Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.42

Garrett G. Fagan, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xi, 362.  ISBN 9780521185967.  $35.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kyle Gervais, University of Otago (


When I began to pay serious attention to research on the Roman arena a decade ago, I quickly despaired of finding a satisfactory answer to an important question: “Why did they go and watch?”1 What drove the Romans to the games? Garrett Fagan explains the reason for this gap in the scholarship early in his trailblazing The Lure of the Arena: previous studies focussed on the cultural function(s) of the Roman arena, which means that their explanations of the games’ appeal “are both subliminal and historically localized” (8). That is, they explain neither what Roman spectators were consciously thinking and feeling as they watched the slaughter on the sands, nor how those experiences were connected to the thoughts and feelings of spectators of violence in other times and places, including our own. Fagan’s approach — which, importantly, does not deny the validity of previous cultural studies (9) — uses social psychology2 to show that Romans were drawn to the games by powerful psychological forces that are neither unique to their historical milieu nor unintelligible to a modern audience. He leaves the corollary largely unstated (but cf. pp. 230-1): if suddenly transplanted to the Coliseum in its heyday, many of us would require only some cultural acclimatisation before we too would begin to cheer for death.

Fagan sets a difficult task for himself: applying a body of scientific research, whose breadth and complexities would challenge any Classicist, to a body of ancient evidence whose gaps and biases would challenge any psychologist. With few exceptions, he succeeds brilliantly, arguing his point with clarity and panache, a comprehensive grasp of the ancient sources and modern scholarship (both Classical and social psychological), and an always sensible approach to the difficulties of his material. After a brief introduction (1-12) outlining the goals of his project and the aforementioned difficulties, Fagan offers two preliminary but important chapters. The first (13-48) gives a useful and balanced evaluation of modern scholarship on the arena, then an overview of the cultural factors specific to Rome which influenced the universal psychological processes discussed in the rest of the book, and finally a persuasive and nuanced defence of the proposition (intuitively correct, in my mind) that humans of all cultures and times share a fundamental psychological makeup. The second chapter (49-79) surveys the popularity of violent spectacles in cultures and time periods ranging from Early Dynastic Mesopotamia to the Chinese T’ang Dynasty to lynchings in the American south to modern-day Mixed Martial Arts. The focus is on executions in early modern Europe, and the survey does not extend to fictional violent entertainment (film, video games, etc.). But Fagan makes his point: spectacular violence can be found throughout history, and explanations of the Roman arena that rely on historically specific factors only tell half the story.

Following these lively and informative chapters, the next two chapters (80-120, 120-54) are a little disappointing. Fagan’s central contention is convincing, that arena spectator behaviour is influenced by group processes, most fundamentally, organisation according to group memberships: Roman vs. barbarian, slave vs. freeborn, senator vs. knight, and of course spectator vs. performer (“the most basic and pervasive element of the arena spectators’ psychology” [141]). Also welcome is his refutation of an idea rooted in century-old theory, that individual spectators in the arena lost their identities to the collective mind of a savage mob: on the contrary, ingroup cohesion led to an amplification of individual identities. But the bulk of these two chapters comprises long, dry surveys of ancient evidence for spectator demographics and behaviour. It is of course crucially important to know who went to the games and how they acted, but readers primarily interested in Fagan’s innovative social psychological approach might be forgiven for skimming these forty five pages of evidence gathering (96-140). The chapters end with an excellent demonstration of what the study of group processes offers to Classics: an explanation of why Roman theatre crowds often rioted but arena crowds did not (141-54).

The last three chapters are Fagan’s most exciting contribution to scholarship on the Roman games. The first (155-88) focusses on the prejudice felt by spectators against the condemned in the arena, an oft-acknowledged phenomenon, but never before so carefully examined. Beginning with a review of social psychological research on the factors that encourage prejudice, Fagan then highlights the operation of these factors in Roman society at large before focussing specifically on the arena, where what emerges as most important is the perceived legitimacy of victims: those dying in the arena must “deserve” it. Fagan’s primary concern here is the midday executions, the most easily understood (if most repugnant) phase of the games.

