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Spectacles: Popular Entertainment in Imperial Rome

Dr. Peter J. Brand Increasingly during the late Republic and Imperial age, Roman rulers provided the every growing population of Rome and other cities in the Empire with spectacular forms of entertainment and urban amenities. Ambitious Republican politicians like Julius Caesar and most of the Emperors were keen to win popular support by entertaining the masses and the public came to expect ever more frequent and spectacular forms of entertainment from their rulers.

Chariot Racing Chariot Racing was by far the most popular spectator sport in Ancient Rome, even more than gladiatorial shows. By the 300s CE, races were held 66 days of the year at Rome. Chariot racing in the Circus Maximus or Great Race Course, drew the biggest crowds and lasted from earliest days of the Republic until Christian times when Christian Emperors banned gladiatorial shows. The Circus Maximus and other racing stadiums were also the largest class of public building the Romans constructed and required a massive infrastructure to support them. Chariot racing was a glamorous sport and wildly popular among the urban masses. There were huge, elaborate racing stadiums, magnificent thoroughbred race horses, stud farms, tight races, legal and illegal betting, and large prizes for the victorious drivers who often became celebrities. But racing was also dangerous, and popular athletes often died young in spectacular

accidents. Visitors to the races could buy fast food from vendors who worked the stands. After the days races, prostitutes plied their trade in the arcades around the exterior of the Circus Maximus hunting for eager customers looking for a different kind of excitement. Chariot races originated early in Roman history. They had long been popular in Greece and other ancient civilizations. During the Late Bronze Age, around 1600-1100 BCE, horse drawn chariots were a military weapon, but after the Bronze Age they were largely ceremonial vehicles for elite display. Victorious Roman generals rode in chariots during victory parades called Triumphs. Otherwise, the Romans used chariots purely for entertainment. Imperial Circuses Chariot racing and circus stadiums became increasingly elaborate and popular during the Imperial age. Emperors added more infrastructures to the Circus Maximus and they built other circuses in Rome and in cities around the Empire. Emperors were sure to visit the Circus Maximus on a regular basis. This gave the public a limited form of interaction with Emperor. Here they could cheer or jeer imperial policies giving them a change to express their opinion to their leader. While the Emperor monopolized other spectacles like gladiatorial shows and beast hunts, the four chariot racing teams, called factions, remain in private hands much like modern day sports franchises. As with modern sports teams, racing fans among the public were devoted to their favorite racing faction. Unlike gladiatorial shows, chariot racing was not banned when the Empire became Christian.

An artists conception of the Circus Maximus as it appeared in the time of Constantine. The starting gates are at the lower left corner.

Diagram showing the major features of the Circus Maximus. The dashed lines show the racing lanes leading from the starting gates to the beginning of the spine. The gates are arranged so that each driver was the same distance from the starting line at the central spine.

Circus Maximus During most of the Republican era, chariot races were held on a long dirt track in a valley between the Aventine and Palantine hills called the Circus Maximus which measured 650 meters long by 125 meters wide. During the late Republic, Julius Caesar created a long oval track with tiered rows of bleachers on both sides and around the curved end. His successor Augustus added platform in the stands housing the imperial viewing stand and shrines dedicated to the Roman gods. Later Emperors add further improvements. The Circus Maximus was 12 times the size of the more famous Colosseum, and could seat a crowd of 150,000. The great racecourse was just one of 170 other racing stadiums the Romans built in cities throughout the Empire. The Romans carefully designed their circuses to maximize visibility for spectators and to ensure fairness to the competing drivers. Down the center of a circus ran a solid barrier called the spine which divided one side of the track from the other. The spine of the Circus Maximus was decorated with imperial trophies like an Egyptian obelisk that Augustus erected there. There was also a large device which served as a lap counter so spectators could count how many circuits the racers had to complete before the race was over. Seven laps was the standard length of a race.

The starting gates at one end of the circus were arranged on a curve so that the drivers were at an equal distance from the best position on the track, on the inside lane closest to the spine. An elaborate catapult mechanism opened the 12 starting gates simultaneously to prevent false starts or cheating. When the gates flung wide, all the drivers made a mad dash to get to the inside track. Until they reached a break line at the edge of the spine, chariots had to stay in lanes marked in chalk. A Day at the Races A typical racing day had 24 races. The day began with formal procession of statues of the gods escorted by officials, athletes and musicians. The gods statues were set in a special shrine in the stands so that they could witness the races. It was for this reason that both Christians and Jews shunned the chariot races. In Christian times, the pagan gods were banned from the show and so racing remained a popular sport. After the dignitaries had been seated, the presiding official signaled the start of each race by dropping a white handkerchief. From then they competed for the best position. The goal was to stay as close to spine as possible since this was shortest route. But this could be dangerous too. If the axel of the chariot touched the spine at high speed, the lightly built chariot could break apart. Pulled by two or even four horses, racing chariots were very light weight and fragile. Crashes were a common occurrence and added to the excitement of the sport.

