The Power of Theater

Actors and Spectators in Ancient Rome

by Miroslaw Kocur (Author)
Monographs 438 Pages

Table Of Content


This book was first published in Polish in 2005. For the English translation, I have extensively rewritten, revised, and updated the text. I owe many thanks to a few people for the help and support I have received while working on this project. David Malcolm translated the book so that – in my view – it reads well in English. Andrzej Jarodzki created a series of wonderful drawings specially for this book. Matthew Nicholls granted me permission to use images from his excellent Virtual Rome project. Agata Rutkowska assisted in obtaining permission from the Royal Collection in London to publish Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting The Triumphs by Caesar: 1. The Picture-Bearers. Bartlomiej Sych facilitated licence negotiations with Getty Images. My special thanks go to Dagmara Chojnacka, my beloved wife, for suggesting many insights that improved both the Polish and the English editions.

I dedicate this book to the memory of the late Professor Jerzy Lanowski, who inspired my interest in ancient Greece and Rome. ← 11 | 12 →


1.  Ancient Theater of Taormina, Sicily (photo, author)

2.  Andrea Mantegna, Triumphs of Caesar: 1. The Picture-Bearers (c. 1484-92), tempera on canvas, 266 x 278 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017. Hampton Court Palace, London, RCIN 403958.

3.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Self-Portrait as Nero (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon (fragment).

4.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Gladiators (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

5.  Fresco in Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii (photo, author)

6.  Greek Theatre of Syracuse, Sicily (photo, author)

7.  Theater of Pompey. Image from Virtual Rome, a digital model developed by Dr Matthew Nicholls © 2017 University of Reading. Reproduced with permission.

8.  Mussolini Opens ‘Europe’s Finest Street’, 1932. Thousands of Fascisti stride down the Via Dell ‘Impero on the 10th. Anniversary of the Fascist march on Rome. © Bettman/Getty Images

9.  Theater of Marcellus. Image from Virtual Rome, a digital model developed by Dr Matthew Nicholls © 2017 University of Reading. Reproduced with permission.

10.  Small Theater in Pompeii. Cavea with 16 rows (photo, author)

11.  Public Execution in the Roman Theater in Palmyra, 2015 (stills from ISIS video)

12.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Self-Portrait as Nero (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

13.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Actor (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

14.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Atellana (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

15.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Dossennus (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon (fragment).

16.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Self-Portrait as a Mime (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

17.  Andrzej Jarodzki, Pantomime (2017), varnished pencil drawing on cartoon, 50 x 70 cm.

18.  Ancient Theater of Aspendos, Turkey (photo, author)

19.  Ancient Theater of Taormina, Sicily (photo, author) ← 12 | 13 →

A Note on Translations Used

Appian: H. White (BCiv.); Apuleius: H.E. Butler (Flor.), J.A. Hanson (Met.); Aristophanes: J. Henderson; Aristotle: S. Halliwell (Poet.); Athenaeus: S.D. Olson; Augustine: J. Shaw (De doctrina Christiana); Cicero: W.A. Falconer (Ami., Div.), L.H.G. Greenwood (Div. Caec.), H.M. Hubbell (Orat.), C.W. Keyes (Leg.), J.E. King (Tusc.), W. Miller (Off.), H. Rackham (Acad., Brut., De or.), D.R. Shackelton Bailey (Att., Fam., Phil.), N.H. Watts (Dom., Har. resp., Pis.); Columella: H.B. Ash (Rust.); De sumblime: W. Hamilton Fyfe and D. Russell; Diodorus Siculus: C.H. Oldfather; Dionysius of Halicarnassus: E. Cary (Ant. Rom.); Fronto: C.R. Haines (Principia historiae); Gellius: J.C. Rolfe; Homeric Hymns: M.L. West; Horace: F. Rushton Fairclough (Ep.); Isidore: S.A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach and O. Berghof (Org.); Isocrates: G. Norlin (Antid.); Juvenal: G.G. Ramsay; Libanius: M.E. Molloy; Livy: B.O. Foster (Books 1-10), F.G. Moore (Books 23-25), A.C. Schlesinger (Books 43-45); Lucian: A.M. Harmon (Spect.), M.D. Macleod (Gallus); Martial: D.R. Shackelton Bailey; Cornelius Nepos: J.C. Rolfe; Ovid: F.J. Miller (Met.), J.H. Mozley (Rem. am.); Pacuvius: E.H. Warmington; Petronius: M. Haseltine (Sat.); Phaedrus: B.E. Perry; Plato: R.G. Bury (Leg.); Plautus: W. de Melo; Pliny the Elder: H. Rackham (HN); Pliny the Younger: B. Radice (Ep.); Prudentius: H.J. Thomson (CSym.); Quintilian: D.A. Russell (Inst.); Res gestae divi Augusti: F.W. Shipley; Rhetorica ad Herenniun: H. Caplan; Seneca: J.S. Basore (Ben., Tranq.), J.G. Fitch (Tragedies), R.M. Gummere (Ep.); Seneca the Elder: M. Winterbottom (Contr.); Suetonius: J.C. Rolfe; Tacitus: J. Jackson (Ann.), C.H. Moore (Hist.); Terence: J. Barsby; Tertulian: T.R. Glover (Apol.); Valleius Paterculus: F.W. Shipley; Valerius Maximus: D.R. Shackelton Bailey; Varro: W.D. Hooper (Rust.), L.G. Kent (Lang.); Vitruvius: F. Granger; Xenophon: O.J. Todd (Symp.) ← 13 | 14 →


AE: L’Année épigraphique

AJA: American Journal of Archaeology

AJP: American Journal of Philology

Anfiteatro Flavio: Anfiteatro Flavio: Imagine, Testimonianze, Spettacoli (Roma 1988)

ANRW: Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der neueren Forschung

Ant.Class.: L’Antiquité classique

AP: The Greek Anthology (Loeb), ed. and trans. W.R. Paton (Cambridge, Mass. 2014)

Apodosis: Apodosis: Essays presented to Dr W.W. Cruickshank to mark his eightieth birthday (St Paul’s School 1992)

BCAR: Bullettino della Commissione archeologica comunale di Roma

BCH: Bulletin de Correspondance Hellènique

BGU: Berliner Griechische Urkunden

BICS: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies

BJ: Bonner Jahrbücher

CeM: Classica et Mediaevalia

CGL: Corpus glossariorum Latinorum

CIL: Corpus insriptionum Latinarum

CLE: Anthologia Latina, 2: Carmina Latina Epigraphica

CPh: Classical Philology

CQ: Classical Quarterly

CRF³: Scaenicae Romanorum poesis fragmenta, ed. O. Ribbeck, 3rd ed., 2: Comicorum Romanorum praeter Plautum et Syri quae feruntur sententias fragmenta (Leipzig 1898)

CSEL: Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum

CW: The Classical World

DA: Dialoghi di archeologia

DK: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, ed. H. Diels and W. Kranz, 8th ed. (Berlin 1965) ← 14 | 15 →

DNP: Der Neue Pauly: Enzyklopädie der Antike, ed. H. Cancik and H. Schneider (Stuttgart–Weimar 1996-2003)

FD: Fouilles de Delphes

FIRA: Fontes iuris romani antejustiniani

FLP: The fragmentary Latin poets, ed. E. Courtney (Oxford 1993)

FUR: La pianta marmorea di Roma antica: Forma Urbis Romae, ed. G. Corettoni et al. (Roma 1960)

GB: Grazer Beiträge: Zeitschrift für klassische Altertumwissenschaft

GL: Grammatici latini, ed. H. Keil (Leipzig 1855-1923)

HRR: Historicorum Romanorum reliquiae, ed. H.W. Peter (Stuttgart 1967)

HSCP: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology

IG: Inscriptiones Graecae

IGR: Inscriptiones Graecae ad res Romanas pertinentes

IGUR: Inscriptiones Graecae urbis Romae

ILLRP: Inscriptiones Latinae liberae rei publicae

ILS: Inscriptiones Latinae selectae, ed. H. Dessau (Berlin 1892-1916)

ILTG: Inscriptiones trium Galliarum et Germaniarum Latinae (CIL 13)

Inscr.Ital.: Inscriptiones Italiae

I.Tralleis: Die Inschriften von Tralleis und Nysa, vol. 1: Die Inschriften von Tralleis, ed. F.B. Poljakov (Bonn 1989)

IVO: Die Inschriften von Olympia

JÖByz: Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik

JHS: Journal of Hellenic Studies

JRA: Journal of Roman Archaeology

JRS: Journal of Roman Studies

LSJ: A Greek-English Lexicon, ed. H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, rev. H.S. Jones (Oxford 1968, online: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj)

LTUR: Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, ed. E.M. Steinby (Roma 1993-2000)

MDAI(R): Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts: Römische Abteilung

MÉFRA: Mélanges d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’École française de Rome

MH: Museum Helveticum

MNC³: T.B.L. Webster, Monuments Illustrating New Comedy (BICS, Suppl. 50), 3rd ed., rev. and enlarged by J.R. Green and A. Seeberg (London 1995) ← 15 | 16 →

MRR: B.T.R. Shannon, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic, 2nd ed. (Atlanta, Georgia 1986)

NGG: Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaft zu Göttingen

OCD³: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 3rd ed. (Oxford 1996)

OLD: Oxford Latin Ditionary, ed. P.G.W. Glare (Oxford 1982)

OR: Opuscula Romana

PBSR: Papers of the British School at Rome

PCG: Poetae comici Graeci, ed. C. Austin and R. Kassel

RAC: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum: Sachwörterbuch zur Auseinandersetzung des Christentums mi der antiken Welt

RE: Real-Encyclopädie: Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Neue Bearbeitung

REL: Revue des études latines

RGVV: Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten

RhM: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie

RPh: Revue de philology, de littérature et d’histoire anciennes

RRC: M.H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (London 1974)

SCI: Scripta Classica Israelica

SEG: Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum

SHA: Scriptores Historiae Augustae

SIG³: Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum, nunc tertium edita, ed. W. Dittenberger, 3rd ed. (Leipzig 1915-1924)

SO: Symbolae Osloenses: Norwegian Journal of Greek and Latin Studies

SVF: Stoicorum veterum fragmenta, ed. H.F. Arnim (Leipzig 1903-1924)

TAPA: Transactions of the American Philological Association

TGR: Teatri greci e romani alle origini del linguaggio rappresentato, consimento analitico (Roma–Torino 1994/95/96)

