Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.07

Frank Bernstein, Ludi publici: Untersuchungen zur Entstehung und Entwicklung der öffentlichen Spiele im republikanischen Rom. Historia Einzelschrift 119.   HistoriaEinzelschriften 119. Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 408.  ISBN 3-515-07301-9 (pb).  DM 148.  

Reviewed by David Potter, The University of Michigan (
Word count: 2745 words

The general outline of the history of ludi publici at Rome is familiar enough. The earliest were instituted in the regal period, the most important being the ludi maximi in honor of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and the ludi votivi of individual generals, recorded by the tradition as early as 491 BC. In the third century new ludi were instituted either by reforming existing festivals (as was the case with the ludi Ceriales and Florales) or created anew (the Apollinares and the Megalenses). In the first century, Sulla and Caesar, by instituting new ludi that linked themselves with Victoria, transformed ludi into vehicles for personal propaganda. In general terms ludi publici were festivals instituted by the state (a senatus consultum appears to be a prerequisite in the sources) and presided over by magistrates. In the earliest period they included a procession and horse races; theatrical events were added in the third century (though some would prefer to have them in the fourth). So much for the general outline. Ludi publici were central venues of public life, and we have perhaps been too willing to accept this general outline without exploring the possibility that the evolution of the games offers a paradigm for the evolution of the Roman state. The centrality of the ludi to the evolution of Rome is the point of departure for B.'s intelligent and important book.

B. begins with the regal period, establishing that the ludi maximi/Romani were founded by the later kings of Rome, probably in connection with the building of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.1 With the end of the regal period, the presidency of the games passed to the chief magistrates of the Republic who also inherited responsibility for funding them.

Beyond the ludi maximi, the history of early Republican ludi is fraught with peril. In B.'s view accounts of ludi other than the ludi maximi are all retrojections of third-century practice. Key passages are those from Livy, Cicero and Dionysius recording the instauratio of Postumius' ludi votivi after Lake Regillus. The ultimate source for all three is Fabius Pictor, whom Dionysius quotes as saying that the organization of the games remained as they were established by Postumius μέχρι τοῦ Φοινικικοῦ πολέμου (Ant. 7.71.2). B. notes that the Fabian tradition was not unchallenged in antiquity -- Varro connects this instauratio with the lex Maenia de die instauraticio in what looks like a polemic against Fabius, giving the date as 280 BC (Macrob. Sat. 1.11.3-5) -- and argues that Fabius' statement, as reported by Dionysius, is direct evidence for the retrojection of third-century practices into the distant past. B. supports this claim by pointing to the lack of evidence that the senate could order an instauratio before the end of the fourth century (p. 91-3). A lot hangs on this point. The ludi Ceriales are separated from the dedication of the temple of Ceres by Postumius in 496, and the earlier Cerialia, to be placed firmly in 220 or 219. The ludi plebei are removed from the context of the Licinian/Sextilian reforms of 367 and returned to their traditional date of 220 or 216, as an effort at social reconciliation in the lead up to the Hannibalic war (suggestions that they were a feature of the anti-senatorial politics of Flaminius are firmly rejected on p. 161).2 The addition of ludi scaenici to the ludi maximi in the 360s, the only place left for them to go in B.'s scheme, are said to reflect the influence of Greek-style contests even if their content was thoroughly Italian (p. 234-35). All other ludi votivi recorded by Livy and Dionysius are rejected as further Fabian inventions or retrojections. The habit of offering such games is brought down to the end of the fourth century (in the context of the lex Papiria de dedicatione templi araeve of 304) (p. 113-114). The notion that they were held earlier is simply a reflection of displays of booty by victorious generals that were reinterpreted as ludi votivi in the later tradition. The ludi votivi de certa pecunia, celebrated eight times prior to 200 BC according to Livy, are all to be seen as third century events.

If B.'s approach to the history of the ludi is accepted, this entails serious consequences for much of the most interesting recent work on the early Republic. Ludi, as B. reasonably argues (p. 111) are the sort of "structural elements" from the narrative of the fifth and fourth centuries that the tradition should have retained correctly. The history of the early Republic is, for B., so thoroughly reshaped to meet the demands of the aristocracy of the third century that much of the institutional framework of that history is a fiction. B.'s reassertion of the radical approach to the subject will not be to everyone's taste, and it is fair to say that his case depends very heavily upon the a priori assumption that since Fabius can be shown to be making things up at one point, there is little reason to think that he did not do so systematically. Such an argument is little more convincing in its extreme form (and to some it may be a great deal less convincing) than the a priori assumption that the outline of the tradition is correct. At some points it is reasonable to question if all the errors that B. finds are in fact errors. His list of ludi votivi de certa pecunia on p. 143 includes the ludi reported by Livy for 431, 396 and 360. These games are indeed described according to the later formula for ludi votivi, but there is no reference to money.3 It might thus be possible to argue that B. is correct that the addition of a specific sum of money to the vow is a third-century development, but that the habit of vowing ludi is in fact earlier. Vows de certa pecunia are difficult to envisage prior to a Roman currency, but this does not mean that other vows were impossible. It may not be unreasonable to see a late fourth or early third century change in the way of offering these games as a feature of the overall restructuring of Roman political institutions that appears to be a feature of this period, and, as B. argues, a change in the outlook of the emergent nobilitas (p. 230-34).

