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A Thesis
Presented to the
Faculty of
San Diego State University
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
Timothy Scott Barry
Summer 2013
Copyright © 2013
Timothy Scott Barry
All Rights Reserved
Spectacle Subculture Discourse
Timothy Scott Barry
Master of Arts in History
San Diego State University, 2013
Current scholarship in ancient and late antique Roman cultural history includes a
wide range of treatments of spectacle, generally focused on the centrality of public spectacle
to urban Roman culture, and how spectacle functioned both as a popular entertainment and
political tool. Despite this wealth of scholarship, the present historiography does not directly
address in any systematic way two issues: (1) the marginal, shadowy and magical subculture
created by the institution of spectacle within Roman society and (2) the negative literary
discourse about that subculture in a systematic way.
This work undertakes two related studies to address these gaps. The first study
analyzes Roman spectacle subculture by examining the extant physical evidence of the
spectacle subculture, from monumental circus buildings, to inscriptions, graffiti, circus art
and remnants of magical items, with attention to chariot racing, the most enduring and
popular spectacle. This section identifies characteristics and the nature of the popularity of
the spectacle subculture. The second portion of this thesis interrogates the works of Roman
authors and characterizes the different ways in which spectacles and the spectacle subculture
were depicted by secular and ecclesiastical authors. Ancient authors’ treatments of spectacle
display the ongoing negativity of the aristocratic literary discourse about spectacle. Of
particular concern is the vocabulary of social class that elite authors used to denounce
spectacle, and allusions to the vulgarity of spectacle entertainments, especially chariot racing.
This work argues that the inherent classism of Roman society, combined with the latent
threat that the popularity of the spectacle subculture posed to the social structure created the
prevailing negative view of spectacles in both the Pre-Christian and Post-Christian Roman
literary discourse. Further, this thesis posits that the immense popularity of spectacles,
combined with the social institution of strict class division and elitism contributed to the
unique place of spectacle subculture—both widely loved and harshly criticized—in ancient
and late antique Roman societies.
ABSTRACT ...............................................................................................................................v
LIST OF TABLES .................................................................................................................. vii
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ................................................................................................... viii
INTRODUCTION .........................................................................................................1 2
ROMAN SPECTACLE SUBCULTURE ....................................................................10 Introduction ............................................................................................................10 Structure, Method, and Definitions........................................................................12 3
SPECTACLE DISCOURSE AND SECULAR AUTHORS .......................................44 Introduction ............................................................................................................44 Structure, Method and Definitions.........................................................................46 Early Authors .........................................................................................................49 Early Imperial Authors ..........................................................................................55 Late Antique Authors .............................................................................................65 Conclusion .............................................................................................................69 4
SPECTACLE DISCOURSE AND CHRISTIAN AUTHORS ....................................73 Introduction ............................................................................................................73 Structure, Method and Definitions.........................................................................75 Early Authors .........................................................................................................78 Late Antique Authors .............................................................................................83 Conclusion .............................................................................................................95 5
CONCLUSION ............................................................................................................98 REFERENCES ......................................................................................................................103 vii
Table.1. Magical Spells and Items ...........................................................................................30 viii
I would like to acknowledge and heartily thank everyone who helped me write this
thesis. First I want to thank my family, my wonderful wife Kassandra for her patience and
understanding during this process, and my mother and father for all of their support over the
years. Next, I would like to thank my thesis committee: Professor Elizabeth Pollard, the
Chairwoman of my thesis committee for her unstoppable enthusiasm about the subject
matter, as well as her encouragement and expertise, Professor Mathew Kuefler for his sage
advice and helpful criticism, and Dr. Brad Kirkegaard for his thoughtful insights and fresh
perspective. Last, I would like to thank the United States Navy’s Bureau of Personnel, and
my Commanding Officer, CAPT Thomas Shaw, USN for allowing me this opportunity to
perform this research and pursue my educational goals.
The excitement from a Roman chariot race must have been immense. Imagine the
scene: the twelve four-horse chariots lined up in the carceres (mechanized starting gates),
horses braying, nervously anticipating the race. Eyeing each other nervously, the lightly
padded charioteers, clad in leather helmets and vibrant team colors, whips in hand poised to
strike, stood in their chariots, strapped to their horses. The thousands of fans, cursing and
shouting, stood anxiously awaiting the start of the race, arguing over the skill of certain
charioteers, and placing bets on teams. Suddenly came the start, and the gates opened,
followed by a violent and grueling seven lap race with two deadly 180 degree hairpin turns at
either end of the track.
Public spectacles such as chariot racing in antiquity and the late antique period
enjoyed a high degree of popularity; in various cities around the Roman Empire, from
Constantinople to Seville, Roman emperors built or improved monumental arenas that held
tens of thousands of people. Historian Thomas Wiedemann asserts that at Rome in 354 CE,
one hundred seventy-six days were set aside for spectacles of various kinds, including theater
and sport, based upon the Calendar of Furious Dionysius Philocalus.1 There is significant
historiographical about this calendar, but it is accepted that it represents both pagan and
Christian festivals at this time.2 Yet, despite the number of spectacles, not all Romans viewed
sporting spectacle as favorably as emperors and the populace presumably did. Aristocratic
secular authors and various writers from the Christian Church disapproved strongly of sport
and spectacle, establishing and perpetuating a centuries-old negative literary discourse on
Thomas Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (New York: Routledge, 1992), Kindle ed., 12.
Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome. Vol. 1, A History (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), 378-82.
Among other smaller-venue entertainments, enormous stadiums full of ancient
Roman viewers enjoyed gladiatorial bouts (munera), wild beast fights (venationes), and
chariot racing (circus). Of these, chariot racing dominated in terms of popularity and
longevity. In late antiquity, munera and venationes began to fade, and by the middle of the
fifth century, they had essentially vanished due to new laws outlawing the practices, and a
shift in sporting tastes.3 Chariot racing, although always popular, emerged as the preeminent
public sporting spectacle. The literary record in the ancient Mediterranean region suggests
that organized chariot racing stretched back before the days of the founding of Rome. For a
sense of perspective, the epic Greek poet Homer wrote in the eighth century BCE of chariot
races in the funeral games of Patroclus after the legendary Trojan War of the thirteenth
century BCE.4
In Imperial Rome, and later in the Byzantine Empire, organizations called circus
factiones (circus factions) managed the circus for the emperor, who was the ultimate patron
of the games. These circus factions were four teams named after colors: Blue, Green, Red
and White. Partisans of these factions were infamous for riotous violence and fanatical
devotion to their teams. In the later empire, the circus factions may have taken on a political
dimension as well. The elder Pliny (first century CE) related a story of a passionate partisan
who was so distraught after the death of his chariot racing hero that he cast himself onto the
man’s funeral pyre.5 This kind of deadly fanaticism was an aberration, but the passion of the
circus factions consumed many young men and women in Roman cities.
Beyond merely chariot racing, Roman spectacle was a wide-reaching and
complicated institution that permeated various aspects of Roman culture. Ancient Roman
society and culture evolved and grew over the years from the Republic to the Empire. A great
many cultural items changed rather drastically from the early Republican days of Cato the
Elder (third century BCE) to the Empire of Julian (fourth century CE) or even Justinian
David Potter, The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium (New York,
Oxford University Press, 2012), Kindle ed., 309.
Homer, The Iliad of Homer, trans. Alexander Pope, ed. Rev. Theodore Alois Buckley. (Adelaide,
Australia: University of Adelaide, 2010), Kindle ed.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock (London, UK: Taylor and Francis, 1855),
(sixth century CE). From the very naming convention of these epochs it is clear that the
system of governance changed dramatically. In the Republican Era (509 to 30 BCE) the
aristocratically democratic consular system was in practice, in which the Roman Senate
elected the leaders who governed with the Senate and ministers and during the Imperial Era
(after 30 BCE) the Emperors and their chosen ministers ruled largely independent of the
complaints of the marginalized Senate. Besides style of governance, many other aspects of
Roman society grew and changed over time as well. The state religion changed from the
classical paganism of Vergil to Christianity. The requirements for Roman citizenship grew
from tax paying, landholding men from the city of Rome and its surrounding areas and their
descendants, to all free Italian born peoples, and later to all free people born within the
limitates of the Roman Empire. The institution of public spectacle was not excepted from the
constant of change. Gladiatorial combats or munera faded with the ascent of Christianity in
the fourth century CE. Words like change, transformation and shift are often common
refrains in the study of the cultural history of the Roman Empire.
By the same token, some distinguishing features of Roman culture appear to have
changed very little over time. Admiration for ancestors remained high from the earliest days
of Rome. The earliest Roman authors to the latest were quick to laud the glorious exploits of
generals like Scipio Africanus, or the valor of other warriors from a bygone era. Because of
this strong affection for the glories of the past, many Roman authors can be characterized as
focused on the past. Faced with a problem, a good Roman was more apt to call for ‘return to
old ways’ than to prescribe innovation or creativity. As a result of this backward-facing
tendency, criticism of the present day, and glorification of the past are characteristics of
many Roman works. Authors from vastly different eras, as different as Cicero (first century
BCE) and Cassiodorus (sixth century CE), looked at the situation of their respective times,
and saw it subordinate to the glory of the past. Roman culture held tightly to other
touchstones beyond a love for the past, like the institution of slavery, or a high value on
military strength, a distrust of outsiders, and the Senate, just to name a few. Certainly not the
least among cultural touchstones was the institution of chariot racing, and popular spectacle
writ large.
Spectacle was a significant institution in ancient and late antique Roman cultures.
American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his work The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)
wrote: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take
culture to be those webs and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in
search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”6 Over the many centuries of
antiquity, the Roman civilization established a unique and dynamic web of culture, and
spectacle functioned as a major thread. The Roman web of culture was a dynamic thing,
changing over time, but the importance of spectacle in that culture remained high. Spectacle
was such a preeminent institution that it developed its own subculture, its own web of
interrelated actors and participants. This subculture included the emperors who presided over
the games and built the arenas, the circus factions that managed the entertainments, the
charioteers who raced and gained great fame despite their low social status and shadowy
magical reputations, and finally the populace, which watched and cheered. The subculture
grew to be a somewhat uncontrollable and unpredictable factor in society associated with
violence, from the gladiators of the Spartacus Revolt of the first century BCE to the Nika
Riots of the sixth century CE. Spectacle subculture too was inundated with magic, sex, and
Aristocratic Roman authors criticized spectacle and its subculture on many grounds,
but mostly because of its popularity and power. So large and powerful force as the spectacle
subculture became that it threatened the very societal structures that aristocratic Roman
authors relied upon, whether through the threat of magic, or violence. Aristocratic Roman
authors looked down upon the members of the spectacle subculture, and sought to use a
negative discourse to disable its power.
Roman spectacle is the topic of a large swath of modern Roman cultural history.
Eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon writes briefly about Roman spectacle in his
classic work, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon faithfully renders
many spectacular games of the Roman Empire for his readers. With his characteristic
editorializing style, Gibbon casts judgment upon the lack of prudence evident in such lavish
games, writing about the venationes of the Western Emperor Carinus, circa 282-4 CE,
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1973), 5.
while the populace gazed with stupid wonder on the splendid show, the naturalist
might indeed observe the figure and properties of so many different species,
transported from every part of the ancient world into the amphitheatre of Rome.
But this accidental benefit, which science might derive from folly, is surely
insufficient to justify such a wanton abuse of the public riches.7
By using the example of the spectacular games of a lackluster Western Emperor, who
competed unsuccessfully with Diocletian for control of the entire Roman Empire, Gibbon
sets up his argument for the ineffectual nature of Roman spectacle in a very limited manner.
Later, Gibbon admits the efficacy of a mere single ludus in the entire history of Rome, and
those games did not occur within the timeframe Gibbon's decline and fall.
There occurs, however, a single instance in the first Punic War, in which the
senate wisely connected this amusement of the multitude with the interest of the
state. A considerable number of elephants, taken in the defeat of the Carthaginian
army, were driven through the circus by a few slaves, armed only with blunt
javelins. The useful spectacle served to impress the Roman soldier with a just
contempt for those unwieldy animals; and he no longer dreaded to encounter them
in the ranks of war.8
Gibbon, due to his eighteenth-century Enlightenment focus on political, religious and
military matters does not consider the cultural value of the Roman spectacles.9 He, like many
after him, sets the games up as an example of late Roman lavish excess, a waste of money
and time that did nothing more than distract Emperors and soldiers alike from the impending
problems of the impending Germanic, Hunnish and Persian armies. To the sometimes Deist
Gibbon, the Roman obsession with religion and by extension religious spectacles, whether
pagan or Christian, was not a vital part of the Roman psyche that helped make up the very
identity of the culture for both good and bad, but rather an illogical impediment to the Roman
military domination of the Mediterranean.10 Gibbon's bias against spectacle helped to create
the modern perception of Roman excess and senseless spectacular entertainment.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Hans-Friedrich Mueller (New York:
The Modern Library, 2003), 12.3.
Patricia B. Craddock, Edward Gibbon: Luminous Historian 1772-1794 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1989), x-xi.
David Wootton, “Narrative, Irony and Faith in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,” History and Theory 33, no.
4 (1994): 104-5.
More recent historians have looked upon Roman spectacle with greater regard. J. B.
Poynton’s 1938 article “The Public Games of the Romans” focuses on the types of games
included in Roman spectacles. He categorizes the different types of spectacle entertainment
of the Romans, from wild beast shows to gladiatorial bouts and chariot races. He attempts to
determine the roots of Roman spectacle entertainments, and argues that the religion of the
Romans instituted spectacles from the very beginnings of the city.11 Decades later, the
modern historiography began to shift away from military and political history, and towards
the type of topics that Poynton emphasizes.
In the 1970s, Peter Brown and Alan Cameron brought attention to the ambiguous yet
significant role that charioteers played in Roman society. Brown’s work Religion and Society
in the Age of St. Augustine inserts the institution of magic into the historiographical debate.
Brown argues that the charioteer represented a “détente in unity” in the Roman structure of
power.12 While at the circus, the charioteer, instead of scorned and cast aside, was loved and
famous. The rules that normally applied to Roman society did not always apply at the circus.
The Church’s influence did not seem to enter the arena, and rowdy and offensive behavior
was somewhat encouraged. Further, the charioteer was a character who embraced the illegal
practice of sorcery or magic. Brown posits that there were two systems of power in ancient
and late antique Rome, the articulate and inarticulate systems.13 The articulate system was
the clearly recognized power of the government and the Church. The inarticulate power
system existed outside of this first system, and included the sorcerer and the charioteer, two
marginal characters who held great sway from time to time.
Alan Cameron too writes about charioteers; however, he narrows his focus to one
particular charioteer, Porphyrius the Charioteer. Porphyrius was perhaps the most famous
charioteer in late antiquity, who raced and won all over the Mediterranean region in the early
sixth century. Cameron details Porphyrius’ career, based on the analysis of two statue bases
dedicated to him in the great hippodrome of Constantinople. Cameron also includes a
J. D. Poynton, “The Public Games of the Romans,” Greece and Rome 7, no. 20 (1938): 76.
Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 128.
Ibid, 124.
consideration of the magical aspect of the circus, writing that all charioteers were considered
associated with magic.14 With the work of Cameron and Brown, interest in the topics of
chariot racing and magic grew in the historiographical debate about ancient Rome.
John Humphrey’s Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing is an exhaustive study
of the archeology of monumental Roman circuses. Humphrey focuses on large circuses that
were built or improved during the third and fourth century CE. He treats numerous circuses
from modern day Spain to Syria. One of his main arguments asserts that these monumental
circuses were closely associated with imperial palaces, suggesting a direct link between the
recreational utility of the circus, and the political utility.15 Following Humphrey’s Roman
Circuses is Charlotte Roeche’s Performers and Partisans at Aphrodisias. Roueche’s
monograph presents and analyzes the inscriptions and graffiti in the city of Aphrodisias, in
modern day Turkey. This city was not large enough to rate a full size circus, but still
possessed theaters and a forum. Inscriptions and graffiti about the circus factions is present at
Aphrodisias, which suggests that the factions had a much wider reach than merely the circus.
Based on inscriptions in seats at the theater, Roueche argues that the construction of Roman
identity was firmly tied to guild association, class and even factional loyalty.16
With the 1990s came a great deluge of scholarly work about the cultural nexus of
chariot racing, spectacle and magic in late antiquity. This historiography only touches upon
the works that relate most to the analysis of this essay. Thomas Weidemann’s Emperors and
Gladiators does not address the issue of magic, but instead examines the issues of class and
the brutality of early Roman spectacle. Erik Gunderson’s article “The Ideology of the Arena”
is a postmodern treatment of the spectacle subculture of Roman society. He posits that the
arena was a Foucaultian Panopticon, in which elite authors observed the ‘masses,’ as they
observed the spectacles themselves.17 He goes on to analyze the construction of state
ideology and the role the spectacles, particularly gladiatorial matches, played in reinforcing
Alan Cameron, Porphyrius the Charioteer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 245.
John Humphrey, Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing (London: B. T. Batsford, 1986), 18.
Charlotte Roueche, Performers and Partisans at Aphrodisias in the Roman and Late Roman Periods
(London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1993), 155.
Erik Gunderson, “The Ideology of the Arena,” Classical Antiquity 15, no. 1 (1996): 115.
the ideology of the Roman state. His analysis regrettably did not include chariot racing,
although the reinforcement of state ideology through spectacle is an interesting concept.
Other historians have focused on spectacle, and its political utility in late Republican
and early Imperial Rome. Andrew J. E. Bell’s article “Cicero and the Spectacle of Power”
examines the spectacle of oratory, and the ways that Cicero explicitly attempted to use the
power of the pulpit.18 Andrew Feldherr’s work Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History
addresses the ways other political actors, including Cicero, used public spectacle, like chariot
racing, in political ways in the early Imperial Period.19 Finally, David Potter’s Victor’s
Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium is a study in the history of
sport, including chariot racing, in both ancient Greece and Rome. He, like the previous
authors, does not treat magic, but instead focuses on the structure and composition of the
games, and the similarities and differences with their Greek counterparts.
Current scholarship has not treated the subculture of spectacle directly, nor the
ancient literary discourse that addressed and helped to define this subculture. This thesis
attempts to fill in those gaps. First this thesis displays the characteristics of the spectacle
subculture through analysis of primary source materials: monumental circus architecture,
circus inscriptions, spectacle art, and magical circus items. These materials provide a
reasonable representation of the web of spectacle subculture in antiquity. Second, this thesis
interrogates the works of ancient authors with respect to their depictions of spectacle in order
to discern the nature of the literary discourse about spectacle and the spectacle subculture.
Ancient authors were generally social elites, and the negativity of the ancient discourse about
spectacle indicates a class bias. This thesis argues that the negative discourse about spectacle
and spectacle subculture developed because of the class-based structure and focus of Roman
society. The spectacle subculture represented the lower classes, the vulgar masses to
aristocratic authors. Ancient authors were threatened by the popularity of spectacle and the
Andrew J. E. Bell, “Cicero and the Spectacle of Power,” The Journal of Roman Studies 87 (November
1997): 1-22.
Andrew Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History (Berkeley: University of California Press,
inherent power of the masses, and attempted to marginalize the spectacle subculture through
a persistent negative discourse.
Ancient and late antique Roman chariot racing and spectacle culture existed on two
levels. On the surface, the imperial government and the circus factions managed the games
and races. In the capitols of Rome and Constantinople, the Emperor and his court decided
when public spectacles would be held, ordered the construction of monumental hippodromes
and theaters. The emperor also organized the finances for the games for the enjoyment of the
masses, and the subsequent political benefit the adulation of the masses could bring an
emperor. The circus factions trained the horses and charioteers, practiced race techniques,
and maintained a high level of competition. Further, the circus factions organized other types
of entertainers, like mimes and actors. The populous, the throngs of cheering fans in the
hippodrome, attended the races and cheered for a colored faction.
Some historians contend that in the later Roman empire, the circus factions may have
developed a political element, like proto-political parties. In contrast, Alan Cameron posits
that the factions were merely concerned with entertainment, and did not directly enter the
political realm.20 He outlines—and subsequently refutes—the established historical
orthodoxy of politicized factions, which he attributed to Vasilev among others, in six parts:
first, the entire population of Constantinople can be organized into political demes, which are
synonymous with the circus factions; second, the factions formed an urban militia; third, the
Blues and Greens held opposing, polemical religious views, orthodoxy and monophysitism;
fourth, the emergence of two factions reflects a natural dichotomy in political life; fifth,
Blues represented the upper class, Greens the lower; sixth, the political role of the factions
emerged in the late Empire.21 Cameron argues that the use of the word demes, although it
Alan Cameron, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium (London: Clarendon Press,
1976), 272-3.
Ibid, 2.
often was used to refer to the circus factions, does not necessarily refer to circus factions in
all cases. Demes/demoi had a more general sense of a group or groups of people. The
association of demes with the circus factions, in his reasoning, led to the retrojection of
political parties upon the circus factions, a retrojection which he claims has little evidence in
the historical record.
Nevertheless, there must have been politically-minded fans of the factions. These
political individuals lead politically-charged chants to the emperor at various times.
According toa handful of late antique sources, the Nika Revolt began with factional chants to
Justinian about the gross injustices of a praetorian prefect, John the Cappadocian.22 Late
Roman society did not include the voices of the multitudes in the political process often, and
the games were a rare instance where the common man could sometimes make his voice
heard, which Cameron readily admits.23 In all, Cameron’s analysis of the apolitical circus
factions seems accurate, with a caveat that political actors did sometimes use the factions to
affect a political end. The primary role and operation of the factions was, as Cameron argues,
oriented towards entertainment, and not a façade for political activism.
Alongside this surface of simple entertainment existed a subculture of magic spells, bawdy
theater performance and violence that accompanied the Roman circus. The subculture of
Roman spectacle existed outside of complete government or Church control, although clergy
members sermonized against the circus, and emperors designed laws to maintain a sense of
order. The wild spectacle subculture occasionally became the backdrop of popular riots,
especially in the later empire. Chariot racing, which emerged as the preeminent spectacle in
late antiquity, and magic became closely intertwined by the late antique period. Despite
secular and Christian attempts to marginalize and eliminate the spectacle subculture, both
magic and the circus continued in Byzantine and Roman societies well into the early Middle
Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 117 (November
1997): 68.
Alan Cameron, Circus Factions, 168.
Today, evidence of the spectacle subculture survives in the form of defixiones (curse
tablets), magical spell books, fragmentary magical items, monumental circuses and
hippodromes, graffiti, charioteer statues, monuments and sarcophagi, as well as legal and
literary depictions. By analyzing these remnants of the circus counter culture, this chapter
shows the subculture’s enduring and sometimes violent nature. Many modern scholars have
researched various aspects of Roman spectacle, and a robust historiography has evolved.
This essay addresses the extant primary source material of the spectacle subculture
and analyzes it with respect to both the relevant previously discussed historiography, and the
Roman literary convention of a negative spectacle discourse. First, the monumental circuses
and hippodromes of the ancient Mediterranean region are presented and analyzed. John
Humphrey’s Roman Circuses Arenas for Chariot Racing and Phillip Crummy’s article “The
Roman Circus at Colchester” provide the bulk of the archeological evidence and analysis.
This essay does not challenge either work on an archeological basis, but rather presents
portions of Humphrey’s and Crummy’s findings in order to display points about Roman
spectacle and the subculture it created. The large size and wide geographical spread of the
monumental circuses is an indicator of the widespread popularity of spectacle, but even more
specifically of chariot racing. The oblong shape of the center area of these structures
indicates their purpose was chariot racing. Smaller theaters and coliseums are not included in
this consideration because of their relatively small size compared to the circuses. Theaters
and coliseums were the location of public spectacles, to be sure, but the not very largest
spectacles. The analysis of circuses gives an impression of the spread of the largest public
spectacles, not the moderately sized spectacles found in theaters.
Next, the materials found within the circuses are examined. Selections of circus
inscriptions, circus graffiti and circus-themed art from Charlotte Rouche’s Performers and
Partisans and Alan Cameron’s Porphyrius the Charioteer as well as other articles provide
the bulk of the evidence. These works include representations of the primary sources
themselves—the inscriptions, graffiti or art pictured in Rouche and Cameron’s
monographs—as well as analysis. The primary sources give a glimpse into the world of the
spectacle subculture, and are presented as they shed light upon the characteristics of the
spectacle subculture and the negative discourse of Roman authors. Thus, the analysis in this
essay differs from the analysis offered by previous historians. Where the arguments of
previous historians are employed, due credit is given.
