormous, a large, open space such as the Campus Martius was necessary if it were to be built on flat ground instead of against a hill in the manner used by the Greeks.104 Third, by the time Pompey built his theater, the structural materials and engineering techniques were available to raise a concrete and stone structure on flat, marshy soil without fear of collapse.105 Fourth, to the extent that he did wish to emphasize the religious elements of the architecture, namely the Temple of Venus Victrix (“Giver of Victory”) crowning the cavea, one effective way was to place it directly west and in the sight line of the existing temples in the Largo Argentina. Fifth, the Campus Martius was now a well-accepted venue for the display of success on the battlefield, and Pompey celebrated his conquests by decorating his structure with marble personifications of the fourteen nations he conquered as well as honoring the “Giver of Victory.”106 Sixth, by overlooking those temples built by earlier triumphators and being near the Villa Publica where assemblies occurred, Pompey's Venus Victrix and perhaps companion aedes created a visual assertion of the general's lofty status above the benefactors of the earlier republican temples. Finally, as the back of the cavea was on a tangent to a major thoroughfare that connected to the Circus Flaminius, easy access for spectators was available. For a powerful general desiring to construct a building of religious, political, and theatrical significance, the Campus Martius was prime real estate on all fronts.

Whatever the motivation for Pompey's site selection, the physical impact of his complex on the central Campus Martius has proved extraordinary. When viewed in context with the preexisting temples and porticoes stretching east from the Largo Argentina to the Villa Publica, Pompey's theater complex established a strong east-west axis that imperial builders would cross at a right angle, helping to imprint an orthogonal pattern on the central Campus Martius. Whereas prior construction in the area of the Circus Flaminiusworked with the landscape by following the bend in the river, Pompey's theater defied the natural surroundings and conquered them.

The construction of Pompey's theater also generated a political reaction by the general's rival, Julius Caesar, who considered building his own structures in the Campus Martius. At an unknown location in the Field of Mars, Julius Caesar planned to build a temple of the war god “greater than any in existence,” but it was never realized.107 He also conceived an idea to replace the republican voting precinct located near Pompey's theater – the Saepta – with a new one to be framed in a mile of porticoes. It was not completed during his lifetime.108 As a more direct physical challenge to Pompey's complex, Caesar proposed the construction of his own stone theater. Although early plans called for building against the Tarpeian Hill, Caesar ultimately selected the southern Campus Martius, clearing land to the southeast of the Circus Flaminius, “to build a theater as Pompey had done.”109 He did not live to see the theater rise from the ground, however, and the work was completed by his successor, Augustus, and named for the latter's late nephew and son-in-law, Marcus Claudius Marcellus (Figure 20).110

20. Northeast side of the Theater of Marcellus with the Temple of Apollo Sosianus on the right. (Photo: Paul Jacobs)

The Theater of Marcellus stood in approximately the same location as the temporary stage contracted by M. Aemilius Lepidus more than a century earlier for use with the ludi Apollinares by the Temple of Apollo.111 There were clear challenges to erecting a theater in a location described by Sear as “the most hallowed theatrical setting in Rome.”112 The building site was tightly confined within an area framed by the Circus Flaminius, the temples of Apollo and Bellona, the Forum Holitorium, and the Tiber. Some space was gained when the Temple of Apollo Medicus was rebuilt with a shorter porch and its steps were placed on the side. Nonetheless, the temple still came within 6 meters of the theater's facade.113 As if the space between the Temple of Apollo and the theater was not tight enough, a small, round temple approximately 4.5 meters in diameter stood midway between the two larger structures, centered with the front of the temple and the theater's central barrel vault (Plan 3, Inset B, and Figure 21).114 The space between the theater and the Portico of Octavia was only 2.2 meters, and the edge of the stage building was but 12 meters from the river's edge.115 Augustus may have contributed to the tight fit by buying up additional land from private owners in order to achieve an even larger footprint for the structure.116

21. Fragment of a round temple found in the vicinity of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus (Perirrhanterion?). (Photo: Paul Jacobs with permission of Roma, Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini)