Ancient bronze model of a racing chariot. These were light and flimsy vehicles which were often pulled by four horses, making them dangerously over powered. The driver was actually bound to the reins that held the horses making accidents even more deadly. He carried a knife to cut himself free of the reins so that he would not be dragged to his death, but this must have been hard to do.

Charioteers Most charioteers were Greek or Hellenistic slaves who were purchased and trained by one of the four racing faction. Some were freedmen, former slaves hired by the faction. Individual chariot drivers are often known to us from the epitaphs on their tombstones. These inscriptions bewail their short lives and bad luck. Many drivers were killed in all too frequent racing accidents. For the talented and the lucky being a charioteer could lead to freedom, wealth and celebrity status. Even when they were slaves, charioteers received a portion of the prize money their team won for victories or placements in a race. With these winnings, some could purchase their own freedom and then negotiate as free agents with their current faction or with a rival team. Charioteers who were still slaves could also be sold by their faction to another team.

A relief sculpture showing a chariot race in the Circus Maximus.

Among the charioteers who became famous celebrities in their day was a man named Calpurnianus who won over 1100 races and raced for all four factions during his career. Another celebrity driver named Scorpius won 2048 races during his career but died in an accident at the age of 26! In Spain, Gaius Appuleius Diocles won 1462 of 4257 races in a long 24 year career before he retired at 42 years old with 35.8 million sesterces (a standard unit of coinage) in winnings. The celebrity status of these ancient athletes and the fanatical devotion of their supporters is much like modern day sports celebrity. Fans knew the statistics on their favorite drivers performance. One social observer complained that a chariot jockey could be wealthier than 100 lawyers and could make more money in a single day than a teacher did all year. Chariot driving was a rough, dangerous sport. Crashes were common and could involve multiple chariots and kill horses and drivers. Ruthless tactics by

drivers only heightened the danger. Charioteers, who often died young, were also very superstitious. Buried beneath the track of a circus in North Africa, archaeologists found curse tablets made for a charioteer that invoke demons to cause his rivals to lose races and be killed or injured in crashes.

A mosaic showing the champion thoroughbred race horses and top jockeys from the four factions. Champion horses and drivers could become celebrities and win huge prizes for their factions.

Spectators and Factions Every circus had four separate racing teams called factions: the Reds, the Greens, the Blues and the Whites. Each race had three drivers from each team for a total of 12 charioteers. Factions were corporations owned by private

interests much like modern sports franchises. Each team had loyal followings. The Greens were the most popular faction at Rome among public. Roman senators generally favored the Blues. Fans were passionately devoted to their teams and leading charioteers. One passionate Reds fan even threw himself on the funerary pyre of a Reds star when the driver was cremated after dying in an accident! Emperors, too, had favored teams. Caligula was a rabid fan of the Greens, either from genuine loyalty or to win public sympathy. Rival fans often got into fights over team loyalties and riots could break out in the circus much like modern day European soccer hooligans.

Luxury for some, misery for others. (Left): An artists conception of a Roman bath. (Right): slaves stoking the furnaces that heat the baths.

Public Baths and Bathing Communal baths and bathing had been an important part of Roman culture since the time of the Republic. Roman baths were called thermae in Latin, from the word for hot water. Bathing was not merely a way to get clean; it was a leisurely social pastime allowing Romans time to unwind and socialize with their friends. During the afternoons, Romans would gather in the baths to chat and gossip as they enjoyed a progression of warm and hot baths, saunas, massages, exercise and other diversions.

Artists conception of a medium sized public bathhouse. There were separate, and more modest, facilities for women.

Before the late Republic, most baths were private facilities for the rich. The earliest public baths date from later Republic such as one example in the city of Pompeii. These were small to medium sized baths. Beginning under Augustus, however, the Emperors began to provide much larger public baths at Rome. By the second century CE, Emperors were spending vast sums to build bathing to the public so that all Romans, even some slaves, could enjoy a degree of luxury and splendor in their daily lives. The grand Imperial baths were important public amenities given by Emperors to cement their popularity with the public. These giant buildings were a combination of health spas, shopping malls and theme parks that offer all Romans a taste of extravagant luxury in opulent surroundings. The great thermae were elaborately decorated with mosaic floors, marble clad walls and columns, statuary and other costly decoration. They also made ingenious use of technology to create the first climate controlled buildings in history. Hollow spaces under the floors called hypocausts piped in heated air and steam from the furnaces that heated the bath water to warm the marble floors. Ducts and vents in the walls kept these heated as well. To retain heat, the baths had glazed