Last, the sources that lay beneath the circus are presented. Magic spellbooks, curse
tablets, fragments of magical amulets and other magic items are analyzed. These valuable
pieces of primary source evidence come from the John Gager’s Curse Tablets and Binding
Spells from the Ancient World, Hans Dieter Betz’ The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation,
Including the Demotic Spells, and Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith’s Ancient Christian
Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. These works, like Roueche and Cameron’s works
above, present the primary sources in translated form, and offer analysis separately. The
magic items that these works display provide a clear picture of the wide breadth of the magic
subculture in antiquity. From this large group of evidence, a substantial portion relates
directly to chariot racing, which is included in this essay. While it is true that Roman
spectacle included more than merely chariot racing—theater, gladiatorial combats, wild beast
hunts, and mock naval battles are among the most immediate examples—no other
competative spectacle includes the significant number of magical remnants that chariot
racing does. Florent Heintz’ dissertation “Agonistic Magic in Late Antiquity” treats all
competatively-themed magic directly, and includes theater magic. This essay considers
chariot magic, offensive or defensive, in order to display the characteristics of the grand
spectacle subculture. Theater and rhetorical magic belongs in a subtly different category, due
to the smaller crowds and fewer extant magical items that theater magic produced.
III. Source Material and Analysis
Both the circus and magic existed outside the realm of polite society, but were
popular and powerful. The case of the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora offers a
useful example of the power of the circus, the changing cultural dynamics of late antiquity
and the perceived influence of magic and circus counter culture. Sixth-century historian
Procopius linked both Justinian and Theodora to demonic magic, possibly because of their
humble origins and interest in the circus. Justinian came to power in the mid sixth century,
assuming the role of full Emperor after his uncle and adopted father, Emperor Justin I died.
Both Justin and Justinian came from the same humble farming family in the Roman town of
Tauresium, in modern day Macedonia. Justin achieved great success as a military leader. He
had adopted Justinian, and brought the young man to Constantinople, where Justin enjoyed
prestige as the Count of the Excubitors, the commander of a palace regiment. After the death
of Emperor Anastasius, Justin became Emperor thanks to his strong following among the
influential Byzantine military, despite his old age and reputed illiteracy.24 Justin appointed
Justinian to high government posts, and named him as his successor.
Theodora, like Justinian, also came from a humble background. She grew up in the
capitol of Constantinople, where her father was a bear keeper for the Green faction of
charioteers. Later, after her father’s death, Theodora’s family lost its employment with the
Green faction, became destitute and eventually landed with the performers of the Blue
faction.25 As a young girl, Theodora was an actress, a lowly class of citizen associated with
sexualized shows and prostitution. In addition to their low social class, unrepentant actresses
could not receive sacraments in the Church or marry esteemed men of Senatorial rank, only
serve as courtesans. Although the details of Theodora’s early life are not entirely clear,
historians know that Theodora later married Justinian, but only after Justinian convinced the
Emperor Justin to promulgate a law that explicitly allowed former actresses to marry men of
senatorial rank.26 The two low born circus fans married and soon ascended to the highest seat
of imperial power.
Some aristocratic Byzantines resented Emperor Justinian’s power and low birth.
Procopius of Caesarea, Justinian’s court historian and author of Justinian’s official panegyric,
gave the resentment a voice, and wrote scathingly about the emperor and empress.
Procopius’ work is troublesome to modern historians because of the unpublished Anecdota,
or Secret History, that he wrote unbeknownst to Emperor Justinian. In many ways, this work
is at loggerheads with the panegyric to Justinian, Buildings. As such, Procopius’ work raises
the question of an author’s true opinions, behind the façade of his literary contribution. Did
Procopius love Justinian and marvel at his building campaign as Buildings might suggest, or
did Procopius truly despise the man? On one hand, he praised Emperor Justinian in
Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 21.
James Allen Evans, The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Austin: University of Texas Press,
2002), 13-5.
Browning, 41.
Buildings, while on the other hand he wrote that Justinian was the “King of Demons”
because of his alleged connection with demons and the occult.27
Twentieth-century historian Averil Cameron wrote Procopius and the Sixth Century
in order to address some aspects of this debate. She writes: “Most often it [the debate over
Procopius] has been resolved by the simple means of taking the more obviously classicising
Wars as basic (and preferable), and then somehow explaining away the notorious Secret
History and the unpalatable Buildings."28 Cameron wishes to put Procopius in a cultural
context as an elite member of the 6th Century Byzantine Empire, and to define his Secret
History as a kind of satire that he intended for his fellow elites, imitating ancient Roman
literary tropes, insulting the low born Emperor and his wife. Whether or not Procopius’
vitriolic attacks have merit is not of particular consequence for this thesis. The Secret History
is an important work for modern historians to understand both the private thoughts of an elite
sixth century Roman such as Procopius, and the ways in which an elite author verbally
attacked an emperor, most notably by association with magic and circus-obsession. This
specific mode of verbal attack is symptomatic of a larger negative discourse on the circus and
spectacle (below).
A large part of Procopius’ invective included accusations of magic and demon
possession. About Theodora he wrote: “For from her earliest years she had herself consorted
with magicians and sorcerers, as her whole way of life led her in that direction, and to the
very end she put her trust in these arts and made them at all times the ground of her
confidence.”29 Procopius offers no direct evidence, but as an actress for the Blue faction,
Theodora came from the circus subculture, and her association with magic would have been
unquestioned in the minds of Procopius’ readers. The circus was full of occult influences and
magic, and Theodora was part of that culture as a child—“her whole way of life led her in
that direction.” She may never have used magic herself, or may have cast aside magic when
she renounced her former life, before her marriage to Justinian, but there can be little doubt
Procopius, The Secret History, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 104.
Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century (London: Duckworth, 1985), 3.
Procopius, 151.
that she would have been aware of circus magic given her upbringing. Whether or not
Procopius’ accusation of Empress Theodora’s use of magic was factual, he exemplified the
prejudices of his fellow aristocrats by using Theodora the actress’ presumed association with
magic against her.
Procopius went further, charging that Emperor Justinian was possessed by demons
sent by Theodora, another allusion to magic and the subculture of the circus. Procopius
wrote: “it is not so much by cajolery that she got Justinian under her thumb as by the
compelling power of the demons.”30 In late antique magic, sorcerers and their customers
often sought to rouse daimones to bind and control the subjects of their spells (below). To
Procopius, Theodora’s past meant that she used magic, and that she used magic meant that
she controlled her husband through demons. Procopius expected nothing less than vulgar
magic and demonic possession from circus fans and actresses.
Modern historians suggest that Procopius may have believed in the efficacy of
sorcery as well. Historians Averil Cameron and Glanville Downey write about Procopius’
accusations of demonic magic against Justinian and Theodora. Downey posits that Procopius,
like most Christians in Syria, would have believed in magic, while Cameron asserts the
seriousness of Procopius’ claims about demon possession.31 Demons and demon possession
were a common trope of Christian writing during late antiquity. Christian writers from
Augustine to Isidore of Seville associated the circus and its factions with demon cults
(below). Cameron reminds the modern reader that the depiction of Justinian and Theodora as
associated with demons was a legitimate claim in late antiquity. Downey’s argument about
Procopius’ widespread Christian belief in magic is more difficult to prove, although Christian
magic rituals offering protection from demons do survive from late antiquity. In any case,
many circus fans, whether Christian or not, did believe strongly in demons and in a very real
battle between offensive and protective magic. Procopius’ use of this imagery to slander
Justinian and Theodora displayed first an aristocratic prejudice against circus fans and the
Procopius, 151.
Glanville Downey, “Paganism and Christianity in Procopius,” Church History 18, no. 2 (1949): 101;
Averil Cameron, Procopius and the Sixth Century, 59.
spectacle subculture, and second a subtle acknowledgement of the power and pervasiveness
of magic.
Justinian and Theodora reigned in a time when the popularity of circus spectacles was
extremely high. At this time, spectacles were primarily an urban phenomenon. Late Roman
circuses and hippodromes were often near the center of the major cities. This city planning
characteristic was due in part to the political role that circuses played. Political life in Roman
cities was centralized. It was centered on a sole authority, the emperor or his appointed
governor in a province. Spectacles and games were a powerful tool used by emperors and
other political actors to maintain or establish popular support, and for that reason, circuses
and imperial palaces were often very near to each other. In many instances, the common man
would see the emperor at only chariot races, and other spectacles held at the circus.
Archeologist John H. Humphrey notes colocation of circuses and imperial residences
in his 1986 work, Roman Circuses. His focus is Roman circuses built in the fourth and fifth
century. Although he stops short of claiming that all circuses are necessarily linked to an
imperial capital or to work on an adjacent palace, it is clear from his research that often
enough, an emperor was often the driving force behind major circus construction, and had an
interest in associating the monumental circus with his palace. 32 Humphries' examples include
circuses in some of the largest and most influential Mediterranean cities of antiquity:
Ravenna, Antioch, the Circus of Maxentius on the Via Appia, Trier, Tarragona, Toledo,
Carthage, Milan, Aquileia, Thessaloniki, among many more. Most were built, or underwent
major upgrades in the fourth century, and Humphries claims in most cases that this circus
construction was directly related to the residence of an emperor, or an imperial governor. He
wrote regarding these circuses, “Indeed, these circuses can properly be viewed as an essential
part of the palace architecture. They were linked physically with the imperial residences in a
way which is not true of any earlier circuses except for the circus at the Sessorian.”33 The
logic behind collocating the palace and the circus was simple: the Emperor's desire to gather
large numbers of his subjects, to glorify himself, and secure the stability of his public
Humphrey, 581.
Ibid, 580
support. Humphrey wrote: "Once an emperor came to be identified with one particular city as
his chief residence, then he needed a suitable setting for court ceremonial and a public
context in which to appear before his subjects--and for that, a circus was best."34
Thus, the political nature of spectacle is also displayed. Emperors desired to maintain
popular support, and were willing to spend large sums to build grand monumental circuses.
These buildings were large and intimidating to the populace, were intended ostensibly for
chariot racing spectacle, and were adjacent to their official residences. Although other events
like coronations or religious ceremonies would attract crowds, chariot racing spectacles were
the primary motivating forces that gathered the subjects together for the Emperor.35 In a
tradition from the early empire, the common people would petition the Emperor during the
circus games, which adds depth to the character of the spectacle subculture. Not only did an
emperor hold fantastic games for the masses, but also he heard and acknowledged their cries
during these very spectacles. Thus, the emperor partially legitimized the spectacle subculture,
interacting with the vulgar crowd. There are examples throughout the Roman Empire of the
people interacting with the Emperor during circus spectacles. Pliny recorded that Trajan
granted requests during gladiatorial games.36 There are examples in later Roman sources as
well, such as Justinian II’s dialogue with the factions during chariot races in 568 CE.37
The very design of circuses and hippodromes changed over time to better suit the
needs of the emperor and his provincial governors. In the late Eastern Roman Empire, in
places like Greece, Asia Minor, Eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt, a different style of
athletic spectacle grew than in the Western Empire. The Hellenistic style was less rigidly
organized and included more equestrian events than merely chariot racing. Humphrey wrote:
“Chariot racing in the eastern provinces differed in several important respects from the sport
in the west. This inevitably affected the buildings, the hippodromes (to use the Greek word)
Ibid, 633.
Alan Cameron, Circus Factions, 158.
Pliny the Younger, Letters, and Panegyricus, trans. Betty Radice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1969), 33.2-3.
Theophanes the Confessor, The Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, trans. Cyril Mango and Roger
Scott (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 358.
which housed the sport.”38 The most observable difference in hippodrome construction
between the Hellenistic and Roman style is the presence of a barrier in the center of the
racing area. Roman style architecture included the barrier, while Hellenistic did not.
The eastern Roman provinces that eventually became the Byzantine Empire had a
wholly different and distinct sporting tradition from the western provinces. The classical
Greek Olympics are an example of this. Chariot racing, as well as other forms of equestrian
competition were present in the east long before the Roman conquest, although these events
did not have the same subculture and political implications. Charioting in the west was more
deliberately organized and executed than in the east. The influence of the emperor, and the
circus factions demanded a more precise execution of the games. In the Hellenistic tradition,
the games had a folksier atmosphere than the Imperial and politically charged Roman
tradition, wrought with circus factions and bloody conflict, and the architecture reflects this
difference. Humphrey wrote: “For the Roman circus was a highly uniform and structured
arena, with lanes, white lines, starting gates, barrier, arena of fairly constant length and width
and doubtless its own very precise rules governing behavior.”39 Eventually, around the fourth
century, the Roman tradition of monumental circuses and uniformity of sport became the
norm in the east, although to a lesser extent in Greece itself, where the Roman style of
monumental circus architecture never appeared, with the exception of a monumental
hippodrome in the Roman style in Thessaloniki.40 In late antiquity, during the time of the
Eastern Roman Empire, chariot racing in the east gained a special popularity, and uniformity
of practice.
According to Humphrey, the architecture of circuses in the west is all strikingly
similar, and on a larger scale than most contemporary eastern architecture. The monumental
circus in modern day Colchester, Essex contradicts this trend. At Colchester, archeologist
Phillip Crummy reports that the circus is notably thinner than most others, 71.4m compared
to the 140m of the Circus Maximus, including circuses in the east.41 Colchester is unique
Humphrey, 438.
Ibid, 440.
Ibid, 441.
Phillip Crummy, “The Roman Circus at Colchester,” Brittania 39 (2008): 27.
because of its small size, and eight starting gates. All other extant circuses have been found
with ten or twelve starting gates. Crummy does not find this smaller size surprising, because
of the circus at Colchester’s early foundation date and short life. He places the origins of the
circus in the first century CE, and the gradual demolition of the circus in the middle third
century. Although this contradicts Humphrey’s assertion that chariot racing never took hold
in Great Britain, it does not challenge Humphrey’s main arguments.42 Humphrey’s analysis is
based upon circuses built or improved upon during the third and fourth century. According to
Crummy, because Colchester was not a provincial capital, it simply did not make the cut to
receive imperial funds for improvement. 43
The smaller size of Colchester’s circus then provides further support for the argument
that Roman emperors and imperial governors required immense monumental circuses to
impress and intimidate the people. Where there was little political motivation for circuses,
such as at Colchester, there was little interest in sustaining a circus. The emperor would not
gain enough political capitol in small-market circuses. Circuses beginning in the third
century were exclusively on a large scale. This had the effect of centralizing the circus
industry and also circus fans. The size of the circuses from that time suggests that the circus
subculture then existed mostly around the major cities. Further, spectacle subculture
maintained a political current in addition to its rowdy and magical tendencies, thanks to the
influence of the ultimate financier of the games, the imperial government.
Within the enormous circuses of the later Roman Empire, circus inscriptions and
monumental art were instruments of expression for both the establishing authorities of the
games, and the fans of the games. Charlotte Roueche’s works, Performers and Partisans, and
Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity, document archeological evidence from the ancient city of
Aphrodisias. According to Humphrey, there is no conclusive evidence of a monumental
hippodrome at Aphrodisias, although traditional, smaller-scale Greek style horse racing may
have been practiced.44 Still, there were theaters and other smaller venues for public spectacle.
Humphrey, 437.
Crummy, 30.
Humphrey, 527.
In these venues, official and unofficial inscriptions display some characteristics of the
spectacle subculture.
The traditional Roman factions, especially Blue and Green, are present in
inscriptions. Three such inscriptions from the bases of marble pillars in the southern agora
are acclamations to the factions: “i. The fortune of the ?Greens triumphs! ii. Up with the
fortune of the city! iii. The fortune of the ?Blues triumphs!”45 These inscriptions are
indications of a spectacle subculture that expanded beyond simple chariot racing. In the later
empire, performers like a young Empress Theodora and her bear-keeping father, associated
with one faction or another. Even though Aphrodisias may not have held chariot races, the
spectacle subculture of the chariot factions spread to the city in the form of other entertainers.
These inscriptions may refer to Green Faction entertainers, who competed for prizes against
Blue Faction entertainers. Other unofficial inscriptions, or graffiti, display the inappropriate,
rowdy and sexualized behavior of members of the spectacle subculture. In one inscription, a
decorative phallus symbol was etched upon the seat in the theater, with the words “The seat
of Eros.”46
Formal inscriptions depict assigned seating in the theater for numerous classes of
citizens, from curial class elites, to butchers guilds and young men. Roueche argues that this
emphasis on social class even in a theatrical setting reinforced the Roman sense of identity.47
A butcher, for instance, would not have considered himself a member of the vulgar populous;
rather, he would have considered himself a butcher, a member of a trade guild of some
prestige. Rouche’s work focuses on Aphrodisias, which did not have a monumental circus,
but her conclusions about the public character of individual Roman identity as it was
demonstrated in public seating arrangements has wider implications. Socially stratified
assigned seating at public spectacles was not merely a phenomenon at Aphrodisias. Larger
cities followed the same conventions.
Charlotte Roueche, Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity: The Late Roman and Byzantine Inscriptions, rev. 2nd
ed. (London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 2004), 183. The question mark indicates Roueche’s
estimation of the intended translated word in the inscription, because a shorthand was used in the original—
similar to referring to the San Diego Padres as the ‘Pads.
Roueche, Performers and Partisans, 107.
Ibid, 149-55.
Monumental art in the forms of statuary and mosaic was prominent in Roman
circuses as well. Charioteers were commonly depicted in statuary, and their racing exploits
recorded in epigrams. This must have been an ironic scene for some chariot racing fans.
Charioteers, a group of people who existed on the shadowy margins of society, and who were
sometimes slaves, were immortalized in statuary, just like an emperor or general. Charioteers
were generally grouped with other performers, gladiators, mimes, actors, and gymnasts, and
relegated to the lowest rungs of society. Tacitus related with great relief how Vitellian
reversed Nero’s course of allowing high class Romans from entering the arena as gladiators,
and outlawed the practice.48 Thus, social convention and even imperial pronouncements
forbade Romans from participating in popular entertainments, maintaining the low social
status of entertainers.
Still, some charioteers and other performers did sometimes become wealthy, and even
achieve some level of social status. Porphyrius was one example of this exceptional
charioteer. Alan Cameron’s work Porphyrius the Charioteer relates the life of this
exceptional figure in sixth-century chariot racing, using primarily the monumental bases of
statues dedicated to Porphyrius in Constantinople as primary sources. These statues were
both displayed in the center of the monumental hippodrome at Constantinople, on the spina,
adjacent to obelisks of conquest and statuary devoted to emperors. Regrettably, the statues
that adorned the top of the bases have been lost, but the bases themselves provide a wealth of
information about Porphyrius, and the curious and somewhat ambiguous place successful
charioteers may have held in late antique society. The very fact that these bases and the
corresponding statues existed at all indicates a rise in the status of some performers. Cameron
writes that “the career of Porphyrius marked a new peak in the fame and material rewards of
charioteers--a fame that is less index of the skill of the charioteers than of the growing
importance of the hippodrome in Byzantine life--and of the increasing rivalry of the circus
factions.”49 With the ascent of the monumental circuses and hippodromes in later Roman and
early Byzantine life, came the ascent of spectacle subculture. Porphyrius was depicted in
Tacitus, Tacitus: The Histories, trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912), Kindle ed.,
Alan Cameron, Porphyrius the Charioteer, 3.
reliefs on the bases of his statues, and the artistic conventions of those depictions are
strikingly similar to depictions of Emperor Theodosius, whose statue sat next to Porphyrius’
on the spina.50 Late Roman coinage even depicted chariot racing. In the early Empire, the
god Sol, or Helios, was depicted riding a chariot. This hearkened to the Roman pagan
religion that associated the sun god with chariots and speed. Races were only held during the
day, and Sol was an appropriate god to invoke for these races. Cameron relates that later
Roman emperors, starting with Caracella in the third century had themselves depicted driving
chariots, in the style of Sol, on coinage.51
While chariot racing and spectacle remained popular in the imperial period, its
association with magic and sorcery remained prevalent. Magical items are treated on their
own below, but magic and chariot racing were directly associated in circus art as well.
Cameron writes “Was it not obvious that in order to keep winning as he did charioteer X
must himself be using magic? Thus it came to be generally believed that the charioteer not
only consulted magicians but was one himself.”52 The evidence suggests that successful
charioteers were not all considered magicians themselves, but were perhaps closely
associated with magicians (below).
The association of magic and the circus greatly contributed to the uncertain,
ambiguous and even bipolar place of chariot racing and spectacle in Roman culture.
Charioteers were loved wildly by circus fans, but despised by elite authors. In some ways, the
association with magic was always present with charioteers. It must have seemed somewhat
unnatural that such a lowly person as a slave or freedman charioteer could ascend to such
heights of fame and wealth. The association was made clear by elite writers who heaped
scorn upon charioteers and the circus in general, but also in a more subtle way in art. Artistic
representations of charioteers survive today in the forms of textiles, mosaic and sarcophagi.
In the Aachen-Cluny textile, there are medallions with circus motifs. In one medallion,
represented in Porphyrius, a charioteer is clearly being helped along by smaller men floating
Ibid, 16.
Ibid, 19.
Ibid, 245.
above the horses, possibly daimones or spirits of the untimely dead which sorcerers invoked
(below). In addition, the charioteer seems to be wearing something on his arms, at about the
wrist. This could be a subtle reference to a magical amulet that charioteers were known to
wear (below).53 Certainly, not all artistic depictions of charioteers included allusions to
magic, but because magic was perceived to be so pervasive in chariot racing, a close
examination of many chariot-themed pieces can yield suspicious finds.
The act of resorting to magic was a reality of the Roman circus. Some circus fans, as
well as charioteers themselves, hired professional magicians to cast magical curses and
protection spells that cried to pagan gods and other spirits for assistance in clear defiance of
Roman law. A law from the Codex Theodosius dating from the fourth century, and later
repeated in the sixth-century Justinian Code, recorded outlawed circus magic in no uncertain
If anyone should hear of a person who is contaminated with the pollution of
magic, or if he should apprehend or seize such a person, he shall drag him out
immediately before the public and shall show the enemy of the common safety to
the eyes of the courts. But if any charioteers or anyone of any other class of men
should attempt to contravene this edict or should destroy by clandestine
punishment a person, even though he is clearly guilty of the evil art of magic, he
shall not escape the extreme penalty, since he is subject to a double suspicion;
namely, that he has secretly removed a public criminal from the severity of the
law and from due investigation, in order that said criminal might not expose his
associates in crime, or that perhaps he killed his own enemy by a more atrocious
plan under the pretense of avenging this crime.54
The legal record clearly asserted that charioteers are a suspect “class of men” when it
came to magic. In a clever way, the law anticipated vigilantism, and the use of counter-magic
by charioteers, and declared such action grounds for “double suspicion.” Charioteers were
thus characterized as chronic magic users in the eyes of Roman law, but not specifically as
magicians themselves. With this law, and characterization of charioteers as a “class of
citizen,” Roman jurisprudence all but admitted the existence of a magic-saturated circus
subculture, based on the prevalence of magic and counter-magic between charioteers via
Ibid, 26.
Clyde Pharr. The Theodosian Code: and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (Princeton: Princeton
Unviersity Press, 1952), 9.16.11.
their magicians. Further, the Roman legal system seemed to acknowledge the problem the
circus subculture posed to its rightful Christian authority. However, the state was unwilling
to go so far as to condemn the circus as a whole, preferring instead to attempt to legislate
around the edge, to change the established magic-entrenched culture.
Charioteers were drawn to use of magic and other ritual strategies because of the
dangers associated with their profession, and cultural pressures associated with the spectacle
subculture. As charioteers, they were outside the accepted sphere of the Church, and so they
could not turn to the legitimate clergy for protection. Instead, many charioteers decided to
engage in sorcery because it was readily available, and offered some degree of spiritual
protection in an otherwise unprotected and dangerous situation.
In an article that considers the place of charioteers within Roman society in the third
century, Parshia Lee-Stecum goes on to point out that charioteers were singled out in this
very law as a “class of citizen” who were prone to disobey this kind of edict against magic.
She observes the sexualized way in which charioteers were presented in art and suggests that
charioteers relished their dangerous, marginal social status. 55 Charioteers were indeed
marginal figures who did incite strong emotions from contemporary observers. Many, as
Lee-Stecum asserts, surely died young as a consequence of their risky profession.