Despite the physical constraints, the theater site afforded the soon-to-be emperor certain benefits. Although Augustus did not pretend his theater was simply an appendage to a temple, by being within a few meters of two preexisting temples, those of Apollo and Bellona, the theater was provided with appropriate religious connections without concern that additional aedes should be built as part of the project.117 It has been advanced, however, that two other temples believed destroyed by the theater's construction may have been incorporated into the exedra behind the theater.118 Just as Pompey's quadriportico provided convenient shelter to an audience in the event of inclement weather and offered attendees a place to stroll before and after performances, the Portico of Octavia only a few feet behind the cavea of the Theater of Marcellus may have served a similar function.

Construction of the theater placed a monument of Augustus not just on the triumphal route, but also in it. There was no longer a practical way for a triumphal parade with chariots and wagons forming in the Circus Flaminius to move to the city gates without going right through the theater and past a large statue of Augustus erected after his death.119 The theater overwhelmed the republican triumphal structures in the area. Such dominance of the visual field, combined with the calculated imperial reconstruction of existing buildings around the Circus Flaminius, sent out a clear signal that the good works of republican triumphators no longer held sway.120

Because the Theater of Marcellus was wedged between other buildings and the river, its diameter was by necessity smaller than that of Pompey's structure. Yet it held between 2,000 and 3,500 more people than the gargantuan edifice down the way.121 To accommodate a higher capacity in a smaller diameter, the builders used a tall, steep cavea that faced southwest, a direction that likely was not very comfortable on a hot summer afternoon.122 The exterior of the cavea was built of travertine and composed of three levels. On the first two levels, forty-one arched openings were flanked by engaged columns: Doric on the lowest level, Ionic above that (Figure 22). Although the third level decoration disappeared in the Middle Ages, it is believed to have displayed Corinthian columns separated by square windows.123 Just inside the lowest level of the facade, a curved arcade 3.5 meters in width ran the length of the outer cavea and was punctuated with radial vaults through which the audience members could access their seats.124Delicate stuccowork in the barrel vaulting is still visible (Plate VIII). While the Marble Plan shows the Theater of Pompey had an elaborate stage with semicircular and rectangular niches, it indicates that the Theater of Marcellus had a very plain, rectangularscaenae fronswith no similar indentations.125 An ancient writer notes, however, that it was decorated with four large, marble columns that had once stood in the temporary theater of Aemilius Scaurus.126 Behind the stage building on the riverside, a colonnade connected two large halls, each with a basilica design. Beyond the colonnade, the Marble Plan discloses a courtyard or terrace surrounding two small, square structures with what appear to be altars in front of them.127

Plate VIII Vault stucco in the Theater of Marcellus

The first known use of the Theater of Marcellus was for celebration of the Secular Games (ludi saeculares) in 17 B.C.E., at least four years before the theater's official dedication.128 These were games that were to be held every 110 years, and by the late first century B.C.E., they had developed strong mythical connections to the Field of Mars. According to Roman mythology, the games trace their origins to a sacrifice performed in the Campus Martius to a god of the underworld, Dis Pater, and his consort, Proserpina.129One hundred sixty years had passed since the last Secular Games when Augustus reinstituted the ludi, employing as venues three theaters in the Field of Mars: the Theater of Marcellus for Greek stage plays, the Theater of Pompey for Greek-style games such as boxing and foot races, and a temporary wooden venue erected along the Tiber for what were described as “Latin” games, possibly Roman theater.130