TLL: Thesaurus linguae Latinae

TN: Theatre Notebook

ZPE: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik

ZRG RA: Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Romanistische Abteilung ← 16 | 17 →


Totus mundus agit histrionem

1. Totus mundus agit histrionem (All the world plays the part of the actor), was – according to tradition – the motto of the celebrated Globe Theatre in London.1 Jacques, the ironic satirist in As You Like It, develops this metaphor in his famous monolog (2.7.138-139): “All world’s a stage, / And all men and women merely players.” This is an expression of the obsession with the theater in Shakespeare’s day. But life was compared to the theater earlier too, in fact from the very begin ← 17 | 18 → nings of that art.2 Already in the fifth century BCE, Democritus considered that “The world is a stage, life is a performance; you come, you see, you go away.”3 The Platonist Socrates warns the potential Guardians of his ideal state against appearing onstage: a person in his life should not play many roles, as was the custom of the Athenian actors, since he would be unable to attain in all of them the required perfection. One poet, Socrates opines, might write well either comedies or tragedies. Writers of tragedies and of comedies used different actors.4 In the third book of The Republic, Plato introduces, perhaps as the first to do so, the concept of mimesis, a notion that becomes the foundation of all later theories of art, and of the art of theater above all. The consequences of mimesis, that is, the imitation of another person through voice, gesture, and even way of thinking can be pernicious. The imitator is to a degree identified with the person imitated, takes on features of the model, is “infected” by him/her sometimes even outside the theater, in life itself (Resp. 3.395c-d). The Platonic Guardians should not, thus, imitate any unworthy actions, and, above all, they must not play women or slaves. The only permissible role is that of the noble man (Resp. 3.396c-d), but such figures, in Socrates’s view, are considered too uninteresting, theatrically unbearable. So Plato does not develop this line of thinking, and decides to banish the entire theater from his republic.

The Cynics perceived many analogies between life and art. In the third century BCE, Teles5 compared blind fate to a dramatist and asserted that it is necessary to know if one is to play the lead or a supporting part, and that there is no need to change the part once it has been given out. Bion of Borysthenes was of a different opinion. He stressed that each person dons different masks in life. This theory splendidly justifies the ambiguous career of Bion himself. In the course of his long life, he played many roles: from wandering cynic to paid teacher and “court-philosopher.”6 The Stoics, in turn, took from the theater the notion of the mask (in Greek prósōpon). Ariston of Chios, a disciple of Zenon, compared the wise man to a good actor, who could play both the ugly Thersites and the valiant Agamemnon (SVF 1.351). ← 18 | 19 →

In the second century BCE, Panaetius developed the concept of the “four masks,” in order to define the social roles played by one person. The theory was extensively set forth by Cicero (Off. 1.107-121):

2. If the Greeks invented the art of the actor, and were the first to make of it a metaphor for human life,7 the Romans did not only develop and broaden that analogy, but also, above all, applied theatrical practices to construct identity to a degree not previously encountered. Rome was a stage for countless performances.8 Serious and official spectacles/plays graced religious ceremonies; they took place according to the established rhythm of festivals, and they were presented on the great squares, in front of temples, or in specially erected buildings such as wooden theaters. Others were played out on the streets, in front of shops and inns, and still others in the atriums of private homes. Professional actors did not work in a vacuum. Orators and politicians busily observed the performances of artists, and they took from them whatever seemed the most effective practices. In turn, actors learned the art of persuasion from famous orators.

The great religious festivals were usually powerful demonstrations of secular power. During solemn triumphs, the commander, distinguished with this honor, for one day painted his face red and put on a ceremonial costume, transforming himself into a replica of Capitoline Jupiter. Theater penetrated everyday life at every level. When a consul set forth to war, thus crossing the pomerium, the holy borders of the city, he removed his toga with great pomp. Togatus, dressed in a toga, he was not just a civilian, the antithesis of the soldier, but, above all, a citizen of Rome. Virgil (Aen. 1.281-282) hymns the Roman “rulers of the world” (rerum dominos) as a “people clad in togas” (gens togata). This was certainly a ← 19 | 20 → widespread view. Macrobius (Sat. 6.5) suggests that the phrase gens togata was borrowed by Virgil from the author of mimes Decimus Laberius. Donning his toga, each morning the wealthy patron played out a show before his clients, and they, in turn, conducted themselves in accordance with their own script. An orator in court or the Senate had to pay close attention not just to correct pronunciation and use of correct rhetorical figures; equally important was the dramatic development of the configuration of the folds in his toga.

3. Cicero’s “second persona” – so the individual mask, biologically conditioned – was not an easy role; it could not be played out “by copying the personal traits of others and eliminating one’s own” (Off. 1.111). The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius (3.58) even claims that a person’s real nature only emerges in confrontation with opposition, and when “the mask is torn off” (eripitur persona). One can find a similar view in Petronius’s writing, although the text in two places is contradictory (Sat. 80).

Grex agit in scaena mimum: pater ille vocatur,

filius hic, nomen divitis ille tenet.

Mox ubi ridendas inclusit pagina9 partes,

vera redit facies, dum simulata10 perit.

(A company acts a mime on the stage: one is called the father,

one the son, and one is labelled the Rich Man.

Soon the comic parts are shut in a book,

the men’s real faces come back, and the made-up disappear.)11

Is the use of the theatrical metaphor justified, since the art of the actor, fundamentally, consists in the imitation of other people, not himself? Is the actor himself when he plays the Other, or only and also when he removes the mask and stops performing?

Seneca proposes a radical solution to this dilemma (Ep. 78.21): Ipse te specta, ipse te lauda (Be your own spectator! Seek your own applause!). Here it is not only a matter of analogy, but, in fact, of taking theatrical strategies from artists and applying them in life, to construct oneself, as with a role in the theater. In the Roman world, there existed many ready scripts for different roles. However, above all, it was vital to gain complete control over one’s own performance. If ← 20 | 21 → this was an idea indeed taken from the theater, it also expressed the Roman ambition to rule over one’s own life, other people, and, finally, all of nature. The Romans did not have to build theaters on the sides of mountains (as the Greeks did). Already in the third century BCE, they had invented opus caementicium (DNP 8.1274), that is, concrete. Thus, they could erect freestanding structures and demonstrate their superiority over nature. The Roman saw personal identity as an actorly task. Persona is both a “mask” and a “public person.”

4. In the twentieth century, Michel Foucault referred to the practice of Stoics in his program of the “technology of the self.”12 A human being should create him/herself as an artist does; he/she should be his/her own work of art. All is a construct, even sexuality. “For me, what must be produced is not man himself such as nature designed him, or such as his essence prescribes,” Foucault declares in 1978. “What must be produced is something that absolutely does not exist, about which we know nothing [...] the creation of something totally different, an innovation.”13 This radical position led the philosopher to a radical solution. He was one of the first victims of AIDS, and he died when he became the author of his own uninhibited sexuality, infected by a virus in the gay clubs of San Francisco. Daniel Defert, for many years Foucault’s companion, acknowledged after the philosopher’s death that “He took AIDS very seriously; he took it as a limit experience.”14

Death, or rather suicide, possessed a similar dimension for Roman Stoics. “It is with life as it is with a play,” writes Seneca in his moral letters to Lucilius, “it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is.”15 Roman suicide was a spectacle played out before an audience. When Seneca received the Emperor Nero’s command to commit suicide, he spent his last moments discussing philosophy with friends. He criticized Nero. All he said was intended for publication. When the letting of blood did not bring the desired effect, Seneca requested poison from his physician, the same poison as had been used in Athens to carry out sentence of death. Then he commanded libation be made to Jupiter the Liberator, and he died in clouds of steam. In fact, he played out the role of Socrates to the end, Socrates who after drinking the hemlock, ordered that a ← 21 | 22 → cockerel be sacrificed to Asclepius.16 Seneca was the first philosopher who compared life to a mime, the lowest form of the art of the theater (Ep. 80.7): humanae vitae mimus, qui nobis partes, quas male agamus, adsignat (this mime of human life, wherein we are assigned the parts which we are to play so badly).

5. The Greek theater became famous thanks to the great poets who wrote the dramas, but the Roman theater was ruled by the actor. Here is a fundamental difference. As opposed to the dramatist, the actor leaves few traces behind him. The art of the Roman artists of the stage to a large degree was one of improvisation. Even in surviving dramas by Plautus or Terence, one can find strong traces of an oral culture. Many roles, too, have the quality of improvisation, written down after the performance, or literary imitations of these practices.17 Only recently have scholars begun to see Plautus as a writer for the theater, to a large extent because of the groundbreaking studies of the American philologist Niall Slater. His book Plautis in Performance has done much to enliven studies of the art of the Roman actor.

The history of the Roman theater is full of paradoxes. The actor, who during the play exercised undivided power over the members of the audience, was in everyday life despised by those same people. Everyone who went onstage was automatically excluded from the body of the citizens. The differences between Rome and Athens were fundamental. In the theater, the Attic actor, indeed, only repeated the poet’s words, but an appearance at the Festival of Dionysus was itself a great honor, permitted only to those who could document their Athenian citizenship. In the Theater of Dionysus, the best citizens of the city stepped onstage; in Roman theaters, the actors were slaves, freedmen, and foreigners. The Romans themselves were, of course, well aware of this difference.18

We know more or less the shape of the theater in which the Attic poets put on their plays, although much is still unclear on this matter. But there are no traces of the structures erected for the comedies of Plautus and Terence. When permanent theaters began to be built in Rome, the drama ceased to be popular, and mimes and pantomimes celebrated their triumphs. We have texts of plays, but we do not know in what kind of theaters they were performed. We are able to reconstruct stone-built theaters, for fragments of the buildings have survived, ← 22 | 23 → as have the marble plans of Rome. But there is little we can say about the productions that were put on there.

6. In Rome, as in Greece, there was no repertory theater independent of a religious festival. Theater performances took place exclusively within the framework of festivals. The most important of these were, of course, the games – great religious festivals. They began with spectacular processions and the making of offerings. Ceremonies often took place in several places simultaneously, which perhaps distinguishes Roman festivals from Greek ones. Also in Rome, there was no link between a concrete cult or a god and a theme or type of theatrical show. Today we do not know what were the criteria – if they, indeed, existed at all – for the choice of play for the festival program. Comedies were performed both during the ecstatic ceremonies in honor of Cybele the Great Mother, and during the festival of the Greek Apollo and solemn ceremonial funerals. However, the context of these ceremonies certainly influenced the reception of the shows. Renaissance admirers of the ancient world saw a great humanist in Terence, and liked to cite the sentence from the play Heautontimorumenos (77): homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto (I’m human, and I regard no human business as other people’s).19 This particular comedy was put on in 163 BCE during the notorious festivities of the goddess Cybele, whose priests joyfully castrated themselves in honor of the eunuch Attis. The title of the comedy, which is usually rendered in English as Self-Tormentor, takes on new meanings in this context. The shocking rite created a different framework for the play’s reception than the rituals performed in Athens during the Dionysia.