Lee-Stecum argues convincingly that charioteers suffered, rightly or wrongly, terrible
reputations in late antiquity. Many were freedmen or slaves, and nearly all were associated
with the practice of magic and with violence. In the sixth century, an Italian public minister
Cassiodorus, ghost writing for King Theoderic, wrote that successful charioteers were often
accused of magic, and were honored by such an accusation: “From the frequency of his
triumphs, he [Thomas the charioteer, the subject of the letter] was called a sorcerer - and
among charioteers it is seen as a great honour to attain to such accusations. For, when victory
cannot be attributed to the quality of the horses, it is inevitably ascribed to magical
cheating.”56 Here, Cassiodorus implied that to a charioteer, the only honor was victory, and
Parshia Lee-Stecum, “Dangerous Reputations: Charioteers and Magic in Fourth-Century Rome,” Greece
and Rome 53, no. 2 (2006): 227.
Cassiodorus, The Variae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, trans. S. J. B. Barnish (Liverpool:
Liverpool University Press, 1992), 3.51.2.
that any means to that end was honorable. Certainly, Cassiodorus was not a charioteer, and
could not speak for the group, but his unique position as a public official who sought to gain
popularity and legitimacy from the circus, he attempted to flatter charioteers in an offensive
way, as though to be accused of cheating were actually an honor.
Whether the charioteer actually practiced magic or not, the public perception of
charioteers was one of suspicion on two fronts: first, their low official status and
disproportionate popularity, and second, the legal assumption that most charioteers did use
magic of one form or another. Some charioteers took advantage of this perception by
accusing innocent individuals of magic for money, because in the late antique Roman mind,
few knew magicians better than the charioteers. The presumed association with sorcerers
further lowered the reputation of the charioteer’s profession.57 Other modern historians as
well depict the low status of charioteers and their presumed association with magic in late
Peter Brown offers a characterization of the charioteer as a man who lived in a world
that was filled with both offensive and defensive magic.58 Brown posits that chariot races and
factional rivalries represented a relaxation of the traditional Church-based power structure in
towns. Further, he asserts that the charioteer assumed a number of roles in society, including
“client of local aristocracies, and the leader of organized groups of lower-class fans—and so,
at times, a potential figure-head in urban rioting.”59 Charioteers then, as semi-magical,
shadowy and violent figures in late antique society, developed a unique identity. In the highly
structured class organization of Roman society, they lived on the margins and their social
status was difficult to pinpoint; it depended on their level of fame and success.
Simultaneously the leaders of one facet of society, the poor, charioteers were distrusted and
disparaged by the rich, some of whom in turn paid their salaries, and benefitted politically
from the popularity of the circus. In addition, the charioteer, who led groups of lower class
citizens, performed during a period of relaxation of the Church’s authority. Taken together,
Lee-Stecum, 233-4.
Brown, Religion and Society, 128.
Ibid, 129.
the charioteer could represent a character who offered lower class citizens a relief from the
traditional Christian Church dominated power structure, and thus operated on the margins of
society. Magic, like charioteers, existed on the margins of society, and its position was
difficult to pinpoint, although from the mass of legal, literary and physical evidence, it seems
as though it was widespread.
Beyond the consideration of the charioteer’s place in society, Brown argues that the
place of magic within a society is between two clashing systems of power. The first is the
articulate system, the established order, governments and churches, and the second is the
inarticulate power system. He characterizes this second system as “the disturbing intangibles
of social life; the imponderable advantages of certain groups; personal skills that succeed in a
way that is unacceptable or difficult to understand.”60 In this interpretation, the magician
existed in the shadows of society, at the edge of simple reason, where reason and established
religion clashed with the unknown. Magic could thus be blamed or thanked for any number
of realities beyond the capability of the articulate power structure to explain. Chariot racing
was just such an unexplainable social phenomenon at the edge of acceptable society. Why
did a horse suddenly run faster? Why did another slowly? Certainly the horses offered no
rationale, and the charioteers did not rely on the organized religion. They were excluded from
the Church, and they generally trusted magic.
This thesis’ argument of a spectacle subculture aligns with Brown’s description of the
locus of sorcery and charioteers on the margins of society in some ways. Brown’s conception
of the inarticulate power structure posits that it extends to other areas of ancient and late
antique Roman society where articulate power structures cannot suffice, places where
sorcerers had substantial influence like the mysteries of romantic love or justice for the
wronged. Similarly, the spectacle subculture, which included magic as a component, existed
beneath the accepted society, and was denigrated and perpetuated through an aristocratic
literary discourse.
Finally, Brown argues that the changing society of late antiquity coincides with the
rise of sorcery accusations. Late antique society changed very rapidly in a number of ways,
Ibid, 124.
religiously from pagan to Christian, politically from a handful of emperors to only one in the
east, militarily to a system of power that recognized many kings around the Mediterranean,
and geographically from Rome to Constantinople. In this confusion, sorcery and accusations
of sorcery flourished.61 Returning to Lee-Stecum, she goes beyond Brown’s analysis, and
argues that magic itself includes an element of social power, writing that magic “rather than
an objective category or identifiable set of practices, is a signifier expressive of anxiety about
social boundaries and the struggle for social power.”62 She claims that charioteers’
willingness to exploit their bad reputations for money demonstrates one example of the
struggle for social power evident in the circus.
Building upon the work of Brown, Florent Heintz writes in the dissertation
“Agonistic Magic in the Late Antique Circus” about the professional nature of the magic
trade in late antiquity. He argues that the occult market was an established, professional place
with many similar aspects to contemporary legitimate Mediterranean marketplaces.63 His
work catalogues much of the extant Late Roman magical material, much of the same material
this essay includes. Heintz’ analysis centers upon the concept of ritual complexity and
sophistication, in a convincing argument for a professional magic marketplace. This thesis
expounds upon Heintz’ work, and argues that the professional magical marketplace was part
of a larger spectacle subculture. That the magical marketplace had accepted standards and
norms provides evidence to the existence of a spectacle subculture. Instead of a magical
market flooded with disparate hacks who bore no connection to one another, Heintz argues
that the magical community had a strong professional character. He writes: “Agonistic magic
in the circus had to be the work of an expert, of someone who had gone through years of
training and could be trusted to provide reliable service.”64 An up-and-coming magician had
to apprentice under more an experienced magician in order to earn his keep. Further, an
apprentice magician had much to learn, given the complexity and depth of the extant spell
Ibid, 122-3.
Lee-Stecum, 226.
Florent Heintz, Agonistic Magic in the Late Antique (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 12.
Ibid, 11.
Heintz offers examples of magical apprenticeships recorded in Ammianus
Marcellinus’ history, including a Roman senator’s son, and a charioteer’s son as well.65 The
apprenticeship program displayed that magicians comprised a small community of
professionals. This community, although it operated outside of the law, held to a set of
common beliefs based in the magical art, and a set of norms, based on the types of spells
available. Magicians in the marketplace offered curses and defenses for charioteers, and other
spells for other clients. These spells, chariot-centric or otherwise, held distinct similarities.
As will be shown later in the chapter, a curse tablet from one corner of the Empire bore a
resemblance to a curse tablet from another corner. This too suggests a community of magical
knowledge and exchange, a subculture of magic. Charioteers and fans relied on many types
of magic to achieve victory at the races. Individual charioteers and fans did not merely utter a
few magic words themselves—although they probably did this as well—but instead hired
professional sorcerers to cover the wide array of offensive and defensive and divining spells
necessary for ensuring victory. Professional magicians had more customers than just chariot
factions, from spurned lovers seeking revenge to victims of crimes seeking justice, but the
circus did provide a substantial market for the magicians.66
In Table 1 there are thirty three examples of chariot related magic spells, amulets,
defixiones (curse tablets), and other charms extant today. It is by no means an exhaustive list,
but it provides concrete examples of the types of magic used by magicians for the charioteers
and their fans. Magic relating to other entertainments, like rhetoric or performance, is not
included in the data set, simply because such magic is incongruous to circus magic with
regard to objectives. The spectacle subculture did indeed include spells for other types of
entertainers, however, these spells are far fewer and do not fall into the same categories as
chariot spells.
Three modern compendiums of ancient and late antique magic were used to compile
the magic included in the table: John Gager’s Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the
Ancient World, Hans Dieter Betz’ The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the
Ibid, 13.
Ibid, 11.
Line Item
Gager 9
Gager 7
Gager 6
Gager 5
1 to 3
3rd CE
3 to 4
5 to 6
2 to 3
North Africa
Apamea, Syria
Beirut, Syria
Table.1. Magical Spells and Items
untimely dead, "great names"
untimely dead, various voces
untimely dead, various voces
spirit of the untimely dead,
Salbathbal and other names
Charakteres, prematurely dead
souls, Hephaestus, Topos, Zablas
"holy angels" and others, possibly
Egyptian and Jewish
Deities Referenced
moderate, binding of
horses, "twisting of
soul and heart so they
cannot breate"
high, binding and
death of horses
moderate, binding of
sinews of racers and
high, binding and
hobbling of horses,
violent scenes to
distract racers, and
destruction by Topos
and Zablas
moderate--drawing of
a bound human
attacked by a bird.
Level of Violence
high, invocation to strange
gods and burial in a grave.
Also includes charakteres
in the margins
moderate, invocation to
strange gods and burial in a
moderate, invocation to
many deities and a specific
race date
moderate, invocation to
strange gods and burial in a
moderate, invokes angels
to spur horses to great
moderate, invocations to
many deities and the use of
Low, copyist erred in
writing the title of the spell
on the top of the defixion
Level of Ritual Expertise
(table continues)
Buried in the pagan cemetary
of Carthage, very small
writing, names the charioteer
Victoricus of the Blue faction
and his horses as the subject
Spirit of the untimely dead,
and a short exhortation to
hobble and kill the horses
Spirit of the untimely dead at
the beginning, followed by a
very long list of deities
referenced and a short list of
binding activities
75 lines of decreasing length
invoking gods and the spirit
of the untimely dead to bind
horses and drivers of Red and
part of a small spell book
similar to PGM III ln15-30,
invoking angels to aid horses
a series of familiar
charakteres invoking deities
to bind Blue faction horses
Small def. refers to deities and
angels to bind specific horses
of the blue faction.
Line Item
IV ln
III ln 1164
4th C
4th C
late 4th
late 4th
Table 1. Continued
unk (Paris)
unk (Louvre)
recipe for
ng an iron
Homeric verse, gods of the
underworld, Aion, Ra, Pan, all
supernatural powers
Helios, "cat faced god," angels,
Hermes, Hekate, Entrapper,
Mother of all men, Iaeo, Thortoei,
holy king, the sailor, Seth, Satis,
Iao, Abaoth, Adoni, Michael,
Souriel, Gabriel, Raphael,
Abrasax, Iaiol, Chabra,
Nethmomae, Orokothothro,
holy angels, holy names, untimely
charakteres, Eulamon, Osiris,
untimely dead
Egyptian dieties, Osiris, Mnevis,
Apis, Ra, as well as Christian
allusions to "holy angels,"
untimely dead
Deities Referenced
high, requires
medium sized animal
sacrifice and other
moderate, asks
deities to make
Artemios of the blue
faction headless,
footless and
high, uses many
verbs to define what
the deities ought to
do to the Blue
faction, kill, shatter,
destroy, etc
high, the spell does
not ask for violence,
per se, but it does
require the sacrifice
of a cat
high, requests the
binding and death of
Cardelus within five
Level of Violence
high, animal sacrifice and
then another ritual for
high. Animal sacrifice,
many deities, and a long
moderate, no drawings,
and a strange collection of
letters in the beginning, but
found in an urn
moderate, includes
drawings and names of
various deities. Also found
in a sarcophogus.
high, although there are
errors; every other letter is
upside down, signifying
the twisting and binding of
Level of Ritual Expertise
(table continues)
this is a spell for consecrating
an iron lamella (killing a
cock, and offering food) that
can then be used for many
purposes including chariot
This is the beginning of a
spell book, and is a spell for
chariot racing, or many other
malicious intents that requires
an animal sacrifice and very
complex ritual.
this is one tablet in a
collection of 56 tablets found
in a sarcophogus along the
Via Appia near Rome. The
readable ones are all chariot
themed, and come from slaves
and freedmen. It includes
drawing of a horseman bound
by a snake
A small tablet found in the
same collection as 13; this
one includes drawings of a
horse, bird people actively
binding someone and a
severed head.
a small tablet found in an urn
with the ashes of a dead
person, with drawings and
letters arrainged in columns
Line Item
ln 1-5
VII ln
VII ln
VII ln
VII ln
VII ln
VII ln
5th C
3 to 4
Table 1. Continued
unk (Oxford)
unk (London)
recipe for
recipe for
recipe for
recipe for
a victory
at the
recipe for
recipe for
a victory
Helio, Gabrief, Gaphael, Michael,
the univers, Sabaoth, Iao,
Hermes, charakters
Osiris, Osiris-Mnevis, Isis
charakteres, mighty gods
none listed
Deities Referenced
no violence
no violence
no violence
low, general restraint
low, general restraint
no violence
moderate, involves
small animal
Level of Violence
low, an invocation for
moderate, an invocation to
Helios using the names of
many different deities
low, creation of a lamella
with charakters
low, creating a lamella and
throwing it in the river
low, throwing a tin lamella
into the river
low, inscription on a
horse's hoof
moderate, small animal
sacrifice and short prayers
Level of Ritual Expertise
(table continues)
short invocation to victory
using charakteres
short invocation to Helios for
short spell for Hermes victory
charm--charakters on a tablet
a more complicated version of
the previous, requires the
sorcerer to make a tin lamella,
and throw it into a river with a
a spell for restraining,
requires throwing a tin
lamella with charakteres into
the river
this spell is for a good luck
inscription on a horse's hoof.
this is a spell for a small good
luck charm, the leg of a blood
eating gecko
LXX ln
6th CE
6th CE
3rd CE
3 to 4
2nd C
4th C
5th c
ln 1-42
ln 1-34
ln 16187
ln 21130
ln 1-3
Table 1. Continued
unk (Cairo)
unk (Vienna)
unk (Dublin)
unk (MI)
unk (MI)
unk (Oslo)
unk (Florence)
recipe for
victory or
dissolve a
recipe for
recipe for
recipe for
recipe for
recipe for
Christ, the lord, Yao, Sabao,
The gospels, god of Israel, angels,
the lord
Kypis, Adonios
AA Emptokom Basym
Io Abrasax
angels, Chphyris, Raphael, Ioel
Typhon, Erbeth, Seth
God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
Adonai, Iao, Sabaoth, Bythath,
Marmar, Raphael, Souriel,
Iphiaph, Pitiel, Mouriatha, Telze,
Edanoth, Saesechel, Tabiym,
Bimadam, Chadraoun, Chadrallou
Deities Referenced
no violence
no violence
no violence
no violence
no violence
no violence
no vioence
no violence
no violence
Level of Violence
moderate, creation of an
amulet and prayers
moderate, requires making
a lamella, and a drawing
moderate, drawings,
invocations to many deities
Level of Ritual Expertise
(table continues)
exhortation to the God of
Israel for protection against
unclean spirits, but no direct
link to spectacle.
prayer to Christ and other
deities for protection from
evil spirits, but no direct link
to spectacle.
a prayer for vicotry, repute
and beauty
a prayer to a strange deity
a prayer for strength
a short invocation to Helios
for victory
a short charm for success,
requires an invocation to
various deities
a restraint spell including a
lamella, and a sizable drawing
a spell invoking many dieties
for victory, including
drawings of men's faces
Line Item
1st to
es CE
4th CE
Table 1. Continued
unk (Berlin)
unk (Berlin)
unk (Prague)
unk (PGM
one either
21 Recipes, 12
prayer recipe
prayer recipe
prayer recipe
prayer recipe
Christian, Jewish, Egyptian
influences, charakteres also
the untimely dead
Michael, Elouch, Belouch
and Barbarouch
God Almighty, Jesus
Christ, Archangels, Yao
Sabaoth Adonaie, God of
Abraham, all the saints
angels, archangels, Christ
Deities Referenced
14 Moderate to high
level of violence, 19
low to no violence
moderate, dissolve
the sinews and
ligaments and joints
of an enemy
low, give power to
the ritualist, and take
it from the enemy
no violence
moderate, the blood
of Christ
Level of Violence
15 low RE, 17 moderate
to high
Level of Ritual
prayer to Archangel Michael and
others for strength and
domination over the enemy. No
direct link to spectacle.
prayer to Sourochchata to
incapapcitate an enemy, but no
direct link to spectacle.
prayer to protect from evil, but
no direct link to spectacle
prayer to angels, archangels and
Christ to protect against
"headless powers," the very
same headless powers invoked in
earlier pagan magic.
demonic Spells and Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith’s Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic
Texts of Ritual Power.67 The table organizes the spells according to the source in which they
can be found, and assigns a line number (LI#) to each magical item for ease of reference. It
then lists the estimated century and location of origin when that information is provided in
the modern source. Further information is my own analysis: whether the magical item is
offensive or defensive, enacted or a recipe, the deities referenced, the level of violence, level
of ritual expertise, and a short description of the magical item.
Not all of the items in the table had a direct, unquestionable link to chariot racing.
The Gnostic Christian magic rituals from Meyer’s work (line items 28-33) for instance, at no
point directly referenced chariot racing, like most of the non-Christian spells (LI1-27) did.
The so-called “Christian” spells involve both defensive and offensive magic that invoked
Judeo-Christian angels, among other spirits, to protect the subject from demons, and to
dominate enemies. Although the spells lack a direct reference to chariot racing, these spells
have been included in the data set because they were general enough that they could have
been used by charioteers, and they share many similarities with the previous chariot specific
spells, such as a desire for “victory” or protection from evil spirits. The style of invocation in
all the Christian spells, the reference to “headless powers” in LI30, the desire for success and
good luck in LI31, the “dissolving of sinews” and “restraining” in offensive spells LI32 and
LI33 are all similar to the non-Christian spells. All of these Christian spells could have been
used by charioteers, but absent direct references to the circus direct association with the
circus subculture cannot be conclusive.
The dates of origin for the thirty three chariot-related magic spells range from the first
to the sixth centuries CE. Discounting the six gnostic Christian spells (LI28-33), the timespan
remains the same. Even for a historian of Roman antiquity, this is a large expanse of time.
This wide chasm between the temporal beginning and endpoints of the primary source data
set suggests the considerable staying power of magic, chariot racing and the desire to win
John Gager, ed., Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992); Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith eds., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of
Ritual Power (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994); Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri
in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
chariot races at any cost. The oldest piece of evidence in this set was a curse tablet found in
Roman North Africa, estimated between the first and third centuries CE (LI7).
Curse tablets were small metal sheets, inscribed with magical words, charakteres (or
magical non-alphabetical symbols) and drawings, which were folded and bound with a nail
or spike, and deposited in a magically powerful place.68 These places were often the graves
of the “untimely dead,” those who died a violent death, or various places around the chariot
racing track. The untimely dead would have certainly been other deceased charioteers.
Because of their dangerous occupation, charioteers perished younger than the average. LeeStecum estimates that the average charioteer would not live past thirty years old.69
This earliest chariot-themed curse tablet (LI7) was found in a Roman cemetery. It was
an exhortation to bind opponents of the Blue faction, and included invocations to the
“untimely dead,” and the use of charakteres around the border of the metal sheet. The most
recent magic item in the data set was found in modern day Syria, dated to the late fifth to
early sixth century CE, approximately three hundred years after the oldest piece of evidence
from North Africa. This dating makes the Syrian piece contemporary with the gnostic
Christian magical items as well. The Syrian magical item (LI2) was a curse tablet, with
charakteres around the border, and invoked the spirits of the “untimely dead” to bind the
racers of the Blue faction. Clearly, both the most recent and oldest item in the data set shared
many similarities. The two even shared two charakteres. This shows the high level of
continuity of chariot racing counter culture across centuries and across the Mediterranean.
Magic and chariot racing were strongly entrenched institutions in late antique society.
Magical items were not all so similar, but certain common conventions, like the use of
charakteres, binding enemies, and the invocation to the spirits of the “untimely dead”
established norms for the subculture. Both these curse tablets were offensive spells, meant to
bind and restrain the opposing faction. Defensive spells were prominent as well.
The data set is split at approximately 60% defensive spells and 40% offensive
spells—thirteen offensive and nineteen defensive. This statistic may demonstrate merely the
small sample size included in the extant spells, however, this uneven split may show a more
Gager, v.
Lee-Stecum, 225 n1.
defensive oriented magical marketplace. Some offensive spells, like the curse tablets, were
small and therefore difficult to recover centuries later. Still, a 20% difference in spell type
holds some significance. There are a couple of possibilities for this. Defensive spells could
have been a good insurance policy, so to speak, for charioteers who knew that their lives
were in danger the moment they entered the arena. To a charioteer who knew that his
competitors might be using offensive magic, what was the harm in defensive magic? A
charioteer might not have wanted to use offensive magic for any number of reasons, not
wanting to injure or kill another charioteer, or perhaps potential high cost of offensive magic
due to higher ritual complexity. Defensive magic may have offered a cheaper and more
humane option for charioteers who wanted to invoke the aid of magical powers. Something
as simple as a magical amulet or evil eye may have been enough to ward of the offensive
magic of a less scrupulous charioteer. By the same token, defensive spells only outnumbered
offensive spells by six, or about 20%. Offensive spells must have been in fairly regular use as
Curse tablets and binding spells comprise the majority of the offensive spells.
Binding spells were very common in late antique magic, beyond the circus as well. They
must have been a staple of any professional magician’s toolkit. Magicians invoked spirits to
bind their customers’ enemies, thus preventing them from performing an action. This was
especially common in love magic, where magicians bound rival lovers to open opportunities
for their customers. Circus binding spells typically named both charioteer and the horses as
the subjects. The spells often specifically mentioned body parts—sinews, legs, eyes, etc.—
for the spirit to bind. The gnostic Christian magic too had an offensive, binding element.
LI32 is an undated Christian spell for dissolving the “dissolving the sinews and the ligaments
and the joints” of an enemy.70 It is considered “Christian” because of the angels that it
invokes to do the work of the spell. This shows the wide reach of binding spells, even into
the sphere of Christian magic.
Defensive spells sought to ward off the effects of binding, or other aggressive magic.
The defensive spells also often asked for spiritual assistance in achieving victory. They also
used many of the same charakteres as offensive spells, which again suggests consistent,
Meyer and Smith, 224.
underlying subculture to the circus. Defensive magic often involved a ritual blessing of small
items, like amulets, or other lucky charms to ward off evil. The charioteer would then wear
the charm, or place it on one of the horses. LI14, for instance, required the magician to carve
charakteres onto the lead horse’s hoof. Heintz argues that all circus magic was pointed at the
same aim, victory, and then he classifies all magic items into four categories: performanceenchancing, aggressive, protective and revelatory.71 This chapter simplifies this classification
into offensive and defensive categories. Spells that Heintz calls performance-enhancing or
revelatory fall generally into the defensive category in this analysis, and the rationale is this:
although racing does not have clear offensive or defensive sides like football or baseball.
Defensive, performance-enhancing and revelatory magic all sought to improve the prospects
of victory for the client himself, and can be contrasted effectively with offensive magic
which sought to diminish the chances of victory of another racer, regardless of the outcome
for the client. Thus, self-directed magic is termed defensive, and other-directed magic is
termed offensive for the purposes of this thesis.
Many defensive spells survive today because they were enacted and written in
amulets, but others exist on papyri. Twelve of the thirty three spells included in the table
were enacted, and others were recipes for magicians to follow, found in spell books. The
enacted spells are comprised of curse tablets and amulets, inscribed with prayers and
charakteres. These amulets and curse tablets physically survive, and archeologists are able to
note the location in which they have been found. Often, archeologists discover curse tablets
and amulets in graveyards, or at the former location of a Roman circus. To the practitioners
of magic, these locations held magical qualities that sorcerers sought to tap. Unfortunately,
because the physical amulets or curse tablets stand alone as archeological evidence, a
historian cannot be entirely certain what ritual was involved in the creation of each item.
Spell recipes on papyri survive to inform the modern scholar, but it is difficult to generalize
from a few very specific spells. Each magician may have had his own particular way of
creating a curse tablet, or blessing an amulet.
