Ancient History & Civilisation


Spectator Sports

Whether you win, whether you lose, we love you, Polidoxus (Renown).

Caption for the portrait of Renown, a race horse, on the
floor mosaic of Pompeianus at Cirta, in Algeria

Illustrious Fame used to sing of the lion laid low in the vast

valley of Nemea, the work of Heracles.

Let ancient testimony be silent: after your shows, Caesar, we

have now seen this done by a woman’s hand.

Martial, On Spectacles 8 (on Titus’ show in the
Colosseum, AD 80)

Besides its buildings and its new regulations, Rome under Augustus and his successors is conspicuous in history for the scale of its public entertainments. Some of them set a fashion throughout the Empire; many of them connected with the emperor’s ‘care’ for the common people and the promotion of members of his family. They also challenged his views on morality, just as in other ways they still challenge ours.

The most civilized face of Augustan show business was the one which the Emperor Hadrian most favoured. It was the world of music and the theatre, the cultural invention of the Greeks. Italyhad had its own simple tradition of farce and drama, but Greek plays became much more popular, particularly from the second century BC onwards. They were accompanied by other Greek arts: recitations of episodes from Homer, mime-acting, the declaiming of particular myths and ramatic scenes and, above all, pantomime-dancing. Pantomime was antiquity’s nearest equivalent to ballet. A silent dancer, wearing silk, performed challenging roles (Hercules in his madness being most difficult) while musicians and singers accompanied the rhythm and movement. Augustus adored the pantomime and popularized it at Rome, favouring a virtuoso dancer called Pylades who was the first to add a chorus and an orchestra.

The theatre was potentiallymore awkward. Mime-actors performed light sketches which were sometimes slightly risqué; prominent senators, including Mark Antony, sometimes had a mime-actress as a mistress. The top mime-actors could be impudent in public and provoke popular protests and, as a result, emperors sometimes banished the artists from Rome. But mythical tragedies could be problematic too. Augustus himself once tried to write a playabout Ajax, but when Romans wrote plays on the problems of mythical Greek dynasties, the plots were not at all to his taste. By implication they reflected on his own dynastic problems.

Theatre, dance and music were the cultural Greek arts which Hadrian would also patronize. Loving Greek culture, he made them central to the Panhellenic festival which he founded in Athens in 131/2. He also approved and promoted them in provincial cities where they had remained a vigorous part of Greek civic life, as had Greek athletics, which had radiated outwards from that triumph of conservatism, the Olympic Games. At Rome, athletics had first been publicized as part of a major triumphal show in 186 BC: at the time, Greek athletes had been shown competing naked in the pentathlon. Augustus enjoyed watching Greek athletics, but never founded a festival for them in Rome itself. They became entrenched there only under the Emperor Domitian. In 86 Domitian founded Rome’s first enduring Greek festival, the Capitoline Games.1 It offered contests in music, poetry and athletics, and both male and female athletes competed for prizes. The accompanying buildings were lavish, including a stadium which is still visible as the open space of Rome’s famous Piazza Navona.

A ‘moral minority’ disliked what so many others enjoyed. Athletes in Greek games still ran, boxed and wrestled naked, and the latter, especially, was a provocatively sexual sight: Augustus banned women from watching athletes in the city. Moralists continued to feel that such games should be banned entirely because they ‘spread vice’. In the Greek cities, males also trained and wrestled naked in gymnasiums, the male clubs of the citizenry. Romans adopted gymnasiums, too, but they used them as centres for debate and fully clothed activity.