Roman theatrical shows functioned within yet another, equally important, context. In those same sites where the artists of the theater appeared, spectacles of real death were performed. The actors were not only people, but also animals. From the prolog of Terence’s comedy Hecyra, we know that after the comedy the gladiators were to appear. In other words, the next show in the program of the games was to be a show of spectacular slaughter. Gladiators killed each other or butchered beasts en masse. The animals, in turn, threw themselves on each other or devoured convicts, the enemies of Rome. All these shows expressed and strengthened a militaristic ideology. Theaters were simultaneously temples and monuments to Roman glory, especially military glory. The first permanent theater in Rome was dedicated to the Venus of Victory. ← 23 | 24 →

7. In the Roman theater, there were four separate genres of stage art: the drama, the atellan farce, the mime, and the pantomime. They were fundamentally different from each other. Some were completely improvised, and others employed prepared scripts. In some, masks were always used, and in others only sometimes, and in still others never. Some artists went on stage, others in the street. Some most often sang, others were silent, and still others mostly spoke. To grasp the particularity of Roman theatrical practices, it is necessary to use appropriate tools in the descriptions, and every time to use different tools. In the drama, classical actorly craft was most important. In atellan plays, one performed in a mask. In the mime, the art was one of improvisation. In the pantomime, physical ability was most important. If the source of Roman theatrical practice was, as in Athens, the art of imitation, mimesis, then the Romans developed theater as an art of negotiation. Plautus, when he adapted Greek comedy for the Roman stage, broke it into its component parts and onstage demonstrated how comic strategies worked,20 and at once exaggerating and simultaneously questioning theatrical conventions, he invited the audience to take an active part in constructing the meanings of the show.

The Greeks invented theater. The Romans took the idea and adapted it to their own requirements. What most clearly distinguished Roman artists from their Athenian counterparts, was theater practice. Both theaters functioned in completely different contexts. Cicero (Acad. 1.10) writes that Ennius, Pacuvius, Accius, and others non verba, sed vim Graecorum expresserunt poetarum (have reproduced not the words but the meaning [strength, power, thought, art, content] of the Greek poets).21 Roman actors and poets drew inspiration from native, Italic oral traditions, but also from popular, non-literary culture. Aulus Gellius (2.23.12), in a famous comparison of Menander and Caecilius, considers that the Roman author embodies in his comedy many elements that do not exist in the Greek original, for example, improvised mimes.

8. Suetonius (Aug. 70.1) describes a strange banquet of “twelve gods” that took place in Rome around 40 BCE. The diners appeared in the costumes of the twelve canonical gods and goddesses. Among them was the twenty-three-year-old Octa ← 24 | 25 → vian, the future Caesar Augustus, in the costume of Apollo. As great famine then held the city in its grasp, embittered people remarked with sarcasm that “The gods have eaten all the grain.” Suetonius informs us that it was a “private dinner” and that afterwards many other stories (fabulae)22were told of it. These stories, these fabulae, were an important part of the Roman world, always the more lively and colorful, the more they referred to secret, non-public events. Thus, the ordinary Romans co-created and defined the image and functions of the Emperor. He became an actor in this theater. In the library attached to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, Augustus has his own statue erected in the dress and with the attributes of Apollo, including the god’s cithara.23 Conscious of his role in constructing the reality of the new Rome, on his deathbed Caesar asked his friends if it seemed to them that he played the “mime of life” well.24

An excessive fascination with the theater, in time, led to something of a “revaluation of values,” which is most forcibly expressed by Tacitus in his description of the civil wars of the year of the “four emperors” (69 CE): the common people looked on the bloody and fratricidal struggles as on the games, encouraging with their shouts first one side and then the other. Citizens, degraded to the role of a theatrical audience, were not politically involved in the conflict and did not take part in the events – “They gave way to exultation and joy, wholly indifferent to either side, finding pleasure in public misfortune.”25 ← 25 | 26 → ← 26 | 27 →

1       Chambers (1930), 2.278; Malone (1821), 3.66-67. The link between the motto and the Globe Theatre is, however, based on weak evidence. Arguments for the existence of the text are in: Dutton (1998); contra: Stern (1997).

2       Cf. Edwards (2002); Chaniotis (1997); Kokolakis (1960) (a collection of ancient quotations).

3       DK 68.165 (Demokritus B 115). Trans. Edwards (2002), 377.

4       Resp. 3.395a3-5. Cf. Ion 534c3-4. In the Symposium (223d3), Socrates does, in fact, maintain that the same person should be in a position to write comedy and tragedy, but this is a hypothesis unsupported by any example.

5       Perì autarkeías, fr. 2, ed. Hense (p. 5-20).

6       Edwards (2002), 379.

7       The “theatrical mentalité” of the Greeks in the Hellenistic period has been described by Angelos Chaniotis (1997).

8       Sumi (2005); Dupont (1985), 19-40 (chapter 1. “Une civilisation du spectacle”); Favro (1999).

9       Nisbet suggests pergula (atelier, artist’s workshop); Buecheler suggest machina.

10     Instead of dum simulata, Buecheler proposes assimulata (similar); Dousa suggests dissimulata (dissimilar).

11     Cf. Shakespeare, As You Like It 2.7.138-165.

12     Martin–Gutman–Hutton (1988).

13     Quoted after: Miller (1993), 336.

14     Miller (1993), 381.

15     Ep. 77.20: quomodo fabula, sic vita non quam diu, sed quam bene acta sit, refert. Nihil ad rem pertinet, quo loco desinas. Quocumque voles desine; tantum bonam clausulam inpone.

16     Tacitus, Ann. 15.60-64. Edwards (2002), 391.

17     Slater (2000), 16810.

18     Nepos, Praefatio 1-3, Epaminondas 1.2; Cicero, Rep. 4.11-13; Livy 24.24.3; Tacitus, Dial. 10.5; Augustine, De civ. D. 2.11, 4.28; Ausonius, Ludus septem sapientum 2.22n.

19     In the play, Chremes uses this line to justify his intrusiveness. However, Cicero already uses it as a programmatic catchword for humanism. Cf. Primmer (1966).

20     Hunter (1995), 162.

21     Klaus Lennartz (1994, 25-67) argues that Cicero’s sentence cannot be interpreted as a declaration of the complete latitude of Roman poets in translating Greek tragedy and comedy, because generally they remained faithful to their originals. Faithfulness, however, relates only to several passages in the texts, and not to the entire theatrical practice.

22     Cf. Champlin (2003), 142; Davidson (2000), 57.

23     Pseudo-Acro on Horace, Ep. 1.3.17. Cf. Servius, Ecl. 4.10.

24     Suetonius, Aug. 99.

25     Tacitus, Hist. 3.83: exultabant, fruebantur, nulla partium cura, malis publicis laeti.


Street Theater

1. On November 28, 167 BCE, all temples in Rome were open. Their interiors were filled with garlands and incense. Platforms, on which the audience, dressed in festive snow-white robes, had been gathering since small hours were put up on the Forum Romanum, the Circus Maximus, and along the Sacred Road (Via Sacra). Numerous officials and lictors (lictores)1 were watching over the streets and ensured that the crowd was moving in the right direction. Everybody was eagerly waiting to see the soldiers. On that day, L. Aemilius Paullus (consul in 182 and 168 BCE), was to begin his triumphant entry into Rome, sealing his victory over Perseus, the last of the Macedonian kings. It was an event of great political importance as the fall of the Macedonian monarchy significantly strengthened the hegemony of Rome in Eastern Greece (Polybius 29.27).2

The excitement of the crowd was understandable as during the republican period armed legions were allowed to cross the boundaries of the sacred pomerium and enter the city only during official triumphs. The vote on granting the general a triumph began with his former soldiers attempting to prevent this decision. The tribunes interrupted the vote and gave permission to speak to an old war hero, M. Servilius Pulex Geminus, who, in order to prove that Paullus’s actions were “a true victory,” in a theatrical gesture unveiled his toga and presented the wounds on his chest and on his backside from long hours spent sitting in the saddle.3 Thus, it was expected that Aemilius Paullus would prepare a special spectacle in order to provoke general admiration and to neutralize the claims of his ← 27 | 28 → opponents. The details of this extraordinary spectacle are recorded by Diodorus Siculus (31.7.9-12) and Plutarch (Aem. 32-34).4

2. The processions lasted three days. On the first day, a very crowded day, the Romans watched a parade of sculptures, paintings, and enormous statues, so in other words: stolen works of art brought in from Macedonia. The size of the spoils was enormous because in order to transport all the items two hundred and fifty carts had to be used. From the earliest times, triumphs mainly served the purpose of “showing the spoils.”5 The Horatian saying (Ep. 2.1.156) Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Greece, the captive, made her savage victors captive) can be interpreted literally: artistic influences were spread and reinforced by looting works of art and importing slaves.6

The parade of the spoils was intended to present a successful war within the holy city – a place where there was no war.7 A lack of a procession with spoils during a triumph usually provoked surprise (Livy 31.49.2-3). The further away from Rome the battles took place, the more realistic and militarized was their portrayal during the subsequent triumph. Long military campaigns carried out in distant lands required a detailed “documentation” of the achievements. Thus, the processions dragged along enormous and numerous paintings (often together with their descriptions) that depicted the key moments of the battles, as well as the landscapes of the conquered cities and the surrounding areas. Scenes of the prisoners’ surrender were staged with their involvement on a transportable scaffolding several floors high.8 Plaques with the names of the conquered peoples were also displayed. During his Pontic triumph, Caesar had the famous inscription veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) carried along.9 Aemilius Paullus hired an excellent Greek painter, Metrodoros, to produce images.10 Over time, under Hellenistic influence, the paintings started increasingly to ← 28 | 29 → portray the shocking fate of the vanquished people in order to arouse greater emotions in the viewers.11 The triumphs gradually became the staging of a tragedy. At the end of the fifteenth century, Andrea Mantegna painted for the Gonzaga family a series of nine canvasses entitled The Triumphs of Caesar (now at Hampton Court Palace in London). The Renaissance painter brilliantly illustrated what was known of the lively atmosphere of Roman triumphs and showed what using the paintings in a street procession might have looked like.12

3. The second day of Aemilius Paullus’s triumph began with a parade showing the weapons and armaments that had been won. On this occasion the most beautiful and precious pieces were chosen; the rest of the weapons had been burnt earlier in Amphipolis as offerings to Mars, Minerva, and Lua Mater (Livy 45.33.1-2). During the republican period, burning an opponent’s armor meant a definitive cessation of hostilities. This ritual was last recorded in 86 BCE (Appian, Mith. 45). Usually everything was burnt except spolia opima or provocatoria (the armor stripped off the opponents’ commander) and the items meant to be demonstrated during the triumph. The weapons seized were arranged in a stack (in acervum); then the victorious commander in a traditional gown worn for Roman offerings (cinctus Gabinus)13 would set fire to the weapons (arma cremare)14 in front of the whole army. This ritual must have been of great importance as it was recorded in annals and war reports (litterae: Livy 41.12.6).