Papyri survive mostly in fragments, and they vary greatly in their complexity. These
spell recipes vary widely in their level of ritual expertise required to perform the spell. Three
Heintz, 2-3.
spells from the previous table involved some variety of animal sacrifice, which required a
significantly higher level of ritual expertise and cost than a short victory prayer. The spells
that required animal sacrifice are LI11, LI12 and LI13, all dated from the third to fourth
centuries CE. The animals listed for sacrifice were a cat in LI11, a cock in LI12, and a small
lizard in LI13. All of these animals were small and somewhat common, but the magician had
to possess a great knowledge of the ritual in order to perform the sacrifice properly. LI11
contained 164 lines of instruction regarding the intricacies of the sacrifice and subsequent
curse. It was no doubt a difficult spell for a magician to perform. Heintz, in his interpretation
of the “cat ritual”(LI11), calls the spell “undoubtedly the longest and most sophisticated
binding spell formulary ever to survive from Late Antiquity. Its succession of elaborate
rituals, sacrifices and libations, its length magical formulas and convoluted invocations to
various deities make it clear that only a trained and experienced practitioner of the magic arts
would have been able to perform adequately all the phases of the ritual.”72 The cat ritual was
a general spell that could be used to place a curse on any number of subjects, including
charioteers and their horses. It took days to perform, and represents the height of circus
magic sophistication.
Other spells, like LI25, were short, and may not have required a professional
magician. LI25 was a small scrap of papyrus from the third to fourth century CE, with four
short lines of a prayer to an obscure deity, AA Emptokom Basym (Anglicized from Greek
original by Heintz), for victory and dissolving offensive spells. Its brief, straightforward style
is a far cry from the complexity of the cat sacrifice. Just as levels of ritual expertise varied
greatly among these spells of the circus, so too did the names of deities invoked.
Sorcerers did not always address their prayers to pagan gods or obscure deities;
instead they often offered prayers to the spirits of the untimely dead. Gager characterizes
these spirits as “the spirit or soul of dead persons, especially of those who had died
prematurely or by violence, roamed about in restless and vengeful mood near their buried
body.”73 Considering the danger and violence of the circus, these untimely dead could often
have been other charioteers. Sorcerers invoked these spirits, most often in curse tablets, by
Heintz, 162.
Gager, 12.
planting the lead tablet in the ground at the burial site of the vengeful spirit’s body. Thus,
magicians and charioteers were willing to desecrate graves, hoping to anger the spirits
enough to gain an edge in chariot races. That this practice of grave desecration was so
common around the Mediterranean points to another cultural identifier in the circus
Besides the unsettled spirits of the dead, magicians invoked pagan, Egyptian, Hebrew
and other obscure deities. Gager lists the deities most commonly associated with the curse
tablets, and Hermes is the most common. Helios, the god of the sun, was a common patron in
circus magic. Other deities and influences come from all over the Mediterraenean, from
Egypt to Persia. Writing specifically about curse tablets, Gager also includes a consideration
of daimones (demons) with secret names, and voces mysticae (magical names) that were a
blend of different elements of foreign deities. These obscure and secret deities often
combined with charakteres in the spells listed on the previous table, especially LI11 and
LI20 which both list over ten deities apiece, and gave a sense of a magician casting a wide
magical net in order to achieve the aim of the spell. In all, Gager asserts the power of local
influence on the choices of deities that magicians made.74 While the local influence upon
magic is undeniable—no magician could possibly invoke a deity which he did not know
existed—the commonalities among the spells, like the recurrence of invocations to Helios
and to the power of the spirits of the untimely dead, do suggest an accepted baseline of circus
magical subculture around the Roman world.
Another commonality to that culture was the high level of violence associated with
circus magic. Roman chariot racing was itself a violent and dangerous spectacle. The
standard Roman circus race was between quadriga (four horse chariots) and lasted seven
laps, with two dangerous 180 degree turns at either end of the course. Charioteers were
physically strapped to their horses, and steered the chariots with their weight. In the event of
a crash, they carried a knife to attempt to cut themselves free from being dragged to their
death.75 Although it is impossible to know exactly how often, chariots crashed, and racers
Ibid, 12-3.
Alison Futrel, The Roman Games: A Sourcebook (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), Kindle
ed., 188.
were thrown from the chariot, trampled, killed, and the crowd carried on. Alison Futrel
suggests that the crashes may have been the most exciting part of the circus, as they were
depicted in nearly every literary circus tale.76 Considering the violence of race itself, it may
have been only fitting, then, that circus magic used violent and aggressive language in its
Roman magic in general tended to use violent language to arouse the spirits and the
gods, and spectacle magic was certainly no different. In the previous table, fourteen of the
spells are characterized as moderate to high levels of violence. This is primarily due to the
type of evocative, violent language used in the spells. LI6, a curse tablet from North Africa,
called upon the spirit of the untimely dead to hobble and kill the horses of the opposition.
The magician inscribed upon the tablet, “Let him perish and fall, just as you lie here
prematurely dead.”77 Other spells utilized violent language as well, and sought to hobble
horses, kill charioteers and generally bind the opposition. As previously mentioned, animal
sacrifice was included in three of the extent spells. Christian magic too had a violent aspect.
LI30 used the violent, evocative image of the blood of Christ to dissipate the influence of
headless powers. LI32 sought to paralyze an enemy by dissolving his joints and sinews.
Meyer, in his introduction to the chapter on curses, reminds the reader that although violent
curses may offend the modern notion of proper Christian religion, there was a long precedent
for ritual cursing in the Mediterranean world, including the tradition of waking the spirits of
the untimely dead.78 The community of professional magic had established norms for magic
long before the later Roman empire. They developed over centuries of pagan and occult
practice. In the circus subculture of ancient and late antique Rome, that community of
professional magic merely found a niche in which to operate and survive.
VI. Conclusion:
Many modern scholars characterize late antiquity as a time of great social change.
Europe and the Mediterranean region slowly Christianized, while the traditional aristocracy
of the Roman Empire experienced military and social challenges to its rule. Within this
Ibid, 191.
Gager, 64-5.
Meyer and Smith, 183-4.
changing culture, chariot racing and popular spectacle persisted as popular and visceral
connections to the glorious Roman past. Along with the popular spectacle, a vibrant spectacle
subculture of magic and shady entertainment persisted as well.
Sixth-century Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora represent this changing social
landscape and interest in the circus well. As these two commonly-born Romans ascended to
the heights of imperial power in Constantinople, detractors accused them of association with
circus magic because of Theodora’s past as an actress for the Blue circus faction, and
Justinian’s keen interest in the circus. Along with interest in the circus among the people,
historian Peter Brown notes an increase in accusations of sorcery in the context of an
unstable and changing world of late antiquity, peaking with Justinian’s reign.79
The extant physical evidence of mass popular spectacle and the spectacle subculture
displayed in this chapter show the underbelly of the Roman arena. The monumental circuses
that stretched from Colchester to Alexandria housed thousands of fans, and held numerous
spectacles. The imperial government had a strong interest in maintaining these spectacles,
due to the political benefits reaped from gaining the adulation of the populous. The
centralized financing of the circus, although unable to be determined with great specificity
because of the lack of sources, suggests an empire that needed spectacle, and knew it needed
spectacle. The proximity of circuses to the imperial palaces displays the emperors’ desire for
the people to link the government with spectacle. The firm control of the Blue and Green
factions over many facets of entertainment, from chariot racing to theater shows the
centralization of the ancient entertainment industry, and the wide swath of the evidence
suggests that the Blues and Greens were doing a good job keeping the populous entertained;
Aphrodisias, a city with no circus, was littered with graffiti about the factions.
Many pieces of Roman circus and spectacle art survive today, in the form of statuary
and more commonly, mosaics. This art shows how the people of the time viewed the circus.
Porphyrius, in the great hippodrome of Constantinople was presented in statuary, next to the
Emperor Theodosius. Some later emperors, Constantine for example, were displayed driving
chariots on the back of coinage. Mosaic and textile representations of the circus and other
spectacles display the stars of the spectacles in glorious terms. These glorious representations
Brown, Religion and Society, 122.
show the ambiguous and complicated role that the charioteers’ (or other performers) fame
played in Roman culture. Actors, performers, gladiators and charioteers were some of the
lowest and most downtrodden members of society, but the fame of the circus, and the love of
the crowd seemed to transcend that class barrier, if only for a moment.
Circus magic, presented in modern texts, further complicates the social role of the
charioteer or other performer. Historians John Gager, Parshia Lee-Stecum and Florent Heintz
develop a narrative of professional yet illegal circus magic, and the shadowy, magical
reputations of charioteers. The spells and the popularity of the circus show the limits of the
government and the Church’s influence in the lives of its members. Non-Christian pagan
allusions, like prayers to Helios the sun god and deified charioteer, in the spells show how
the pagan traditions were slow to change. Circus magic was an institution, as much as the
imperial spectacle. Magicians were well trained, well paid and an integral part of the chariot
race. They represented a secondary source of power, an illegal yet attractive way to
circumvent the normal laws of society and improve one’s position. They existed outside of
the government’s control, outside of Church control, and close to the circus.
The subculture of spectacle included illegal magic, as well as violence, rioting, and
sexualized entertainment. At the vanguard of this subculture was the charioteer; the
charioteer was a marginal character in ancient and late antique Rome. Charioteers were
inevitably linked to magic, and lived dangerously. For a moment upon the track they were
loved, but off the track they were viewed with suspicion and even fear.
Beyond the chariot race itself, and the shadowy subculture previously discussed, a
persistent discourse existed in Roman literary culture about the games and their popularity.
Many elite Roman authors—and most extant Roman authors were among the social elite—
approved of neither chariot racing, nor its subculture, nor its wild popularity. Certainly there
were authors who do not fit this generalization, but throughout the Roman literary tradition,
negative opinions of popular spectacle, chariot racing and its fans became a type of literary
trope, nearly as common as praise of bygone generals, and the recollection of glories of
Rome’s past.
Roman authors disapproved of chariot racing and the spectacle that followed mostly
because of the latent aristocratic class bias of the authors. Ancient Rome was a deeply classridden culture, with the plebian and patrician classes stretching back to the earliest days.
Class and status were prime considerations for a Roman author. Averil Cameron writes:
“Late Roman society was a society in which the gradations of dignity were ordained by law,
highly prized and jealously preserved.” 80 Even if a particular writer did not directly address
the class structure of society in his works, it was a lens through which Romans saw the
world. The Edict of Caracalla in the early third century, which opened Roman citizenship up
to many more inhabitants of the Roman Empire, helped to create a late Roman society that
emphasized legal class distinctions even more greatly than before.
The traditional structure of power in both Republican and Imperial Rome centered on
an aristocracy of wealthy men, and the wealthiest and most powerful were the Senatorial
class. From this pinnacle of status, there were various other class levels underneath that
Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993),
changed over time. Class distinctions were nothing new to Roman society. Early Roman
society was divided between plebeians and patricians. Livy relates the traditional view that
the classes were established by Romulus during the founding of the city.81 Jean-Claude
Richard posits that as early as the fifth century BCE the patrician class was clearly
consolidating its power, and the beginnings of the class go back even further than that.
Richard argues that the plebian class is more difficult to date, because of the nature of the
historical sources.82
Although formal class stratification changed over time as the Roman Republic grew
into the Roman Empire, Roman society remained stratified, with clear distinctions between
upper and lower class persons. Spectacle and its attendant subculture both reinforced class
distinctions through the strict seating arrangements and negative literary discourse about
spectacle, and challenged those same class distinctions, via the inherent power of the
gathered masses, and potential for social mobility among charioteers.
Roman spectacle, especially chariot racing, developed a subculture that was outside
of the normal power structure of society. This subculture included veritable outcasts: slaves
who raced chariots, “immoral” actors and actresses, mystical sorcerers, and violent fans.
Charioteers were lower class men who were highly sexualized figures, and could gain great
wealth and popularity.83 Further, the fans of chariot racing were numerous, vociferous and
rowdy. Roman elites certainly recognized the political and social liabilities that chariot
racing presented. An angry circus crowd could wreak awful destruction on a city, as
happened in Constantinople in 532 CE during the Nika revolt.
In describing the long-standing Roman literary topic of the circus and spectacle, the
term “discourse” is especially fitting for a couple of reasons. First, discourse is a postmodern
buzzword that connotes a relationship between power and language. This power/language
connotation fits spectacle and chariot racing well. In the case of the literary response to
Livy, The History of Rome: The First Eight Books, trans. D. Spillan (Oxford: Halcyon Classics, 2010),
Kindle ed., 2.1.10-11.
Jean-Claude Richard, “Patricians and Plebians: The Origin of a Social Dichotomy,” in Social Struggles
in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders, 2nd ed., ed. Kurt A. Raaflaub (Malden, MA:
Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 107-111.
Lee-Stecum, 224.
spectacle, discourse is useful term because the debate is based on the non-traditional structure
of power created by the popularity of spectacle, and the language elite authors used to attack
this opponent to their traditional power structure, which was based upon class, wealth and
education. Second, discourse is appropriate for the debate over chariot racing and spectacle
because of its etymology. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary lists the
etymological root of discourse as the Latin word discurrere, a verb which means a “to run to
and fro.”84 This very word must have been uttered by many a circus fan, watching the horses
carry their beloved racers around a dusty track.
This chapter addresses the opinions of ancient and late antique authors towards
spectacle and chariot racing. In this chapter as well as the next, a negative opinion of popular
spectacle is be defined in this essay as an opinion from a primary source that casts scorn or
derision upon the spectacle or its attendees, either directly or implicitly. Examples of an
ancient author’s references to spectacle will be considered as necessary in order to discern
the author’s prevailing opinion of the games. This does not mean that every mention of
spectacle or chariot racing in every Roman author will be considered in this chapter; that
would be an impossible task! Instead, appropriate and representative selections from
influential and key Roman authors are included. In order to show what exactly constitutes a
“negative” view of chariot racing, the primary sources will speak for themselves. Secondary
sources concerning authors’ background and opinions will be considered, but ultimately the
characterization of the Roman author’s perspective on spectacle will be based upon
examination of the primary sources themselves. Thus, relevant examples from the texts will
be clearly presented and analyzed cogently and fairly in order to determine the author’s
This chapter will attempt to classify the positions and opinions of selected Roman
authors into time periods and further into types of argument. The linear approach to the
authors, with the earliest authors first and the classification of arguments will display the
Frederick C. Mish, ed., “Dicourse,” In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., Springfield,
MA: Merriam Webster Inc., 2004.
change over time of the discourse on spectacle. The authors of the first group comprise the
elder statesmen of the Roman canon, the Republican authors: Polybius, Cicero and Livy.
Next are the authors of the early Empire: Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and Plutarch. Third are
the authors of late antiquity: Cassius Dio, Ammianus, Julian, Procopius and Cassiodorus.
This collection of authors is considered a “secular” or non-Christian group, whose authors
did not write their respective works as Christian religious texts, or polemics. The following
chapter’s authors comprise a group of “ecclesiastical” writers, who wrote works of explicitly
religious or theological character. By breaking the authors up into these two groups, subtle
differences in the shades of opinion on spectacle and chariot racing are more effectively
displayed. Secular writers tended to assert their respective opinions on spectacles in an elitist
tone, and more often closely aligned the argument against spectacle with the stoic
philosophers. Ecclesiastical writers, while often elitist, favored somewhat different lines of
argument, as the later chapter will show.
This reasoning behind specific groupings of authors is clear cut for earlier authors;
Cicero and Livy were certainly secular and not ecclesiastical writers. Conversely, Augustine
of Hippo, Isidore of Seville, and Sidonius Apollinaris were Christian writers who held
Church office, and wrote religious works. Thus they are included in the ecclesiastical section.
Three later writers’ lives, Ammianus, Procopius and Cassiodorus present uncertainty and
problems concerning their appropriate grouping because of the religiously-charged political
atmospheres in which they wrote. It is not the purpose of this essay to determine the
character, religious or secular, of these authors’ works, but historiographical questions ought
to be considered.
First, Ammianus and his religious proclivities have been the subjects of recent
historiographical debate. Some proclaim that Ammianus was a pagan polemicist, while an
older historiographical tradition claimed that he was a Christian.85 A third camp posits that
Ammianus was an apostate Christian, much like the Emperor Julian, whose religious and
personal biases affected his history beyond what most modern historians admit.86
E. D. Hunt, “Christians and Christianity in Ammianus Marcellinus,” The Classical Quarterly 35, no. 1
(1985): 187 n8.
Timothy D. Barnes, Ammianus and the Representation of Historical Reality (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 2000), 197.
Nevertheless, it is beyond the scope of this chapter to determine where Ammianus’ religious
sensibilities lay. For the purposes of this chapter, and in the context of the historiographical
debate over the place of spectacle in Roman society, Ammianus will be considered a secular
historian because of the topics covered in his work. Whether he intended to write a pagan
history that countered the swelling Christian tide, or whether he was a Christian historian
who sought to make his work appear more classical, he wrote about Roman history from a
politico-military perspective, emphasizing battles and campaigns over church synods and
theological disputes. His perspective and opinions regarding spectacle will be considered as
an author whose primary focus was not overtly Christian nor pagan, nor overtly religiously
themed. He is therefore included in the secular writers chapter.
Procopius’ work presents another set of problems for the modern historian who
attempts to classify it. Classified among the secular category of writers for this essay, he is
the one of two to write in Greek. Despite this linguistic difference, his works catalog the
history of the later Roman Empire and contribute greatly to the discourse on spectacle and
chariot racing. He was Christian, and like Ammianus, he did not make religious events and
themes prominent in his works, instead emphasizing politico-military history. Procopius,
unlike Ammianus, did acknowledge the power and influence of the theological controversies
and considered the impact of synods and other major ecclesiastical events, as they related to
the political sphere.
Third, the case of Cassiodorus includes brisk contemporary historiographical debate.
Cassiodorus lived approximately ninety-three years, and authored many works. Many of his
works are letters, written as a public servant in the Ostrogothic Kingdom of sixth-century
Italy. Most of these works were penned as a ghost-writer for kings, or other high officials.
These works were assembled by Cassiodorus himself in 538 CE in a collection called the
Variae. With the publication of this work, Cassiodorus withdrew from public life, became a
monk, and entered a monastery in Squillace, in southern Italy, where he began to write
strictly theological works.87 Cassiodorus’ change in careers coincided with the conquest of
Ostrogothic Italy by the Byzantine Empire, and years of prolonged war between the two
James J. O’Donnell, Cassiodorus (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 103.
Cassiodorus’ early secular works contain numerous references to chariot racing and
spectacle, and his later works do not. For this reason, Cassiodorus is included in the secular
writers section in this essay. Doubtless, he was a Christian during this time, and this
perspective is clear in his writings, but the underlying purpose of the works was not religious.
It was clearly secular. In fact, the most of letters which contain applicable references to
chariot racing and spectacle were penned under the names of the Kings of Italy and
addressed to members of his government. There was little overt religious content to these
missives. To classify Cassiodorus’ Variae as an ecclesiastical source simply because he later
became a monk would be inaccurate, and would not take into account the context in which
the work was written.
A final historiographical problem to consider is the wide expanse of time between the
earliest and latest authors. Polybius wrote in the second century BCE, and Cicero wrote in
the first century CE. Cassiodorus and Procopius wrote in the sixth century CE. This eighthcentury span of time is both immense and significant. It is nothing short of astounding that
Cassiodorus and Cicero both wrote in a language that can be called Latin, and Polybius and
Procopius wrote in a similar Greek. Further, that all four men were familiar with the sport of
chariot racing is remarkable in its own right. To attempt to apply the same historical
judgments to these very different men simply because they were “Romans” would be
improper. Polybius and Cicero contributed to the early discourse about spectacle, and helped
to form it. The later writers followed and added to the discussion. Context, as always, is
incredibly important.
Spectacle entertainment began early in the Roman culture. Historian Alison Futrel
writes “The great games of the ancient Mediterranean grew out of religious holidays to
become spectacular celebrations.”88 Authors from the Republican era encountered spectacle
entertainment and depicted it in their works. Writing in the second century BCE, the historian
Polybius depicted various games and spectacles in his work, The Histories. As a Greek who
embraced Roman culture as Rome came to dominate Greece and the rest of the
Futrel, 1.
Mediterranean region, Polybius was familiar with the Greek tradition of athletic contests,
including the Olympic games.
Polybius wrote that the first Roman diplomatic contact with Corinth included Roman
participation in the Isthmian games, but did not depict the event itself.89 Polybius also briefly
related Scipio Africanus’ triumphal games, however he did not note much participation or
interest from Scipio, instead Polybius portrayed the excitement of the commoners.
Publius Scipio returned from Libya soon after the events I have narrated. The
expectation of the people concerning him was proportionable to the magnitude of
his achievements: and the splendour of his reception, and the signs of popular
favour which greeted him were extraordinary. Nor was this otherwise than
reasonable and proper.90
Thus, in his description of the event, Polybius included a disclaimer about the reasonableness
of the spectacle, implying that some, or perhaps most spectacles, although not Scipio’s
triumph, were quite unreasonable and improper. Although this veiled criticism was hardly a
wholehearted denunciation of popular spectacle, it does suggest Polybius’ inclination away
from spectacles as historically relevant occurrences. He declined to give a full description of
the splendor—what must have been fantastic war prizes, exciting races, and bloody
gladiatorial shows that surely came with such a magnificent triumph. Instead, he merely
mentioned that there was great rejoicing, and that in this case, it was reasonable. In all, it is
an underwhelming depiction. Polybius’ close relationship with the Scipio family may too
have been an influence on his treatment of Publius Scipio’s triumph. Eckstein asserts that
Polybius’ friendship with Scipio Aemilianus was well known, but downplays the effect that
this friendship had on Polybius’ writing. “As for the pro-Aemilian and pro-Scipionic Tendenz
in Polybius’ work, this should not be exaggerated…the fact is that Polybius was not in the
least averse the criticizing the relatives of L. Aemiulius Paullus of Pydna, or of Scipio
Aemilianus.”91 In any case, Polybius was not critical of all spectacles, but did criticize some
behaviors at spectacles.
Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, trans. William Roger Paton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1960), Kindle ed., 2.12.
Ibid, 16.23.
Arthur M. Eckstein, Moral Vision in The Histories of Polybius (Los Angeles; University of California
Press, 1995), 9.
Polybius used athletic spectacle, a boxing match, as a metaphor to explain why the
Greek masses may have supported Perseus in his fight against Roman domination. Evelyn
Shuckburgh titled the section “The Unthinking Multitude” in her translation:
When the report of the favourable result for Perseus of the cavalry engagement,
and of the victory of the Macedonians, spread through Greece, the inclination of
the populace to the cause of Perseus blazed out like a fire, most of them having up
to that time concealed their real feelings. Their conduct, to my mind, was like
what one sees at gymnastic contests. When some obscure and far inferior
combatant descends into the arena with a famous champion reputed to be
invincible, the spectators immediately bestow their favour upon the weaker of the
two, and try to keep up his spirits by applause, and eagerly second his efforts by
their enthusiasm. And if he succeeds so far as even to touch the face of his
opponent, and make a mark to prove the blow, the whole of the spectators again
show themselves on his side. Sometimes they even jeer at his antagonist: not
because they dislike or undervalue him, but because their sympathies are roused
by the unexpected, and they are naturally inclined to take the weaker side. But if
any one checks them at the right moment, they are quick to change and see their
mistake. 92
There, Polybius landed a subtle jab against spectacle and the common man. He
directly criticized the foolish attitude of the common Greek, supporting Perseus, while
indirectly criticizing the foolish crowd at a boxing match, who were unsure of what they
really should want. Were all spectacles full of folly and unthinking multitudes? Polybius did
not directly claim that they were. Instead, he merely brought a single example of spectacle
foolishness to the fore, and assumed his reader would understand the implication. Eckstein
posits that Polybius was generally distrustful of the masses in general. Eckstein argues that
Polybius, a wealthy aristocrat, saw the masses as easily corruptible and a threat to the social
order.93 From this perspective, public spectacles were a tool of the wealthy to attempt to
control the ignorant masses.
A third example of spectacle criticism by Polybius included the King Antiochus
Epiphanes. Polybius described in rich detail fantastic festival that the king held, but then
related the king’s inappropriate conduct at the festival, in typical moralizing fashion.
And when the festivity had gone on for a long time, and a good many of the
guests had departed, the king was carried in by the mummers, completely
Polybius, 27.9.