windows in an age when glass windows, even in the houses of the rich, were extremely rare and expensive. Bath complexes often included fast food outlets, massage parlors, libraries, gymnasiums, flower gardens and shopping arcades allowing patrons to enjoy a variety of leisurely activities. There was a dark and seamy side to the baths as well. Although men and women were normally segregated, baths provided considerable opportunity for sex with fellow bathers of either sex or with paid prostitutes. Under the luxurious bath chambers was a dark, hot and smoky underworld where the wretched slaves who kept the furnaces going toiled in misery.

Scale model of the huge bath complex of the Emperor Caracalla in Rome.

Gladiators and Blood Sports Perhaps no other aspect of ancient Roman civilization so fascinates and repels modern viewers as gladiatorial combat and other blood shows. Popular movies like Gladiator do not always paint an accurate picture of what these shows were really like and how they evolved over the course of Roman history. In the early Republic, gladiatorial combat was a rare event held in modest facilities. Known as munera, or blood shows, gladiator fights were usually staged as part of the solemn religious ceremonies accompanying the funerals of great men. Non-violent forms of athletic competition also occurred. The practice of offering tests of athletic skill to the spirits of the noble dead is reflected in Homers Iliad where Achilles holds games at the funeral of his friend Patroclus. Gladiatorial combat was original staged in the arena, a small enclosed space much like a modern boxing ring. The term arena comes from the sand which was

spread on the combat floor to absorb blood, a necessary practice since these events were often staged in the Roman Forum.

A mosaic showing multiple pairs of gladiators in combat. Usually, only a single pair fought at one time.

During the late Republic and Imperial age, gladiatorial and other blood shows like animal hunts and even mock naval battles were staged more frequently and in larger venues like the Circus Maximus and in specially built amphitheaters. Leading politicians competed with each other to present ever larger and more spectacular shows to entertain the public. Julius Caesar introduced the practice of staging more frequent shows by holding games in honor of some of his relatives that had died years before. Games in honor of past emperors were also held on an annual basis so that by the second century CE, the calendar was full of many weeks of games throughout the year.

A mosaic showing a sequence of events at the games. Top: musicians play instruments. Next several pairs of gladiators fight. Second from the bottom: two condemned criminals are attacked by leopards, and professional hunters hunt deer and wild boar. Bottom: a bear and a bull are chained together to fight and an official with a whip hold a naked criminal in front of a lion.

Spectacles of Death Until the late Republic, blood shows generally featured only a few pairs of gladiators. Almost all of them were slaves who had little choice but to fight in the arena. With the massive influx of slaves and wealth from the wars of the late Republic, ambitious politicians like Julius Caesar began to give huge shows involving hundreds of fighters either with pairs of gladiators or in mass battles involving dozens or even hundreds of combatants on each side. Perhaps the most spectacular of all were the naumachia, or mock naval battles. Caesar had an artificial lake dug near the Tiber River in Rome on which two opposing fleets of trireme warships manned by 2000 fighters and 4000 rowers fought to the death before huge crowds. During the Imperial age, naumachia were sometimes staged in flooded arenas including the Colosseum.

Artists conception of a naumachia naval battle in the flooded Colosseum. The participants in these shows were thousands of mostly untrained slaves and prisoners almost all of who died by the end of the event.

Another type of popular event was the hunting shows which usually took place in the morning. These did not feature gladiators, but professional hunters who slew wild animals of every kind before crows. For hunt shows, amphitheaters were often decorated with plants and trees to resemble the wild. Many thousands of exotic animals including elephants, lions, tigers, antelope, rhinos and hippopotamuses and dozens of other species were caught in the wild and brought to Rome or to other cities throughout the Empire for these events.

The slaughtered animals did not wholly go to waste since lucky spectators could win prizes from ticket drawings awarding them a portion of exotic animal meat.

A mosaic showing professional hunters fighting leopards in the arena.

During Imperial times, the circuses and amphitheaters were also used to show public executions as a form of entertainment. These usually occurred during mid-day when more prosperous citizens had gone to have lunch while the poorer classes stayed so as not to loose their seats. The Romans devised a seemingly endless variety of exotic and humiliating methods for executing those citizens who had committed the worst sorts or crime. Non-citizens, including slaves, were subject to aggravated deaths because of their lower social status. Crucifixion, exposure to lions or other wild beasts, immolation (burning alive) or forced combat were just some of the more common forms of execution.