Between the first events in the Theater of Marcellus and its official dedication in 13 or 11 B.C.E., a third stone theater was completed in the Campus Martius. In 13 B.C.E., the proconsul L. Cornelius Balbus, who celebrated a triumph in 19 B.C.E. after defeating a North African tribe, dedicated with great fanfare his theater situated just sixty meters southeast of the Largo Argentina.131 The alignment of his theater was roughly parallel to the Saepta and the Augustan structures to the north, reinforcing the north-south axis of the orthogonal grid developing in the central Campus Martius. Just to the north of the temples on the north side of the Circus Flaminius (Hercules Musarum, Juno Regina, and Jupiter Stator), the theater was located between the Theater of Pompey and the Theater of Marcellus (Plan 3, No. 16). Balbus's structure was the smallest of the three, seating between 7,700 and 8,400 spectators (less than half the capacity of Augustus's building) and measuring only two-thirds the diameter of the Theater of Pompey.132 It was, nevertheless, finely decorated and may have been inspired in its design and decorative elements by theaters nearby. In contrast to the four notable marble columns in the Theater of Marcellus, for instance, Balbus had, according to Pliny, four alabaster columns placed in his.133Similar to Pompey, Balbus built a rectangular annex behind the scaenae frons. Identified in the regionary catalogs as the Crypta Balbi, the portico, portions of which are still visible in a museum built on the site, may have included a covered passageway (Plan 3, No. 15).134 While, unlike the Theater of Pompey, there is no temple clearly associated with Balbus's theater, the Marble Plan indicates a small building within the annex. It has been suggested that this may designate a temple, a notion reinforced by the later construction of a church on the site, consistent with the practice of placing early churches over Rome's pagan temples.135

Although Balbus managed to dedicate his theater while Augustus was in Gaul and prior to the official celebrations in the Theater of Marcellus, the opening ceremonies were less than auspicious, as the Tiber overflowed its banks and flooded the central Campus Martius, making Balbus's theater accessible only by boat.136 The floodwaters receding from the theater's entrance might be seen as a metaphor for the end of an era for conspicuous display by republican generals in the Campus Martius. No longer would battlefield vows for victory by patrician men-in-arms routinely result in elaborate parades and dedications of significant monuments. In fact, Balbus's triumph was the last granted to a nonmember of the imperial household and his theater, the last large structure erected without imperial sanction. While this would impact construction and celebrations throughout Rome, it had particular meaning for the Campus Martius, which had seen its open field selected time and again by successful generals as an ideal space for the fulfillment of personal vows and promotion of personal glory. Now the ultimate approval of the types and locations of major structures to be placed in the Campus Martius rested with the emperor and was used to project imperial power and prerogatives, as we will see in Chapter 7.

After his return to Rome in 13 B.C.E., Augustus, showing that he could not be upstaged, hosted his own, extraordinarily elaborate dedication of the theater in honor of his nephew. The show included a performance by Roman patrician boys of a mock military exercise known as the Troy Games, both a clear evocation of Rome's foundation legends and a reminder of the former use of the Field of Mars for martial training.137 Hearkening back to the elaborate dedicatory celebration of the nearby Theater of Pompey four decades earlier, Augustus employed the Circus Maximus, as Pompey had done, for a venatio with 600 animals from Africa. Two other decisions emphasized his authority: Augustus had Pompey's statue placed in the scaenae frons of the deceased general's theater, and he ordered that a golden image of his nephew should be placed in a curule chair in the cavea of the Theater of Marcellus for display next to the officials managing the annual ludi Romani.138

With three stone theaters in the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars was now clearly the center of the performing arts, and the public's enthusiasm for theatrical entertainment only increased. Temporary wooden structures continued to be erected for special events there, and other buildings in the northern plain originally erected for other purposes were occasionally employed for entertainment. The approximately 56 days devoted annually to theatrical performances in the late first century B.C.E. grew by the fourth centuryC.E. to 101.139 There should be no thought, however, that on performance days the majority of Romans spent their time at the Campus Martius theaters. Collectively, the three stone theaters could accommodate between 30,000 and 45,000 spectators, or less than 5 percent of Rome's population of approximately one million during the empire. Even then it is not likely that shows were held concurrently.140 Moreover, racing still attracted the biggest crowds, and the Circus Maximus could accommodate more than five times the capacity of the three theaters combined. Yet the impact of these theatrical venues on the Campus Martius was extraordinary. A space that had once been open for military exercises and then dotted with temples now had more than 100,000 square meters of concrete and stone for performances and related activities.141 Topographically, the theaters added a clearly vertical dimension to the once-flat plain. Unlike Greek theaters built into hillsides, Rome's three stone theaters rose high above the surrounding structures and parks, creating a skyline for the city in the Field of Mars.