Eckstein, 130-1.
shrouded in a robe, and laid upon the ground, as though he were one of the actors;
then, at the signal given by the music, he leapt up, stripped, and began to dance
with the jesters; so that all the guests were scandalised and retired. In fact
everyone who attended the festival, when they saw the extraordinary wealth
which was displayed at it, the arrangements made in the processions and games,
and the scale of the splendour on which the whole was managed, were struck with
amazement and wonder both at the king and the greatness of his kingdom: but
when they fixed their eyes on the man himself, and the contemptible conduct to
which he condescended, they could scarcely believe that so much excellence and
baseness could exist in one and the same breast.94
Again, Polybius pointed out what he saw to be the problems with spectacle. The base,
common behavior of the king was an offense to Polybius’ notions of class and appropriate
conduct. From the examples in Polybius, a reader may think that spectacles and festivals had
a way of bringing out the worst in men. Still, Polybius did not question the public spectacles
themselves. His indirect criticism of spectacles instead focused on behavior of crowds and
individuals at spectacles. Polybius was a moralist who thought that his history ought to teach
lessons for the leaders of the present day, and wrote disparagingly about King Antiochus for
his base and common drunken behavior, asserting that such behavior was beneath elites and
kings, an argument loaded with classism.95 Common men, mummers, and slaves were held to
no such standards, and were presumably expected to act foolishly. Polybius’ Histories was
certainly influential and well-read among literate Romans. Polybius’ criticisms of spectacle
and the behavior they produced would be echoed by later writers.
Cicero produced a vast array of works nearly a century after Polybius. Spectacle and
chariot racing were not central to these works by any measure, although they did play a role.
Cicero was an elite Roman who served in the public sphere, and practiced law. He lived
through the Civil War between Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, and also the alternating
spectacles of Pompey and Julius Caesar, which both vied for the attention and adulation of
the common man in Rome, in order to achieve a political edge with the Roman masses.96
These games, which were well documented by contemporary historians, were some of the
Polybius, 31.4.
Eckstein, 243.
Richard C. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1999), 51-54.
most magnificent spectacles which had occurred in Rome up to that point. Cicero mentioned
his attendance at one of Pompey’s triumphal games in a letter to his friend M. Marius, but
refused to admit that he may have enjoyed or approved of the spectacle. “On the whole, if
you care to know, the games were most splendid, but not to your taste. I judge from my
own.”97 Gunderson, a modern historian of Roman spectacle, relates the habit of Cicero to use
the word venatores, or hunters of game in the arena, to describe his political opponents in the
Philippic Orations, as a subtle way of denigrating their high social status.98
In his political life, Cicero was intimately familiar with spectacles, and the funding of
them. He, albeit begrudgingly, funded spectacle entertainment during the year of his
aedileship, a junior public officeholder position. He wrote: “If, therefore, such entertainment
is demanded by the people, men of right judgment must at least consent to furnish it, even if
they do not like the idea. But in so doing they should keep within their means, as I myself
did.99 Although he may have gone along with the established way of doing things, Cicero
made it clear that he did not agree with the tradition. In the same work he wrote:
This sort of amusement [spectacles] pleases children, silly women, slaves, and the
servile free; but a serious-minded man who weighs such matters with sound
judgment cannot possibly approve of them. And yet I realize that in our country,
even in the good old times, it had become a settled custom to expect magnificent
entertainments from the very best men in their year of aedileship.100
Here, Cicero showed not only a general disapproval of spectacles, but also an elitist
perspective, casting judgement on those who may have enjoyed the games. This perspective
is not surprising from Cicero, when one considers his critical style and political bent. In his
many works, Cicero was a vociferous critic of various aspects of late Republican life. He
criticized the, the loss of prestige of the Senate, the culture of judicial bribery, land reform
bills, among other things.101 Cicero shared many beliefs with the optimates party, who
believed in the value the Roman Senate and of the old Roman aristocratic government. The
Cicero, Letters of Cicero, trans. E. S. Shuckburgh (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2011), Kindle ed., 12.1.
Gunderson, 136.
Cicero, De Officiis, Loeb ed., trans. Walter Miller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913),, 2.17.58.
Ibid, 2.16.57.
Ann Vasaly, “Cicero, Domestic Politics and the First Action of the Verrines,” Classical Antiquity 28,
no. 1 (2009): 101; Bell, 6.
optimates were a strong conservative group that spoke for the interests of the nobiles or old
aristocratic families of Rome. Although Cicero was not from an old family, he took up the
mantle of aristocratic politics, and criticized the pandering to the masses which he felt
politicians who held spectacles embraced.
Cicero displayed his distaste for the popularity of spectacles in other of his works
besides On the Offices. In his oration For Murena, Cicero expressed a similar sentiment to
his elitist disapproval of spectacle in On the Offices. Defending political friend Lucius
Murena against a charge of bribery, and in an effort to attempt to marginalize the hostile
opinions of the urban masses, Cicero asked the rhetorical question, “Do I need to point out
that the people and the ignorant masses adore games? It is hardly surprising that they do.”102
With this question, Cicero attempted to bring doubt into the judges’ minds about the validity
of the opinion of the urban masses, and favor instead the opinions of the military, who
favored Murena. The secondary effect of this rhetorical device was an insult at the spectacle
culture of late Republican Rome, and one that Cicero thought would assist his case. Cicero
must not have been the only elite Roman to feel so opposed to the popularity of spectacle and
the perceived ignorance of the masses. He must have thought that the judges might have been
swayed by just such a question, and he was right. Thanks in large part to Cicero’s defense,
Murena was aquitted.
Whether or not he swayed the judges in Murena’s case with his anti-spectacle
rhetoric, Cicero’s oratory and other works made a significant impression on later authors. His
contribution to the discourse about popular spectacle was immense. His elitist criticism and
ultimate begrudging acceptance of the institution of spectacles would be echoed again and
again by later authors. Polybius too, as a model for historians especially, was a canonical
author whose early contribution to the spectacle discourse set a lasting tone. His moralizing
judgment of spectacle behavior became a recurring theme among later writers as well.
Cicero, Defence Speeches: Cicero, trans. D. H. Berry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000),
Livy’s From the Founding of Rome was written a few decades after the death of
Cicero, and followed Polybius in the tradition of canonical Roman history. Livy, like the
other authors, was an elite Roman, from northern Italy. He wrote in the late first century BCE
and early first century CE, during the rule of Octavian Augustus, and Livy’s history was no
doubt influenced by the polemicized political environment of Augustus’ reforms. Modern
historiography debates the character of From the Founding of Rome, considering the
possibility that the work was primarily a piece of Augustan propaganda used to validate the
rule of Augustus. Recent scholarship has suggested that Livy’s work can be read on a number
of different levels, from moralizing history in the style of Polybius, to an original
historiographical dialogue about the founding and re-founding of Rome.103 Polybius too has
received similar treatment in recent scholarship, and should not be characterized simply as a
moralist.104 Regardless of the modern historiographical debate about Livy’s work, in the
years after its publication, it became a canonical volume, and certainly depicts a traditional
mythical Roman foundation narrative. Because of the impact that the work had on later
authors, Livy’s treatment of spectacle made significant contributions to the spectacle
discourse of Roman antiquity.
Livy’s history narrated the history of the city of Rome, from its mythical founding up
to the author’s present day. In an early episode, Livy recounted the mythic Rape of the
Romulus, in order that he might afford a favourable time and place for this
[violence against the Sabines], dissembling his resentment, purposely prepares
games in honour of Neptunus Equestris; he calls them Consualia. He then orders
the spectacle to be proclaimed among their neighbours; and they prepare for the
celebration with all the magnificence they were then acquainted with, or were
capable of doing, that they might render the matter famous, and an object of
expectation…. When the time of the spectacle came on, and while their minds and
eyes were intent upon it, according to concert a tumult began, and upon a signal
given the Roman youth ran different ways to carry off the virgins by force.105
Gary B. Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 220.
Eckstein, 16.
Livy, 1.9.
Here Livy presented a complex scene for the reader; the deified King Romulus
engaged in trickery, and distracted his neighbors during a spectacle in the name of Neptune.
Subsequently, the mythic king seized his neighbors’ daughters not by manly force, but by
distraction in an early foundation myth. To the ancient Roman, the Rape of the Sabines was
not considered in the same way that modern readers may conceive of a rape, as a detestable
act of sexual violence. The title of the event, the Rape of the Sabines comes from the Latin
verb, rapire, or “to seize.” The Sabine women were seized while their fathers and brothers
were distracted by the spectacle of chariot racing during the Consualia. Gary Miles, a Livian
specialist, refers to the event as the “Theft of the Sabines.”106 Miles associates the Rape of
the Sabines with Mediterranean wedding traditions of “wife stealing” like carrying a bride
over the threshold of a door.107
At the surface level of Livy’s depiction of the Rape of the Sabines, the spectacles of
the Consualia were so profoundly distracting that they enabled the seizure of the Sabine
women, from under the noses of their paternal guardians. Unpacking the meaning in Livy’s
work, the Rape of the Sabines was a morally questionable act that involved trickery and
deception, and not a glorious way to depict the deified founder of Rome. Here, Livy was
careful not to ascribe too much beneficence to Romulus, lest he seem to support monarchy,
and upset the Senatorial class. By associating Romulus so closely with the trickery of the
Rape of the Sabines, Livy ensured that Romulus’ character would bear a subtle stain, and
perhaps foreshadow the later royal Tarquinian rape of Lucretia. Further, by including the
circus games of the Consualia with the Rape of the Sabines, Livy gave the reader a moral
touchstone. Most of Livy’s immediate readers were probably educated elite men of some
stripe, and to them the games were already of questionable moral character, and at the very
least profoundly distracting, based on the previous discourse. Here, with the Rape of the
Sabines, another morally questionable act, Livy piled on another shadowy association to
public spectacle. It would not have been a complete surprise to the Roman reader to see
depravity at the races. The association of spectacles with such an event as the Rape of the
Miles, 180.
Ibid, 187-8.
Sabines may have been part of Livy’s attempt to rationalize the event and place it into a
comprehensible context for his readers.
Livy’s monumental work included a number of other references to spectacle, without
a display of an overtly negative bias. His contribution to the discourse on spectacle should
not be considered wholly negative. He recounted the foundation of the Circus Maximus as a
place for senators and equitates to watch “solemn games,” showing the potential for
culturally acceptable games in the glorious past.108 By the same token, he also depicted the
beginning of a war with the Volscians based upon the exclusion of those peoples from the
games, again associating the games with trouble.109
In all, Livy recorded numerous references to games, gladiatorial matches festivals and
military triumphs over the seven centuries of Roman history and historical myth he included
in his work. By no means does he damn all spectacles, or even associate all of them with
licentious and vulgar behavior, but instead with profound distraction. In his telling, the very
first spectacle of the Roman state was associated with the Rape of the Sabines, and the effect
of that spectacle was to distract and deceive the Sabine men to lose sight of their
responsibility to guard their daughters. The spectacles, in Livy’s depictions, were not
inherently immoral events, but rather occasions when men and women could be distracted.
Livian scholar Andrew Feldherr posits that Livy attempted to create a history that
functioned as a public spectacle, in order to mirror the civic life of Livy’s day, in which civic
participation included attendance at public events.110 Feldherr includes the daily Roman
patron/client meetings as spectacles, in the sense of a Roman politician having been seen or
spectatus, the gerundive form of the Latin spectare, “to see.” This thesis diverges from
Feldherr’s usage of the word spectacle as a small, daily political event, remaining closer to
the modern usage of the word as something larger. Livy’s history was nothing like a massive
public spectacle, nor like chariot races held in monumental arenas, although Livy was surely
influenced by the importance of daily client/patron relationships.
Livy, 1.35.
Ibid, 1.38.
Felderr, 12-3.
Shortly after Livy, the stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about spectacle, among many
other topics. The stoic party of ancient philosophy has a long history, and Seneca followed in
the tradition of earlier writers, most recently Cato the Younger, a contemporary of Cicero.
Cato, advocating a firm, unbending stance on bribery, opposed Cicero in the previously
discussed For Murena oratory.111 Seneca wrote in the early Imperial Era, in the first century
CE. Ancient Stoic philosophy demanded strict adherence to moral values, and a serious
outlook on life. Seneca valued contemplation of the great philosophical questions, and active
participation in public life. He wrote many letters to his friend Lucilius, addressing the
philosophical questions of his day, in his characteristically rhetorical philosophical style. His
seventh letter, On Crowds, is a stark denunciation of the popular spectacles and their vulgar
But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the
games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of
pleasure. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more
ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman because I have
been among human beings.112
Seneca continued in that letter to condemn the crowds and their passion for blood and death
at the gladiatorial matches. His initial criticism though is not specific to gladiatorial shows. It
was the crowd with which he was primarily concerned, not the inhumanity of the gladiatorial
show. His distaste for the crowd and their vices suggests an elitist bend to his criticism. The
crowds, which included mostly the vulgar populace, polluted “good character.”
Seneca though did not merely criticize the vulgar masses. He was a critic of large
swaths of Roman culture and society, and often recommended seclusion and withdrawal
from the world because of the awful conditions he observed. He wrote in his letter, On the
Dangers of Association with Our Fellow-men that “accidents, though they may be serious,
are few—such as being shipwrecked or thrown from one’s carriage; but it is from his fellowman that a man’s everyday danger comes.”113 Here Seneca was paranoid of everyone, not
just the polluting vulgar crowds at the games. Seneca bemoaned a lack of humanity among
Donald M. Ayers, “Cato’s Speech Against Murena,” The Classical Journal 49, no. 6 (1954): 245.
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic: Espistulae Morales ad Lucilium, trans. Richard Mott Gunmere (Doma
Publishing House, 2011), Kindle ed., 7.2.
Ibid, 103.1.
his fellow men, imagining an evil-doer around every corner, but this may have been
warranted considering the context in which he wrote. Seneca was first exiled, and later met
his death by suicide because of his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Emperor
Nero. Seneca, at times in his life, had much to fear outside of merely the inanity of the games
and the inhumanity of the crowds.
He was nonetheless a full-throated critic of spectacles and their popularity. In another
letter, Seneca facetiously appreciated the games’ popularity for the peace and quiet that he
gained at his study when the games were held, but this appreciation was tempered by a
consideration of how the world would be a better place if more men exercised their minds
instead of their bodies.114 Seneca influence was substantial among later Romans who held a
philosophical bent. Later writers, especially Christians, blended Seneca’s unique criticism of
the games with their own ideas about the problems with spectacle and Roman culture. Many
Christian writers, like Seneca before them, were quick to associate public spectacle with the
spread of vice.
The historians Tacitus, Plutarch and Suetonius all lived during the late first and early
second centuries. All three as well wrote about the early emperors of Rome, albeit in
different styles, for different purposes. Tacitus, a senator, wrote narrative history, while
Plutarch and Suetonius were known best for their biographies. Modern historiography recalls
the characteristics and style of these three authors as distinct, but complementary. Tacitus
had the most classical style, and wove his narrative with a traditionalist thread.115 Plutarch
was a philosopher who sought to teach moral lessons about the importance of character
through his imperial biographies.116 Suetonius was an equestrian and scholar, who wrote his
biographies to color and inform Tacitus’ magisterial narrative.117
These three writers established a picture of the early Empire, and further developed
the consistent criticism of spectacle and its vulgarity. With these writers, love for chariot
Ibid, 103.2
Ronald Martin, Tacitus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 10.
Christopher Gill, “The Question of Character-Development: Plutarch and Tacitus,” The Classical
Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1983): 472-3.
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius: The Scholar and His Caesars (London: Duckworth and Co.,
1983), 2.
racing and spectacle became an effective way to display an emperor’s penchant for vice and
offensive incompetence. Before them, chariot racing was certainly criticized, but interest in
the games was not in and of itself a vice which undermined a man’s ability to rule. Augustus
famously enjoyed spectacles, but attended them in a restrained a dignified way, a model for
future emperors.118 Writing about an Emperor’s interest in chariot racing became a form of
invective that later authors would employ as well.
Suetonius maligned Claudius from the outset of his biography, claiming that
Claudius’ own mother referred to him as “an abortion of a man.”119 Later in his biography, in
a long chapter on Claudius’ obsession with games, Suetonius wrote about Emperor Claudius’
unnatural love for spectacles in an example of chariot invective: “He often distributed
largesses of corn and money among the people and entertained them with a great variety of
public magnificent spectacles.…He likewise frequently celebrated the Circensian games in
the Vatican, sometimes exhibiting a hunt of wild beasts, after every five courses.”120
Suetonius included two key elements of chariot invective in that passage, a desire for vulgar
popularity, and expensive and spectacular games. Claudius was much maligned by Suetonius
and others, and his love for spectacle was a prime target for criticism. The spectacles were an
immense distraction for an emperor, who ought to have been more concerned with matters of
state, and not a slave to vulgar passions. Further, the spectacles served as a device that
inhibited good moral character, showed a predilection for luxury, and tyrannical fawning
over public opinion.
Another example of chariot invective comes from Tacitus, who wrote about the
reaction of the common people upon hearing of the death of Nero. “The lowest classes, who
had grown familiar with the pleasures of the theater and the circus, the most degraded of the
slaves, and Nero’s favourites who had squandered their property and lived on his
discreditable bounty, all showed signs of depression and an eager greed for news.”121All
other classes of citizen, besides the degenerates and the lovers of spectacle were overjoyed
Futrel, 35.
Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. T. Forester, trans. Alexander Thomson (,
2011), Kindle ed., 5.3.
Ibid, 5.21.
Tacitus, 1.9.
by the news of Nero’s death, according to Tacitus. The lowest classes, to whom Nero
inappropriately pandered during his flagrant spectacles, were among the only ones to grieve
his death. This passage is a classic piece of chariot invective, combining the elements of
vulgarity and the wastefulness of the circus. To the elite Roman reader, the association of
Nero with spectacle and the lower classes was offensive to the proper moral order. Nero, as
emperor, ought to have had more deference to his high social rank, and withstood some of
the lower passions, like love for spectacle. Suetonius reported that Nero even participated in
the Greek Olympics as a charioteer.122 This participation was deeply offensive to the elite
Roman concept of class and social order.
Tacitus and Suetonius, writing after the installation of a new dynasty in the seat of
imperial Roman power, were free to denigrate Nero. Beyond criticism of Nero, Tacitus used
spectacle as a literary device to signify immodesty and corruption in others as well. About
the partisans of Otho, he wrote: “The Vitellians decried their enemy as lazy effeminates
demoralized by the circus and the theater.”123 Here, Tacitus put his criticism of spectacle into
the mouths of the supporters of the Emperor Vitellian, but the effect was the same. Otho was
considered a close associate of Nero’s and a wealthy pleasure-seeker, things of which Tacitus
and other elite Romans would not have approved.
Plutarch too joined in the negative discourse about spectacle, although in a much
subtler style than his contemporaries Tacitus and Suetonius. About Otho, he moralized:
“Marcus Otho, now, was a man of good lineage, but from his very childhood corrupted by
luxury and the pursuit of pleasure as few Romans were.”124 This does not explicitly mention
spectacles, although the corruption of luxury and the pursuit of pleasure may have been
assumed to be associated with spectacles in the minds of some readers. Plutarch went on to
excoriate Otho for his sexual immorality and failure to divorce his wife after she became
Nero’s mistress. Plutarch treated Otho harshly, but with little reference to spectacle, probably
because Otho ruled for so short a time that a spectacle would not have been practical.
Suetonius, 6.23.
Tacitus, 258.
Plutarch, Parallel Lives, trans. Bernadette Perrin (Boston: Tufts University Press, 1987), Galb.19.2.
In other biographies, Plutarch associated Sulla and Julius Caesar with tremendous
spectacles, and although he did not take these two men to task for the spectacles themselves,
he leveled moral criticisms against both. In addition to this predilection towards spectacle,
Julius Caesar was overly ambitious, and prone to pander to the masses. Plutarch mentioned
his pandering after noting Caesar’s unconventional public speech after the death of his wife.
“This also brought him much favour, and worked upon the sympathies of the multitude, so
that they were fond of him, as a man who was gentle and full of feeling.”125 Sulla Plutarch
labeled a lustful hypocrite. About Sulla he wrote:
There was a gladiatorial spectacle, and since the places for men and women in the
theatre were not yet separated, but still promiscuous, it chanced that there was
sitting near Sulla a woman of great beauty and splendid birth; she was a daughter
of Messala, a sister of Hortensius the orator, and her name was Valeria, and so it
happened that she had recently been divorced from her husband….Then followed
mutual glances, continual turnings of the face to gaze, interchanges of smiles, and
at last a formal compact of marriage. All this was perhaps blameless on her part,
but Sulla, even though she was ever so chaste and reputable, did not marry her
from any chaste and worthy motive; he was led away, like a young man, by looks
and languishing airs, through which the most disgraceful and shameless passions
are naturally excited. However, even though he had such a wife at home, he
consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on
couches all day long. For these were the men who had most influence with him
now: Roscius the comedian, Sorex the archmime, and Metrobius the impersonator
of women, for whom, though past his prime, he continued up to the last to be
passionately fond, and made no denial of it.126
Sulla’s attraction to gladiatorial matches was not a moral problem for Plutarch.
Instead the gladiatorial matches offered an occasion for Sulla’s immorality to surface.
Plutarch chose to introduce his passage on Sulla’s immorality by placing the first event in the
arena, which signaled to the reader a place where little good moral conduct occurred. Sulla’s
relationship with Valeria was not immoral in itself, because Valeria was an upper class
divorcee. Plutarch raised doubts about the relationship based on the secretive nature of the
lovers’ introduction at the morally suspect games, and the inappropriate passions aroused by
the games and the relationship that Sulla embraced.
Ibid, Caes.5.5.
Ibid, Sull.35.5-36.2.
Plutarch moved on from Sulla’s questionable marriage to his awful choice of friends.
By the time Plutarch’s passage about Sulla’s moral failures completed, Plutarch associated
Sulla with actors and mimes, the lowest of the low in the Roman social order. Plutarch chose
to include this seemingly trivial detail of Sulla’s life, his friendships with entertainers,
because of the clear moral lesson that it portrayed to the elite Roman reader. Actors and
entertainers, members of the spectacle subculture, were low class, and had no place
consorting with serious political leaders. At the very least such a friendship was a distraction.
For Sulla to ignore this class difference in his choice of friends was a moral failure. Sulla was
a dictator, the pinnacle of political power at the time, and to Plutarch, his power obscured his
view of his own moral compass.
While not as deliberate as the circus invective of Suetonius or Tacitus, Plutarch’s
subtler form of the convention displays how pervasive critique of public spectacles had
become by the first century BCE. Plutarch did not despise spectacle, or at least Greek athletic
spectacle. Plutarch wrote favorably about Greek games, like the Olympic Games, as
demonstrations of athleticism and good moral rule.127 In contrast, Roman spectacle, whether
a military triumph, gladiatorial games or funeral oration, was not depicted in the same light.
Plutarch, like Tacitus and Suetonius, portrayed Roman spectacles in negative ways. Some
spectacles were occasions of immorality, like Sulla’s improper introduction to his wife
Valentina. Other spectacles were examples of naked pandering, like Nero’s chariot racing
and use of spectacles to curry public adoration.
Juvenal wrote around the same time as Plutarch, Suetonius and Tacitus, the early
second century CE. Juvenal was a satirist, and wrote one of the most memorable quotations
regarding the spectacle culture of Rome.
And what of the commons?
They follow fortune as always, detest the victims.
If a little Etruscan luck had rubbed off on Sejanus,
if someone out of the blue had struck down the Emperor’s careless
old age, this same rabble would now be proclaiming Sejanus
Augustus. But these days, we’ve no vote to sell, so their motto
is ‘Couldn’t Care Less’. Time was when their plebiscite elected
Generals, Heads of State, commanders of legions: but now
Plutarch, Thes.25.4, Arist.12.9.
They’ve pulled in their horns. Only two things really concern them:
Bread and the Games.128
The mob longs eagerly for just two things—bread and games, a frustrated and hopeless
criticism of the culture of the time. To Juvenal, the vulgar mob had so devolved that politics
and other weighty cares were in the long past, along with the entire glorious past of the city.
With its obsession over spectacle, Rome was reaching a nadir. Today, scholars posit that
Juvenal was a wealthy Roman, trained in rhetoric and law. Translator Peter Green estimates
that by the time Juvenal’s Tenth Satire, which contains the above passage, was published,
Juvenal was an old man of around seventy years old, who had suffered an exile because of
his earlier, angrier works.129 Juvenal’s criticism of Roman culture was extensive, so
extensive that it contributed to Juvenal’s exile. It is thus hardly surprising that Juvenal the
angry satirist would denigrate spectacle. Still, his neat eloquence, exemplified in the Latin
phrase panem et circenses, has given his opinion of spectacle a lasting currency.