(Left): a mosaic showing a victim being mauled by a leopard. (Right): a female victim tied to a raging bull being attacked by a rabid dog.

(Left): mosaic showing gladiators and a referee. (Right): a modern reenactment at an ancient Roman amphitheater in southern France.

Gladiatorial Combat The main event, fights between pairs of professionally trained gladiators, took place during the afternoon and was the highlight of a day at the games. There were several different styles of gladiator based on the equipment they wore, and most fights were between men with different kinds of weapons. The word gladiator comes from the name of a kind of short sword called a gladus, but combatants fought with several kinds of weapons including forked spears and even nets. Armor was usually light: metal helmets and arm guards. Contrary to popular belief, not all fights ended in death. There was a referee who could separate the combatants with a stick or call time outs like rounds in a modern boxing match. The referee, sometimes with a signal from one of the gladiators, could declare a winner to a bout before a fatal wound was scored. More often than not, the bout ended without a death, but then the presiding official, (sometimes this was the Emperor himself), would decide the fate of the looser, often with input from the crowd. Some Emperors took a popularity hit by condemning celebrity gladiators who had lost a match. One reason that many loosing gladiators were spared was the simple fact that it was expensive to purchase and train one. If the looser was given clemency he would live to fight another day and sometimes even win his freedom. But if the presiding official gave the thumbs down signal, the loosing gladiator was killed by the victor. Then, the looser was expected to accept death quietly and honorably; he was not to cry out for mercy or become hysterical. To die well, he calmly knelt and presented his neck so that the killing blow could be thrust into his body.

Decoration on an ancient pottery souvenir bottle showing a victorious gladiator administering the killing blow to his defeated opponent.

Although gladiators were at the bottom of society, being mostly slaves and condemned criminals, champions could become famous celebrities, win their freedom and even become rich if they were skilled and lucky. They personified the Roman spirit of a warrior who fought bravely and died well and with honor. But even the most successful combatant was never allowed to forget that most Romans, even if they admired him, thought that he and his kind were the scum of the earth. By 300 CE, the blood shows were in decline. Gladiatorial combat, in particular, was considered utterly pagan and was outlawed by Constantine, although it did not fully come to an end until around 400 CE. Hunting shows continued as did chariot racing well beyond 500 CE.

A well preserved Roman amphitheater in the city of Arles in southern France.

Amphitheaters: High-Tech Stadiums During most of the Republic, gladiatorial shows were rare, small affairs staged in closed arenas set up in the forum or even in private homes. In the late Republic, ambitious politicians began to stage larger public shows and began to build large venues to present them to a wide public audience. One of the earliest of these amphitheaters was at Pompeii. Although it was not as elaborate as the famous Colosseum, it shared a similar design. Amphitheaters were oval in shape with tiered stone seating which was segregated by class. The wealthy and high ranking senators had the best seats near the arena floor. Higher up in the stands were the common people and slaves. There was also segregation of men and women, although it was not always strictly enforced. Under the Emperors, amphitheaters were built in cities across the Empire. The games were wildly popular and offering them frequently and in elaborate stadiums was an important political tool for the Emperors. The most famous of all was the so called Colosseum in Rome. When the Emperor Titus opened this giant Amphitheater in 80, he gave a lavish series of games for over 100 days in the Colosseum and at other venues around Rome. Some 5000 wild animals were slaughtered during these shows. There were also naumachia, mock sea battles, in the Colosseum and in an artificial lake near Rome. No records specify how many gladiatorial events or public executions took place, but these were surely an almost daily occurrence during these lavish games. The Emperor Titus himself often tossed wooden balls to people in the stands which were inscribed with the name of a prize the lucky catcher would win. The prizes included slave, money, livestock or expensive vessels made of gold and silver among others. The Colosseum was a very sophisticated building. There were dozens of numbered entrances to allow spectators to find their seats as in modern stadiums. Sloping passageways funneled the crowds in and out of the building rapidly. Amphitheaters like the Colosseum also had retractable awnings to shade

spectators from the heat of the sun. Under the arena floor of the Colosseum was a network of passageways, holding cells for wild animals and prisoners, and ramp ways and a rudimentary form of elevators and trap doors to make animals and participants appear dramatically on the floor of the arena which was actually a kind of stage covered with wood and sand. The Colosseum could also be flooded to hold naval battles.

Arial view of the Colosseum in Rome. It is built mostly of brick and concrete with an outer shell clad with marble.

Interior view of the Colosseum. In the center is the oval arena showing the underground structures which would have been covered with a wooden floor. Little remains of the stadium seating.

A modern historical painting showing Christians in the Circus Maximus being exposed to lions and tigers. In addition to chariot races, circuses were also used for public executions, combat shows and hunting shows.