BMCR 2015.01.47

Public Spectacles in Roman and Late Antique Palestine. Revealing antiquity, 21

, Public Spectacles in Roman and Late Antique Palestine. Revealing antiquity, 21. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2014. xii, 361. ISBN 9780674048317. $49.95.


The study of games and spectacles in the Roman world has been the subject of a number of excellent publications in the last two decades. These range from works focussed on a particular type of spectacle (in particular the perennially fascinating gladiatorial combat, such as Dunkle’s book on gladiators), to more general treatments, such as Jacobelli’s on Pompeii.1 These entertainments were a fundamental part of Roman culture from the early Republic to the 6th century CE, but their popularity manifested itself in different ways across the Roman Empire, a phenomenon difficult to address in a publication with more general coverage.

Zeev Weiss’s Public Spectacles in Roman and Late Antique Palestine therefore is a welcome addition to the current scholarship on the subject. It discusses the range of public entertainment that flourished in Palestine from the first century BCE to the sixth century CE, as well as the venues in which they occurred. It draws on a wealth of original archaeological and textual evidence, particularly the Jewish rabbinic and Talmudic sources so that the spectacles staged in Roman Palestine can be assessed against their specific regional and multicultural background. The material of several of the chapters has been published before in article form, but this has been up-dated, for the most part, to include the most recent evidence and scholarship.

In his introduction Weiss sets out the scope and raison-d’être of his study. He states that his approach is different from that of many other scholars in that he discusses all the building types in the region designated for public spectacles along with the range of performances and competitions that they accommodated. This is indeed a major step in the right direction. Buildings and the spectacles they hosted are discussed separately, but so much can be learned about one from a study of the other. The geographical area covered is Palestine in the Roman period, effectively the area of the modern state of Israel, with reference to the cities of the Decapolis (thus extending to the southernmost part of modern Syria and the western part of central Jordan) for comparison and contextualisation. A map is provided (Figure 2.1, incidentally the only map in the volume), but it is very unclear This makes for a rather artificial, even anachronistic, set of physical boundaries that creates problems for some of Weiss’ more general observations and conclusions about spectacles and spectacle buildings. He does try to set what occurs in Palestine against the evidence for the eastern Mediterranean more generally, but this is not pursued in a very systematic way. The provision, design and nature of the venues themselves in particular cannot be discussed in relative regional isolation from the rest of the eastern provinces. Although, to be sure, there were spatial differences (as elsewhere, not only in the wider region, but also across the Roman world), the population of Palestine, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, seems to have embraced entertainments in much the same way as elsewhere in the Roman East. The educated elites, responsible for much of the documentary evidence, were similarly critical of the spectacles and the spectators in both Palestine and the wider Roman East.

The volume has a clear structure. It is divided into six chapters following the introduction. Chapter 1 explores the introduction of spectacles into Palestine under Herod in the context of his relations with Rome. This was a significant time for the region, politically and socially. Weiss’s approach combines an examination of the range of performances with a discussion of the physical structures provided by Herod, particularly at Caesarea, Jericho and Jerusalem, but also at Samaria-Sebaste and Herodium. Weiss provides a very useful discussion of the political and cultural context of these key developments along with the important archaeological evidence that has resulted from recent archaeological discoveries at these sites. Chapter 2 discusses the physical and cultural context of the construction of the venues associated with games and spectacles. It enumerates the theatres, hippodromes (circuses) and amphitheatres constructed within the cities of the region. Not surprisingly, much of the architectural provision took place in centres with more direct Roman agency, such as Caesarea, Gerasa and Scythopolis, rather than specific Jewish centres such as Jerusalem and Sepphoris. Theatres are most numerous, an observation which can be made of the Roman world generally, not just the Roman East, and they seem to follow similar design models. The provision of other buildings, such as the amphitheatre and circus, is indicative of a closer engagement with Roman culture by the urban elites.

In Chapter 3, Weiss explores the entertainments themselves. He begins with a discussion of theatrical displays before moving on to athletic competitions and chariot races in the circus. He then concludes with spectacles associated with the amphitheatre. Weiss observes a definite regional character to the activities on offer, although in fact a broadening of the discussion would have found strong similarities in this respect with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean world at this time. Some attention is given to how these spectacles were actually accommodated physically in the different venues, but the discussion, with the exception of the situation at Caesarea with its “hippo-stadium,” tends to rely on the traditional modern attribution of entertainments: drama, mimes, etc., in the theatre; chariot racing in the circus; gladiators in the amphitheatre, etc.

