Arena Spectacles

Kathleen M. Coleman

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online December 2009 | | DOI:
Arena Spectacles

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The staging of various types of violent spectacle characterizes Roman urban culture from the mid-Republic until Late Antiquity. Gradually, temporary structures erected in the Forum were replaced by permanent venues, custom-built (predominantly in the West) or adapted from preexisting theaters or stadia (in the Eastern Empire). The term “arena spectacles” covers all types of spectacle put on in these locations, including gladiatorial combat, beast displays, aquatic spectacles, and spectacular forms of public execution. Some of these spectacles were also staged elsewhere—for instance, staged hunts (venationes) in the circus, and naval battles (naumachiae) on custom-built lakes—but this bibliography is limited to the four categories of display mentioned above; other types of spectacle associated with some of the venues (e.g., chariot-racing in the circus) are not treated here. Participation in arena spectacles was a very low-status activity, although staging them earned their sponsors considerable prestige. Spectacles were a major investment, either financial or ideological, for many different constituents in Roman society. The sources are numerous but fragmentary. Dispassionate assessment is hampered by modern revulsion at the provision of public entertainment that was potentially fatal for the protagonists, whether human or animal. Many factors helped to shape arena spectacles, including the hierarchical nature and military ethose of ancient society, a short life expectancy, the provision of amenities by private benefaction, the spread of Roman power to encompass distant lands and exotic products, the gradual aggrandizement of a single man as world leader, and the development of an instinct for martyrdom in the emerging religion of Christianity. The precise function of arena spectacles is hotly debated in modern scholarship. New interpretations and new discoveries, primarily archaeological, are constantly undermining long-held assumptions. Scholars are struggling to understand an alien, challenging, and intriguing phenomenon.

Article.  13253 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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