Had Strabo lived into the late first century C.E., he could have added a fourth theater to his list of places for performances in the Campus Martius. At approximately the same time that Domitian built his stadium (ca. 86 C.E.), to be considered shortly, he caused to be erected a music hall known as the Odeum (Plan 4, No. 20).142 It possibly stood less than 100 meters north of the Theater of Pompey, identified like the latter structure by the curve of the buildings now standing on the foundations of its cavea.143 Musical performances separate and apart from dramatic performances had not generally been part of Rome's games, but Domitian used his Odeum as a venue for singing and lyre playing and for Greek and Latin prose competitions as part of the Capitoline Games (Agon Capitolinus).144 Holding about 7,000 spectators and partially roofed, the Odeum was smaller than most entertainment sites in the city.145 Still later, the emperor Hadrian would add a large hall for rhetoric and poetry readings. Known as the Athenaeum, its remains may have been uncovered in recent excavations in the southeast edge of the Campus Martius in the Piazza Venezia.146

The theaters of the Campus Martius and their appended porticoes remained important to the cultural life of Rome for centuries and were repaired as needed, sometimes after significant damage, and at great expense. The Theater of Marcellus was restored by Vespasian who, at its rededication, revived musical entertainment and awarded large sums of money to tragic actors and musicians.147 Alexander Severus repaired the theater in the third century C.E. with the proceeds from taxes.148 Despite occasional dismantling (some of the theater's blocks were taken to repair the nearby Pons Cestius as early as 370 C.E.), use of Augustus's structure continued until at least the fifth century C.E. Similarly, the Theater of Pompey was repaired several times: by Domitian after the fire of 80C.E., at least three times in the third century C.E., and once in the fourth century C.E. The last known effort at repair occurred in the early sixth century C.E.149 Balbus's theater was also repaired after the fire of 80 C.E. It remained in use in the fourth century C.E. and, perhaps, into the early fifth.150 Domitian's small Odeum hosted musical events into the fifth century C.E., when Polemius Silvius described it as one of the wonders of Rome.151

“…And an Amphitheatre”

Coinciding with Rome's military expansion, gladiatorial combat came to Rome, according to ancient sources, in 264 B.C.E. as part of private funeral games.152 Though Valerius Maximus states that such games were first held in the Forum Boarium, about a 100 meters south of the edge of the Campus Martius, funeral games were more often held in the Roman Forum.153 These games also could include ludi scaenici, new to Rome a century earlier. Unlike plays offered as part of public games, contests by gladiators remained private affairs until 42 B.C.E.154 These staged fights were known as munera, gifts to honor an ancestor. Often paired with a venatio, they could be highly extravagant events.155 To honor his deceased father, Julius Caesar held games with 320 pairs of gladiators wearing armor made of silver.156 For his daughter's funeral, he had a wooden amphitheater built, possibly in the Campus Martius, and staged gladiatorial fights and wild beast hunts.157 In 22 B.C.E., Augustus forbade the praetors newly charged with providing games from sponsoring gladiatorial fights without express senatorial approval, and even then such games could be held no more than twice a year, with no more than sixty pairs of combatants.158 Private munera also required special permission.159Augustus sponsored few gladiator shows himself, with only eight being held during his four-decade reign. They must have been extraordinary, however, as he employed a total of 10,000 combatants.160 By the fourth century C.E., gladiator fighting was only on 10 of the 177 days set aside for public games. The practice was finally stopped in the early fifth century C.E., at least a century before the Theater of Pompey staged its final theatrical productions.161