Many modern considerations of Roman spectacle take the satirist’s pithy line from
the Tenth Satire to heart, and use Juvenal’s bitter complaint as an example of the inanity of
Roman spectacle subculture. In fact, Juvenal’s complaint about spectacle fits squarely in the
Roman literary trope of backward-facing and nostalgic way of looking at the “glorious” past.
Spectacle had a political subtext, and Juvenal must have understood that. In the Tenth Satire
he ignored the latent political nature of such a state-sponsored assembly of people, and chose
to depict the games as a useless extravagance. Spectacle subculture existed before Juvenal’s
day, and the waxing and waning of influence of the plebs was common in Roman politics.
Juvenal’s distaste for the games should be placed in a larger picture of the longstanding elitist
Roman discourse against popular spectacle.
The discourse on spectacle was crystallizing around a very negative view of the
games and the popularity that they held. Juvenal held a clearly negative view on spectacle
and the crowd. He wrote about it elsewhere in his works as well.130 However, Juvenal was a
satirist whose very purpose for writing poetry was to criticize and insult Roman culture. His
Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, trans. Peter Green, 3rd ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998), 10.73-81.
Ibid, xvi.
Ibid, 11.192-198.
negative view of the circus may not have been particularly notable to a contemporary. He,
like the stoic Seneca, or the high-minded Cicero, took issue with a number of things in
Roman culture, spectacle and chariot racing just happened to be included. What is notable,
however, is the persistence of this same discourse of hundreds of years of Roman literature.
Juvenal’s famous words about the inanity of the circus were not merely the angry satire of a
disaffected elite Roman. His words were that, but they were also contributing to a tradition of
elitist grievances about the vulgar masses and their games.
Chariot racing, public spectacle and elitist criticism of both persisted into late
antiquity. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote his history in the fourth century CE, and he covered
a long period in it, from 96 until 378 CE. The starting date of 96 CE was a direct homage to
Tacitus, whose own history ended with the death of Domitian in that year. Ammianus began
his Res Gestae with the ascent of Nerva, which followed Domitian’s death. As such, based
upon its structure and time period covered, it seems that Ammianus intended his history as
the successor to the great Latin historical tradition.131 Most of the work, however is lost, and
only the years 354 to 378 CE are extant. As previously noted, his work has been challenging
for modern scholars to classify because of questions about his religious and political
motivations and bias.
Although Ammianus’ focus was clearly on the military and political history of the
period, his treatments of chariot racing and public spectacle followed the tradition of his
predecessors. In book 15, he digressed about the erosion of public morals in Rome, and
unsurprisingly pointed to the circus.
Of the lowest and poorest class, some spend the night in bars….They hold
quarrelsome gambling sessions, at which the make ugly noises by breathing
loudly through the nose; or else—and this is their prime passion—they wear
themselves out from dawn to dusk, wet or fine, in detailed discussion of horses
and their drivers. It is most extraordinary to see a horde of people hanging in
burning excitement on the outcome of a chariot race. Things like this prevent
anything worthy of serious mention happening at Rome.132
Barnes, 26.
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: (AD 354-378), trans. Walter Hamilton (New York:
Penguin Books, 1986), 6.26.
Ammianus, an author who desired to have his work included in the same canon as
Tacitus and Livy, followed the same conventions. His passion with which he critiqued the
habits of the masses suggests that he felt strongly about the subject, beyond merely following
literary convention. Ammianus disparaged the morals of the common man, and directly
associated those corrupt morals with the foolishness of the circus. He even went further than
others, dehumanizing the lowest class by insulting the way they even breathe. He added to
the spectacle discourse complaints about drunkenness and gambling among the masses. It
seems that Ammianus, after taking in the negative discourse on chariot racing and class of
the previous years, sought to improve upon that argument by adding his own angrier spin
upon it.
While the previous passage may have been Ammianus’ clearest articulation of his
opinion on chariot racing and the populous, he included other contributions to the discourse
in his work as well. The Emperor Julian, whom Ammianus praised, held games at Sirmium
during his march towards Constantinople to depose Constantius. Ammianus included only a
short sentence about these games in his work, “he gratified the populace by devoting the next
day to chariot races.”133 This short sentence seems out of place in the grand narrative of
Julian’s glorious march, but it set up a later half-hearted criticism of Julian. In assessing
Julian’s moral qualities, Ammianus wrote: “He liked the popular applause of the mob, and
was excessively eager to be praised.”134 Here, Ammianus paid homage to his predecessors,
and attempted to give his work an air of reliability. He did not want his history to read as a
panegyric for Julian, so Ammianus engaged in a half-hearted example of circus invective
about his hero. Despite his great admiration for Julian, the negative discourse on chariot
racing and popular spectacle continued.
Procopius of Caesarea wrote negatively about spectacle in his infamous work, The
Secret History. Procopius lived in the Eastern Roman Empire during the sixth century, wrote
in Greek, and had a working knowledge of Latin. He worked as a legal advisor to the
Byzantine General Belisarius, and wrote voluminous histories based upon the glories and
exploits of Belisarius’ military campaigns. Procopius’ The Secret History is a vulgar, angry
Ibid, 21.10.2.
Ibid, 25.4.15.
work written in secret denouncing Justinian and his wife Theodora. According to G. A.
Williamson, translator of a modern English version of The Secret History, scholars
rediscovered The Secret History centuries after Procopius’ death, from the Suidas, a tenthcentury Greek encyclopedia.135
Thanks to The Secret History, Procopius remains a subject of great controversy and
debate in historical scholarship, as previously discussed. A member of elite Byzantine
society, Procopius judged spectacles harshly. Regarding the circus factions he wrote: “The
people have long been divided into two factions.…Justinian attached himself to one of them,
the Blues, to whom he had already given enthusiastic support, and so contrived to produce
universal chaos. By doing so he brought the Roman State to its knees.”136 Thus, Procopius
associated Justinian with the circus factions. This association served a dual purpose. First it
was clear chariot invective in the style of Tacitus and Suetonius. The association demeaned
the emperor to lower him to the level of the circus factions. The much maligned Nero, as
previously discussed, infamously supported the chariot racing, and obsessed over horses.137
Second, Procopius directly associated the violence and chaos in Constantinople with
Justinian’s support of the Blues. To Procopius, the circus factions were wild young men who
wrought destruction all over the Empire, killing wantonly and raping little boys.138
Justinian’s association with these violent mobsters angered God, and provided even more
justification for Justinian’s demonization elsewhere in the work.
Although the spectacles were wildly popular in the Byzantine Empire, charioteers and
other performers comprised the lowest stratum of society. In Circus Factions, Alan Cameron
posits the civilian hierarchy of Byzantine society, based upon anonymous inscriptions dated
from the sixth century. The clergy and government administrators fill the top rungs, and at
the bottom, the “useless” are followed by “Theatrical people…charioteers, musicians, actors
and so forth.”139As such, Procopius sought to embarrass Justinian and Theodora by recalling
Procopius, 33.
Ibid, 71.
Suetonius, 6.22.
Procopius, 71-3.
Alan Cameron, Circus Factions, 81-2.
Theodora’s humble origins as an actress in the circus shows. He wrote: “Later, she joined the
actors in all the business of the theater and played a regular part in all their stage
performances.”140 Beyond this, Procopius asserted that Theodora whored herself before
meeting Justinian.141 This accusation, whether true or not, naturally followed the reputation
of an actress in the Byzantine mind because of the low status of actors, and the sexualized
and violent circus counterculture. Procopius did not need to spell out the sexual accusations
to defame Theodora. Her past as an actress would have sufficed. Nonetheless, Procopius
demonstrated an anti-spectacle prejudice by using association with the circus as a means to
insult Justinian and Theodora.
Other lay writers in late antiquity did not have such pointed opinions on spectacle.
John Malalas, a sixth-century lay historian from the Byzantine bureaucracy, included many
depictions of the circus and circus factions in his Chronicle. Although these depictions often
included the mob violence and riots associated with the circus factions, Malalas did not
editorialize and condemn the violence or the factions. By the same token, Malalas did not
profess support for the spectacles or the circus factions. His history merely reported the
factional violence, and let the reader decide whether or not to condemn it.142
From Malalas’ account, it is clear that spectacle did not fade in the Byzantine Empire
and eastern cities as readily as it did in the west. In the East, the Roman Imperial system
continued in name, and the Emperors used the tradition of spectacle to hearken back to the
Roman past. A Byzantine Emperor proclaimed himself the Emperor of Rome, whether or not
that particular city fell under his political control. Secular rulers, despite pressure from
members of the Church (see below), desired the political power and legitimacy gained from
allusions to Roman traditions and rule, and maintained the tradition of spectacle, much to the
enjoyment of the people.
Cassiodorus, an Italian political figure in Ostrogothic Italy in the early sixth century,
represented this delicate political-religious balance well, and wrote about it in his Letters.
Procopius, 83.
Ibid, 84.
John Malalas, The Chronicle of John Malalas, trans. Elizabeth Jeffreys, Michael Jeffreys, and Roger
Scott (Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1986).
Cassiodorus served under King Theodoric the Great, an Ostrogoth who first conquered Italy
for the Byzantine Emperor Zeno and later declared his independence. Cassiodorus wrote:
No wonder that such a departure from all sensible dispositions should be
attributed to a superstitious origin. We are compelled to support this institution
[spectacles] by the necessity of humouring the majority of the people, who are
passionately fond of it; for it is always the few who are led by reason, while the
many crave excitement and oblivion of their cares. Therefore, as we too must
sometimes share the folly of our people, we will freely provide for the expenses
of the Circus, however little our judgment approves of this institution143
Thus, Cassiodorus, ghost writing for Theodoric, aptly related the problem of the
spectacles for the late antique ruler. Cassiodorus, while he did not fully support or condone
spectacle, realized its political utility. Therefore, he could not condemn it, implying that his
hand was forced, due to the precarious political situation. He was forced, by the
circumstances of the day, to submit to the ‘folly of the people.’ This admission about
spectacle was, in a way, especially profound because of its clear-mindedness. Other authors
had railed against the circus and the vulgar fans, and the awful subculture that lay right
beneath the surface. These authors gnashed their collective teeth over the collapse of the
morals of Roman society, and blamed others, either the emperor, or the crowds for the
scourge of spectacles. Cassiodorus instead acknowledged that his judgment opposed the
institution, but freely admitted that he was powerless to contain the folly of the people.
Chariot racing and public spectacle were bulwarks in a rapidly changing society in
Rome. The persistence of the popular spectacle, especially chariot racing, in the ancient
Mediterranean region is truly notable. Even as the political landscape shifted and Rome
changed, the horserace, and its wild following withstood the test of time. More notable still is
the consistent tone of the discourse among elite Roman authors about spectacle and chariot
Polybius wrote about moral dangers of spectacle and the influence of the masses in
his Histories. Polybius used the metaphor of a calm sea to describe the common masses;
when things were calm, all was safe, but when winds, like spectacle, began to whip, the
Cassiodorus, 3.52.8.
masses became dangerous.144 Later authors, like Cicero and Seneca, tended to agree with
Polybius on the basis for disapproval of public spectacle. Spectacle was all too enticing for
the vulgar masses, and therefore dangerous to the ruling classes. To the later authors,
aristocratic Romans had the responsibility to guide the state, and the influence of too much
spectacle could be problematic. An aristocrat who held too many spectacles could be
perceived as pandering to the lower classes. The spectacles were something that the lower
classes enjoyed, but high minded men like Cicero and Seneca sought entertainment from
what they considered higher pleasures of oratory or philosophy.
After Polybius, later Roman historians contributed to the discourse on spectacle as
well. Livy’s history was full of examples of spectacles, not the least of which was the
Consuelia that preceded the Rape of the Sabines, in Rome’s earliest days. Livy’s nuanced
and detailed depiction of this event was ripe with meaning, from the trickery of Romulus to
the profound distraction of the chariot races of the Consuelia that enabled the seizure of the
Sabine brides.
It can be difficult to posit reasons for the elitist criticism of the races. Beyond an
elitist ideology itself, which suggests to the powerful man that he is somehow better than
those who do not have his status, little about the discourse has a clear rationalization. The
system of funding the games may have contributed to a wide dislike for them among the
elites, as Cicero’s complaints about financing the games suggests. The Roman state
controlled the games, to some extent. Clearly, in the Republican period it was private
citizens, with political motivations, that held spectacular entertainments. Later, after
Augustus’ reforms, the motivation for a private citizen to give money to support the games
would be lessened. Aediles, the junior officers of state who managed the annual games under
the Republic, still needed to manage the games for the Emperor. Tacitus related that Nero
increased greatly the number of races in a year, and the payouts for winners, because of his
obsession with the games. This change in policy calls to mind the question of who exactly
paid for these games? Did the elites begrudge the Emperor this wanton expenditure of their
tax money? If so, this would help to explain the hatred of the “useless poor,” who enjoyed
Eckstein, 130.
the games so vociferously, but were perceived to have paid little in the way of taxes to fund
Besides the issue of fear of circus crowds and their potential for great violence, elites
considered themselves better than the fans of spectacle. Literacy rates in the ancient world
are unknowable with any precision, but literacy was by no means universal. Modern
archeology has unearthed extensive circus graffiti, which suggests that some level of literacy
existed among the common attendees of the circus, but this information is incomplete. Even
so, authors whose works have survived the onslaught of time must have been men and
women of some education and thus status. Charioteers, on the other hand, were near the
bottom of the social order. The fans of the races were not high above their heroes. Chariot
racing was a popular spectacle among the masses, but to an upper class Roman, such vulgar
pursuits were below them.
Roman authors gave various reasons for general disdain towards spectacle. Early
stoic philosophers opposed the unnatural fervor of the games. Later commentators echoed
this sentiment while adding other complaints. It is important to note that the later Roman
author entered a centuries-old cultural debate when he brought up the issue of chariot racing
or spectacle in his work. Spectacle, from the very earliest days of Rome, was a powerful
cultural institution, whose various characteristics, not the least among them popularity,
precluded any unbiased assessment by later commentators. Roman authors were educated in
a literary tradition that generally held spectacle to be vulgar and low class folly. Early Roman
authors developed this opinion, and it perpetuated. Because of his great stature in the literary
and rhetorical sphere of the high empire and late antiquity, Cicero’s opinions on chariot
racing and spectacle held considerable sway over later authors. Cicero was known for his
clarity of mind and eloquence of argument, a paragon of Latin literature. His letters and his
oratory were canonical for Roman students. His opinions, like Polybius’ or Seneca’s, were no
doubt influential.
Secular authors from the times of Roman Republic to the Byzantine Empire wrote
negatively about chariot racing’s low class fans and the inanity of the races. As such, these
authors established a consistent discourse of negative perceptions of chariot racing that used
many of the same images and negative characterizations over the span of hundreds of years.
Later authors drew on their predecessors and wrote disparagingly about chariot racing and its
low class fans. Later Christian Roman authors generally followed this trend of disapproval of
chariot racing and spectacle subculture, although they developed some of their own
arguments based upon their new Christian value system. With the next group of authors, the
motivation for criticism of the circus is much clearer. Christians saw the spectacles as sinful
and a threat to their hold on the attentions of the people, spiritual and otherwise.
The Roman literary discourse on spectacle was not limited to secular writers.
Christian authors joined secular authors in criticism of the popular institution of spectacles.
Some Church Fathers even went so far as to condemn participation in any sporting spectacle
as sinful, even those as seemingly innocuous as chariot racing. In the Roman tradition,
chariot races grew as part of the pagan liturgy, praising different gods, depending on the
festival that was to be celebrated. The popularity of spectacle afforded political gain as well
(above). Emperors attended games and reinforced their popular backing through these events.
After the Roman state religion shifted from paganism to Christianity, chariot racing persisted
as both a popular spectator sport and government institution through the first millennia CE.
While chariot racing endured as a popular entertainment, gladiatorial contests
gradually faded from existence in the years after Constantine’s accession as sole emperor.
The Christian Constantine first outlawed gladiatorial matches in 325 CE, but the games
continued.145 The western Emperor Honorius issued another edict in 399 CE, which marks a
more accurate endpoint for the tradition of gladiatorial matches. Weidemann relates that
Christians, in general, were opposed to gladiatorial matches more than chariot racing or wild
beast hunts, but he argues that their opposition was not based on humanitarian grounds.
Instead, he argues that Christians saw the munera as a threat to the Church’s monopoly on
salvation.146 In the munera, the Roman people could provide a gladiator with his salvation, or
condemn him to his death. To Weidemann, this symbolic threat to the Church’s power
outweighed any humanitarian concerns. Although this symbolic problem was certainly
important, Weidemann’s argument seems to ignore the visceral pain of Christian martyr
Weidemann, 156.
Ibid, 155.
experience, and the group trauma that must have been seared into the collective memory of
Christians. In any case, the end of the gladiatorial bouts occurred in the fourth century CE,
and represented little more than superficial change in spectacle subculture. Chariot racing,
which appears the most popular and prevalent spectacle, endured along with the vigorous
enthusiasm of the masses, and negative discourse of elite authors.
Despite—and perhaps because of—the immense popularity of the chariot racing and
other sporting spectacles, many Church leaders did not approve of its members’ attendance
or participation in the games. As previously discussed, this disapproval was not confined to
Church authors. State persecutions of Christians, especially the Neronian Persecutions and
Great Persecutions of Diocletian, seared the gory spectacles of Christian martyrs into the
memory of Christian writers. This memory played a major role in developing an antispectacle position. Even after the conversion of Constantine, the attitude of many of the Latin
patristic writers remained staunchly against spectacle. The memory of persecution and the
pagan background of the circus kept the some in the Church from supporting or even
acquiescing to popular entertainments until centuries after the persecutions ended. Many late
antique Church Fathers and their contemporary lay historians shared the aristocratic disdain
that ancient authors commonly held for public spectacle. In contrast to those who baldly
condemned spectacles, other Christian writers used images and tropes from the Roman
spectacle tradition, especially the images of manly gladiators and charioteers, to demonstrate
theological points. These writers, without necessarily assenting to spectacle, used the
imagery of spectacle in an implicitly complimentary way to color their theological works.
The gladiator and the charioteer were manly characters in pre-Christian Roman literary
tradition, who exemplified Roman virtus, (a kind of manliness and public bravery) and
received a great deal of public adulation. Historian Mathew Kuefler argues that Christian
writers recognized this literary trope, and employed it to display the new manliness of
Christianity. These writers developed a Christian idealization of “Christ’s charioteer,” who
was able to “reign in his passions.” 147 This new Christian combined the pre-Christian Roman
literary trope of the manly charioteer (sometimes soldier or gladiator) and the bravery that
Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late
Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 175 n78.
Christians ought to display in their faith. Whether they disapproved of spectacle, acquiesced
to it, or cleverly employed its imagery, the Church Fathers, like the previously considered
aristocratic secular authors, were men who looked upon the past and its traditions with
reverence, and were not wont to change. As such, the writers of the early Church did not
radically change the negative discourse on spectacle, but instead contributed to it, in a subtly
different way.
This chapter analyzes the views of patristic Christian authors about spectacle,
displaying a generally negative view of Christian late antique authors regarding spectacle. In
addition, this chapter identifies the perspectives on spectacle of late antique Christian authors
within the larger Roman literary discourse on spectacle. The Christian authors’ perspectives
on spectacle are analyzed with respect to secular authors, in order to display similarities and
differences in argument and approach to the problem of spectacle. Identical to the previous
chapter, a negative opinion of popular spectacle is defined in this chapter as an opinion from
a primary source that casts scorn or derision upon the spectacle or its attendees, either
directly or implicitly.
The Christian authors are treated in a linear fashion, with the earliest authors first. By
arranging the authors in this way, consistent lines of argument and opinions on spectacle
emerge from the authors’ works over time. Thus, the effect of the spectacle discourse in
shaping opinions of later writers can be displayed and analyzed. In a similar manner to the
previous chapter on secular writers, authors’ opinions are characterized based upon direct
examination of the primary sources. Direct quotations from the primary sources are
employed in translation. Secondary sources are included where the analysis of other
historians was influential or is relevant. Again, similar to the chapter on secular authors and
spectacle discourse, it would be impossible to gather all the writings from every late antique
Christian author, instead a selection of works from an influential collection of authors is
considered. This selection of works gives a sense of the tone and direction of the discourse
on chariot racing.
Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo are the first authors addressed in this chapter. Both
Tertullian and Augustine have substantial historiographical debate surrounding their works.
A small consideration of these historiographical questions relevant to their respective
opinions on spectacle is treated below in the section on these authors. It is important to note
that the short biography and historiographical considerations do not represent a definitive
voice in the representation of either man’s entire corpus of work, merely an entryway to the
assessment of the authors’ contributions to the discourse on spectacle.
Addressed next are Salvian and Sidonius. These two authors were Christians
aristocrats who wrote in fifth-century Gaul. Although these authors do not have the
historiographical baggage of Tertullian and Augustine, both require consideration. Salvian
was born approximately twenty-five years before Sidonius, in the early fifth century. He was
a monk, and wrote primarily theological works. His most famous work is an apology for
Christianity, De Gubernatione Dei, or The Government of God, a work that wrestled with the
same sort of questions as Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, the spiritual causes for the decline of
the Western Roman Empire. Salvian, whom historian Glenn Olsen regards as a “relatively
minor figure,” was a moralist who posited that the sinfulness of Christians was the spiritual
cause for the decline of the Western Roman Empire.148
Sidonius was a Gallic bishop. His work includes Letters and Panegyrics to Roman
emperors of old. Modern historian David Frye classifies Sidonius as an aristocratic and
nostalgic Roman, who was very interested in maintaining romanitas, the “Roman-ness,” of
Gaul in the face of a failing Western Roman Empire.149 Sidonius was certainly an aristocrat
and a Romano-phile. His perspective is one of the few available from Gaul during that time
Last, this chapter treats the Iberian bishop, Isidore of Seville. Isidore lived in the
former Roman province of Hispania. Born around 560 CE, Isidore descended from an
aristocratic Hispano-Roman family. He lived and wrote during the sixth and seventh
centuries on the Iberian Peninsula, in the Kingdom of the Visigoths. Isidore received his
education in a monastery after the death of his parents, augmented by his brother Leander’s
guidance. Around 601, Isidore ascended to the archbishopric of Seville, a seat previously
Glenn Olsen, “Reform After the Pattern of the Primitive Church in the Thought of Salvian of
Marseilles,” The Catholic Historical Review 68, no. 1 (1982): 1.
David Frye, “Aristocratic Responses to Late Roman Urban Change: The Examples of Ausonius and
Sidonius in Gaul” The Classical World 96, no. 2 (2003): 196.
held by his brother, Leander. As a bishop, Isidore wrote extensively on many topics,
authoring histories, theological works, astronomy, and an encyclopedia. In this encyclopedia,
Isidore sought to catalogue all of the world’s knowledge in the tradition of ancient authors.
Although Isidore died in 636 CE before he could complete the work, it remained an
influential and circulated widely throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The work, titled
Etymologies, included a chapter on chariot racing and spectacles.
During Isidore’s lifetime, the cultural influence of the Roman past still lingered in the
Visigothic Kingdom in Iberia, but the Roman Empire in the west no longer existed as a
political entity. Still, Isidore wrote favorably about the Roman past. In his History of the
Goths, Sueves and Vandals, Isidore called Rome, “golden Rome, the head of nations.”150 In
the Etymologies, Isidore listed Rome first among the cities in the chapter of that name.151
Isidore held affection for Rome, which in the West had essentially fallen, but held great love
for his native land of Iberia as well. As such, Isidore lived in a different, yet intimately
related, cultural milieu compared to previous authors who lived and wrote before and during
the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Politically, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire,
centered in Constantinople, remained a powerful force and still considered itself the Empire
of Rome, although the military control of the city of Rome went back and forth between
Ostrogothic Kings and the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire exerted force in Iberia
as well, maintaining a small colony, and in conflict with the Visigothic Kingdom. The
Visigothic Kingdom was a diverse and cosmopolitan state, and Isidore travelled outside
Iberia and met with other churchmen in Constantinople and Rome.