Before the triumphal parade, the Macedonian weapons had been cleaned and polished. Helmets, shields, breastplates, quivers, bridles, bare swords, and long pikes were laid on carts in artistically arranged stacks to make them look as if they had been abandoned on the battlefield. The theatrical power of the procession was strengthened by some unusual acoustic effects. As they passed along, the weapons, tightly stuffed into the carts, struck and ground against each other making horrible noises which apparently terrified the audience. There were many carts. However, on this occasion, Plutarch does not provide us with a specific number. The carts with weapons were followed by three thousand men. In fours, they carried gigantic vessels, each containing three talents of silver coins, which could weigh approximately 120 kg. Others carried silver goblets, drinking horns, dishes, and cups, arranged so that everyone could see them. All the items stood out in terms of their size and the richness of the decorations engraved on them.

The spoils were handed over to the public purse and their quantity eliminated the need for the collection of direct taxes (Plutarch, Aem. 38). Paullus kept for himself only the royal library (Aem. 28). He was fascinated with Greek culture, and after the war with Macedonia in the autumn of 168, he went on an archaeological excursion to Greece, starting in Delphi and ending in Olympia (Livy 45.27.5-28.5). However, that did not stop him from following the Senate’s orders ← 30 | 31 → and from plundering Epirus or sanctioning the cruelty of Roman legions in Illyria (45.28-40). After the general died in 160, his sons held a spectacular funeral ceremony in his honor. Two of Terence’s comedies – Hecyra and Adelphoe15 – were scheduled in the program.

4. On the third day, the celebrations were begun at dawn by trumpeters, who did not play the sedate melodies characteristic of processions, but music calling to battle. They were followed by young men wearing purple loincloths who led to sacrificial slaughter one hundred and ten well-groomed oxen, with gilded horns covered in ribbons and wreaths. They were accompanied by boys carrying seventy-seven vessels, each filled with three talents of gold coins. Just behind them were borne a sacred goblet, which Aemilius Paullus had hewn out of ten talents of gold and precious stones, as well as decorative goblets and gold tableware that had belonged to King Perseus. Then the chariot of Perseus went by, carrying his weapons, on which the crown of the Macedonian king was placed. Then, after a short break, surrounded by a crowd of sentinels, guardians and teachers, the royal children, two boys and a girl,16 were led by as slaves. All of them were weeping and reaching out toward the onlookers. Behind them walked Perseus clad in a coarse cloak; he was allowed to keep only traditional Macedonian shoes. He was also surrounded by a group of friends and companions also in tears. To complete the ritual, the commander of the enemy had to be slain at the foot of the Capitol. The prisoners of the state were usually strangled in the Tullianum, the dark and musty basements of the public prison in Rome.17 Only after performing this act of victory had the general the right to enter into the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.

King Perseus was followed by ambassadors carrying four hundred wreaths with which conquered cities paid tribute to the victor. Finally, he appeared himself. The triumphal general rode on an ornate quadriga (currus triumphalis), clothed in purple robes interwoven with gold; he held a branch of laurel in his hand and his face was painted red. Behind him stood a slave who held a golden crown of oak leaves over the victor’s head and whispered into his ear: “Look behind thee; remember thou art a man.”18 Philip II of Macedon tried to protect ← 31 | 32 → himself in this way from becoming too proud after he had defeated the Greeks in the Battle of Chaeronea (Aelianus, VH 8.15). Every morning a slave was to remind him that he was merely human. The line between being a god and being a man was sometimes thin, and to cross it was to risk annihilation. The day Philip was murdered he is said to given an order to carry a statue of himself among the statues of the twelve Greek gods (Diodorus Siculus 16.92.5). The outrage of the “audience” ensured his death. This is much as it was with Caesar, who also had a statue of himself carried around in processions of gods, and in this case the reaction of his contemporaries was unambiguous (Cicero, Att. 13.44.1, Fam. 12.18.2, Phil. 2.43).

5. For the time of the triumph the victorious commander, indeed, became equal to the most important god in the Capitoline triad of gods; however, paradoxically, his sacred status was not too high. During the triumph of Appius Claudius Pulcher, who was consul in 143 BCE, one of the tribunes attempted to pull Pulcher off the cart and his own daughter (or sister), Claudia the Vestal, had to come to his rescue and protect her father with her inviolability.19

When a triumphal general crossed the border of the pomerium, he would put on Jupiter’s attire.20 The cycle of war closed and opened with a change of attire. When the commander set out for a military campaign, he would stop at the border of the holy city for a ceremonial change of clothing (mutatio vestis): he took off his civic toga and put on a military cloak (paludamentum, the general term is sagum).21 This change of dress in religious symbolism meant moving to the war zone, the militia, and at the same time acquiring the relevant competencies (imperium militiae) to take on a new military role. The effect the scene had was strengthened by a fanfare played on trumpets. Putting on purple robes and ← 32 | 33 → hiding one’s face under Jupiter’s “mask” was, in turn, a symbolic act that ended a military campaign. A single man was presented to the world as a universal champion.

During holy days, the face of the statue of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill was also painted red or vermilion.22 The triumphal general played the role of a god for one day to add even more emphasis to the difference between god and human. If an ambitious commander reached for too much and tried to pose as a god, he was harshly reprimanded. Furius Camillus’s account of a triumph in 396 BCE shows that, for example, four white horses harnessed in the triumphant quadriga were too many for a single man.23

In the imperial period, triumphs became exclusively the domain of the emperors and, upon their consent, of their family members.24 From the times of Germanicus and Titus, everyone else, including the commander, could at most receive “triumphal badges” (ornamenta triumphalia).25 In the turbulent times towards the end of the Republic, under Hellenistic influence, a new concept of a victor was developed. Military success was no longer looked on as the effect of the competency of the chief commander of the army, but became the result of his personal qualities, bravery (virtus) and luck (felicitas). Under the Empire, these ideals turned into absolutist concepts: the emperor was an eternal triumphal leader blessed by the gods with superhuman strength and his every appearance was a triumph itself. A separate ritual became redundant.26

6. Behind the triumphal general’s quadriga usually walked Roman citizens who had been freed from slavery. They wore distinctive felt hats called the pilleus which signified their being free people (Petronius 41). The legionaries, their heads decorated with laurel wreaths, closed the procession. The soldiers shouted Io triumpe! or shouted out obscene insults or vulgar chants at the triumphal general.27 These humorous verses were supposed to serve the purpose of magical protection, as did the phallus fastened to the bottom of the triumphal chariot (Pliny, HN 28.39). The ← 33 | 34 → soldiers would sing the verses alternately as a form of dialog.28 Thus, they formed a kind of a chorus in this extremely spectacular show in which the triumphal general played the lead role.

The legionaries did not mince their words. For example, during Julius Caesar’s Gallic triumph, they made fun of their leader’s numerous amours (Suetonius, Iul. 51):

urbani, servate uxores, moechum calvom adducimus

(Men of Rome, protect your wives; we are bringing in the bald adulterer).

This “bald adulterer” was a stupidus, a popular character appearing in mimes (mimus calvus, “the bald mime”); sometimes he was a deceived husband; sometimes he would get in trouble because he was caught while trying to commit adultery; he was always in love and chasing after women. Caesar was famous for his love of mimes.29

The whole city was a set for the triumphal theater. The victorious commander and his soldiers spent the night before the procession on the Field of Mars (initially the whole army was brought there, but from the times of Rome’s expansion, they had to settle only for a part of the army30). In the morning, the commander treated the legions to breakfast, and they formed a procession, the pompa triumphalis. The Senate was already awaiting them at the border of the pomerium near the Triumphal Gate, the porta triumphalis.31 The route, approximately four kilometers long, led through the Forum Boarium and the Circus Maximus along the Palatine toward the Forum Romanum.32 Along the entire route gathered the spectators who, close-packed, filled all the scaffoldings and platforms (Joseph, BJ 7.122). Their reactions were lively and emotional (Propertius 3.4.22). The feelings of the crowd were certainly fueled by the cries of the soldiers. There have also survived some reports of aromatic substances being carried in the procession and also of loud music being played. The triumph of Scipio Africanus over Carthage in 201 BCE was enriched by a choir of cithara players and pipers.33 ← 34 | 35 →

7. When Guy Debord defined the “society of the spectacle” in 1967, he pointed out that a spectacle is a “tool for unification.” The Romans were, more than anybody else, aware of the role that public spectacles played in maintaining internal order. “The success of the government depends on amusements as much as more serious things,” writes Fronto (Principia historiae 17) in the second century CE, “spectacles win over the entire people.” A triumph allowed the Romans to come together and to experience their own superiority over the defeated enemy, meaning the Others. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” explains Debord, “it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”34 Because of this social aspect, the triumph constructed the identity of the citizens and defined their historical and geographical awareness. Cornelius Balbus during his triumph in 19 BCE had people carry in the procession the “names and images [nomina ac simulacra]” of the twenty-five subordinate cities, tribes, rivers, and mountains that had fallen to him (Pliny, HN 5.36-37). Sometimes wild animals brought from a conquered country were led in the procession. Elephants appeared in Rome for the first time in 275 BCE during the triumph of Manius Curius Dentatus over Pyrrhus.35 A hundred years later Aemilius Paullus, probably during the aforementioned triumph, used elephants to trample to death deserters of foreign provenance (Valerius Maximus 2.7.14). In 146 BCE, Scipio Aemilianus cast deserters to be devoured by wild animals (damnatio ad bestias)36 during the triumphal games.