Unlike plays that employed a stage-building backdrop, gladiatorial shows could be viewed from all sides, and the displays in the Roman Forum were held in an arena created by wooden stands encircling the combatants and holding up to 15,000 spectators. Timbers were placed on columns to create balconies to enhance the view.162 Known at first as spectacula, or places for spectators to congregate and watch a performance, these structures later were called amphitheatra, meaning “theater on both sides.”163 The forum was not the only site where temporary arenas were erected for gladiators. As noted earlier, two temporary wooden theaters that pivoted into one oval grandstand for a gladiatorial contest were constructed in 53 B.C.E. for funeral games, likely in the Campus Martius.164 As with theaters, Rome lagged behind other cities on the Italian Peninsula with respect to erecting permanent amphitheaters. The first known stone amphitheater in Italy was in Pompeii and dates to around 70 B.C.E. Space for the structure was carved out of the Campanian soil with the excavated earth used to support the concrete and brick cavea.165 Rome did not see its first permanent amphitheater until four decades later.

The arguments discussed previously for the slowness of stone theaters to make their appearance in the capital city likely applied to other permanent entertainment venues, including amphitheaters.166 When a stone venue for gladiatorial events was finally built in 29 B.C.E., a location in the Field of Mars was chosen. The site selection was appropriate for several reasons. First, amphitheaters were often built as part of Roman military garrisons, and the Campus Martius provided strong ties to military musters.167Second, it was constructed from the manubiae of a successful general who could follow in a long tradition of using the Field of Mars to display aristocratic munificence. The general, Statilius Taurus, had commanded Octavian's land forces at the Battle of Actium, and as the first significant structure in Rome to be dedicated after Actium, the amphitheater fit within Augustus's program to encourage loyal aristocrats to erect great structures.168 Third, erected a little more than two decades after Pompey's theater, Taurus's building, like the earlier theater, could take advantage of the open, flat ground of the Field of Mars to sink its foundations and support bleachers of stone and concrete.

The second of the permanent entertainment venues in the Campus Martius, the Amphitheater of Statilius Taurus, preceded the theaters of Marcellus and Balbus by more than a decade. Although Statilius Taurus was encouraged by Augustus to construct the facility and the emperor used the amphitheater for some of the twenty-six wild beast hunts he sponsored during his reign, it was not particularly favored by later emperors.169 Caligula used Statilius Taurus's structure to stage gladiatorial fights, but he did not care much for it, preferring instead to employ the Saepta Julia for such shows.170 In fact, Caligula planned to build an amphitheater next to the Saepta but never realized the project.171 The emperor Nero, too, may have been less than enamored with the structure for hosting entertainment, as he went to the trouble of constructing nearby the extraordinary wooden amphitheater described by Calpurnius Siculus at the beginning of the chapter.

The Amphitheater of Statilius Taurus did not survive Nero's reign. Severely damaged in the fire of 64 C.E., along with many structures in the Campus Martius, it was not rebuilt, perhaps because the damage was simply too extensive. It has been proposed that despite its stone and concrete superstructure, the amphitheater had wooden seating that contributed to its destruction in the conflagration.172 Its ruins have never been located, and much debate surrounds its location. One suggestion is that it stood just east of the Via Flaminia outside of the Campus Martius proper. Another places it near the river between the theaters of Pompey and Marcellus.173 Ruins seen in the eighteenth century beneath a church in the area of Monte dei Cenci and thought at one time to have been the site of the Theater of Balbus are now offered as evidence of the amphitheater's presence.174 As Strabo saw the amphitheater in the same general area as the “three theatres,” this hypothesis has much merit. Whatever the reason, Statilius Taurus's amphitheater was not rebuilt, and wherever its precise location, the Romans were not going to go long without a permanent venue for gladiatorial games. The Campus Martius, however, was not to be the site for a new amphitheater. Fifteen years after the destruction of Statilius Taurus's building, another stone amphitheater was nearly completed where Nero had earlier constructed a large lake as part of his pleasure house, the Domus Aurea.175 Dedicated under Titus in 80 C.E. and known for centuries as the Flavian Amphitheater, the structure was used for gladiatorial combat and other games until the sixth century C.E. Ultimately, it became known by its modern name, “the Colosseum.”176