Rather inconsistently, they reserved nudity for the public baths. Baths were a Greek invention, too, but Roman patrons transformed the simple style of bath-tubs heated by charcoal braziers. Luxurious under-floor heating became a Roman hallmark and was hugelyprodigal of fuel and finance. The system was given the most luxurious ‘origin’, being credited to the enterprising Sergius Orata when he had wanted to heat artificial oyster-beds on the Bay of Naples. In Augustus’ Rome, the heated swimming pool was championed by the bon viveur, his friend Maecenas, who also introduced donkey-meat as a delicacy.2

Big, heated bath-houses would spread in cities all over the Roman Empire and duly became part of luxurious Roman country houses. Hadrian’s huge villa had no less than three sets of them. In 33 BC,170 small private sets of baths had been listed in the citybut it was in Augustan times that heated baths became a major public amenity.3 In 25 BC Agrippa built a big set of ‘people’s baths’ as part of the development of the Campus Martius. Here, men and women bathed separately and there was respect for a so-called ‘Spartan’ routine: a hot steam bath, a rubbing with oil and a cold swim. The number of Rome’s baths then multiplied fivefold during the next four centuries, leaving so-called ‘Spartan’ austerityfar behind. In some of them, men and women bathed naked together. A dazzling array of imported marbles reflected light and colour and, under successive emperors, the scale of the places became huge. ‘What is worse than Nero,’ it was said, ‘but what is better than Nero’s baths?’4 Soon, the answer was Titus’ baths, and then the remarkable baths of Trajan, a sports-complex some 10,000 yards square which was built on the former site of a wing of Nero’s ‘Golden House’. Dedicated in 109, it was an architectural masterpiece of brick and concrete with a big open-air swimming pool and a huge vaulted cold bath in the shape of a cross on its main axis. The later baths of Diocletian (c. 305) were even bigger, holding up to 3,000 bathers.

Besides bathing, the most acceptable face of Augustan popular entertainment was chariot racing. It too had a long history among rich competitors at Greek festivals and it had been an early import into Rome. The historian Tacitus traced Rome’s horse racing to the Greek city of Thurii in southern Italy but, as others said, it was probably an even earlier import, coming from the Etruscan cities whose nobles had loved it.5 At Rome the sport became distinctive. The typical Roman chariot race involved seven ‘laps’ round two turning-posts, which were taken in an anti-clockwise direction. The main site was the Circus Maximus, where horses emerged from a Roman speciality, the starting stalls (carceres, or ‘prisons’). In Greek races, many individual chariots competed (up to forty-one are attested in one race), but at Rome, competitors raced only in multiples of four, up to a maximum of twelve. One reason for these foursomes was the existence of four ‘factions’ at Rome, each of which was named after a colour (Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites). The factions, too, were old (probably as old as the third century BC) and in keeping with noble Romans’ concern for their ‘peer group’, they dampened the scope for personal competition by individuals. Although factions were organized with links to socially prominent citizens, their teams no longer raced in an individual’s name. In the 80s the Emperor Domitian tried to add Golds and Purples, but they did not last long. Contests between two factions, or ‘colours’, were held as the first big events of the day ‘after the procession’ and when driven by known champions they were much admired. The career of one great chariot-champion is known to us, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who raced nearly 2,000 times. His results suggest that the early leader in a race tended to be the winner.6

Here, too, important popular work had been done at Rome for Octavian byAgrippa in the late 30s BC. Freedmen under his patronage can be traced in connection with the stables for chariot racing: he presented the famous silver dolphins which marked the laps in races in the Circus Maximus (they commemorated Augustus’ naval victory over Sextus Pompeius in 36 bc). Augustus, in due course, allowed chariot races to be added to public celebrations of his birthday and he donated an obelisk from his Egyptian victory over Cleopatra to the centre of the Circus. The scale of these occasions was amazing. Not until Claudius did the Circus begin to have stone seating, but more than 200,000 spectators could watch the racing. The Roman crowds for horse racing are still the largest sports-crowds in world history.

In the Circus and other open spaces in the city, there were also violent blood sports. We think of gladiatorial shows before all else, but there were three other types of slaughter: bloody battles between fierce wild animals, bloody hunts between wild animals and humans, mock sea-battles, even, between teams of armed combatants. Their origins went back into the years of the Republic, but successive emperors took them to a new peak.

