Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.11

Kathleen Coleman, Jocelyne Nelis-Clément (ed.), L’organisation des spectacles dans le monde romain. Entretiens sur l’Antiquité classique, 58.   Vandœuvres; Genève:  Fondation Hardt, 2012.  Pp. xxvii, 372.  ISBN 9782600007580.  €90.95.  

Reviewed by Valentina Di Napoli, Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece (

Pierre Ducrey, Director of the von Hardt Foundation and author of the preface to the present volume, brings us back to the first Entretiens, which took place in Vandœuvres in 1952. On that occasion, Baron Kurd von Hardt, the Maecenas of the Foundation, announced that he sought to gather annually scholars from different places, in order to foster debate about topics related to a shared Western heritage, to Classics, and to the classical tradition. Fifty- eight years later, in August 2011, Kathleen Coleman and Jocelyne Nelis-Clément chaired a meeting of eight scholars coming from seven different countries. The papers of the conference, written in English, French, German, and Italian, have been published in the following year, as usual. For the first time in the history of the Entretiens, sixteen b/w plates appear at the end of the volume. The topic examined at the meeting, the organization of spectacles in the Roman world, may seem a well-explored one. Recent works have dealt with some fundamental aspects concerning the organization of spectacles and festivals, as the editors remind us in their long and detailed introduction (pp. XI-XXVII). Crucial issues for the financing of spectacles, such as the emperor’s response, euergetism, and the role played by civic benefactors, have all been previously examined. Yet many details about the organization and financing of games and festivals still remain unexplored, and the goal of the fifty-eighth meeting in Vandœuvres was to shed light on some of these topics.

Johannes Nollé (pp. 1-39) examines the coinage of the Greek Orient in order to confirm or reject Louis Robert’s famous remark about “agonistic explosion” in the cities of the Roman Greek East. His analysis concludes that only a relatively small number of cities − about one fifth of the total − minted coins bearing agonistic scenes. Such images appear on coins only at a late date, namely towards the end of the 2nd century CE and until the end of Gallienus’ reign. This result provides an important correction of the communis opinio, which usually relies on the numismatic record only. In fact, other media (from inscriptions to statues, monuments, papyri, and literary sources) confirm a vibrant agonistic activity during the imperial period. As the author himself stresses, coins reflect privilege and honours bestowed on the cities much more than a real agonistic identity.

The paper by Onno van Nijf (pp. 47-95) deals with the political relevance of contests and spectacles which flourished in the Roman East. Their impact on civic life is examined in the wider context of their political meaning, and their spectacular rise in the imperial period is interpreted as a political phenomenon. The strong tendency to merge athletics and political representations is one of the main features which can be observed in this process. Drawing on the work of Michael Chwe, van Nijf uses the concept of “rational ritual” in order to shed light on the games, which, he argues, served to foster civic identity by creating a “shared knowledge” and had therefore a clear political dimension. The settings of such games, that is, stadia and theatres, are seen as “inward-facing circles” which reflect the city’s hierarchy. Furthermore, festivals allowed Greek cities to become part of a large network and provided a link not only between the cities themselves, but also to Rome. This network was maintained by the mobility of specialists, namely official observers, performers, and athletes.

Christina Kokkinia (pp. 97-124) discusses the issue of euergetic choices, in particular the reasons that could have contributed to a benefactor’s preference between the alternatives of games and buildings. This decision was likely to have depended primarily on local conditions and private circumstances, on practical considerations, and on strategies of commemoration. Kokkinia suggests some new readings of Antoninus Pius’ letter to the Ephesians (IK. Ephesos 1491), in which the emperor stated his preference for buildings over spectacles. This document must have been a much more general statement than is usually assumed. Drawing on examples from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the author suggests conclusions which may be applicable to the whole Empire in the first three centuries CE.

The contribution by Maria Letizia Caldelli (pp. 131-166) brings the reader to Rome. The author explores epigraphical attestations of the Dionysiac synodos in Rome, as well as the ways in which this association was introduced into the capital of the Empire. This pursuit leads to wider considerations of other associations linked to the world of the theatre, including their location within the urban fabric, their eventual relationships to the buildings for spectacles in the Campus Martius (which must have been a sort of “theatre district”), and the creation of infrastructures aimed at hosting famous professionals travelling through the whole Empire. The Augustan age represents a crucial moment in which the multifaceted character of the Republican period develops a stronger uniformity.

Jean-Paul Thuillier (pp. 173-213) deals with the organization of the ludi circenses, which are compared to modern football matches; he firmly rejects a Greek pattern for their origin. After examining professionals such as the agitator and the auriga, the author traces the origins of circus factions. These were labelled according to colours related to the four regions of Republican Rome and likely became structured organizations only during the time of Agrippa. Circus factions played a central role on the occasion of certamina sacra; the fact that they could form alliances was a common and probably permanent phenomenon. The famous list of victories by Diocles, who won 1462 times as the representative of three different factions, is analyzed in detail. Finally, Thuillier stresses the uncertain financial aspects related to the organization of circus factions and the distribution of money prizes.