The authors included in this chapter, admittedly, make up a very small part of the
entire corpus of Christian literary production during the late antique period. All lived in the
Western Empire, and wrote in Latin. As such, all have a western perspective on chariot
racing and spectacle. Nonetheless, all of the authors considered in the chapter lived in a
Mediterranean world that conceived of a single Church, united by orthodox doctrine. The
Isidore of Seville, History of the Goths, Sueves and Vandals, trans. Guido Donini and Gordon B. Ford,
vol. 2 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970), 1.4.
Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A.
Beah and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 15.1.2.
nature of this doctrine was a source of constant debate, and numerous Church councils
sought to unite the often contentious theological factions within the Church. This chapter
does not address these theological questions, nor the question of unity, or lack thereof, within
the late antique Church. Instead, this chapter focuses on the discourse on spectacle, as it
evolved over time. The western focus is in part a reflection of the sources. Leading Christian
authors in the west followed Augustine, and his virulent denunciation of spectacle, keeping
the discourse on spectacle alive. In the east, although secular writers like Procopius and
Ammianus opined about spectacle, ecclesiastical writers tended to focus on other things.
One of the earliest Fathers of the Western Church was Tertullian. He lived and wrote
in the late second and early third centuries CE in the city of Carthage, in Roman North
Africa. In the late antique Church, Tertullian’s work was well known. St. Jerome, who lived
two centuries later, wrote of Tertullian in his work De Viriis Illustribus (On Famous Men)
relating that Tertullian was regarded among the leading Christian Latin writers, whose works
were so famous they did not need to be listed. St. Jerome went on to note Tertullian’s schism
with the Church later in life. Jerome wrote that Tertullian was “driven by the envy and abuse
of the clergy of the Roman Church, he lapsed to the doctrine of Montanus.”152 Due to this
heretical bend, Tertullian is not considered a saint in the Church, although his earlier works
remain influential. In addition to his theological works on varying subjects, including the
nature of the Trinity, his pointed denunciation of the public games and theater shows of the
pagan Roman state form the ideological basis for later Christian writers’ rejection of secular
Tertullian’s conversion to Christianity occurred around 195 CE. Tertullian wrote
about his conversion, but only in an oblique manner, unlike St. Augustine’s later
autobiographical style. Tertullian wrote in his treatise De Paenitentia (On Repentence), that
he was previously “blind, without the Lord's light,”153 but wrote little else about the specifics
Jerome, On Illustrious Men, trans. Thomas P. Halton (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of
America Press, 1999), 53.4.
Tertullian, Treatise on Penance: On Penitence and on Purity, trans. William P. Le Saint (Westminster:
Newman Press, 1959), 1.1.
of his previous life. From fragments of his own work, and from other sources, modern
historians agree that before his conversion, Tertullian was a typical aristocratic Roman
pagan. From study of his style, historians assert that he was well educated. Today, historians
posit that he was a lawyer, due to his argumentative writing style and analytical mind. In
addition to his vehement argumentation, he wrote in a high rhetorical style, another indicator
of a classical legal education.
Alison Futrell, in her work Sourcebook on the Roman Games, compares Tertullian’s
anti-spectacle position to the first century CE stoic philosopher Seneca, writing “Some of
Tertullian’s critique of the arena parallels that found in Seneca, where the passions of the
mob act as a corruptive agent on the equanimity and virtue of the individual spectator.”154
The Christian Tertullian and the pagan Seneca’s arguments are certainly different in the
specifics (above), but the vague similarity suggests Tertullian’s familiarity with Seneca’s
work. Seneca argued against the agitation of the spirit that the games and moreover the
crowds caused, while Tertullian bemoaned the role of unholy passions and lust in spectators
at the circus as an affront to the Holy Spirit. 155 Both writers echo a common Roman
disapproval of the rabble, and the vulgar entertainments. Thus, Tertullian followed many of
the same conventions in the negative discourse on spectacle that previous secular authors
had. A century after Seneca, Tertullian, an elite, educated Roman, echoed similar sentiments
to his predecessors, in a Christian context.
In contemporary scholarship, debate rages over Tertullian’s role in the early Church.
St. Jerome listed Tertullian as a presbyter, but some modern historians suggest that Tertullian
remained a lay person because of his works regarding his wife.156 This ambiguity brings into
question the level of authority with which Tertullian wrote. As a bishop, he could have
condemned spectacle and enforced such a condemnation among his flock, by refusing to
provide sacraments to spectacle attendees. As a lay theologian, Tertullian could have merely
cast a wicked eye on those who did not heed his condemnation of spectacle. Regardless of
Futrel, 167.
Ibid, 117.
Victor Power, "Tertullian: Father of Clerical Animosity Towards the Theatre," Education Theatre
Journal 23, no. 1 (1971), 36.
his place in the Church hierarchy of his day, Tertullian’s work as a theologian had influence.
Early twentieth century historian Reginald Melvile Chase called Tertullian “the Father of
Christian Latin literature.”157 Tertullian wrote many works about his theology and Christian
morals, over thirty that survive in some form today. In the 1970s, historian Victor Power
wrote: “Certainly Tertullian carved out attitudes followed by later Latin writers of the
African church, namely Lactantius, Arnobius, Cyprian, and the two greats Jerome and
Augustine.”158 Power’s article argues that the Church’s longstanding disapproval of the
theater, a component of spectacle, had its germination in the De Spectaculis of Tertullian.
Tertullian’s treatise De Spectaculis (On the Public Shows) survives in a manuscript
from the twelfth century. The manuscript is located in the Vatican, as well as fragments of
the text in other locations.159 In it, Tertullian clearly laid out his argument against Christian
attendance or involvement in public shows. He structured his argument around two
fundamental points: the first that the public shows are idolatrous, and the second that the
public shows create in the people who watch them a lust for pleasure. The first point
represented a vigorous new Christian Roman argument, thus altering the tone of the spectacle
discourse. The second argument would have been more familiar to a contemporary pagan
Roman, echoing the sentiments of Seneca and other ancient moralists.
In the first chapter of On the Public Shows, Tertullian asserted “these things [the
games] are not consistent with the true religion and true obedience to the true God.” As such,
Tertullian displayed his intended audience, fellow Christians. In addition, he laid out a new
line of rhetorical attack against the games. The games were inherently pagan, and an affront
to God. Tertullian established his rhetorical antagonist as a Christian who considered the
games to be a creation of God—as all things are a creation of God—and a pleasurable
recreation, fit for Christians. No such written opinion survives from Tertullian’s time, but
the fact that Tertullian needed to write such a treatise indicates that the games were at least
Reginald Melville Chase, "De Spectaculis," The Classical Journal 23, no. 2 (1927): 107.
Power, 46.
Roger Pearse, ed., “Codex Vaticanus Ottobonianus Latinus 25,” The Tertullian Project, last modified
December 10, 1999,
somewhat popular among Christians. The games were popular enough for Tertullian to
moralize about, and excoriate those who partook.
Later, when discussing the circus factions, Tertullian claimed a pagan basis for these
fan groups as well. He associated the circus factions with the seasons, red with summer,
white with winter, green with spring, and blue with autumn, and calling them “the colors of
idolatry.”160 Modern scholarship does not support this claim, but later Christian writers, like
Isidore of Seville, would use it to bolster their arguments against the circus. 161 Tertullian
closed his first argument against idolatry of the games, and wrote that “all the shows of the
circus everywhere must be attributed to their origin, must be examined at their source. For
the little rivulet from its spring, the tiny shoot from the first leaf, has in it the nature of its
In searching for a scriptural basis for his argument, Tertullian admitted no direct
prohibition of spectacle in the Gospels. Instead, he looked to the Psalms of King David for
his basis, writing “happy is the man, who has not gone to the gathering of the impious, who
has not stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilences.”163 Further, Tertullian
wrote that “every show is a gathering of the impious”164 and that “the whole equipment of the
public shows is idolatry pure and simple”165 He, listed numerous gods and goddess to whom
the Roman state dedicated its games, and celebrated in its festivals. No one could deny the
overt pagan celebration of spectacle in the second and third centuries. Tertullian’s argument
made sense in that context. Christians did not participate in other pagan religious ceremonies,
like sacrifices to the emperor. In fact, Christian martyrs died simply because they would not
sacrifice to the emperor. In Tertullian’s argument, to attend the ritualized pagan spectacles,
devoted to the pagan gods, would have been tantamount to worship of the emperor, or
Tertullian, Apology; De Spectaculis, trans. T. R. Glover and Gerald H. Rendall (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1931), 9.5.
Alan Cameron, Circus Factions, 45-53.
Tertullian, Apology; De Spectaculis, 7.4.
Ibid, 3.2; Ps 1.1. (New American Bible).
Tertullian, Apology; De Spectaculis, 3.8.
Ibid, 4.3.
Tertullian lived through the Christian persecutions and perhaps even witnessed
firsthand the persecution of Christians in the arena. Arguably the most infamous singular
persecution occurred in North Africa in 203 CE, the martyrdom of Perpetua. Perpetua was a
young woman and new mother who was brutally put to death in Carthage. Her martyrdom
was especially notable because of her bravery, elevated social class, and her literacy.166
Perpetua wrote an autobiographical account of her imprisonment and persecution that ended
the day before she was put to death, the oldest extant autobiography written by a woman
martyr. Some scholars have posited that Tertullian himself was the editor of Perpetua’s
memoir, although the evidence is not clear.167 According to the editor’s account, Perpetua’s
martyrdom was a gruesome, bloody and sexually offensive affair. The memory of this event
lingered in the collective mind of North African Christians. Centuries later, Augustine wrote
no fewer than three sermons about Perpetua, and delivered these sermons on the anniversary
of her martyrdom.168
Tertullian later wrote about spectacle, “It is our duty to hate these assemblies and
gathering of the heathen, were it only that there the name of God is blasphemed; that there,
every day the shout is raised to set the lion upon us.”169 This a deeply personal argument in
which Tertullian emphatically uses the first person possessive “us” to show how closely the
persecutions cut to the heart of a “true” Christian.
Tertullian directed his second argument about the unholy passions roused by the
games at a slightly different audience, one unmoved by claims of idolatry and the horrors of
martyrdom. He wrote,
We have now established the charge of idolatry, enough of itself to warrant our
abstaining from the shows. But let us go a step further and look at it in another
way, chiefly for the benefit of those who flatter themselves that such abstention is
not definitely prescribed—as if not enough were said about the shows, when the
lusts of the world are condemned.170
Brent D. Shaw, “The Passion of Perpetua,” Past and Present 139 (May 1993): 11.
Ibid, 30.
Ibid, 36-38.
Tertullian, Apology; De Spectaculis, 27.1
Ibid, 14.2.
He aimed this argument at Christians, but also subtly appealed to Roman stoics. In
addition to the allusion to stoic philosophy’s distaste for pleasure and the passion of the
rabble, this second argument had a more lasting resonance for later Christians. The passions
which the spectacles aroused did not change after the Conversion of Constantine. Passionate
factional rivalry, gambling and sexual immodesty remained features of the circus subculture.
Tertullian’s fiery moral arguments were grounded in the tradition of previous writers. He
contributed similar arguments as Seneca or Cicero against to immorality of the crowds at the
circus. Where Tertullian broke new ground was in his second argument, the pagan nature of
the games, and the awful association of the games with the searing martyr experience. This
memory of the martyr experience, vivid and alive in Tertullian’s age, shaped the later
Church. Even after the Church’s ascent to political power, martyrs and their stories were
valued and recalled. Tertullian’s stark reminder of the horrors of the Roman games impressed
later writers, and influenced their opinions on later games. The Christian discourse on
spectacle changed significantly, at least in the West, after Tertullian linked the martyrdom
experience of the early Church to the Roman spectacle subculture, full of sin and thirsty for
Like Tertullian, St. Augustine of Hippo was born and raised a Roman citizen in the
province of North Africa. St. Augustine was born in 354 CE, over a hundred years after
Tertullian’s death. Augustine had a different background from Tertullian, who was a Roman
lawyer and aristocrat. Augustine’s family name was Aurelius, a common one for freedmen
granted citizenship during the Edict of Caracalla in 212 CE. It indicated that Augustine,
although a citizen, was not a member of the elite aristocracy from birth. Despite this
relatively modest station, Augustine raised his social status first by his noted service as a
teacher of rhetoric in Rome and Milan and later as a bishop and theologian in the Church.
Augustine received his education in North Africa, and scholars regard him as a
brilliant rhetorician. According to his autobiography, Confessions, he was fascinated with
pagan philosophy, especially Cicero, and decided to become a Manichaean, a heretical
gnostic Christian group, at a young age. Although raised Christian by his mother, this
decision presented itself to young Augustine in part because of the relatively high level of
religious diversity in the Roman Empire at the time—pagans, Jews, Orthodox Christians and
heretical Christian sects all lived under Roman Imperial rule—and his unique family
situation. His father Patricius was a pagan Roman, while his mother Monica was Christian,
possibly a Berber.171 While a Manichean, Augustine traveled to Rome to work as a
rhetorician. There, he lived as a hedonist, attended the public spectacles, theater and enjoyed
sexual liaisons. 172 Augustine’s later memories of the spectacles were tainted by the fervor of
his distaste for them. He wrote: “I myself, when I was a young man, used sometimes to go to
the sacrilegious entertainments and spectacles; I saw the priest raving in religious excitement,
and heard the choristers; I took pleasure in the shameful games which were celebrated in
honor of gods and goddesses.”173
After discussions with his fervently pious mother and the highly esteemed St.
Ambrose and a dramatic conversion moment, Augustine received baptism in the orthodox
Catholic Church as an adult. After his baptism and renunciation of his former life he
developed a stern, sober morality. Although his baptism changed his attendance habits at the
spectacles, Augustine always maintained his interest in philosophy and rhetoric. In his
Confessions he justified this interest in philosophy, even ancient philosophy, because
“wisdom is close to God, and philosophy is the love of wisdom.”174 Augustine wrote
extensively on many subjects, from theology, blending Platonic thought and Christianity, to
pedestrian sermons condemning bad attendance at ecclesiastical services because of the
Augustine’s world contained many concrete similarities to Tertullian’s; they
inhabited the same region just more than a century apart. Ancient Hippo was approximately
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000),
Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, ed. Paul A. Boer Sr., trans. J. G. Pilkington (Veritatis Splendor
Publications, 2012), Kindle ed., 3.2.2.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God against the Pagans, trans. George E. McCracken, William M.
Green, David S. Wiesen, Philip Levine, Eva Matthews Sanford, William McAllen Green, and William Chase
Green (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 2.4.
Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, 3.4.7-8.
Daniel Van Slyke, "The Devil and His Pomps in Fifth-Century Carthage: Renouncing Spectacula with
Spectacular Imagery," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 59 (2005): 64.
three hundred miles from Carthage by the established roads, and both cities were part of the
same Roman province on the North African coast.176 Augustine even travelled to Carthage as
a young man. Despite this proximity, Augustine and Tertullian had starkly dissimilar cultural
surroundings. Both were Christian Latin theologians, but the specter of the persecutions did
not influence Augustine as it did Tertullian. Tertullian’s Roman Empire was officially pagan,
hostile to Christians and unitary, with a single Emperor ruling. The Christian Church existed
underground. Augustine lived in an era of Christian emperors, a Roman Empire divided
between separate Eastern and Western Empires, and a powerful and politically substantial
Church. Augustine also lived through the pivotal Visigothic sack of Rome in 410. This event
was a blow to the psyche of Roman citizens around the Mediterranean, and many blamed the
new Christian influence for the military failure. Augustine was shaped by this event. Already
a highly influential bishop in 410, he felt the importance of this historic event, and in
response to the sack and its purported Christian association, wrote De Civitate Dei (The City
of God), in which he contrasted the temporal and earthly city of Rome, full of sin and circus,
with the heavenly and eternal City of God, full of peace and love. Despite these cultural
differences, Augustine echoed Tertullian’s arguments about spectacles.
Throughout his many works, Augustine often heaped scorn upon chariot races and
spectacles. In the Confessions, Augustine cured his friend Alypius from “the plague of the
circensian games.”177 In The City of God, Augustine explicitly associated the games with the
sinful and flawed earthly city of Rome. He credited the pagan gods, whom he regarded as
evil spirits and demons, with the perpetuation of the games. He wrote “Know then, you who
are ignorant of this, and you who feign ignorance be reminded, while you murmur against
Him who has freed you from such rulers, that the scenic games exhibitions of shameless folly
and license, were established at Rome, not by men’s vicious craving, but by the appointment
of your gods.”178
This association served a twofold purpose. First, it refuted the idea that pleasurable
sporting entertainments were pursued for their own ends, for any sort of sporting aesthetic, or
Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 5.
Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, 6.7.11-12.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, 2.32.
a natural athletic recreation. Augustine condemned the games as sinful because they “sprang
from sinful pagan fountain,” to borrow Tertullian’s imagery. Second, the association of the
games with the pagan rituals that formerly accompanied them placed the genesis of the
games, and their long tradition of disrepute, in the hands of the pagan rulers, and the demons
who kept the tradition of the spectacles alive. Augustine argued that Rome fell not because of
Christian misrule, but instead because of the vestiges of evil pagan society and perverse
morals still present in Roman society, especially in the spectacles. Augustine lamented the
staying power of the games and other entertainments, beyond the time of the pagan Roman
state, and saw the sack of Rome as a call to repentance. To him, a Christian empire ought not
to include such sinful frivolities, but ought to focus instead upon Christ.
Historian Peter Brown writes about Augustine and his era: “A man open to headlong
change in himself, he [Augustine] was able to register with uncanny sensitivity the changing
climate of the Roman world in the last century of the Western Empire”179 Brown argues that
Augustine’s vast corpus of work represents a central piece to understanding Roman culture
during Late Antiquity. In his biography on Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, Brown
emphasizes the centrality of Augustine’s work, and its vast influence on western civilization.
Furthermore, Augustine’s condemnation of spectacles was an element of Augustine’s desire
for drastic change in the world. Spectacles were a symbol for Roman elites to show
continuity with the glorious past, and as such, Augustine detested them. The wealthy wasted
money on these spectacles, and while Augustine sought a transformation of the Roman
world, and the way wealth was used, he could not condone spectacles. Brown wrote: “There
would be no truce between Augustine and the traditional ways of spending wealth in circusshows. These shows had become a way of showing that the old way of Roman life had
This argument posits a break with the work of Tertullian and Augustine, suggesting
that Augustine had an ulterior motive beyond the simple moral revulsion of Tertullian.
Certainly, as an older man reflecting upon his past, Augustine was revolted by the shows he
Brown, Religion and Society, 9.
Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 199.
enjoyed as a youth, but he also saw these spectacles as an impediment to the change he
sought for the Roman world.
More recent historians have been influenced by Brown’s arguments, taking the study
of Augustine out of strictly ecclesiastical and theological contexts and into a secular
historical context. Daniel Van Slyke’s recent article “The Devil and His Pomps in Fifth
Century Carthage: Renouncing Spectacula with Spectacular Imagery” displays the newfound
emphasis on Augustine in secular history. The ‘devil’s pomps’ were a reference to the
Catholic baptismal ceremony, when the initiate renounced ‘the devil and his pomps,’
essentially rejecting the devil and the attractive temptations that he employed. Augustine and
other bishops applied the term ‘devil’s pomps’ to spectacles, especially chariot racing. This
article focuses upon the relationship between the Church, its flock, and the Christian secular
government, a critical relationship in the culture milieu of Late Antiquity.
In the article, Van Slyke analyzes the grounds for episcopal opposition to spectacles,
which include chariot racing most prominently, and the manner in which the bishops
denounced these spectacles. He argues that Augustine and his North African colleague
Bishop Quodvultdeus—among others—inherited a Christianized pagan tradition of rhetorical
polemics against spectacles, especially from Tertullian.181 Van Slyke goes on to assert that
Augustine accepted both parts of Tertullian’s argument, condemning spectacles on the basis
of their pagan history, and the unholy excitement of passions during spectacles. Augustine
and his contemporaries went further than Tertullian in establishing grounds for condemnation
of spectacles, listing three new arguments against spectacles: “First, the actors in the
spectacles are disreputable characters who should not be imitated and, therefore, should not
be observed. Second, the spectacles incite various vices, from cruelty to levity, in their
viewers. Third, offering such shows entails wasteful and extravagant expenditure.”182 These
new arguments show the cultural tension that existed in the late antique period. The
government and the Church were at odds over spectacles for the attention of the people.
Augustine and his followers accepted wholeheartedly the arguments of the past against
spectacles, despite a drastically different context. Further, Augustine and his contemporaries
Van Slyke, 56.
Ibid, 62.
were so opposed to spectacles that they sought to improve upon the prior arguments against
them. Augustine and other fifth century Church Fathers still perceived the secular spectacles
as a sinful threat to the souls of their flock, in much the same ways Tertullian perceived the
pagan spectacles generations before.
Despite his vehement opposition to the vices of public spectacle, Augustine curiously
employed the imagery of public spectacles in theological metaphors. Augustine, in his
sermons wrote about the struggle for chastity, and compared it to a wrestling match, a manly
image from the pre-Christian literary tradition. Kuefler argues that in establishing a new
Christian version of manliness, the “manliness of the athlete was irresistible for Christian
writers.”183 In order to establish the new manliness of Christianity, writers like Augustine
sought to connect it with the old manliness (or virtus) of pre-Christian Rome. Manly images
like wrestling matches served this purpose well, although Augustine probably would not
have approved of the actual wrestling match. A metaphorical wrestling match of the soul,
however, seems to be a different matter.
Other examples of Augustine’s surprising use of spectacular imagery suggest that he
may have had a more nuanced stance on spectacle entertainments than simple opposition.
Van Slyke notes that “Augustine goes so far as to portray Christ’s passion as a beast fight
like those being offered in the amphitheater.”184 Van Slyke argues that in the struggle to keep
members of the parish invested in the weekly sermons, and to more directly renounce the
common obsession with public spectacles, bishops, including Augustine, regularly used
spectacular imagery to relate Christian truths. In such a way, Augustine and other Christian
writers appear to have had a subtle respect for the performers in public spectacles, while
rejecting the institution as a whole.
Augustine’s great influence continued after his death. Around the Mediterranean,
Augustine’s philosophy and thought inspired lay and ecclesiastical writers throughout Late
Antiquity and into the Middle Ages, especially in the Latinized west. Among those writers,
Isidore of Seville composed an Etymology, attempting to catalogue all the knowledge of the
world. His work echoed many of Augustine’s ideas, particularly in the area of spectacles.
Kuefler, 176.
Van Slyke, 67.
Salvian of Marseille wrote shortly after Augustine, in the Roman province of Gaul.
Salvian was monk who came from an aristocratic Roman family, and received a classical
education. Like Augustine, Salvian was confronted with the reality of a changing world,
where the power of the Roman Imperial government was weakening, and with his theology,
he attempted to make sense of it. First and foremost, Salvian was a moralist. He believed that
the corruption of Christian values was the catalyst which caused the decay of the Roman
state in the West. Further, he saw spectacles as a prime symptom of that moral corruption.
“In the first place, there is almost no crime or vice which is not to be found at the games.
There it is the height of pleasure to see men die, or what is worse and more cruel than death,
to see them torn to shreds.”185 Here, Salvian directly addressed the venationes, and attacked
their content on humanitarian grounds, an approach derived from Tertullian’s argument
against the Christian martyrdom of the games. Although in Salvian’s day Christian
persecution had long since ended, professional fighters engaged with wild animals in the
arena, and criminals were sometimes put to death in that manner.
Salvian expanded his criticism to address more spectacles, beyond the gruesome
venationes, later in the work. “The barbarian peoples were sounding their arms around the
walls of Cirta and Carthage and the Christian population of Carthage still went mad in the
circuses and reveled in the theaters…A portion of the people was captive of the enemy
without the walls and a pation was captive of vice within the walls.”186 In this instance,
Salvian recalls the sin of Carthaginians, who in addition to their lack of martial spirit, were
‘captives of vice’ because of their love for the circus. In the case of chariot racing spectacles,
the Salvian’s interest strayed away from direct accusations of pagan influence—chariot races
may have been too widespread for that. Instead, he grouped chariot racing into a category of
generic vice. Thus, he implied that even if the barbarian hordes were not about to overtake
the city, chariot racing would be sinful, but the attention to chariot racing during a time of
crisis made the situation doubly bad. Compared to Augustine, Salvian brought little new to
Salvian of Marseille, “The Governance of God,” in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation.
Vol. 3, The Writings of Salvian, the Presbyter, trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan (Washington D. C.: Catholic
University of America Press, 1962), 6.2.
