Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.23

Jacob A. Latham, Performance, Memory, and Processions in Ancient Rome: The 'pompa circensis' from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxii, 345.  ISBN 9781107130715.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Susan Dunning, University of Toronto (


The Roman pompa circensis, the procession that preceded games at the Circus Maximus, had its origins in the mists of the early Republic and saw its final performance during the fifth or sixth century CE. Thus, the development of the pompa circensis is closely bound up with the history of Rome itself. Latham’s monograph draws on his earlier studies on the subject and is the first to focus on circus processions and related pompae. This work goes beyond filling a major gap in scholarship on Roman processions: Latham’s decision to approach the pompa circensis through a sweeping, diachronic study sheds light on religious and socio-political changes at Rome over many centuries.

Our surviving evidence for pompae circenses is highly fragmentary, and Latham makes careful use of a wide variety of materials—literature, coinage, imperial reliefs, sarcophagoi, etc.—in order to reconstruct and analyse the procession at different stages in history. His study is meticulously researched and aimed at a specialist audience, but also serves as a valuable sourcebook. Direct quotations from ancient texts are often tucked away in the endnotes; while translations are provided to make them accessible to readers from other fields, their separation from the context of the discussion impedes the reader’s engagement with the literary evidence, while images remain in the body of the text and are thus given more prominent placement. The work is divided into two main sections: the first provides a reconstruction of an “ideal-type” for the pompa from the Late Republic, before changes were introduced by Julius Caesar, and the second section traces the pompa’s development under the emperors and into Late Antiquity.

In Chapter 1, Latham examines the description of the Republican pompa circensis set down by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which is based on an earlier record of the procession from Fabius Pictor. Latham cautions against relying too heavily on these literary accounts, which were likely distorted by their authors’ desire to create a Greek heritage for Rome, and instead highlights the “grammar” and “syntax” of the ideal pompa, the roles and identities of participants and their ordering in each procession, constructed in order to inspire “wonder” among spectators. Human participants (magistrates, the praeses ludorum, youths, charioteers and athletes, dancers, musicians, etc.) are discussed in Chapter 1, and in Chapter 2, attention is turned to the divine participants, whose presence was indicated through statues (simulacra) carried on litters (fercula) or objects symbolizing deities (exuuiae) that were carried in tensae, (special chariots). The procession of gods and sacred objects constituted a kind of performed theology through which divine closeness and difference could be communicated; disturbances in this pompa deorum could also serve as omens indicating divine displeasure. Chapter 3 gives an overview of the itinerary of the pompa circensis from the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline through the Forum, and finally into the Circus Maximus, situating it within the physical landscape of Rome as well as the landscape of communal memory.

In the second section, Chapter 4 looks beyond the Republican period to innovations in the pompa circensis introduced by Julius Caesar and his successors. Latham illustrates how the inclusion of images or symbols associated with living or deceased emperors in the pompa deorum, or at times the presence of emperors themselves, complemented other expressions of divine privilege, such as the extension of triumphal honours. Like the triumph, the pompa circensis reinforced the power of the imperial family and their unique status between the traditional gods and the Roman people. The chapter concludes with an examination of the additions of imperial building programmes to the processional route. Chapter 5 is a bold venture into processions derived from the original pompae circenses at Rome, from pompae at provincial circus games to processions preceding theatrical spectacles (pompae theatrales), for which the evidence is even more fragmentary. The final chapter deals with the fate of the pompa circensis in the late empire: while circus games and processions continued to be highly popular, their “excesses” and close associations with traditional religious expressions came into conflict with Christianity’s growing influence at the imperial court. Latham traces the process by which the pompa was reformed and stripped of “pagan” associations before evidence for its performance ends in the fifth century CE, and for circus games in the sixth century CE.