Ruth Webb (pp. 221-256) examines the nature and representation of competitions in mime and pantomime. From the end of the 2nd century AD, the concepts of competition and victory played a crucial role in pantomime (and, to a lesser extent, mime). Epigraphical studies have allowed great progress in our knowledge of the introduction of pantomime into agonistic festivals celebrated in the eastern Empire. The author takes into account literary and epigraphical sources, as well as archaeological records and papyri, in order to analyze pantomime and mime competitions in the broader chronological and geographical context of the whole Empire. As a result, she suggests that pantomime already had a competitive character from its beginning in Augustan Rome. The idea of competition and victory was strictly connected to pantomime (and, albeit on a smaller scale, to mime) until Late Antiquity, in spite of important transformations in the organization of spectacles. The analysis of the above-mentioned sources leads the author not only to identify different possible types of competitions, but also to suggest that such competitions implied different kinds of relationships between performers and the public and between organizers and artists. Pantomime represents therefore a special case study, in which the involvement of the audience and the focus on the performer reduced the patron’s control over the spectacle.

The paper by Guy Chamberland (pp. 261-294) is centered on the commemoration of spectacles and the self- representation of donors. His analysis is based on an impressive corpus of about 500 Latin inscriptions concerning not only the organization of spectacles in the cities of the Roman West, but also the officials who offered the spectacles, such as munerarii and curatores muneris publici. These documents reveal important details about the occasions on which spectacles were held and sometimes inform us about the program or the cost of the spectacle, too. Inscribing on stone euergetic acts had a precise meaning and purpose. Those who erected or restored public buildings usually declared with pride that spectacles had been held on the occasion of the dedication of the monuments and that the whole civic community (indicated by populus on inscriptions or a crowd of seated spectators in visual records) had been invited. For wealthy people who maintained a modest status due to their origins, the organization of spectacles represented a good way to obtain social recognition. For its part, the civic community could address requests to the benefactors on the occasion of spectacles, something which is expressed on inscriptions with the formula postulante populo.

Finally, the paper by Christopher Jones (pp. 305-328) deals with the vast topic of the organization of spectacles in Late Antiquity. The combined study of literary sources and iconographic testimonia shows that the decade of the 390s CE was crucial to the process of the Christianization of the Roman Empire. During the following centuries, many dramatic changes took place in the organization of spectacles. Gladiatorial combats, staged hunts, chariot races, mime, and pantomime are analyzed as they evolved between 400 and 600 CE, in both the western and the eastern areas of the Empire. Furthermore, new forms of spectacle in this period are taken into account, such as the baptism of heirs to the imperial throne or public exhibitions of malefactors. Jones concludes that economic factors (albeit to a limited extent, as economic change did not move at the same speed everywhere) and, primarily, the effect of Christianity are responsible for the changes.

This elegant volume is flawless; editing was so accurate that I could find only a couple of typos. Furthermore, the book is provided with five indexes which are of great help to the reader. Evidence is always used with a critical approach, and numerous examples are put forward in order to support the authors’ views. The fact that each paper is followed by the discussion which took place at the end of it provides not only a vivid report of the days of the meeting, but also suggests fresh ideas and new approaches to the topic. The geographical area covered by the eight contributions is as vast (both the eastern and the western Empire) as their chronological span. This broad context, together with the fact that many types of spectacles were taken into account, allowed the participants to confront specialists in similar fields.

Critical approaches to the world of spectacles and festivals have differed greatly over time, reflecting each period’s priorities and trends in research. For instance, the range of performers, the spectators and their reception of performances, and spectacle buildings interest contemporary scholars. The edition of new corpora of sources, but also findings such as the letters of Hadrian from Alexandria Troas or the gladiatorial cemetery identified in Ephesus, which provided significant forensic information, show how new elements can reshape the field.1 Economic and financial aspects, such as the costs of spectacles or the effects of spectacles on local economies, have been partially examined by many authors, even if much work still needs to be done on this topic. Spectacle was omnipresent in the Roman world; nonetheless, many details about the organization of spectacles remain extremely obscure. If, as stated in the introduction, the main purpose of the present volume was to shed light on at least some of those details, this goal has been fully achieved.


1.   G. Petzl and E. Schwertheim, Hadrian und die dionysischen Künstler. Drei in Alexandria Troas neugefundene Briefe des Kaisers an die Künstler-Vereinigung, Bonn 2006; F. Kanz and K. Grossschmidt, ‛Dying in the Arena. The Osseous Evidence from Ephesian Gladiators’, in: T. Wilmott (ed.), Roman Amphitheatres and Spectacula. A 21th-Century Perspective. Papers from an International Conference Held at Chester, February 2007, Oxford 2009, 211-220.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010