Finally, the procession would stop in front of the Capitol to await the messenger carrying news that the prisoner with the highest rank had been murdered. After returning the wreaths to the temple of Jupiter, sacrifices were offered in front of the sanctuary and a celebratory feast was held, to which the triumphal general invited senators and some of the most prominent citizens,37 except the consuls who, after being officially invited, were asked not to attend38 (the consuls, who had the status of the highest ranking officials in the state, would come into “conflict” with the triumphal general). By the end of the day, the triumphal commander, like an actor in the theater, would take off his costume, get off the stage, and lose his exceptional powers.39 ← 35 | 36 →

8. The Roman triumph derives from the ritual of epiphany. The term triumphus comes from a celebratory cry io triump(h)e, which, in turn, was created from the Greek cry thríambe used in the cult of Dionysus,40 meaning a request to the god to appear. This is similar to the triumpe repeated five times in the finale of the cult song of the Arvale brethren (the carmen arvale) calling on Mars.41 It is unlikely that the ritual was adopted directly from the Greeks. Dionysian triumphs of the Hellenistic period appeared too late to serve as an example for the Roman triumphs. In the light of new research, Etruscan origins of the ritual of the Roman triumph also seem problematic. Henk Versnel has recently argued that the origins of the triumph were New Year and coronation celebrations that the Etruscans brought with them from Asia Minor to Italy, where they became divided into celebrations of the New Year and a victory ritual, which was later brought to Rome. Dominique Briquel, however, convincingly demonstrates that the exodus of the Etruscans from Lydia to Italy described by Herodotus (1.94) was a political fabrication.42 Perhaps the Roman triumph had its roots in the ancient Latin ritual in which the victorious commander climbed the Capitol barefoot as Romulus once did (Plutarch, Rom. 16.5-8; DNP 12.1.837).

During the republican period being granted the opportunity of a triumph depended upon the fulfillment of clearly defined preconditions:

    the victory had to be achieved in a “just war” (bellum iustum: Livy 38.47.5; Gellius 5.6.21), that is, fighting an external enemy;

    the potential triumphal commander had to hold full imperium, meaning the power of the highest official in Rome usually a dictator, a consul, or a praetor;

    the minimum number of slain enemies was also specified, presumably five thousand (Valerius Maximus 2.8.1);

    permission from the Senate, which usually also provided the means to organize the celebration, had to be obtained (this condition could be omitted by personally funding the triumph43).

9. In the Empire, the convention of the triumph became an object of radical manipulation – the triumph turned into theater. In 17 CE, Germanicus was awarded a ← 36 | 37 → triumph, though he had not ended the war with the Germani. In a famous description by Tacitus (Ann. 2.41), “the false [simulacra] mountains, rivers, and battles,” carried along in the triumphal procession became a metaphor for the falsehood [simulacrum] of a victory that was never achieved.44 Caligula went even further: he staged the triumph over the Germani with the help of Gauls whom he forced, not only to grow out their hair and paint it red, but he also made them learn the language of the Germani and adopt their barbaric names.45 Similarly, in order to have his triumph over the Germani in 83 CE, Domitian bought people who had the desired appearance.46 The procession of the fake prisoners and images of battles that never took place made such a triumph a simulacrum à la Baudrillard, a copy without the original. It was yet another testimony to the creativity of the Romans. Theater and theatrical strategies dominated reality: in the ancient spectacle the mask of Oedipus was Oedipus himself; in a false triumph, appearance had an equally powerful status.

Hadrian, on the other hand, turned a triumph into a funeral procession. The Emperor Trajan succumbed to a variety of illnesses during his military campaign before he was able to celebrate his victory over the Parthians. Thus, the senate asked Hadrian, Trajan’s successor, to lead a triumphant procession for the deceased. However, Hadrian refused and ordered that an effigy (imago) of his predecessor seated in the triumphal cart be driven through the streets of Rome. The triumph and the funeral had fused into a new kind of a spectacle.47

10. It is likely that during the Roman Games (ludi Romani) at the beginning of the second century BCE, a comedy by Plautus, Amphitruo, premiered; it was something of a parody of triumphs.48 This time, it is a god who turns into a mortal, the eponymous Amphitruo, for a day, so that in the absence of the commander he might be able to experience worldly pleasures with the commander’s wife Alcmene. Amphitruo comes back home a victor; thus, he most likely must have worn the triumphal general’s robes similar to those worn by the official who organized the games. In a kind of a reversal of roles, Jupiter embodies himself in Amphitruo; therefore, he appears in the triumphal commander’s costume; at the same time both the god and the commander in the play resemble the organizer of ← 37 | 38 → the games, the main spectator, a person from outside the performance. The line between the play and real life was blurred.

King, god, triumphal commander, and the sponsor of the public games would all put on the same costume in order to play their roles. Rome was a set for numerous theatrical performances staged using specifically established and similar conventions, which allowed the spheres of the military, religion, and entertainment to influence and reinforce each other. People who did not participate in the campaigns directly could learn about the history of the war by taking part in this special street theater that was the triumphal procession. A triumph was a medium through which the Romans constructed and learned their own history.

The Mask

1. In 91 BC, the tribune of the plebs Livius Drusus decided to build a house on the slopes of the Palatine Hill. However, when the architect started to draw out his visions for him saying that he would design the villa so that “he would be free from public gaze, safe from all espionage,” Livius interrupted him authoritatively: “If you possess the skill you must build my house in such a way that whatever I do shall be seen by all” (Velleius Paterculus 2.14.3). Shortly afterwards the house was built and it was perfectly visible from the Forum Romanum, designed in a way that allowed everyone to see what Livius Drusus was doing at a given moment. Also his killers. That very same year, they entered his house through the open door and the resident, who intended to reform the country too much, was slain in rather unclear circumstances.49 After many years, the property was taken over by the famous rhetorician Cicero. He did not like to close his doors either. He would proudly say: “My house stands full in view of well-nigh the whole city.”50

A Roman villa with the door open resembled a theatrical mask with a large hole for the mouth. In the theater, the actor’s voice would exit through that hole. The doorway served a similar purpose. Every passer-by could peep inside and see the official image of the family living in the mansion. A series of dark corridors ended in a gigantic closet. It was perfectly visible, as it was illuminated by the sunlight entering the open atrium from above – a spectacular theatrical effect according to Pliny (HN 35.6). Inside the closet, boxes with masks (imagines) depicting some of the most outstanding family ancestors were placed. The number of the masks depended upon the status of the family. They were granted only to those who held the highest positions in the country (starting with aedile and ← 38 | 39 → above). All these positions were elected, so having a mask was a sign of the citizen’s popularity and was to promote the family during the next election. When the boxes were closed, they bore inscriptions with names. For major holidays the closet was opened. A remarkable political theater was played out on the streets of Rome. The houses-masks presented their owners in the form of the masks of the ancestors to the passers-by. Closed doors signified mourning.51

2. Every morning, in front of the closet with the masks, an unusual theatrical ritual called salutatio or “greeting” took place: clients (clientes) would demonstrate their loyalty and respect for their patron.52 A cliens was a free man who would offer his services to another man called a patronus and, in return, expect the protection of the latter. This position was often hereditary. During the salutatio the clients always wore white togas.53 They would gather around in the atrium as early as at dawn and wait on special benches.54 The first ones who were able to enjoy the privilege of greeting the man of the house were his friends and the most distinguished citizens, one at a time or in small groups. Each guest was announced by a special slave, a nomenculator (Plutarch, Cic. 36). Pliny wrote (HN 29.19): “We recognize our acquaintances with the eyes of the others, rely on others’ memory to make our salutations.” Initially, the greeting was limited to a handshake, in the early imperial period sometimes to a kiss, but in the first century CE the custom of kissing the patron’s hand, chest, or knee was established. The salutatio took up to two hours every morning. After the ceremony the patronus escorted by the clientes would go to the Forum to take his seat in the senate or the court, or just to make an appearance. The parade of the clients was a public manifestation of the patron’s social status.

During the salutatio the line between the private and public spheres became blurred.55 This, in turn, created an opportunity for abuse as demonstrated by a shocking report from Valerius Maximus (3.2.1). When the intransigent republican Cato was still a boy, as a part of his education, his teacher would often take him to the salutatio at the dictator Sulla’s where young Cato could run around private rooms and even sit on the dictator’s bed. On one occasion, the whole atrium was filled with severed heads of Sulla’s political enemies slain under the ← 39 | 40 → proscriptions he had established. They must have provided a shocking contrast to the imagines of the Cornelius family standing on the shelves.56 Having seen the bloody heads, the appalled boy confessed to his teacher that had he had a knife, he would have killed the cruel host. He was not the only one who came up with such an idea. It was actually during a salutatio when the supporters of Cataline, to whom Cicero had shown little kindness, attempted to murder him (Cicero, Cat. 1.10, Sull. 52; Sallust, Cat. 28.1).

3. A limited range of records makes the reconstruction of the origins of salutatio impossible. Polibius (31.29.8) suggests that in the second century BCE this activity was routine for young aristocrats. It was also time consuming. The decree of Abdera (166 BCE), preserved in the inscription of Teos (SIG3 656.26), apart from praising the officials for their diplomatic success in Rome, also mentions the “daily cycles of the visits to the atria.”57 The politicization of the ceremony was a result, inter alia, of the actions of Livius Drusus.58 He needed support for his reforms very urgently and was looking for new ways of increasing his political resources. In order to give the meetings with the patron a higher profile, clients were divided into three categories. The most important and influential people were invited to private meetings. Clients of the second category had to wait for hours in the atrium. They were allowed to see the patron only in groups. Ordinary people, on the other hand, were not allowed to set foot inside the house. That way influential citizens felt privileged and were more eager to help, while in the atrium in front of the masks, which symbolized the family’s prestige, more guests were crammed together and that for some time, which also certainly must have had a significant psychological impact.