A Stadium for Greek Games

Greek-style athletic competitions were periodically held in Rome during the republic. Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, for instance, included a boxing match in his triumphal games celebrated in 186 B.C.E.177 Both boxing and wrestling were popular during the republic, but other Greek games such as running, jumping, and discus throwing, less so.178 Gymnastic competition was featured in the dedicatory games for Pompey's Theater, and a half-century later, Augustus proudly noted in his testament that three times he brought together athletes from all over the Roman world.179 As with other forms of entertainment displayed in the Campus Martius, games with athletes were first held in structures built of wood. Julius Caesar built a temporary facility for three days of athletic competition in 46B.C.E., and Augustus erected wooden seats in the Campus Martius for similar events in 28 B.C.E.180 Nero created games to be held every four years called the Neronia that included gymnastics along with musical competitions and equestrian contests. The gymnastic events were held in the Saepta Julia.181 It was not until the reign of Domitian, however, that a permanent structure dedicated to athletic competition was built. Known as a “stadium,” this new architectural type hailed from Greece and was seldom seen on the Italian Peninsula or further west.182

First used to celebrate the Agon Capitolinus in 86 C.E., the Stadium of Domitian held up to 30,000 spectators, making it one of the largest structures for Greek games built in the ancient world (Plan 4, No. 19). The seats were raised on two tiers of travertine and brick in a style similar to the Colosseum completed a few years earlier by Domitian's brother, Titus. Unlike the oval shape of the Roman amphitheater, Domitian's stadium, following the Greek style, had parallel bleachers running the length of the track connected by a curved seating area on one end and a smaller seating area perpendicular to the long sides on the other.183 The stadium is depicted on the reverse of a gold coin minted in 206 C.E. to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the emperor Septimius Severus(Plate IX). Shown from a bird's-eye view, the stadium on the coin is represented with two levels of arches with figures, likely statues, on the upper tier.184 The palmettes depicted along the outer rim of the structure may indicate an awning that provided welcome shade to the sports fans in attendance.185 Within the pictured stadium, athletic competition is in progress and has been interpreted as displaying Greek-style games with a runner, boxers, a victory ceremony, and a wrestler and, to the far right, the seated emperor.186Despite its general use for gymnastic contests and foot races, Domitian's stadium apparently became a primary location for gladiatorial shows after the Colosseum was severely damaged by a lightning strike and ensuing fire in 217 C.E.187 Rebuilt in 228 C.E. by Emperor Alexander Severus, the stadium still astonished visitors to Rome more than a century later as one of the “adornments of the city.”188 Domitian had the stadium constructed just north of the Odeum and in line with the Theater of Pompey, further strengthening the north-south axis of the central Campus Martius. The outline of the structure is preserved in the shape of one of modern Rome's largest and most famous gathering spots, the Piazza Navona. Remnants of its arcade on the curved north end remain visible (Figure 23).

22. Detail, Theater of Marcellus. (Photo: Paul Jacobs)

23. Archway on the north side of the Stadium of Domitian. (Photo: Paul Jacobs)

Plate IX Aureus of Septimius Severus (206 C.E.). Reverse: Stadium of Domitian

The Saepta and Diribitorium: from Voting to Games

Just as an entertainment venue such as the Stadium of Domitian might host events for which it was not originally built, permanent structures in the Field of Mars that were constructed for uses other than games were found to be appropriate sites for competition when no longer needed for their original purposes. Such was the fate of the Saepta, the republican voting precinct the reconstruction of which was originally conceived by Julius Caesar but ultimately completed and dedicated by Agrippa in 26 B.C.E. as the Saepta Julia (Plan 3, No. 7). Possibly part of the Villa Publica, the earlier space accommodated up to 70,000 voters divided into thirty-five tribes. The tribes were separated by fences – in Latin, saepta – hence the name for the building.189 It was also popularly known as theovile, a sheep enclosure.190 With the emperor appointing government officials who had previously been chosen by election, the need for a voting precinct declined, but the nine-acre space, with internal fences removed, proved ideal for entertainment. Rome's first emperor hosted funeral games in honor of Agrippa there in 12 B.C.E., with gladiators fighting in single combat as well as in teams.191 Augustus used the Saepta again for displays of gladiatorial combat in connection with the dedication of his temple of Mars Ultor a decade later.192 Emperor Caligula also used the space for gladiatorial shows during which he exhibited pairs of boxers from among the best in Africa and Campania to fight.193 Claudius held gladiator fights there with wild beasts as part of the annual celebrations of his ascension as emperor.194