Chapter 4 discusses the finances behind the construction of the venues as well as the provision of the displays in each locale. In Chapter 5, Weiss focuses on the relationship between Jewish society and Roman entertainment in Late Antiquity. He provides an in-depth discussion of the Jewish literary sources and the light they shed on rabbinic attitudes towards Roman public entertainment.

Chapter 6 provides a concluding assessment of the final phase of entertainment and performance in Palestine in Late Antiquity. At this time Jewish and Christian attitudes towards the spectacles and those involved in them ran in parallel, at least according to the literary texts, although the buildings tell a story of adaptation and remodeling, a process that may actually have started earlier.

Overall, this is an extremely well-researched and valuable study of the subject, but there are two major issues of concern. The geographical scope of the volume is understandable and indeed some limits were necessary to ensure it did not become too unwieldy. However, such Roman entertainments, their venues and context cannot properly be understood without the broader context of the eastern Mediterranean being taken into account. The provision of amphitheatres in particular needs to be discussed in the context of adaptation of other entertainment buildings (such as theatres, stadia and circuses) for use in the staging of munera. This phenomenon is now well-known and still much discussed in studies of the Roman East. Weiss acknowledges the problem of the accessibility, for non-Hebrew specialists, of many of the written sources that are specific to the region; although full references are given, much of this material is still very difficult to access.

The second issue relates to the physical description of the venues themselves. It is generally accepted that each building type can be defined in very distinct architectural terms with apparently clearly defined functions; the theatre for drama, the stadium for athletics, and the circus for chariot and horse racing. These Roman period building classes (theatre, amphitheatre, circus, stadium) therefore have a recognisable and definable form, and a primary function that is defined and acknowledged in modern scholarship. A particular challenge for the study of entertainment structures in the Eastern Provinces is the employment of specific terminology that attempts to describe both the architectural design and the performances that the structures accommodated. It is known from the excellent Caesarea excavations that Herod built the long structure with a curved end that is connected to his palace and runs parallel with the shore. Following Josephus, it may be inferred that this structure was used for a variety of quite different entertainments that Herod staged in 11 BCE ( AJ 16.136-138; BJ 1.415). Its architectural form is that of a circus, admittedly a little short compared to the Circus Maximus (290m vs 600m), but in fact longer that the circus at Gerasa (the shortest so far recorded at 244m). Although Weiss makes the important point that many of the venues were used for a range of spectacles (something demonstrable across the Roman world in fact), he uses the term “hippo-stadium”, referring more to the displays that the building accommodated. This term was first coined in the 1990s2 in an attempt to clarify the nature of the Caesarea and similar structures, but its very inexactitude is more of a hindrance than a help.

Weiss’ text is not well supported by the illustrations. The quality of the one map has already been mentioned. The black and white photographs are often very grainy, and the inclusion of more plans to accompany them would have been useful, particularly as some of these sites are only published in more specialist bibliography that is not easily accessible, at least for now. The publisher’s house style of not providing an end-bibliography, but including all the bibliographical material in the references (which, it should be observed, are very full and immensely useful) means that it can be frustratingly difficult to find the full details of a particular work.

This is an immensely useful volume that gives access to important Hebrew sources and publications. In some respects, the book has limitations in geographical scope and perception. There are frequent general references back to the situation in Rome. While these are often valuable, notably in relation to Herod’s activities, recent studies of Roman imperial culture stress diversity of regional development as opposed to core-periphery models. Despite being critical of the approaches of other scholars, Weiss still falls into similar traps of traditional architectural simplification and cultural categorisation. Nevertheless, Weiss must be congratulated for this very important study, which represents a significant contribution to the study of spectacles and entertainments in the Roman world.


1. L. Jacobelli, Gladiators at Pompeii, trans. M. Becker, Los Angeles 2003; R. Dunkle, Gladiators. Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Harlow 2008.

2. J. Humphrey, “Amphitheatrical Hippo-Stadia”, in A. Raban and K. G. Holum (ed.), Caesarea Maritima : a retrospective after two millennia, Leiden 1996, 121-129.