In the troubled times towards the end of the Republic, the atrium turned into a waiting room for political supporters. Seneca (Ben. 6.34.5) complained that true friends were not to be found there. Placing the severed heads next to the imagines was Sulla’s great demonstration of power. The salutatio would more and more often welcome gladiators and plain criminals, whom the citizens would organize into regular gangs. With their help in the 50s BCE, men like Clodius Pulcher or Annius Milo attempted to gain control of the Forum Romanum, the main stage of the Roman political theater.59 ← 40 | 41 →

4. Masks of the officials have not survived as they were made of wax. Their existence, however, is confirmed by many literary documents and inscriptions.60 Made while the person was still living at the peak of his career, they were supposedly very realistic and could be put over one’s head. During solemn funerals, artists were hired to wear them. In the processions that led from the atrium towards the Forum Romanum, actors in wax masks and ceremonial costumes usually walked at the front, before the cortège with the body. Perhaps one of them would appear in the imago of the deceased himself. In his account of the funeral of Vespasian (79 CE), Suetonius (Vesp. 19.2) tells an anecdote about a mime actor, Favor, who during the procession of the late emperor was made fun of his meanness while wearing the mask of the emperor himself.

The highlight of the funeral spectacle was a speech given in praise of the dead (laudatio) on the public podium (Rostra) at the Forum Romanum. The ancestors (played by actors) were seated on ivory chairs most likely in chronological order. They were an important and usually the most spectacular part of the ceremony. For example, at Sulla’s funeral, 600 imagines performed. According to Polybius (6.53.1), the body of the deceased was also placed upon the Rostra, next to the speaker, in a seated position, sometimes lying down. The theatrical fiction and reality would overlap.

A laudatio was usually given by the deceased’s son. He would defend the high position of his family by recalling the achievements of its most distinguished members, who “were seated” in the front rows. The presence of the imagines was a noticeable proof of the family’s popularity and could be an important incentive for future voters. However, that was where the actors would finish playing their roles; they did not accompany the deceased to the burial site. Imagines had, indeed, nothing to do with death masks. Their role was, above all, political.

Political Theater

1. The more enlightened among the Romans were outraged (Cicero, Phil. 3.5.12): nudus, unctus, ebrius est contionatus (he made a public speech naked, oiled, and drunk). Not only did he speak at the Forum, but also participated in one of the oldest and most important religious rituals in the country as a priest. Consul Mark Antony, because he is the person in question here, was one of the main actors in the political theater which dominated the public life of the late Republic. On February 15, 44 BCE, he gave an extraordinary performance for the Romans. ← 41 | 42 →

That day, the entire city gathered at the Forum Romanum in anticipation of the finale of the ritual of the Luperci priests,61 who, since as long as anyone could remember, once a year had run around the holy city whipping passers-by with leather straps. Traditionally, they were naked. In 45 BC, a new collegium was added to the order of the Luperci, the Luperci Iulii. Just like the already existing ones, the Luperci Faviani and Luperci Quinctiales,62 the new collegium was named after a famous family. This time it was the gens of Julius Caesar, the main director of the events at the time. Mark Antony was the head of the new collegium of the Luperci. So when, at one point, he stormed into the crowd completely naked, probably hardly anyone was surprised. Nudity was a part of the ritual costume of a Lupercus. Only when Antony jumped onto the podium and put a royal diadem wrapped with laurel leaves on Caesar’s head, did the crowd freeze in shock.

Julius Caesar, in a golden crown and a purple cape, watched the Lupercalia from above. The golden throne that he sat upon was placed on the public podium, the Rostra Caesaris, which Caesar had put up on the northern side of the Forum. The new podium – three and a half meters high – had the best view of the whole square. At the same time, it was the most visible spot.63

Having the diadem put on his head made Caesar not the first among the spectators, but the first actor. The Forum became silent. According to Appian (BCiv. 2.16.110), only a few people clapped, the majority gasped in fear and held their breath. Everybody was now looking at the podium. The diadem was an easily recognizable attribute of the Greek Hellenistic kings of the East, a symbol of monarchy not compatible with the political system of the Roman Republic. “The rejection of monarchy was an essential part of Roman political culture.”64 Anyone able to present compelling evidence could slay a pretender to the throne (Plutarch, Publ. 12.1). Thus, Plutarch is to be trusted (Caes. 61.3-4) when he claims that once Caesar had finally rejected this prop burdened with different meanings, the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. ← 42 | 43 →

Antony, however, did not give up: he put the diadem on Caesar’s head again, then fell at his feet and began begging him on his knees to accept the royal in-signia.65 The crowd froze again and then once again burst out with enthusiasm when Caesar once again refused the diadem and had it sent to the Capitol to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the rightful king of Rome (Suetonius, Iul. 72.9). The dress rehearsal, as Plutarch referred to these events many years later (Caes. 61.4), of claiming absolute power was over.

2. That was political theater at its finest. Let us examine its key elements. First – the setting. The new public podium, the Rostra Caesaris, was built by Julius Caesar at the beginning of 44 BCE. At least that is what Cassius Dio (43.49.1) claims, adding that on this occasion also the knights’ statues of Sulla and Pompey, which had been destroyed by the plebs, were restored.66 On the podium itself two new statues of Caesar were placed. The first one depicted him as the savior of the citizens, wearing a wreath of oak leaves (Corona Civica). Such an honor was granted only for saving the life of a Roman (Gellius 5.6.11-14). The second monument depicted Caesar as the liberator of a besieged city, since his head was crowned with Corona Obsidionalis, which was considered the highest honor.67 The presence of the statues certainly added superhuman attributes to the living Julius Caesar; it strengthened the “stage presence” of the role he played. The royal crown on Caesar’s head, like another prop, was to complete this series of honors.

The public podium, three-and-a-half meters high, introduced a hierarchy to the area of the Forum Romanum. The person who stood upon it would look at the others from above. He became elevated, and not only in a physical sense. The public podium had the status of a temple, templum. It was dedicated to the gods. All the gatherings around the Rostra would begin with prayers68 led by a special ← 43 | 44 → official (Livy 39.15.1). The public podium granted the speaker auctoritas (from augere, “to increase”); the politician automatically gained religious attributes.

The old public podium was located probably in front of the seat of the Senate, Curia, and it was a part of the Comitium, the heart of the Republic, a traditional place of public gatherings where the citizens had made the most important decisions in the country since ancient times. Knowing that the architectural structure of the Comitium represented the most radical republican principles, Caesar began a complete reconstruction of the northern part of the Forum Romanum in 54 BCE. He had the old Rostra torn down, and the new one was moved to another location, so that it was free of the original context and would fit into his own political program.69 As a result, the Comitium lost its meaning. The imperial hierarchy manifested itself in the new architecture of the Forum. Caesar made a symbolic transformation from the Republic to the Empire.

3. The actors and the spectators. In Antony’s and Caesar’s spectacle the roles were not predetermined; they were rather a subject for negotiation. Frist – Antony. He begins as the protagonist of the ritual theater; since he is naked, he is wearing the costume of the Luperci and hence he has the status of a priest. However, when he steps onto the Rostra the religious spectacle turns into a political one. The moment he puts the diadem on Caesar’s head, Antony wants to crown a new king. While a new protagonist – Caesar – is brought to life, Antony steps back into the position of the supporting actor, and then becomes a spectator: he closely observes Caesar’s behavior, as well as the reaction of the Romans huddled beneath the podium. With his actions, Antony is trying to convince the public that Caesar is a king. His efforts, however, do not have the expected success. He has to back down. He does not get to play his role to the end: he does not become the “king-maker” in the finale of this play.

Caesar, on the other hand, starts as a spectator, first among the spectators; thus, someone who is also being observed. Sitting upon his golden chair in a purple cloak and a golden crown lined with precious stones, he looks like a god.70 He is wearing a triumphal costume, like the one a victorious general would don on the day of a ceremonial procession. After the sudden turn of events, Caesar is appointed the main actor, but he is also a keen spectator. He closely follows the reactions of the Romans, based on which he then determines his subsequent ← 44 | 45 → behavior. However, more than anything else, Caesar appears as the director and perhaps the producer of the entire event.

Initially, the people gathered at the Forum are merely spectators, soon however, they realize that they were chosen to play perhaps the most important role of all. It is they who will determine the final “message of the play.” Whoever wanted to rule Rome could not afford to ignore the plebs. Applause during the spectacle was a powerful factor in the struggle for power. The theater became almost synonymous with the eternal city, which was most accurately expressed by Cicero in the famous phrase (Sest. 116, cf. 106): theatrum populusque Romanus (the theater and the people of Rome).

4. Action. The political theater became a part of the religious ceremony of the Lupercalia.71 Celebrated every year on February 15 (Inscr.Ital. 13.2, p. 409), it was one of the oldest Roman holidays. An ancient brotherhood (sodalitas) of the Luperci (Latin, Lupercii, from lupus, “wolf,” and lupa, “she-wolf”)72 was responsible for the festival. The celebrations began at the foot of the Palatine hill, in a cave called the Lupercal.73 According to Plutarch (Rom. 21.6), first the Luperci sacrificed a goat and a dog, and then two boys from excellent families were brought before them. While some of the Luperci would spread the blood of the killed animals across the boys’ foreheads with a sacrificial knife, others would immediately wipe it off with a piece of wool soaked in milk. The boys were supposed to laugh while they had the blood spread across their foreheads. In the finale of the celebrations, the Luperci, naked or, at most, clothed in a “loincloth”74 made from the skin of the freshly killed goat, would run around Rome and strike passers-by with goat straps. Young women were particularly keen to be so struck,75 as they believed that the touch of the strap would make them more fertile and change their social status from a wife (nupta) to a mother (mater) (Ovid, Fasti 2.425-448). ← 45 | 46 →

As for the route of the run, ancient sources are not consistent. Some sources claim that, indeed, the Luperci ran around the Palatine,76 but others use the word discurrere, which means “to run this way and that.”77 Varro once writes that they ran along the Via Sacra78; another time, he refers to the ritual as “circling around the ancient city on the Palatine.”79 Thus, he categorizes the ritual, as a few other authors do,80 as a cleansing ritual (lustratio).81 Because of the inconsistency of the sources, today we can merely speculate. Most likely the Luperci would start their ritual run from the cave of the Lupercal; perhaps they would run all day around the Palatine, and in the evening they would storm onto the Forum Romanum, like the consul Antony, to make the final sacrifice near the Comitium and the Rostra.