The next chapter (189-229) turns to the more complex question of the attraction of gladiators, and offers a welcome, sensible antidote to the overelaborate approaches sometimes found in the scholarship:3 as Fagan explains, gladiatorial spectacles, like modern sporting events, were simply exciting. Fagan’s invocation of sports and “excitement” is not naïve: after first convincingly demonstrating that the psychology of gladiator spectatorship is comparable to that of modern sports spectatorship, he then introduces us to M. J. Apter’s “reversal theory”,4 a psychological explanation of excitement that holds great promise for the study of the appeal of violent entertainment in the ancient world.

Fagan’s final main chapter (230-73), embracing all three phases of arena games (animal shows, executions, gladiator bouts), introduces two other theories which hold somewhat less promise. The first, D. Zillmann’s “disposition theory”, 5 boils down to the simplistic (and sometimes suspect) contention that audiences of violent narratives feel distress at the suffering of characters they like, and pleasure at the suffering of those they dislike. A second theory by R. Collins6 perhaps explains how the spectacularisation of violence in gladiator bouts encouraged the fighters to put on a good show, but it adds little to the previous explanation of that show’s appeal using reversal theory. However, Fagan begins the chapter with a valuable and clear-headed appraisal of various explanations for the attractions of violent entertainment, and ends with the insight that the true “ambivalence of the gladiator”7 was not a tension between hero and monster, but between elite fighter admired for his skill and slave who was by definition outcast and expendable.

Fagan’s project entails several challenges. The ancient evidence for arena spectatorship is scant, fragmentary, and biased —far from the abundant and carefully controlled data normally used in social psychological research. His solution is invariably sensible: to accept the factual assertions of ancient authors while ignoring their editorialising, to extrapolate from incomplete information where necessary, and everywhere to acknowledge the limitations of the evidence. These limitations sometimes force Fagan to reject otherwise promising social psychological approaches that would require more evidence than has survived (e.g., pp. 157-8, 198, 240-1). This cannot be helped. Perhaps more serious is that the psychological theories Fagan employs do not represent the full picture of modern research on violent entertainment,8 and occasionally contradict one another. For instance, “disposition theory” and “reversal theory” as Fagan presents them seem to me fundamentally incompatible, since the former posits both genuine positive and genuine negative emotional responses to the sight of violence, while the latter holds that violent entertainment prompts modified, “parapathic emotions”, which are always experienced as positive.

But these are hardly criticisms. Rather, they are indications that Fagan has introduced Classicists to an entirely new way of understanding the Roman arena, which both demands and promises to repay further work. Fagan begins his book with a quote from Hopkin’s seminal study on the arena: “I wondered, and still wonder what it was like to be there.”9 This innovative and insightful volume has answered that question more thoroughly and persuasively than ever before. It will not only stimulate productive research into Roman society, but also encourage valuable scholarly reflection. For if Roman arena spectators were indeed like us, and were attracted to the spectacle of violence for a wide variety of intelligible reasons, then it behooves us to consider what attracts us to the spectacle of Roman violence.

Following a brief conclusion (274-86), Fagan offers a useful appendix (original Latin with English translation) of ancient literary and epigraphic sources for the Roman arena. The copy editing of the entire volume is superb. I noticed no errors.


1.   So Fagan phrases the question on p. x.
2.   “Social psychology studies the mental mechanics of social interaction and the influence of situation on behavior” (8). It is a field foreign to Classics, but the areas Fagan focusses on (group and crowd processes, prejudice, “reversal theory”, and “disposition theory”) are readily intelligible, and clearly explained.
3.   For instance, the ambitious but unconvincing psychoanalytical approach of Carlin Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton, 1991).
4.   Especially The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement (New York, 1992).
5.   Especially “The psychology of the appeal of portrayals of violence,” pp. 179-211 in J. H. Goldstein (ed.), Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment (Oxford, 1998).
6.   Violence: a microsociological theory (Princeton, 2008).
7.   C. Ville, La gladiature en Occident des origines à la mort de Domitien (Rome, 1981), 344.
8.   Cognitive film theory, which I have used in my research, is a particularly rich resource.
9.   Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History II (Cambridge, 1983), 203.

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