The most recent of these ‘sports’ was the mock sea-battle, a Roman speciality which had begun with Julius Caesar’s spectacular display in 46 BC. By contrast, wild beast ‘hunts’ appear to have originated much earlier in Carthage where cruel spectacles (including crucifixion) were well established: Carthage had ready access to the teeming wild life of north Africa. Significantly, battles between wild animals first appear in Rome during the era of wars with Carthage, when elephants were shown and shot to death.7 In 167BCwe first hear of a variation: criminals and prisoners of war were offered up to wild animals too. Quite often the participants in these ‘hunts’ were tied up before competing. Wild animals were tied to one another, and the criminals entered with their hands tied or were hung, just within the beasts’ reach, on a stake or platform. The purelyhuman combat of gladiators was a much older sport. It had first been staged at Rome in 264 BC, perhaps in imitation of combats in south Italy, although Romans traced it, like so much else, to the Etruscans’ example (they may be right).

Augustan sports-practice, therefore, was heir to established precedent which had alreadybeen exploited massively both by Pompey and Julius Caesar. Augustus was proud of his ‘blood sports’ too: in 2 BC he looked back on twenty-six shows of hunting which had killed off 3,500 wild animals and eighteen gladiatorial shows which had involved 10,000 men.8 He also built a big artificial ‘lake’ in Rome on which he staged his vast mock sea-battle in 2 BC. A century later his pride had been eclipsed. Between May 107 and November 109 Trajan celebrated his conquest of Dacia (modern Romania) with more than twenty weeks of blood sports, showing more than 5,500 pairs of gladiators and killing over 11,000 animals. In 119 Hadrian celebrated his own birthday with six days of slaughter which ‘hunted’ to death 1,000 animals (including 200 lions) in six spectacular days. The locations, too, improved. Under Augustus, the Roman shows took place in various venues in the city, including the Forum, although a stone amphitheatre was built byone of his aides. In the 70s the new Flavian dynasty built the biggest amphitheatre in Rome, what we call ‘the Colosseum’, with a seating capacity of up to 55,000. Apart from showing wild beast ‘hunts’ and gladiators, it appears to have had the capacity to be flooded for sea-battles or even (by Domitian) to be lit by night.

Rome’s entertainments became a fashion throughout the Empire. The great Roman chariot races made the least impact. Although chariot racing in the Roman style was to be found in Alexandria (perhaps supported by the emperor), elsewhere there were few early copies of Rome’s Circus (there is a good one, however, at Merida in Spain). In the Greek world, horse racing had existed already for ages and so it did not need a new promotion. What really caught on were blood sports. Amphitheatres spread both east and west, whether to London (on the big Guildhall site) or Athens. The most impressive example, with important monuments and inscriptions of gladiators, was rediscovered in Cordoba in Spain in 2003. Individuals staged these shows in the Greek East, too, and Greek cities rivalled each other in the display. Above all, gladiators were associated with a province’s cult of the emperor as a god. Its prestigious high priests staged these fights for eager crowds who perceived them, surely, as connected with their absent emperor. It is less clear whether Rome’s mock sea-battles caught on widely. Perhaps they sometimes occurred in provincial games which commemorated Actium, Rome’s last great sea-battle. At Rome, they were often staged as ‘virtual history’ in which teams replayed ancient contests from Greek history. Thucydides’ text was much too hard to read, but his ‘Peloponnesian War’ found its biggest ever audience in the crowds who watched the replays, as ‘Athens’ was pitted against ‘Sparta’ in flooded Roman arenas.

This public display of violence raises distinct questions: why did people like it and why was it socially so prominent? There were certainly critics (some of whom still profited from it), and the Greeks on Rhodes refused to have gladiatorial sports at all.9 The basicinhumanity must have been the obstacle, although we hear more about the moral outrage of ‘free’ people engaging in such things. However, the taste persisted, arguably because it is a latent fact of human nature. Shocked though we should be, we cannot help looking on with a thrill, like Lord Byron at a public execution, who describes himself as sympathizing with the victim but unable to hold his opera glasses steady.

The social prominence is more unusual. To saysimplythat Romans were brutal or sadistic is not adequate. For a start, the prominence of these games had not been uncontested. When animal hunts were first staged in the 180s BC they were banned, although the ban was probably due to the fear and envy they provoked among the donor’s upper-class contemporaries.10 Only after popular protests during the next decade were ‘hunts’ duly permitted. The reason for their subsequent public role is not so much ‘sadism’ as the particular type of political competition at Rome, where great men needed to shine before the crowd, and the Romans’ military values which made this sort of displayacceptable. Together, they kept ‘blood sports’ in the headlines. The emperors then intensified what republican Romans had already begun.