B.'s reconstuction is problematic for T.P. Wiseman's elevation of fourth century Roman drama as a source of early Roman historiography. There being no ludi plebei in the fourth century there is little room for plays about Remus to help form the tradition, and even then the plays that were put on were not, on B.'s model, of a sort to allow representation of historical or mythological events.4 B. agrees with Tenny Frank in placing a change of Roman taste in the aftermath of the wars of the first part of the third century that saw large numbers of Roman troops engaged in South Italy and Sicily, where they acquired an interest in forms of drama that were more elaborate than the mimes and farces that had come to Rome from the central Italian tradition. It is possible to object that while B. stresses the philhellenic tastes of Roman aristocrats in changing the ludi in the fourth century, his view that they could not go so far as to introduce anything more elaborate and hellenic than Italic mime is too conservative. Even so, it must be admitted that B. argues with considerable skill and formidable learning. His views on these points must be taken seriously.

The third century is, for B., the period of great development in the history of the games. Crowns were introduced on the Greek model in 292 BC (Livy 10.47.3). The first explicit importation of Greek rites is, according to his scheme, to be found in the context of the ludi Tarentini of 249 BC. The ludi of 249 were authorized by a Sibylline oracle that authorized the transformation of a "gentile" cult of the Valerii into a state celebration. The Sibylline instruction that the rites be repeated after 100 years led to confusion with ludi saeculares and the development of a bogus tradition connecting the ludi saeculares with the Valerii. What linked the cult of the Valerii with the oracle of the Sibyl was simply a connection with Dis Pater and Proserpina. The reason for the consultation of the Sibylline oracles was provided by the string of disasters that befell Rome in the war with Carthage during 249. The model established here was employed again in the context of the war with Hannibal.

It is the Hannibalic war that, for B., marks the great transformation of the ludi. As we have seen, the foundation of the ludi plebei is placed in November 220, and the transformation of the Cerialia into the ludi Ceriales occurs on April 19, 220 or 219. The transformation of the Cerialia is a parallel process to that connected with the ludi Tarentini, where an existing cult is transformed through the addition of Greek rites. The same process will be evident in the creation of the annual ludi Apollinares of 208 and the transformation of the Floralia into the ludi Florales in 171 (the result of a Sibylline consultation during a pestilence). The processions connected with these festivals now evoke the grand procession of the Greek world, events like the grand procession of Ptolemy II, all the more closely (p. 253-54).

The fourth chapter, in which B. analyses the transformation of the Roman aristocracy, is the most important. The new style of these games reflects the interests of the emergent class of nobiles as the leaders of the Roman state (p. 227-8). As B. correctly sees, the status of the nobilis is defined by virtus, honos and dignitas, its virtues are laus, gloria, fides and auctoritas (p. 232). The philhellenic interests of members of the new nobilitas, as B. notes, may be traced to the later third century (Appius Claudius Caecus is attested as having quoted a line from Philemon [p. 232]). But it took time before these new interests emerged in the festival cycle, and B. is conscious of the fact that there were other venues for self advertisement such as public funerals, and, by the third century, ludi votivi. Long gone is the notion that Rome only became familiar with things Greek in the second century. The seeds of Roman philhellenism were planted before 300. B.'s model of growth is more sophisticated than many, for he allows that cultural development is an organic process. Latin literature does not spring up overnight, it requires an audience, it requires educated patrons (though as I suggested above his organic process may take longer than the logic of his case compels). For B. it also requires an interest in communicating with the Greek world beyond Italy. B. supports the picture drawn by Gruen and others of a formulation of the Trojan legend that is more than simply an adaptation of a Greek story, but rather a story that is elaborated at Rome as a way of claiming a place in the broader Mediterranean -- a feature of the mythological diplomacy that has been dealt with so very well by Curty in his recent collection of the relevant documents.5 In particular, B. draws attention to the interpretation of the sacrifice of the October horse as having to do with the fall of Troy, offered by Timaeus, ridiculed by Polybius, and accepted by Verrius Flaccus (239-41). Even more significant is his observation that early Roman drama showed a distinct preference for plays on themes associated with the Argives and the Trojan war (p. 242-43). While it is fair to say that many individual points have been anticipated by others, the cumulative impact is truly impressive.