Even though the ancient commentators did associate the Lupercalia with magical fertility,82 the meaning of the fairly enigmatic ritualistic activities is impossible to elucidate. The Luperci starred in a specific kind of ritual theater. The costumes and the props were made from the skin of the slain goat. Although the theories claiming that Greek tragedies stemmed from a choreographic agon in which, according to, for example Virgil and Horace, the price could have been a goat,83 may seem analogous, there are no sources that allow us to put these two events together. Similarly the connection between the goat (trágos) and the tragedians (tragōidoí) has recently come under a massive attack from experts.84

The scenic/stage actions of the priests, who embodied wolves, were running around the Palatine and striking the audience with the straps. This primitive proto-theater served a very important therapeutic purpose. When in 276 BCE, despite the presence of the Greek god and healer Asclepius, Rome was struck by a plague of miscarriages and stillbirths, whipping women during the Lupercalia was used as a cleansing ritual.85 ← 46 | 47 →

Nowadays, it is difficult to assess whether the ancient Lupercalia had any influence on the origin and development of the theater in Rome. Although the Luperci were sometimes referred to as dancers (ludii86), were they actually doing anything other than, in the words of Varo, “running this way and that”? Were their steps a part of at least some basic choreography? Did they make stylized gestures when they beat people with straps? This is unknown. However, it was on the slopes of the Palatine Hill over the famous Lupercal cave, where the censors M. Valerius Messala and C. Cassius Longinus wanted to put up the first permanent theatrical construction in Rome in 154 BCE.87

Choosing the slopes of Palatine, perhaps below the Temple of Great Mother Cybele (dedicated in 191 BCE) as a spot for the stone theater seems to suggest that theater had been thriving around the Lupercal cave for a long time; after all, it was where, as part of the Megalesia (ludi Megalenses), several years earlier the comedies of Terence (Andria – 166 BC., Hecyra – 165, Heautontimorumenos – 163, Eunuch – 161) had been performed.

5. Interpretations. The myths surrounding the Lupercalia connect the ritual with Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome. That is probably why Caesar chose this particular holiday for his coronation. It was believed that it was in the Lupercal grotto that the she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus with her own milk. The festival was supposed to recall the brothers’ youthful years, when they were still shepherds, as well as “to transport” the Romans to the wild times before the city was founded and its social institutions were established.88 The holiday restored the relationship between the citizens and the primary energies; thus, it played a fundamental role in establishing the unity of the young state. Running around the Palatine had a particularly symbolic character. This is the oldest of the Seven Hills of Rome and is traditionally considered the place of first settlement.89 The festival was also a carnival90 and perhaps that is why it lasted for such a long time – until 495 AD when Gelasius I, Bishop of Rome, is thought to have forbidden ← 47 | 48 → Christians to participate in it and transformed the Lupercalia into the celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.91

In the Roman theater the spectators and the actors would often switch roles, which is one of the typical characteristics of a Roman play. A role to be played in a drama was only a negotiable suggestion. Roman theater belonged to artisans. The artist, usually a highly skilled professional, would show off his acting skills in front of an audience and for that he was valued the most. Antony and Caesar failed as actors because they never managed to play their parts in accordance with the intended script, and during their performance they had to improvise. However, another interpretation is also possible. Perhaps everything went according to plan, provided that the main purpose of the show was to convince the plebs that Caesar had renounced the royal title. As a descendant of the Roman kings and a consul, he actually had complete, or even absolute, power.92 When two weeks earlier during a triumphal parade (ovatio) people had attempted to call him King, he shouted to them: “I am not King, I am Caesar!”93

However, some of the spectators surely saw the political spectacle played out during the Lupercalia as a failure of both the protagonists; perhaps they even considered it an indication of Caesar’s losing his popularity. Thus, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They believed that murdering Caesar at that specific time would not upset anyone and that the Senate would easily regain control of the city. The intentions of the conspirators were indeed noble; they wanted to save republican values. However, if we think that Caesar had miscalculated and poorly predicted the reaction of the crowd, the conspirators also made a serious mistake. They underestimated the theatrical genius of Antony.

The Forum Romanum as a Stage

1. Halfway through Plautus’s comedy Curculio (462-486), the choragus, the costume supplier, enters the stage and, in an extraordinary monolog directed to the audience, gives a detailed description of the Forum Romanum. The choragus, being an ambiguous individual himself, because of his involvement in the play as a private person in addition to playing one of the characters, suggests that the Greek Epidaurus, where the comedy is set, and Rome, where the play is being ← 48 | 49 → performed, are the same place. The text of the monolog tells us that the actor spoke from a wooden stage set up on the eastern side of the Forum, in the place where Caesar’s body would later be burned upon a pyre.

The choragus is at once present in the world of fiction and in reality94: first he praises the cunning lies of the main character of the play, then he complains that he is worried whether he will get back the costumes he rented, and finally, pointing his right hand at the Comitium with the public podium, he says that is where the audience can witness a true perjurer (periurus, 470), that is, one of the emblematic characters of the comedy – a pandar. Then he gazes in the direction of the Shrine of Venus Cloacina, where one can find a “liar and a braggart” (mendax et gloriosus, 471), bearing resemblance to the title character of another of Plautus’s comedies, The Braggart Soldier (Miles gloriosus). Further to the right, hiding in the shadow of the basilica are individuals resembling the “lecherous old man” from the comedy; those are the “rich and married wasters” (dites damnosi mariti, 472). There are also “grown-up prostitutes” (scorta exoleta, 473) there. Strolling along the eastern side of the Forum are the “decent and wealthy people” (boni homines atque dites, 475); closer to the canal are “the showoffs” (ostentatores, 476). The quarrelsome and arrogant individuals are opposite the stage, on the western side (477-479), where they can accuse each other in front of the praetor’s tribune. Next, the choragus turns to his left, or south, and points to the “Old Shops” (tabernae veteres) with usurers standing in front them, and the temple of Castor and Pollux, where the bankers congregated. Further south are the pandars and prostitutes, as well as bakers, butchers, and bards.

The choragus fills the whole Forum Romanum with typical comic characters present also in Curculio. The theater does not transport the audience to a fictional world, as in Athens, but transforms the existing topography of Rome into the stage. After the choragus’s monolog, four characters enter the stage – a parasite, a virgin, a pandar, and a banker. They are coming from a brothel, presumably located on the left-hand side of the stage, so corresponding to the temple of the Vestal Virgin (the temple of Vesta), a symbol of feminine purity. Earlier, at the beginning of the play, an amusing procession of slaves carrying props needed for the feast had entered the stage from the opposite direction, from the Via Sacra, upon which triumphal processions and funeral ceremonies were held. If there was a main entrance in the center of the stage, then behind it was the Regia, a rather small building in the shape of a trapezium, in which the chief priest, the ← 49 | 50 → Pontifex Maximus, officiated. Holy objects were held there, along with the calendar (fasti) and the city chronicle (annales maximi).95

In fact, no testimony confirms that Curculio was staged at the Forum Romanum, but it is known that plays were performed there. It is hard to imagine this play having been staged anywhere else. Plautus conducts complex negotiations with the audience. Not only does he imply that the grotesque characters in his “Greek” comedies actually live in Rome, he also demonstrates how the city itself could become a part of the play as one of its characters. Roman politicians well understood this lesson.

2. On March 20, 44 BCE, in the absence of the rightful heir Octavian, Antony was chosen to preside over the funeral ceremony of the murdered Caesar. It was the last funeral spectacle of the republican elite and a sign of a new era in Rome’s history – of the autocracy. When the magnificent procession finally reached the Forum Romanum, Caesar’s body in an ivory coffin was raised upon the Rostra Caesaris, the same public podium from which a month before the living Caesar had watched the Lupercalia.

This time, Antony himself directed the whole performance. He also played the lead role. It was he who gave the rousing eulogy in front of the crowd gathered at the Forum.96 At the end he held out his hand towards the Capitol and called out loudly: “Jupiter, guardian of this city, and ye other gods, I stand ready to avenge him as I have sworn and vowed!” He then girded his toga to keep the fabric from slipping, stood in front of the body – “as in a play,” Appian noted (BCiv. 2.146) – and, leaning forward, he began to chant a song about the merits of the deceased. Suddenly, he tore the clothes off Caesar’s body and held the fabric high on the end of a spear so that everybody could see it, bloodstained and shredded by daggers. The shocked crowd, as if a chorus in a tragedy, divided into two groups that would burst out in lament one after the other. Then, a man, probably an actor and maybe wearing a wax mask resembling Caesar, took on the role of the mourned leader. First, he spent a long time listing all the good things that the victim did for his killers – “Caesar himself was supposed to speak” (Appian), then he presumably recited the canticum from Pacuvius’s tragedy Armorum iudi ← 50 | 51 → cium (fr. 45 Warmington): “Saved I these men that they might murder me”97 and a similar fragment from Atilius’s Electra. Finally, someone held up a wax statue of a naked Caesar over the rostrum; the revolving figure allowed everyone to see the twenty-three wounds on his body and face. Someone lit Caesar’s pyre, the trumpeters and actors tore off their ceremonial robes, tossing the shreds into the flames, veterans of the legions followed their lead and did the same with their parade armor, while women, on the other hand, threw their jewelry and children’s clothing into the fire. It is no wonder that after such a spectacle the crowd took up torches and rushed to find the murderers. The Forum was a sacred place; this is where they would bury their dead in ancient times; it was also there, near the public Rostrum, that Varro placed the tomb of Romulus, adding that this is also the reason why it was customary to give “funeral orations” (laudatio funebris)98 on the rostrum.

3. At the end of the republican period, the Forum Romanum became the scene of a fierce battle for influence. On the very day of Caesar’s murder, one of the assassins, Brutus, called a contio (from co-ventio, “to gather”), a gathering of citizens during which politicians would make their case in front of the assembled people.99 Although, no decisions could be made there, it was the only gathering in Rome during which everyone was allowed to participate and say almost anything they wanted. In terms of manipulation, the contiones exceeded today’s media. The only problem was getting to the public podium. Nobody could set foot on it without an official invitation. Permission to speak was granted by an official, usually the Tribune of the Plebs. Asking the speaker questions was also not allowed; so speeches turned into monodramas, although any audience reactions, especially outbursts of enthusiasm, were welcomed. In this aspect, hired claqueurs, called laudiceni – from laudare, “to praise” and cena, “dinner” – were very helpful. Pliny (Ep. 2.14.4-8) describes these “dinner-time applauders” very vividly in one of his letters. They were paid well: up to three denarii per performance. They openly accepted bribes in court. Sometimes they formed professional groups with leaders who communicated with their people using special signs. ← 51 | 52 → Pliny emphasizes that claqueurs paid attention only to the signs, and they did not listen to the speeches. The Ludi Apollinares, organized with pomp at the beginning of July (from July 7 to 13) to help Brutus redeem himself, were interrupted by a group of such shouters “hired” by Octavian.100 They turned out to be more aggressive than Brutus’ claqueurs.