As with other entertainment venues in the Campus Martius, the Saepta Julia combined political theater with games. Describing the Greek-style athletic contests that Nero held in the Saepta Julia, Suetonius noted, “At the gymnastic contest, which [Nero] gave in the Saepta, he shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol. He invited the Vestal Virgins also to witness the contests of the athletes, because at Olympia the priestesses of Ceres were allowed the same privilege.”195 The Saepta burned in the fire of 80 C.E. and was rebuilt, but we do not know the extent to which it was later used for athletic competition.196

Next to the Saepta stood the Diribitorium, a structure commenced by Agrippa and used to count the votes cast in the adjacent Saepta (Plan 3, No. 13). Rectangular in shape and approximately 5,000 square meters in area, it was, at the time, the largest space in Rome completely under the cover of a roof.197 As with the Saepta Julia, the need of the Diribitorium for voting functions diminished with the end of the republic. Though too small for large spectacles, the Diribitorium offered a more intimate setting for small theatrical events. When Rome's weather was too hot to stage ludi scaenici in the theaters open to the sky, Caligula had benches built in the Diribitorium so that shows could be staged under the building's protective roof.198 Unfortunately, the roof came crashing down in the fire of 80 C.E. and was never rebuilt.199 The extent to which the structure, now exposed to the elements, was used for entertainment after that point is not recorded. Like the Stadium of Domitian standing about 300 meters to the west, the axes of the Saepta and Diribitorium ran north-south, parallel to the Stadium, once again enforcing the orthogonal grid imposed on the central Campus Martius (Plan 4).

Where the Rabble Gathered

Within the beautiful structures of the Campus Martius that were created for entertainment as well as within those that were ultimately employed for that purpose teemed boisterous fans who energized the various venues, particularly during sports events. These passionate spectators were not only entertained with events on the stage and arena floor but often treated to free food and wine and significant door prizes that heightened the excitement.200 Writing in the fifth century C.E., Cassiodorus queried, “Who expects seriousness of character at the spectacles? It is not exactly a congregation of Catos that comes together at the circus. The place excuses some excesses. And besides, it is the beaten party which vents its rage in insulting cries.”201 The fourth-century C.E. Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus penned the following description of the crowds that shuttled from horse races to theatrical events:

Let us now turn to the idle and slothful commons.…These spend all their life with wine and dice, in low haunts, pleasures, and the games.…You may see many groups of them gathered in the fora, the cross-roads, the streets, and their other meeting-places, engaged in quarrelsome arguments with one another, some (as usual) defending this, others that.…If from [the chariot races in the Circus Maximus] they come to worthless theatrical pieces, any actor is hissed off the boards who has not won the favor of the low rabble with money. And if this noisy form of demonstration is lacking, they cry in imitation of the Tauric race that all strangers – on whose aid they have always depended and stood upright – ought to be driven from the city. All this in foul and absurd terms, very different from the expressions of their interests and desires made by your commons of old, of whose many witty and happy sayings tradition tells us. And it has now come to this, that in place of the lively sound of approval from men appointed to applaud, at every public show an actor of afterpieces, a beast-baiter, a charioteer, every kind of player, and the magistrates of higher and lower rank, nay even matrons, are constantly greeted with the shout “You should be these fellows’ teachers!”; but what they ought to learn no one is able to explain.202

While imposed decorum relegated female spectators to the upper reaches of the bleachers, and occasionally they were banned from the stands altogether, until the beginning of the third century C.E. women could participate in athletic competition, including gladiatorial combat.203 Cassius Dio records that these events created an extra level of rowdiness that resulted in such contests being banned in 200 C.E. in order to enhance crowd control.

