BMCR 2011.10.55

Spectacle in the Roman World. Classical World series

, Spectacle in the Roman World. Classical World series. London/New York: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. 99. ISBN 9781853996962 $23.00 (pb).

According to Tacitus ( Ann. 13.31) that there were few events worth recording in the consulships of Nero and Lucius Cornelius Piso (AD 57), unless one wished to describe the mass of the foundations or the span of the timbers that the emperor used for his new amphitheatre in the Campus Martius. Later, the historian Cassius Dio would even apologize to his readers for besmirching the dignity of history by providing a lengthy and fascinating description of Commodus’ arena antics (73.18). Times have changed. Perhaps it has to do with the recognition of our own fascination with mass entertainment spectacles: it is always tempting to see something of ourselves in ancient society. Hazel Dodge’s new contribution, Spectacle in the Roman World, provides a brief overview of the main categories of Roman entertainment-spectacles. The book is a part of the Bristol Classical Press’ Classical World Series, and is meant specifically for students in senior high school and early university. It might serve as a supplementary text for the sort of first-year “Roman Civilization” classes found at many universities. Indeed, instructors of such courses, especially those whose primary research interests fall somewhere outside the arenas or circuses of the Roman world, would also benefit from having this concise study to hand.

The book begins with an introductory chapter that very briefly considers the various forms of evidence for reconstructing the shows: archaeology, epigraphy, and reconstructions and re-enactments. This last form of evidence has proven to be quite valuable for our understanding of how gladiatorial combats, for example, might have actually taken place. Dodge references the important work of Marcus Junkelmann, though others have made important contributions as well.1 Reference is made to scientific study, in particular, to the osteological work on done recently on gladiatorial remains found in Ephesus, with a fuller discussion in the third chapter on gladiators. Overall, this discussion of sources, though understandably and necessarily brief due to the entry-level nature of this series, is nevertheless perhaps too brief. If meant for students, it gives little indication how a student would access the inscriptions or archaeological material for further study. Subsequent chapters cover the key spectacles: chariot racing in chapter 2, gladiators in chapter 3, animal spectacles in chapter 4, naumachiae and other aquatic displays in chapter 5, the phenomenon of spectacle in late antiquity in chapter 6, and a final chapter considering ancient contexts in general and modern perspectives. There follows an appendix describing the key features of the different buildings used for entertainment and then suggestions for further reading, divided by subject.

In general, each chapter provides a summary of the basic outlines of the spectacles as scholars understand them now. For example, Dodge begins the chapter on gladiators with a review of the two principal theories about the origins of the spectacle, specifically whether it developed in Etruria or in southern Italy. This includes the citation of the most relevant literary sources and a (black and white) figure of a tomb-painting from Lucania. The chapter then considers the status and social origins of the gladiators themselves, followed by a review of armaments (here, illustrations would have helped). There is a short discussion of the cache of armour discovered at Pompeii, a discussion of training locations (especially the gladiatorial ludi in Rome), training techniques and the organization of the familiae. Gladiatorial graffiti from Pompeii receives special attention. Dodge also considers the case of gladiators in the Greek world. No discussion of the arena would be complete without mention of the evidence for female gladiators, and indeed we find it here too. The chapter also includes consideration of the amphitheatre, noting the Republican tradition of building temporary structures in the Forum. To explain the difficult elliptical shape of the amphitheatre, however, Dodge looks to Pliny’s description of the rotating theatres built by Gaius Scribonius Curio ( NH 36.116-120.), rather than to the more elaborate explanation of Katherine Welch, in particular.2 While this chapter on gladiators comprises a useful summary of the topic (as do the other thematic chapters), further information relevant to the arena is provided in chapter 7 (“Roman Spectacle: Ancient Contexts and Modern Perceptions”). For example, it is here that we find discussion of the so-called Senatus Consultum de Pretiis Gladiatorum Minuendis with its information on the costs of the shows and the ranking of gladiators, information which could further our understanding of the organization of gladiatorial familiae discussed in chapter 3.

Other forms of spectacle do not receive sufficient attention. For example, there is no review of the Greek-style athletic and musical competitions that eventually came to Rome in the imperial period. Although theatres themselves are examined in the appendix, actors and Roman drama are not discussed at all. Yet the festival days devoted to ludi scaenici (theatrical performances), even during the empire, far exceeded those devoted to the ludi circenses (chariot races) or the munera (gladiatorial combats). Mimes and pantomimes have also been excluded. This is unfortunate, though perhaps understandable since it is doubtful that their performances filled the amphitheatre or Circus Maximus like gladiatorial fights or beast hunts or chariot races could. Regardless of these quibbles, Dodge’s book does what it sets out to do. It provides a brief and accessible introduction to the principal Roman spectacles.


1. See, for example, E. Teyssier and B. Lopez, Gladiateurs: Des Sources à l’expérimentation, Editions Errance, Paris, 2005, or S. Shadrake, The World of the Gladiator, Tempus, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2005.

2. K. Welch, “The Roman Arena in Late-Republican Italy: A New Interpretation” Journal of Roman Archaeology 7, 1994, 59-80, who builds on the earlier work of J.-C. Golvin, L’amphithéâtre romain: essai sur la theorisation de sa forme et de ses fonctions, de Boccard, Paris, 1988. Both works do appear in the section on further reading.