Latham’s diachronic approach to the pompa circensis using a variety of source materials is one of the great strengths of this study: the investigation would be far less rich and fruitful if it had only taken into account a single type of evidence, or if it were restricted to a narrower window of time. Given the paucity of concrete evidence for these processions, Latham’s approach strives to avoid the extremes of unsubstantiated speculation and failure to engage fully with the fragmentary material. The conclusions in this study often manage to find this middle ground, but on occasion veer too far towards conjecture. For example, at intervals throughout the work it is suggested that Christian symbols could have been introduced into the pompa circensis as a replacement for the exuuiae of the gods of polytheism. In the last chapter, it is revealed that this hypothesis is based on coin reverses depicting emperors holding cruciform sceptres and mappae (the cloths dropped to signal the start of the games). The reverses could illustrate the appearance of emperors and the items they carried in the procession, it is argued, and the cruciform sceptres could be conceived of as taking the place of “pagan” exuuiae, thereby making the Christian god present within the pompa. While the first theory is plausible, the latter fails to account for the ubiquity of these sceptres on late imperial coinage, often in contexts completely dissociated from the pompa circensis. It seems likely that ancient spectators would have perceived of the cruciform sceptre as a symbol of the power and Christian allegiance of the emperor, rather than as a relic replacing ancient exuuiae.

This study also addresses questions of more general interest in scholarship on religion at Rome. Latham demonstrates how imperial interference in the pompa circensis transformed and reoriented the performance to serve as a showcase of the emperor’s role in preserving the continuity of Rome through dynasty and close relationship with the gods (particularly his deified predecessors). This development has close parallels in the development of supplications or the Saecular Games from the Republican to Imperial periods. Latham also demonstrates how the malleability of the sequence of the pompa in the past, as well as its association with imperial authority, provided a vehicle for the pompa’s secularization and adaption for the Christian context of the fourth and fifth centuries. Festivals and performances involving sacrifices or other offerings to the gods could not be so easily detached from the context of traditional religion, and ceased to be held at an earlier date.

Latham enters into the debate on the role and nature of religious belief in Roman society in Chapter 2. His analysis of the “performed theology” of the procession allows that the Romans could have genuinely held beliefs of a religious nature, but, following a widely-held position, he gives primacy to civic performance and action as the authority for religious thought. Yet at p. 51, Latham cites Seneca’s famous critique of people creatively initiating acts of worship through the offering of their talents to various gods on the Capitoline, including an old mime who still danced for the gods.1 While Latham hesitates to emphasize an emotional engagement with divinities in the pompae, his catalogue of the various participants in these processions and the responses of spectators to innovations invite further research on the subject. If a mime could view his art as a means to enter into a relationship with a deity, could the dancers, musicians, and athletes have viewed their roles in the pompa circensis in a similar fashion?

In Chapter 4, Latham favours Gradel’s emphasis on power as the essential factor separating humanity from divinity,2 and emphasizes the development of imperial power through the inclusion of images of deified emperors and their family members, diui and diuae, in the pompa. Latham departs from Gradel’s argument in allowing that humanity and divinity may have been distinct and absolute categories for the Romans, following Koortbojian and Levene, 3 but his own evidence for the pompa provides opportunities to show that the Romans did not reduce divinity merely to the quality of power. For example, he observes that the elephant-drawn chariot granted to the image of diuus Augustus would have been visually impressive and powerful, but rather than elevating Augustus to the level of Jupiter or Juno, the new vehicle would have differentiated the emperor’s status from that of traditional gods given the honours of humbler litters or horse-drawn chariots (p. 107).

Latham’s project serves as a reminder that the significance of a performance or practice is understood most fully only when its history is studied in its entirely, as far as possible, and in dialogue with more general changes and developments in society. Through his ambitious approach to the pompa circensis, Latham’s study gives us a better understanding of the symbiotic relationships of entertainment, religion, and expressions of power across the centuries in Roman society.


1.   Preserved in Augustine, De ciu. D. 6.10.4.
2.   Gradel, I. (2002) Emperor Worship and the Roman Religion. Oxford.
3.   Levene, D.S. (2012) “Defining the Divine in Rome”, TAPhA 142, 41–81,; and Koortbojian, M. (2013) The Divinization of Caesar and Augustus: Precedents, Consequences, Implications. Cambridge.

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