There took place also during those days a gymnastic contest, at which so great a multitude of athletes assembled, under compulsion, that we wondered how the course could contain them all. And in this contest women took part, vying with one another most fiercely, with the result that jokes were made about other very distinguished women as well. Therefore it was henceforth forbidden for any woman, no matter what her origin, to fight in single combat.204

These descriptions indicate that with the development of theaters and sports venues, an area that began as a military training ground and sacred space to honor the gods was, by the imperial era, a distinctly secular area, teeming with the quotidian. Once a bucolic field suitable for contemplation of the good deeds of republican generals, the northern plain was now filled with structures attracting rowdy crowds with baser interests.

The Campus Martius also saw a not-unexpected seamier side, as the high-traffic areas around the places for entertainment supported prostitution. Brothels were located in the arcades of the Stadium of Domitian, and prostitutes frequented the areas around the theaters. One writer communicated a licentious (and likely contrived) story about the third-century C.E. emperor, Elagabalus. He “rounded up into a public hall all the prostitutes from the Circus, Theatre [of Pompey], the Stadium [of Domitian], the baths and everywhere else they frequented.”205 Though the accuracy of this report as regards the emperor's actions is up for debate, the writer, in wishing the scandal to be believed, would have used realistic details so that the prevalence and location of prostitution found herein can be taken as a reliable sketch of the business in the Campus Martius. In fact, the presence of brothels in the arcade of the Stadium is corroborated by the tradition of St. Agnes's martyrdom. In 304 C.E., during the reign of Diocletian, Saint Agnes, attempting to remain pure in her love of Christ, died a martyr by burning in the Stadium of Domitian after being raped in one of the brothels located among its arcades.206


Having served as Rome's military mustering ground, the Campus Martius naturally attracted the temples and triumphs that reflected the glory won in battle by republican generals. These buildings, in turn, made it appropriate that dedicatory games and annual celebrations to the gods be held in this space. The marshland's openness easily accommodated horse races tied to specific events such as the October Horse with room to spare for a large practice track and paddocks to support the more common races in the Circus Maximus. When the city required large structures for entertainment, whether temporary or permanent, the still-open field north of the city provided a perfect fit, topographically and symbolically. The musters were mostly gone and the clutter found elsewhere in Rome had not yet intruded. By incorporating or being built in close proximity to republican temples, venues for theatrical performances, still touted as gifts to the populace from triumphant generals, in one sense continued a tradition of public munificence. Yet they also raised the bar for display and generosity to such a degree that only those with full command of the levers of state could create such structures. Towering above the other structures in the former marshland, the three stone theaters and amphitheater and the later Odeum and Stadium vied with the Capitoline for attention. Use of porticoes as ancillary appendages to theaters not only provided practical protection from the elements but also contributed to a growing network of colonnades tying the amusement centers together as discussed further in the next chapter. By offering performances throughout the year, the edifices for entertainment, along with the bathhouses to be discussed in Chapter 6, guaranteed a constant flow of people to and from the Field of Mars and resultant commercial activity. With structures that attracted large crowds, the Field of Mars was now more tightly integrated into the growing Roman urban landscape.

The Campus Martius was not the only area of Rome where its citizens could turn for amusement, of course. The Circus Maximus west of the Palatine was built long before Pompey dedicated his theater, and the Colosseum rose south of the Roman Forummore than a century after Statilius Taurus constructed his amphitheater. But nowhere else in Rome was there such a concentration of crowd-pleasing sites that used storytelling and spectacle as a substitute for citizen participation in the affairs of war. Where Roman men once lined up with their military units to march to battle or by tribe to cast their ballots, now, during the imperial era, people of all ages and classes and both men and women gathered to be entertained. Mars's field was transformed into a place to witness the simulacrum of battle rather than to prepare for the battle itself. Foundation legends rooted deeply in the field's marshy soil now reverberated over the same ground from stages anchored on foundations of concrete.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!