BMCR 2020.09.41

Images, spectacles et pouvoir à Rome: les scènes historiques et mythologiques dans les munera

, Images, spectacles et pouvoir à Rome: les scènes historiques et mythologiques dans les munera. Scripta antiqua, 123. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2019. 345 p.. ISBN 9782356132529 €25,00.

French scholars have contributed much to our understanding of Roman munera: the seminal works of Louis Robert and George Ville paved the way for modern research on gladiators,[1] while Anne Berlan-Bajard herself has authored the most comprehensive study on the naumachia.[2] In her recent book she focuses on the staging of mythical and historical themes in amphitheaters, performances that were, even if less prominent in the sources than gladiatorial fights or circus races, important parts of the spectacula. The book originates from a habilitation à diriger des recherches at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne; its thesis-like character becomes apparent by the very detailed structure and many lengthy quotations from ancient sources. These features hamper the flow of the argument; on the other hand, they make it easy for the reader to understand the method applied by the author and to recognize the evidence on which the argument is built.

In the introduction, Berlan-Bajard explains the goal of the book very clearly. Spectacula and pictorial art interacted: what happened in the arena found its way into paintings and reliefs, but the influence worked in the other direction, too. Pictorial art had a decisive role in what was staged in the munera and how it was performed; the action was in some way a three-dimensional enactment of the imagery. This is, according to Berlan-Bajard, the case in spectacles like naumachies, the presentation of mythical figures like Orpheus or Pasiphae, women fighting in the arena, and combats between gregarii. In the following chapter (“Les thèmes historiques et mythologiques dans les munera : documentation et problématique”), the author gives an overview of the ancient evidence. The reports of Cassius Dio, Suetonius and other prose authors are treated at some length, and so are the poems of Martial, while references to inscriptions are missing. The epigraphical evidence, which is so important for our understanding of gladiatorial fights and circus races, seems to be silent with regard to the spectacles studied in this book.

Very interesting is the discussion of the archaeological evidence in this chapter. Reliefs from the amphitheater of Capua show Hercules, Mars and Rhea Silvia, the Calydonian hunt, Artemis and Actaeon, and similar scenes. Berlan-Bajard argues that this imagery refers to spectacula staged in the very same building on a very special occasion with the emperor present. She further refers to a terra sigillata fragment in Reims that shows Hercules fighting the boar, the hydra and other beasts. The inscription ERCULE makes clear that it is really the hero who is fighting, but the weaponry (lasso!) is untypical for him; it is derived from Roman venationes. For Berlan-Bajard this piece and other vases prove that mythological themes formed part of munera not only in Rome, but also in Gaul.

In the central part of the book (“Les thèmes historiques et mythologiques dans les munera et dans les arts plastiques : des phénomènes d’influences réciproques”) Berlan-Bajard analyzes the myths one by one, applying a well-defined approach: she first explains the performance according to the written sources, then gives an overview of the scene as presented in ancient art, and finally reflects on the mutual influences of imagery and performance and on the latter’s symbolic function. The cases are too numerous to discuss them all; I have picked out some of the hypotheses. The naumachia staged by Caesar in 46 BC was influenced by paintings in Alexandria: the dictator presented himself in a Hellenistic tradition. For Augustus, who let ‘Syracusans’ fight against ‘Athenians’, another motif became important, the victory of the West over the East. His spectacula mark the departure from Hellenistic models towards Roman ones, most obvious—according to Berlan-Bajard—in the triumphal games of Claudius: he staged the conquest of a town in Britain, which is interpreted as an enactment of the images of battles and sieges that were traditionally shown in a Roman pompa triumphalis.

Scenes like Actaeon attacked by dogs, the fall of Icarus and other “fatal charades” (the term stems from the seminal study of Kathleen Coleman[3]) originated from the popularity of these myths in Italy; Berlan-Bajard points to wall-paintings in Pompei, but also to Roman dramas and poems. So it was the Roman tradition that was decisive for the selection which myths entered the arena (and which did not), and what also mattered was the symbolic potential: the punishment of Marsyas stood for the victory of Apollonian order over Dionysiac chaos, Orpheus and the animals charmed by his music referred to the emperor pacifying wild nature, the fights of Hercules symbolized the emperor’s violence and military power. The fights of women and dwarfs are seen as playful and hilarious parodies of the mythical fights of Amazons and Pygmies.

Berlan-Bajard makes a strong case for the interaction between pictorial art and spectacula, and she offers new insights into some features of the spectacula that have been understudied so far. It is a great merit of the book to collect and combine evidence of different genres: all written sources are given in Latin/Greek and in French translation, and the “Corpus des sources écrites” (287-314) at the end of the book is a welcome collection for all upcoming studies. Many of the archaeological objects discussed in the book are presented in good-quality illustrations.

Less convincing are Berlan-Bajard’s ideas about the meaning of the mythical performances and of the munera in general. First, she considers the spectacles as top-down events: the arena, thus, appears as a place where the emperor sent out messages and stabilized his power. This perspective is quite popular, but some scholars have developed more nuanced models taking into account that spectators and their expectations also had an impact on what was to be seen in the amphitheater.[4] Second, the munera appear as a very uniform institution in the book: whether staged in Rome, in some town in Italy or in the provinces, the performances and their meaning seem to be the same. Some will doubt that something like the “imaginaire collectif romain“ (281), the provincial population included, ever existed. The famous SC de pretiis gladiatorum minuendis (CIL II 6278) of AD 177 refers to differences between regions with regard to organization and financing, but first and foremost we must be aware of differences between Rome and the rest of the empire. Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Martial and other authors focus on the great spectacula at Rome and their relationship to the emperor, and Berlan-Bajard transfers this perspective to the munera in general. But do we really need to assume that the emperor was present in the amphitheater in Capua? Is there no other way to explain the subjects of the relief decoration? Did the people in a provincial arena think of the emperor’s victory over ferocious Nature when they watched Orpheus surrounded by animals? The local elites, i.e. the group that financed the munera in the cities of the empire, and their interests do not find appropriate attention in this book.

It is a coincidence that at about the same time when this book was printed another monograph on Roman spectacles was published, presenting an alternative perspective to Berlan-Bajard’s homogenous picture. Barbara Dimde sees a fundamental difference between military munera, which were connected to the emperor, and civic munera, which formed part of the communication within a provincial city’s population.[5] It seems, then, that this field is rather dynamic, and Anne Berlan-Bajard deserves great merit for her major contribution.


[1] Louis Robert, Les gladiateurs dans l’Orient grec, Paris 1940; Georges Ville, La gladiature en Occident. Des origines à la mort de Domitien, Rome 1981.

[2] Les spectacles aquatiques romains, Paris 2006.

[3] Fatal charades: “Roman executions staged as mythological enactments,” JRS 80, 1990, 44-73.

[4] E.g. Egon Flaig, “Roman gladiatorial games: ritual and political consensus,” in Roman Roth, Johannes Keller eds., Roman by Integration: Dimensions of Group Identity in Material Culture and Text, Portsmouth/MA 2007, 83-92.

[5] Barbara Dimde, Gladiatur und Militär im römischen Germanien, Stuttgart 2019.