BMCR 2003.04.07

Roman Sports and Spectacles

, Roman sports and spectacles : a sourcebook. Focus classical sources. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co, 2001. xiv, 119 pages : illustrations, 2 maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 1585100099. $14.95 (pb).

1 Responses

Anne Mahoney presents a solid sourcebook on Roman entertainment, which will prove helpful to teachers and to students. After a brief introduction and overview, M. divides the material into seven chapters: Origins and Foundations; Gladiators; Chariots and Circus Ludi; Theater, Greek Athletics, and other events; Women and Sports; Politics and Sports; Attitudes about Sport and Spectacles. Each of these chapters offers translations of source material on the relevant topic; M. also gives the various selections brief introductions to set the context and introduce the authors. Following this, there is an outstanding glossary, a one-page chronology of key events, two maps (the Roman empire circa 69 AD and the city of Rome), and a short guide to further reading. Finally, the book contains an index of sources and a good subject index. It is unfortunate that the book does not include any images, but this is probably necessary to limit the volume’s cost.

The author suggests that this volume originated as translations of specific passages for students in various classes, and I believe that will remain its main use. What I mean by this is that individual libraries or teachers will want to have a copy for reference, for producing lectures or classes, and to refer students to. I don’t think, however, that many classes would require that students have copies of their own. The scope of the volume is rather limited. By comparison, a volume such as Jo-Ann Shelton’s As the Romans Did covers sports and spectacles, but also religion, family life, military matters, government, etc. In addition, the nature of sourcebooks in general means that the volume will not be especially helpful to novices outside of other readings or a classroom context. So, for example, unless a student had already heard a lecture on gladiators or read a synthetic study (such as Balsdon or Hopkins), she would not be able to do much with the eleven pages of selections on gladiators in this work. This is not a criticism of M.’s work (and for the record the same goes for virtually any sourcebook), but it does help to clarify who will benefit most from this book and in what context. With that in mind, I will keep strengths and weaknesses for students and teachers in mind as I look in more detail at the book. (I should say explicitly that the book would be appropriate for high-school and college students; I have both in mind.)

The introduction is generally clear and accurate, but at times it is overly brief or simplified. M. provides a general overview of Roman sports and festivals, as well as of Roman history and social organization. She very usefully describes the types of sources that the volume contains, and she helpfully lays out the names and dates of all the major Roman festivals. On a few crucial points, however, the presentation is overly simplified or outright confusing. When comparing Greek and Roman life and sports, M. wants to explain why Roman citizens did not participate in sports as Greeks did. Part of her explanation is that Greek citizen-soldiers needed the exercise: “Greek citizens fought in the armies of their city-states” but “Rome, on the other hand, had a standing army of professional soldiers” (viii). This is simply not true for the early Roman Republic, and so it does little to help explain why Romans and Greeks differed over who might participate in athletics. Later in the introduction, M. seems to say that senators and knights formed one class within Roman society. Although she might mean only that they were the “haves” as opposed to the remaining Roman “have-nots”, again this would likely mislead students.

The heart of the book is clearly the translated source material, and M. offers an excellent range of texts. Most of the sources focus on the late Republic and early Empire, but this is entirely reasonable since these periods provide the richest source material and are generally of greatest interest to beginners. M. chooses material from literature, letters, and inscriptions; she also includes material from Roman and counter-Roman (read ‘Christian’) authors. I suspect that most readers will find their favorites here: Ennius on auspices and chariot games; Ovid on how to get a date at various games; Propertius on the delights of Spartan women ( sic); a graffiti tagger on the studliness of Celadus the Thracian.1 The most significant gap that leaps to mind is Perpetua’s vision of herself as a gladiator. This brief selection would have added a great deal to the chapter on women and sports, which is otherwise basically male sexual fantasies about women as gladiators or (equally male) fantasies about sex between women and gladiators. It might have also been nice to have Nietzsche’s favorite selection from Tertullian (Christians in heaven watching the tortures of the damned like Romans at the games watching the torture of Christians). This selection would helpfully counter-balance the other quotations of Tertullian and also remind us that savagery is not missing from early Christian authors.

The quality of the translations is very good. Although I did not systematically check all of the material, those I did check were excellent. In addition, the sources now read well as English, and M. has done a nice job in a few cases (especially Petronius) of reproducing the characteristic feel of the text. It is all too easy for collections of translated source material to become entirely homogenous, so that Ennius, Ovid, Cicero, and inscriptions all speak in the same, contemporary English voice. M. chose to translate poetry as prose, but again that seems reasonable for such a collection.

My only complaint in this regard is that M. does not give specific references to the texts she uses for any given quotation. She says only that she has used the Loeb, the Oxford Classical Text, or occasionally the Teubner text (112). This doesn’t really help since in many cases a text appears in all three of these series. So, for example, when I read the first selection of Ennius (page 24), I initially thought M. had mistranslated “pictis e faucibus currus” so that the chariots rather than the starting gates were painted. After looking around a bit, however, I am inclined to think that she is translating here from O. Skutsch’s edition of the Annales (which reads for the phrase in question “pictos e faucibus currus”). M. singles out for mention, however, Warmington’s Loeb volumes Remains of Old Latin, which include Ennius, and she uses Warmington’s numeration of Ennius rather than Skutsch’s. To compound matters, the translation of the rest of the lines follows Warmington rather than Skutsch.2 This may seem an overly small concern, but, first, it really does matter whether the chariots or the gates are painted and, second, teachers really should know what they are giving their students. I noticed this point (largely by accident), but I suspect that specialist readers of other authors could raise similar concerns.

All in all then, I would repeat that M. has done teachers and students a great service here. This volume will serve both groups well, whether for producing lectures and classes or for offering further readings. In more specialist contexts, teachers may want to check the source material in question, but on the whole the volume will provide ample and trustworthy background for this aspect of Roman life.

[[For a response to this review by Guy Chamberland, please see BMCR 2005.12.13.]]


1. Surely I am not the only reader to wonder if Celadus himself wrote the four inscriptions in question.

2. The key is the final line of the quotation (91 Warmington, 82 Skutsch). At line end, there is a phrase which reads either “ora tenebat” (Warmington) or “ore timebat” (Skutsch). M. translates Warmington’s version here.