The setting of wild beasts on other wild beasts was an exotic bloody spectacle. It was not limited by concern for the animals: there was no notion of animal rights and only random sympathy for occasional piteous sights, like some distressed elephants as witnessed by Cicero. These animal shows were not official ‘games’ in the calendar. They were private benefactions by origin and so they came to be given as extra popular spectacles by individuals who were showing off during their military triumph. By extension, this type of game-show then became attached to the holding of magistracies: they became a magistrate’s accepted bid for public favour. In Rome’s distinctive culture of ‘mass’ and ‘elite’, they harnessed psychological thrills to political competitors’ lust for glory. Aspiring big men appealed to those with spectator status (and votes, seldom exercised) by promising exotic animal bloodshed which the crowds then found to be irresistible viewing. In provincial cities, such ‘promises’ then became the expected gesture at an earlier stage, from candidates seeking high office, even (as never at Rome) for a place on the town council. It helped if an individual had personal connections with a suitably‘animal’ province. The greatest sufferer here was north Africa. On mosaics, we can see beasts being caged up and prepared for travel by ship, a complex business which, for imperial shows, might involve Roman soldiers in the catching and carting. In the magnificent later mosaic at Piazza Armerina in Sicily (c. ad 300), the design wittily concludes with a human hunter in a cage: the hunter is hunted, and guarded by a mythical sort of griffin.

The displays of wild beasts against criminals had a further resonance: they were public executions. Their human victims were even given a last little honour. On the night before their deaths, they were allowed a ‘last supper’ when the morrow’s audience might come along and stare at them.11 On the day, they might even be dressed up in purple and gold for their brief moment of ‘glory’. At the sight of them, spectators might waver, albeit briefly. Sometimes, we are told, the bravery of condemned Christians made an impression on a pagan public and once, when they included naked women fresh from childbirth with ‘their breasts still dripping milk’ a crowd in Carthage showed its horror, and so they were taken away and dressed more decently.12 However, the spectators were mentallydistanced from the human suffering. They were watching the deaths of victims who were being ‘justly’ punished. These rotters (they assumed) deserved what they got, and socially they were beyond the pale.

The distance between viewers and victims was accentuated when such punishments began to be staged in imperial Rome in mythical or fantasy styles. Augustus himself had a noted Sicilian bandit executed in the Roman Forum on a replica of Mount Etna which ‘erupted’ and deposited the wretch among caged wild animals below. The possibilities are horribly clear in a series of epigrams by the poet Martial which celebrate the Emperor Titus’ great triumph in ad 80 after the capture of Jerusalem: they describe the re-enactment of mythological ‘charades’ with human victims in the Roman arena. Sex and violence could be most excitingly combined. Terracotta lamps found near the arena in Roman Athens show women having sex with animals, and so it was a small step at Rome to stage the myth of Pasiphae who squatted inside a wooden cow and had sex with her infatuation, a bull. ‘What legend sings, the arena shows…’: ‘virtual myth’ became reality.13 The mythical dimension imported elements familiar from the mime, the pantomime and theatre. The usual programme of a day’s ‘sport’ would put the beast-hunts first in the morning, followed by the slaughter of criminals at lunchtime. A mythical staging mixed high and low culture together and livened up a repetitive midday of pure killing. It enhanced display and luxury and it distanced the viewers even further from the reality. There was nothing ‘religious’ about such staging, nor was it an honour for dead ancestors.