While the new style of celebration mirrors the cultural evolution of Rome, B. notes that it is more than a statement of the virtues of a class. Such celebrations also give a chance for individuals to stake out unique positions for themselves, and we see here the beginnings of the competitive fervor that will characterize the last century of the Republic (p. 268-82). Still, B. thinks that these were controlled by the need for senatorial sanction, even if the standards for awarding ludi began to decline from the safety of the state to the honor of the magistrate. A sense of responsibility, B. feels, was inculcated at an earlier stage of a man's career by the fact that the regular ludi publici were administered by boards of magistrates under the supervision of the senate (whose authority is amply demonstrated by the record of instaurationes) (p. 282-91).

As the repertoire of the ludi expanded, so did the urban geography of entertainment. The early ludi, with their horse and chariot races were in the vallis Murcia, but where were the temporary theaters for the scenic displays? We are told that the censor M. Aemilius Lepidus allowed the construction of a theatrum et proscaenium ad Apollinis for the ludi Apollinares in 179 (Livy 40.51.3), and that a theater for the Megalenses was on the Palatine in sight of the temple of the Magna Mater (Vel. Pat. 1.15.3). The connection between theaters and temples, which may be seen to culminate in the construction of Pompey's theater (technically a temple), may thus go back to an early point in the history of Roman drama. With the expansion of the games there was also a great increase in the business side of things. We have not only the guilds of actors and playwrights, but also the mass of people to be employed in the construction of theaters, the importation of beasts, the hunting of beasts, the circus factions and so forth. B. worries, perhaps rather too much, about whether the business aspect occluded the religious before coming down hard to stress that the magistrate in charge of the games was performing an act of cult, even in the late Republic (p. 308). Perhaps a more interesting question is the way that new relationships were formed between the organizations that provided the wherewithal for the ludi and the annual magistrates who had to deal with them. There are many independent contractors, and B.'s interest in the role of the aristocracy perhaps places these contractors too far in the background. As Brutus found to his dismay, he had to make do with Accius' Tereus rather than the Brutus that he wanted for his ludi in 44 BC (Ad Att. 16.5.1). Lebek's recent study of the profits to be made on the stage stands as an important reminder that the business of the games created a class of wealthy and potentially independent individuals with whom the person putting on ludi had to deal.6

In the final chapter B. turns to the transformation of traditional ludi under Sulla and Caesar. The ludi Victoriae Sullanae were, as B. rightly observes, connected with the old tradition of ludi in that they were technically ludi that honored a divinity (Victoria) but they represent a transformation of the system as this divinity is personalized as the victoria of Sulla. The celebration of Victoria on November 1 reflects public acceptance of Sulla's restoration of the Republic, though as B. shows the specific connection with Sulla evokes the celebration of individuals in the Greek world as well as earlier traditions. One point that might attract more attention is that the games continued to be celebrated into the principate as the ludi Victoriae, even though Velleius specifically calls them the ludi Victoriae Sullanae (2.27.6). We do not know when the name of the dictator was separated from that of the ludi that he instituted. The possibility of connecting oneself with Victoria was plainly not lost on the next generation as Pompey's theater was, of course, a feature of his temple to Venus Victrix, and Caesar took the whole business to a new level with the ludi Victoriae Caesaris in 45, placing a statue of himself and emblems of his power in the pompa circensis. Between them, Caesar and Sulla laid the foundation for the ludi of the principate.

B. is widely read and remarkably well informed, and I hope that this review has suggested something of the many important points to be found in his book. Whatever one thinks of B.'s opinions on individual issues, this is a important book, and one that must be read by anyone interested in the cultural history of the Roman Republic.


1.   He does not treat the Equirria or the Consualia (though see his article in Hermes 125 (1997), 413-36 for the latter).
2.   G. Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer (Munich, 1912), 454 (220 or 216) with E. Habel, "Ludi Publici," RE Suppl. V (1931), 620-21.
3.   Liv. 4.27.1: dictator, praeeunte A Cornelio pontifice maximo, ludos magnos tumultus causa vovit; Liv. 5.19.2: ludos magnos ex senatus consulto vovit captis se facturum aedemque Matutae Matris refectam dedicaturum, iam ante ab rege Ser. Tullio dedicatam; Liv. 7.11.4: creatus Q. Servilius Ahala T. Quinctium magistrum equitum dixit et ex auctoritate patrum si prospere id bellum evenisset, ludos magnos vovit.
4.   See already the important critique of H. Flower, "Fabulae Praetextatae in Context: when were plays on contemporary subjects performed in republican Rome," CQ 45 (1995), 170-90, arguing that praetextatae on contemporary themes were written for specific performances at special events -- like ludi magni votivi.
5.   See e.g. E. Gruen, Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy (Leiden, 1990), 11-15.
6.   W.D. Lebek, "Moneymaking on the Roman Stage" in W.J. Slater ed., Roman Theater and Society (Ann Arbor, 1996), 29-48.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:18, Friday, 03 April 2009