Ibid, 6.12.
the chariot racing discourse. Salvian did hold Augustine’s line against chariot racing, while
making rhetorical denunciations about the vices of the games.
Writing in contrast to the established negative discourse, the Gallic bishop Sidonius
was an aristocratic Roman who wrote a few decades after Salvian and Augustine in the late
fifth century. He, unlike the other previously considered writers of this chapter, did not voice
opposition to spectacle or chariot racing. Instead, he wrote favorably of a chariot race in a
poem to his friend Consentius, commemorating a victory of his:
The hoarse roar from applauding partisans stirs the heart, and the contestants, both
horses and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear. Thus they go once
round, then a second time ; thus goes the third lap, thus the fourth; but in the fifth
turn the foremost man, unable to bear the pressure of his pursuers, swerved his car
aside, for he had found, as he gave conmiand to his fleet team, that their strength
was exhausted. Now the return half of the sixth course was completed and the
crowd was already clamouring for the award of the prizes ; your adversaries, with
no fear of any effort from you, were scouring the track in front with never a care,
when suddenly you tautened the curbs all together, tautened your chest, planted
your feet firmly in front, and chafed the mouths of your swift steeds as fiercely as
was the wont of that famed charioteer of old when he swept Oenomaus along with
him and all Pisa trembled. Hereupon one of the others, clinging to the shortest that
all's fair in the circus, rushes up as close as possible to the inside car as it passes
the turning-post, and succeeds in exciting the horses, so that they plunge wildly
and take a crooked course, Consentius watches his opportunity, gains the inside
position, and dashes ahead.187
Thus, Sidonius related the palpable excitement and gory delight of a race in Rome in
his poem to his friend Consentius. Many Late Antique circus fans must have felt the same.
Such a depiction serves to remind readers how exciting a Roman chariot race must have
been. Still, the letter was a personal one, from a bishop to his friend. It is doubtful that it had
much impact on the discourse on spectacle. Certainly, this bishop did not oppose chariot
racing or excoriate his Christian flock for circus attendance, like others did.
Modern scholarship notes this less strident moral tone of Sidonius. Sidonius may
have been more of a Roman nobleman, who happened also to be a bishop, than an energetic
bishop in the style of Augustine or Salvian. R. P. C. Hansen writes, “one gains the
impression that he [Sidonius] consented to become a bishop, not because he perceived that
Sidonius Apollinarus, “To Consentius,” In Poems and Letters, chapter xxiii, trans. W. B. Anderson,
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.), 23,
the future lay with the Church, but because he saw this as the best way in which he could
serve Romanae res.”188 Another historian, Phillip Rousseau, relates an instance when
Sidonius appointed a fellow nobleman, who was not even a cleric, to the local bishopric of a
see within Sidonius’ jurisdiction. About the event, Rousseau remarks, “Such attitudes would
seem to make Sidonius, not so much a characteristic churchman, but rather the typical butt
for the ecclesiastical critics of the time.”189 Taken together with Sidonius’ questionable
reputation as a churchman, his seemingly favorable opinion on spectacle may be more
understandable. His contribution to the literary discourse on spectacle serves as a weak foil
for the prevailing opinion.
There must have been others who felt the same, however, there is little written
evidence that directly takes on the prevailing literary convention of opposition to the games.
Indeed, Livy and Plutarch depicted some games positively in the first century CE (above),
and other early secular authors related the glory and majesty of the spectacles, but few
Christian authors wrote supportively of games.
Less than a century after Sidonius, Isidore of Seville wrote extensively in Visigothic
Iberia. Isidore wrote primarily theological and encyclopedic works. His theology was colored
by his firm stance against heresy, particularly Arianism. By the sixth century, the influential
theologians in the Church no longer feared the scourge of paganism to the same extent as
Tertullian and Augustine, but instead devoted great energies to combating the problem of
heresy. In Iberia, the Visigothic King Reccared converted from Arian Christianity to Catholic
Christianity, at least in part to consolidate his power over his largely Catholic HispanoRoman population, in 589 at the Third Church Council of Toledo. As the bishop of Seville,
Isidore combatted heresy vehemently in his writings, like Augustine and Tertullian before
him. Paganism did not trouble Isidore as it had earlier Church Fathers. Katherine MacFarlane
writes, “Isidore appears to have emerged from his schooling with a great enthusiasm for
learning and a considerable tolerance for pagan culture.”190 In the Etymologies, Isidore
R. P. C. Hansen, “Reaction of the Church to the Collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth
Century,” Vigilae Christianae 26, no. 4 (1972): 279.
Phillip Rousseau, “In Search of Sidonius the Bishop,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 25, no.
3 (1976): 358.
Katherine Nell MacFarlane, “Isidore of Seville on the Pagan Gods (Origines VII.11),” Transactions of
referred to paganism as something that existed in the past, not a present threat. Concerning
the astrological basis for the calendar he wrote, “such indeed was the stupidity of the pagans,
who made up such ridiculous figments for themselves.”191
This casual and dismissive reference to the pagans of the past and their ‘stupid
beliefs’ differed greatly from Augustine’s aggressive condemnation of paganism and
association of all pagan things as demonic, and Tertullian’s vigorous denunciation of pagan
idolatry. Accounting for this difference, Macfarlane writes, “By Isidore's day, the battle
between Christianity and paganism had been brought to a decisive conclusion. He can hardly
have felt that paganism any longer posed a serious threat to the Christian establishment, and
he evinces no great interest in the elaborate refutations of paganism by Augustine and the
other patristic writers.”192
Despite his affinity for pagan literature, astrology, and etymology, Isidore followed
the tradition of previous Church Fathers closely regarding spectacle and condemned pagan
influence in the games. Isidore devoted fifty three entries in the Etymologies to spectacles
and entertainments. He defined spectacle in the first entry, and declared the origins of games
and spectacle evil: “A spectacle in my view is in general a pleasure that corrupts not in itself,
but through those things that are done there…you should take note of the stain of the
spectacles, so that you may not consider as good what took its origin from evil.”193
Isidore proceeded to list different types of spectacle, from footraces to the circus,
displaying a strong knowledge of spectacle, suggesting attendance or some kind of intimate
knowledge with Roman spectacle. Iberia contained no fewer than seven Roman style circuses
from the time of Roman government on the peninsula, and the ruins remain to this day.
Sources do not mention Roman style spectacles in Iberia during this time, but Isidore’s
knowledge of spectacle suggests that they may have existed. Isidore’s circus knowledge
included the fact that the chariot races constituted seven laps, for example. In Constantinople,
and other Byzantine cities of the Eastern Mediterranean chariot racing remained popular
the American Philosophical Society 70, no. 3 (1980): 3.
Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies, 5.30.5.
MacFarlane, 10.
Isidore, The Etymologies, 18.18.1-3.
throughout this period. In contrast to the Visigothic Kings in Iberia, the Byzantines sought to
maintain a cultural connection with the Roman past, and that desire for a clear cultural link
contributed to the perpetuation of the Roman tradition of public spectacle. The Byzantine
Empire’s small colony in southern Iberia may also have been a place where cultural sharing
over spectacle may have taken place, but the extant sources remain quiet about this
possibility. Nevertheless, in Visigothic Iberia Isidore knew enough about spectacles to
categorize and condemn them, but the paucity of evidence casts doubt on popularity of such
spectacles during the seventh century.
In a following entry on circus games, Isidore clearly defined the stain of the
spectacles: “The circus games were established for the sake of sacred rites and celebrations
of the pagan gods; hence, those who watch them are seen to be devoted to demons’ cults.”194
This statement seems to have been pulled directly from Augustine’s fiery rhetoric against the
spectacles. Katherine MacFarlane notes that Isidore “was lacking in critical acumen, and had
an altogether medieval trust in the authority of the written word.”195 This trust in older
writings comes through clearly in his attribution of the circus games to demon cults. Isidore
offered no contemporary evidence about the connection between demon cults and spectacles.
However, based upon the authority of Augustine’s similar statements about demons and
spectacle in The City of God, Isidore condemned the games. Contemporary sources did not
mention problems with Iberian demon cults. Nonetheless, Isidore concluded his entry on
surely these spectacles of cruelty and the attendance at vain shows were
established not only by the vices of humans, but also at the behest of demons.
Therefore Christians should have nothing to do with the madness of the circus, the
immodesty of the theater, the atrocity of the arena, the debauchery of the games.
Indeed, a person who takes up such things denies God, having become an apostate
from the Christian faith, and seeks anew what he renounced in baptism long
bore—namely the devil and his pomps and works.196
Again, Isidore trumpeted Augustine in his arguments against spectacles. Indeed, he
even used a phrase that Augustine favored from the baptismal rite, the ‘devil and his pomps,’
Isidore, The Etymologies, 18.27.1.
MacFarlane, 4
Isidore, The Etymologies, 18.59.1.
to describe the problem of the spectacles. This echoing of the same condemnation of the
spectacles across hundreds of years of time, from Tertullian to Isidore shows the strength of
the moral opposition the Western Christian Church had to spectacle.
The Etymologies did not include an entry on the circus factions, but did include a
reference to the colors that charioteers wore: blue and green. “Charioteers wear two colors,
with which they make a display of their idolatry, for the pagans dedicated the green to the
earth and the blue to the sky and sea.”197 Here Isidore does not precisely echo Tertullian’s
condemnation of the circus factions from On the Public Shows. MacFarlane asserts that
Isidore was familiar with Tertullian and his works,198 so Isidore’s ignorance of the other two
circus factions should not be attributed to an ignorance of On the Public Shows. Further,
Isidore associates the factional colors with pagan idolatry just as Tertullian, but not the same
pagan symbols Tertullian used. Isidore associates the blue with the sea, and the green with
the earth; Tertullian associated blue with autumn and green with spring.199 By Isidore’s time,
the leading circus factions in Constantinople were the blue and green factions. The other two
factions, red and white, were minor factions. In Circus Factions, Alan Cameron writes,
“Apart from a short-lived reform of Domitian, there had always been four factions in the
circuses and hippodromes in the Roman Empire: Reds, Whites, Blues and Greens. But by the
late Empire we hear almost exclusively of Blues and Greens. And not only this: our sources
speak …as though only two colours now existed—Blue and Green.”200 Isidore’s erroneous
characterization of the pagan allusions of the circus factions in fact reflects the reality of the
circus at the time. Isidore’s ignorance of the red and white factions indicated his familiarity
with the spectacles of his age.
Whether or not chariot racing’s popularity in Iberia in the seventh century had waned,
as it probably had, Isidore maintained the Western Church’s centuries old moral position in
condemning the spectacles. He did so in a style that represented the acceptance of prior
writers’ authority and moral rectitude, and echoed the phrases of Augustine and Tertullian.
Isidore, The Etymologies, 18.33.2.
Macfarlane, 7.
Tertullian, Apology; De Spectaculis, 7.4
Alan Cameron, Circus Factions, 45.
By associating chariot racing with the defunct pagan religion, and demon cults, Isidore
demonstrated the inflexibility on popular entertainments, and a desire to accept the teachings
of the past without regard for context.
The denunciation of spectacle by Roman authors had a long history, stretching back
to the Roman republic; early authors like Cicero, Seneca and Juvenal wrote pointedly against
spectacles. By the time Christian authors began to write about Roman culture, the discourse
on spectacle had a clear trajectory. Christian writers on the whole did not alter the discourse’s
negative tone, although some, like Tertullian and Augustine, changed the basis of argument
against spectacle. Despite spectacle’s great popularity among the masses, elite authors
criticized it for the passions it aroused and the effect it had on society. Participants in
spectacle comprised the lowest class of person. Some were even slaves.201 This unique
feature of the relationship between the ruling aristocracy and fans of spectacle created a
spectacle culture in which a charioteer or gladiator could achieve great wealth and popularity,
despite his low social status. Elitism among authors surely colored their perspectives on
In late antiquity, Church Fathers like Tertullian, Augustine and Isidore condemned
spectacles. This condemnation followed similar rhetorical patterns, and even used the same
arguments, despite vastly different contexts. Tertullian lived during the Christian
persecutions of the Late Empire. His opposition to spectacle represents the first enunciation
of the Church’s position. Augustine, writing years later in a largely Christianized Roman
Empire, expounded upon Tertullian’s argument in order to condemn paganism, and effect
radical change in the Western Empire. Isidore, writing years after the fall of the Western
Roman Empire, echoed Augustine’s arguments, nearly word for word. These three authors
all wrote in Latin in the Western Church, but not all in the Church saw eye to eye on
spectacle. The Eastern Church generally acquiesced to spectacle. Twentieth-century historian
Sotiris Giatsis wrote, “Christian authorities such as Basil (330-379 AD), Basil of Selevkia
(c. 468), John Chrysostom (345-438 AD), Augostinus (sic) (354-430 AD), Cassiodorus (490201
Weidemann, 103.
588 AD), and some Church Councils certainly permitted Christians to attend hippodromes,
regarding them not as demonic but recreational.”202 Although these authors may have
acquiesced to the spectacles, this did not imply that these authors held positive opinions of
spectacle. Cassiodorus indeed held to the opinion of the folly of the arena, (as described
above) but acquiesced to spectacle because of its political utility.
Sidonius’ writings oppose the trend of Christian opposition to spectacle and its
subculture. Although a bishop, he enjoyed chariot racing so fully that he was moved to write
a poem describing his excitement at a race. Although his work is unique among Christian
authors for its unabashed excitement in spectacle, the curious use of spectacular imagery
suggests that other patristic Christian writers may have had a level of respect for charioteers
and other manly performers that they did not express directly. Augustine, certainly an
opponent of spectacle, employed spectacular imagery to describe the manly struggle for
chastity, and the spectacular nature of Christ’s passion. Jerome too, used the metaphor of a
charioteer’s prudent management of pace to describe the fasting habits of his beloved friend
Nepotius.203 In the eastern empire, acquiescence to spectacle was the norm, but many
Christians still considered spectacles at least occasions of sin, where sinful behavior occurred
within the circus subculture of sexualized entertainment and magic. The argument that
Eastern Churchmen found the spectacles nothing more than innocent recreation does not fall
in line with the little evidence there is. The Codex Theodosius forbade spectacles on
Sundays; if spectacle were truly innocent recreation, there would be little rationale behind
such a law.204
Christian authors, especially in the West chose to enter the debate over spectacle, and
attempt to change or eliminate the circus subculture with their arguments. Augustine and
other bishops like Isidore of Seville, chose a moral high ground based on the arguments of
Tertullian and condemned the spectacles. With the collapse of the Western Empire, and
economic problems of the fifth century, spectacles seem to have dwindled. In the East, where
Sotiris Giatsis, "The Organization of Chariot Racing in the Great Hippodrome of Byzantine
Constantinople," The International Journal of the History of Sport 17, no. 1 (2000): 43.
Kuefler, 285.
Pharr, 2.8.20.
association with the Roman past was more important to political legitimacy and survival, the
circus existed as a necessary evil. Eastern Christian authors appear to have softer opinions on
the matter of spectacle than their Western brothers. The turbulent political reality of late
antiquity contributed to the ambiguous historical record regarding spectacle. Nonetheless,
spectacle’s popularity and the vulgar circus counter culture continued from Rome eastward
throughout late antiquity, despite the long history of aristocratic distaste for spectacle, and
varying degrees of disapproval.
Roman spectacle, especially chariot racing, developed a popular and vibrant
subculture full of bawdy entertainments, magic and occasional riotous violence. This
subculture existed outside of the normal power structure of Roman society, which was based
on wealth, political influence, class and later Church positions. As such, it was perceived
with suspicion and hostility by many aristocratic authors. A negative literary discourse grew
from this aristocratic suspicion and hostility.
There is a significant body of extant physical evidence from which to determine the
characteristics of the ancient Roman spectacle subculture. First, the archeological reports
from the ruins of the monumental circuses themselves offer an introduction to the massive
scope and formalized structure of the ancient chariot race, and spectacle writ large. Next, the
chariot racing and other spectacle-themed inscriptions and graffiti display some of the regular
seating conventions, and popular perceptions present in the spectacle subculture. The
preeminence of the green and blue chariot racing factions in graffiti from Aphrodisias, a city
with no monumental circus, suggests the widespread appeal, both of chariot racing, and of
the factions as entertainment conglomerates that would have managed actors and mimes
along with the traditionally considered factional charioteers. Circus art, too, reveals
interesting characteristics of the spectacle subculture. Individual charioteers, who were lowclass citizens and often slaves, rose to the lofty status of being immortalized in public art, in
similar fashion to emperors. Emperors even had themselves depicted as leading chariots on
coinage. Magic was clearly associated with the spectacle subculture. Numerous magical
items associated with chariot racing and spectacle survive today. These items vary in
complexity and content, but taken together indicate a professional magical marketplace that
was intimately connected to the spectacle subculture. Charioteers were classified in the law
codes of Justinian and Theodosius as a class of citizen who was associated with magic and
sorcery, which was illegal. Surely, this perception of a charioteer as a friend of sorcerers
must have been widespread. Magical associations, along with class biases and distrust of the
mob, helped to shape the negative discourse about spectacle.
Pre-Christian and secular authors like Polybius and Cicero contributed to the early
discourse on spectacle, and helped to form the literary tradition towards distaste for spectacle
and distrust of the vulgar masses that enjoyed the games. Polybius’ moralizing history
shunned the excesses of Roman spectacle, the influence of the vulgar mob, and the
inappropriate behavior that sometimes occurred at the games. At the same time, he did not
disparage Greek athletic contests, like the Olympic Games, which seemed to have less of a
passive spectator atmosphere, and more of a participatory nature. Cicero was nonplussed by
popular spectacle on a number of levels. He disliked having to fund them, as an aedile. He
found them unentertaining, and associated the persistence of spectacle to the ignorance of the
masses. Cicero’s wide postmortem literary influence surely influenced later authors in
forming their opinions about spectacle.
While spectacles continued and even grew in popularity after the beginning of the
Empire, later authors continued the discourse on spectacle. Livy included depictions of many
spectacles and triumphs in his history, and was not a deliberate critic of spectacle. He did
however, include a chariot race in his version of the mythic Rape of the Sabines. Spectacle
served as Nero’s tutor and stoic philosopher Seneca was an articulate critic of spectacle. He
clearly asserted that the crowds at the spectacles were a polluting influence on the soul. Thus,
he did not seem to take issue with the actual games, whether they were chariot racing or
gladiatorial matches, but instead with the vulgar masses gathered together to watch the
games. Writing shortly after Seneca, authors Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch disparaged
emperors, especially Nero, Claudius and Caligula, by associating these emperors with love of
spectacles like chariot racing or gladiatorial matches. Certainly, these authors were
significantly different in style and emphasis, and all three had other criticisms of emperors.
Nonetheless, all three used love of spectacle as evidence of pandering and moral degradation
in emperors. This literary convention of spectacle invective grew out of the traditional
negative discourse about spectacle.
Despite different political and social contexts, late antique authors joined the negative
discourse on spectacle with stark denunciations of spectacle in the tradition of their
forbearers. In the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus deliberately insulted the vulgar
denizens of Rome as little more than mouth-breathing, drunken, circus-obsessed simpletons.
In the sixth century, Procopius of Caesaria accused the circus factions of child rape and
blamed the near collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire on Emperor Justinian’s association
with the factions. In his demonizing invective, Procopius also explicitly associated Justinian
and Theodora with circus magic in an attempt to make the imperial couple appear both
common and demonic. Other authors were not as passionate in their disdain for the circus.
Cassiodorus, who later became a Christian monk, but who ghostwrote letters for King
Theodoric, referred to the chariot racing spectacles of Ostrogothic Italy as popular folly, but
acquiesced to the practice because of its political utility.
Christian writers too contributed to the discourse on spectacle, and the contributions
often took a negative tone. Tertullian famously denounced spectacles as sinful in his second
century treatise On the Public Shows. Tertullian lived while Christian martyrs were still
being put to death in public shows. Tertullian may have even edited a famous martyr
autobiography from Perpetua, an early Christian woman martyr from North Africa.
Tertullian’s arguments against the public spectacles were therefore passionate, but he
organized them rationally as well. His first argument was against the pagan origins of the
games. This argument can be seen as a new Christian line of attack in the spectacle discourse.
His second argument was against the unholy passions aroused during the games, hearkening
back to Seneca’s argument against the games. This second argument shows a link between
the Christian authors and their predecessors, with respect to spectacle criticism and
denunciation. The link between the Christian arguments against spectacle to Seneca’s, also
implies a subtle connection to the inherent elitism that Seneca espoused. Augustine of Hippo,
writing in the fourth century, improved upon Tertullian’s arguments against public spectacle,
calling the games idolatrous and blaming the lazy, spectacle-loving culture of pagan Rome
for the military sack of Rome in 410 CE. Augustine’s work, like Cicero’s before him, was
highly influential around the Latin-speaking world. His strong denunciation of public
spectacle surely held weight with Christian moralists in the west.
Later Christian critics of spectacle tended to echo Augustine’s arguments, although
the Church writ large never explicitly forbade spectacle attendance. The Theodosian Code
did outlaw public spectacles on Sundays, a curious development that offers a clue to the
morally ambiguous place that spectacles and the raucous subculture associated with it held in
the Christian Roman Empire. Individual bishops set the tone for their flocks regarding
spectacle. The bishop Salvian of Marseille wrote vehemently against spectacle in the fifth
century, using similar lines of argument as Augustine. Conversely, Sidonius of Apollinarus,
another fifth-century Gallic bishop celebrated in a letter to his friend the great joy he
experienced at a chariot race. Barring bold-faced hypocrisy from Sidonius, chariot racing
spectacles must have been acceptable entertainment for Christians in Sidonius’ bishopric.
Sidonius seems to be the exception to the rule in Christian authors’ opinions on spectacle.
Isidore of Seville, an early seventh-century Iberian bishop wrote dismissively about spectacle
entertainments in his Etymologies. In all, he echoed the crux of Augustine’s arguments, and
declared the games sinful pagan entertainments.
From the complaints and criticisms of these aristocratic authors, today much can be
learned about Roman culture. The spectacle subculture, with its shadowy, magical overtures
provides a clue as to how seriously the populous and the participants took their spectacles.
The professional collection of magical materials is testament to the complexity and
sophistication of the sorcerer’s craft. Beyond that, the sorcerer was a shadowy figure, who
brought more suspicion and scorn upon the spectacle subculture. Aristocratic authors must
have felt threatened by the mysterious power of the sorcerer. Their power structure, whether
religious or not, was undermined by the magic that a sorcerer brought to bear. The circus
represented some of their worst fears: the uncontrolled will of the people, a toppling of the
social order, and magical uncertainties.
The discourse perpetuated over hundreds of years, but it did not serve to destroy the
institution of spectacle. Over time, spectacle changed. Gladiatorial bouts faded after the fifth
century or so. Greek style Olympic Games disappeared shortly after. The circus factions took
greater and greater control over the management of entertainment. Still, the aristocratic
authors bemoaned the folly of the spectacle. Spectacle provided the Roman populous with
entertainment, to be sure. It also provided the populous with power. First, the assembled
populous learned to act as one, following the chants and exhortations of the claques. Even
emperors felt the duty to respond to their chanting crowds. Beyond the power of their
combined voice, an assembled crowd could be a real threat. The Nika Revolt of 532 nearly
toppled Justinian. Still, the institution of spectacle continued, after a short hiatus.
Ancient Romans both loved and despised public spectacle. From the city’s founding
through the many changes and tribulations of republic, empire, and conversion, chariot
racing and spectacle remained integral parts of Roman culture. There must have been
something truly special to a Roman about the gathering together as a community to cheer at a
race. NASCAR today may make a fair comparison to chariot racing: Enormous, raucous
crowds gathered together to watch a single man attempt to control too much horsepower on a
180 degree left turn. And like today’s NASCAR, there was a class element to the races.
Many upper class Romans despised the spectacle, the crowds and the folly of it all. Critics
perceived spectacle as a grand distraction from the more important concerns of life, whether
politics to Cicero, or religion to Augustine. There must have been plenty of unnamed men
and women who loved the distraction of chariot racing and spectacle. The glory of victory
must have been intoxicating: the lowly charioteers or other performers transformed
themselves from slaves to heroes in front of the eyes of the entire city. A victorious
charioteer must have been a sight, waving a palm frond of victory to an adoring crowd in the
waning sunlight. That transformation from lowly charioteer to adored hero must have
inspired the crowd to thoughts of release from the daily cares of the world.
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