To us, the gladiators are more mysterious than the animal sports. However, most of the gladiators began as war-captives or criminals and had the status of slaves. A career in the arena gave these ‘dregs’ a sudden chance to win glory. Like the hunts, gladiatorial shows had never been part of the fixed calendar of games at Rome. They, too, had begun as private displays at funerals, but they then became the gift, or ‘promise’, of prominent men who were celebrating triumphs or bidding for yet more honours (like the young Julius Caesar, as aedile in 65). Here, the keyis that many on lookers identified with the military values of the armed duels. Custom-built amphitheatres first appear in colonies of Roman veteran soldiers in Italy and the sport was then spread widely by Roman army-camps abroad. It was even said to be good for spectators to see such social inferiors being ‘soldierly’ and enduring wounds. Deaths did indeed occur, but they were not the essence of the show. Sometimes fighters were released with an honourable ‘draw’; at other times the wounded one surrendered and the fight was stopped. We hear of prize-fighters who survived thirty fights, including a few combats which they lost. The Emperor Claudius, however, was known to be fond of a bloody finish.

Potentially, there was good money and a good career to be made here, and for the slaves or criminals there could be freedom too. In the crowds, fans went wild for particular ‘stars’: at Pompeii, graffiti applaud them as ‘darling of the girls’ or ‘netter of chicks by night’.14 For women too, ‘heavy metal’ and muscle could be horribly sexy: Augustus ruled that at gladiatorial shows women must sit only in the highest seats at the back. A glamour grew up around these fights, which drew free competitors into the arena too. Children played games of ‘being gladiators’ and there were female gladiators from time to time: at Ostia, a benefactor boasts in his inscription of being the ‘first of all since Rome was founded to make women fight’.15 Minorities, too, found a new public esteem in the arena. In 57, for a visiting Oriental prince, Nero staged the ‘all-blacks’, a show of north African contestants only, including women and children. It was left to Domitian to show women fighting dwarves.16

For Augustus and his successors, this intensified culture of the spectacle was a valuable public card. Unlike the big names of the Republic, the emperors now monopolized triumphs: they had far the greatest resources; they could show supreme ‘liberality’ and magnificence in shows for the plebs which nobody else could rival. Soon, the emperors had a special school for gladiators (probably beginning with Augustus). They owned gladiatorial troupes and increasingly came to predominate in staging the combats; theyalso dominated the chariot racing. But as ‘First Citizens’, they were expected to attend the shows in person. They were approved if, like Augustus or Hadrian, they took a keen interest in the events, whereas Julius Caesar, by contrast, had unwisely read his letters during the contests. Emperors were well advised to be keen, because audiences of several thousand in the theatre or 150,000 or more in the Circus Maximus would use the occasion to shout specific complaints or praises at their ruler and his family. Contemporaries did see these shows as an alternative to politics, but they were also something else. They were a dialogue between a ruler and his people whose demands were hardly very radical. The crowds usuallyshouted specific items of a limited, sometimes comic, scope. The occasion was one for frank speech and ‘licence’ in a non-political setting rather than a substitute for absent democracy. But it was also a potent reminder to foreign visitors and senatorial spectators that ‘Caesar’ enjoyed a relationship with the plebs which they could never possibly replicate.

The problem, for Augustus, was not so much the crowd as some of the young members of his esteemed upper orders. From the 40s BC onwards members of high society at Rome had shown a ‘disgraceful’ wish to appear on stage in person or even to fight in the arena. It did not help the promotion of ancestral values when Augustus’ own nephew, Marcellus, allowed a Roman knight and some respectable Roman matrons to appear in the public show which he gave as a junior magistrate. Senators, knights and their families were banned from appearing as actors or gladiators, but the ban eventuallyproved futile. In ad 11 Augustus had to lift the ban on knights appearing as gladiators: he himself, in his old age, then sat and watched them doing it. It was still forbidden for free-born women to participate, but only if they were under twenty. Chariot racing, however, seems to have remained unregulated.

Austere Tiberius soon had the ban reinstated, but it did not last. It was so much more thrilling for young bloods to compete with a net, a sword or a trident in the arena than to uphold ancient morality in a heavy white toga. In due course, there were emperors who agreed. Caligula liked playing the gladiator, while Nero appeared on stage and drove a chariot at the races. In the 180s the ultimate shock was Commodus. Once, after fighting ostriches in the arena, he cut off their necks and advanced on the senators in their special seats, brandishing a sword in one hand and the bloodied head of a bird in the other. He gesticulated at the Senate as if their necks might be the next ones for his attention. And yet when he died there were senators who bought up his gladiatorial equipment.17

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