With time, specific conventions, which served as means of communication between the speakers and the audience,101 evolved, much like in the theater. Cicero used to say (Amic. 26.97): in scaena, id est in contione (onstage, that is at a contio).102 Indeed, orators would often watch great actors at work. They well knew that it was not the truth itself that was the most important, but what the audience believed to be true. Rhetoric teachers, thus, recommended using gestures, as it was the only way to evoke emotions in listeners. Quintilian (Inst. 11.3.137-148) even believed that a good public speaker ends his speech dripping with sweat with his toga falling on the sides. Showing “signs of fatigue” and having “messy hair” also proves very effective. However, when speakers made their performances too theatrical, they would be severely reprimanded. As a result of overusing vigorous hand movements, the great orator Quintus Hortensius was nicknamed Dionysia, which was the name of a female dancer popular at the time (Gellius 1.5.3).

Brutus did not manage to convince the people that murdering Caesar was the right thing to do. His arguments defending the abstract concept of republican values did not appeal to the imagination of the plebs. Fearing the wrath of the people the killers had to flee Rome. The stage on the Forum was slowly being taken over by a new actor, Octavian, Caesar’s rightful heir. He began with gradually eliminating his opponents. First of all, he had to dispose of the very popular and efficient Antony. The conflict between them soon turned into a spectacular show. Antony would present himself to the world as the god Dionysus, Octavian as Apollo. However, Antony-Dionysus was already far away by then, at Cleopatra’s side in Egypt, while Octavian-Apollo persevered in Rome and turned this to his advantage with considerable effectiveness. He turned out to be an excellent public speaker (and actor). He did not hesitate to slander and gossip to defeat his enemy. After achieving a decisive victory over Antony, Octavian, Julius Caesar’s son, continued his father’s work and put up his own buildings and symbols around the whole city.103 The Forum Romanum became the show-place square ← 52 | 53 → of the Julian dynasty. More and more buildings were erected as settings for the never-ending spectacle of imperial power.

When on January13, 27 BCE, Octavian officially renounced the title of triumvir, as he supposedly said, to give the Republic back to the Senate and the people, all the senators begged him on their knees to keep his power and after three days they gave him the authority that raised his auctoritas (title and rights) above all other citizens. The Senate also gave him the title of Augustus. For himself, Octavian Augustus kept only the title of princeps, first among equals.104 From then on, the audience – the Senate, the cities, associations, and individuals – took the matter of glorifying the ruler into their own hands. Augustus’s principate was a masterful theatrical creation: incessant spectacle masked the reality of the rule of a single man.

The system created by Augustus turned out to be extremely durable as well. The young Emperor Caligula who, as Alois Winterling (2003) has recently claimed, attempted to expose the hypocrisy of the “style of the principate” and did not want to play his role in the deceptive spectacle, was soon murdered. The aristocrats also made sure to paint a picture to the later generations of the young ruler as a crazed maniac.105

4. The city was not only a backdrop for Roman spectacles, but also actively participated in them. “For our annual sacrifices,” explains Livy (5.52.2), “the days are no more fixed than are the places where they may be performed.” For example, whoever was giving a speech from the Rostra on the Forum Romanum, that is, stepped onto a public podium holding the rank of a temple, was temporarily treated as a priest. The term orator, “speaker,” comes from orare, “to address the gods.” And those gods were present at the Forum in the form of numerous statues and temples dedicated to them. The speakers would actively take advantage of this presence. When C. Gracchus wanted to emphasize that he was in a hopeless position, he probably raised his hands towards the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol and exclaimed: “Unhappy that I am, where am I to go? Where am I to turn? To the Capitol? But the Capitol drips in my brother’s blood.” Then pointing to his own house, he added: “Or to my home? To see my unhappy mother lamenting ← 53 | 54 → and despondent?” His speech made such an impression on the audience that all of them started crying, even his enemies.106

To accuse Catiline of treason Cicero called the senators not to the Curia, where the Senate usually sat, but to the temple of Jupiter Stator, or Savior. This building commemorated the saving of Rome from invaders. During the speech, Cicero (Cat. 1.11.33) turned to the statue of Jupiter twice begging him for support in the fight against a new enemy. Another time, during a defense speech, he compared the status and the character of the accused to some key buildings and places on the Forum Romanum.107

The area of the forum was used not only for eulogies and contiones, but also for business and money exchange. The square was surrounded by numerous shops and workshops (tabernae). They had triumphal shields and pieces of armor hanging out front. Above them, on the first floor, there were galleries for the audience called maeniana. Numerous spectacles could be observed from these galleries. Public executions, gladiator combats, theatrical performances, and, above all, trials were organized on the Forum Romanum. Valerius Maximus (9.12.7) reports that a defendant, who was watching his own trial from such a gallery, expecting the death penalty, committed suicide. Once Cicero, who was conducting the trial, heard the news, he refrained from making a ruling.

5. What also happened quite often was that the lively reactions of the crowd influenced the decisions made by the judges. The speaker addressing the judges (iudices) also addressed the huge crowd gathered on the Forum. Cicero mentions that when all the people of Rome gathered together in 67 BC, not only was the square crowded, but all the nearby temples as well. Today it is estimated that the Forum had a capacity of more than twenty thousand people.108

The escalation of competition between the elite members of the last two republican generations resulted in a manipulation of the space of the Forum. The central square was equipped with underground passageways and as many as twelve shafts, which could be used for staging theatrical entrances and exits.109 Traditionally, this construction used to be associated with gladiator combats and hunting events organized in 46 BCE by Caesar, who had roofs made of ← 54 | 55 → linen cloth spread over the whole Forum and a part of the Via Sacra.110 Until the Theater of Pompey was built in 55 BCE, the Forum Romanum served as the only permanent theater in Rome.111

The Triumph of the Artist

1. Later Emperors took a lesson from Augustus and, to the extent that their talent or dispositions permitted, used “the power of images” to strengthen their authority. One of the most remarkable spectacles in the history of the Roman theater of power, later named by the common people the Golden Day,112 was played out in May 66 CE. The author, director, and one of the two actors in leading roles was L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, that is, the Emperor Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, a descendant of Augustus, an ambitious artist, who happened to be Emperor as well.113 Under his reign, Rome was transformed into a work of art. Nero’s theatrical talent matched that of the Divine Augustus, if not, indeed, excelling it.

The first act of the Golden Day was played out on the Forum Romanum. The date was announced to the Romans by means of a special edict; however, because of a cloudy sky the celebrations had to be postponed. The sun was to play a key role in the spectacle. The clouds finally passed. The spectators had to come to the Forum at night. Everybody wore white festive gowns customary for the theater. Curious to see yet another extravagance of their famous Emperor, the Romans came in great numbers. They were divided according to their status following the regulations that Augustus had established for theater audiences. However, the number of people exceeded the number of seats on the Forum. People sat on roofs of all the buildings which surrounded the Forum, much like the highest wooden sectors of a theater.

At dawn, along with the rising sun, Nero appeared probably on the eastern side of the Forum. He was accompanied by senators and guards. The emperor, wearing the purple dress of a triumphal general, walked slowly through the audience towards the north-west side to take his place on the ceremonial curule chair at the public podium (Rostra), amidst military signs and banners. The rising sun ← 55 | 56 → illuminated the purple robes of the Emperor and the white gowns of the crowd; the armor of the soldiers, positioned by the temples, gleamed; weapons and banners shimmered. This remarkable theatrical effect must have made a lasting impression on the audience.

When Nero took his seat on the public podium, the second actor, King of Armenia, Tiridates the Magus, emerged from among rows of soldiers. Lured by generous offers, he had come to Rome to pay tribute to the emperor. The crowd burst out with enthusiasm the moment they saw him. However, silence was ordered. Tiridates, a little startled, stopped before the podium. Nero’s face was shining in the full glare of the sun as he sat on this chair upon the Rostra. The words of the Armenian King took on a quite literal meaning: “I have come to you, my god, worshiping you as I do Mithra.”114 The King of Armenia acted as a Mage in the dualistic cult of Zoroaster. The followers of this religion believed that the sun was the eye of god Mithra. Sometimes, indeed, Mithra was identified with the sun and prayers were always made in the direction of the sun.115 Nero’s illuminated face may have appeared to Tiridates as the “eye” of the god Mithra. Earlier the King-magus had shared the secrets of the Zoroastrian faith and the mysteries of Mithra with the emperor-artist.

Although the praetor explained the words of the Armenian King to the audience, few people had heard the name of Mithra before. The Romans developed their own version of Mithraism only after Nero’s death at the end of the first century CE. Edward Champlin suggests that the praetor interpreted Tiridates’s words as follows: “I have come to you, my god, worshiping you as I do the Sun.”116 Nero presented himself to Rome in a new role – as the Sun God.

2. The second act of the Golden Day took place in the Theater of Pompey. For this particular day, the whole interior of the building – the stage, the walls, as well as all the mobile props – had been covered with gold. To prevent the audience from being blinded by this glare, an enormous curtain was hung above the auditorium to protect it from the sun. Nero, driving the Chariot of the Sun, was represented at its center. Whoever looked in the direction of the sun saw the emperor. The entire show performed earlier on the Forum Romanum was replayed in the theater. Tiridates kneeled before Nero; the emperor raised him up and put a royal diadem on his head. ← 56 | 57 →

Pliny the Elder, an eye witness to the grand spectacle, called this event “the Armenian triumph.” However, it was an odd triumph. Nero, the triumphal general, had never seen an army with his own eyes. Tiridates, put on the Armenian throne by his brother, the king of the Parthians, had never been defeated in battle. The truce had been negotiated just like the show in Rome. Nonetheless, Tiridates came to Rome, as Pliny said (HN 30.16), “for the Armenian triumph over himself,” and he was treated with honor on his way. Not defeated, yet not a victor. The King’s journey from the Euphrates to Rome itself resembled “a triumphal procession.”117 The Armenian King did not agree to sea travel since he believed that, being a Magus, his excrement would contaminate the water. According to information found in extracts written by Cassius Dio (63.2.2), Tiridates’s nine-month-long journey cost the national treasury 800,000 sesterces a day. Champlin estimated the total cost of the visit at around 300 million sesterces (Rome’s yearly budget was about 800 million at the time!)118. The Emperor did not care for cost when it came to fulfilling his artistic projects.

3. The Glided Theater of Pompey, though enormous, could not compete with the most ambitious of Nero’s works, the famous Golden House (Domus Aurea), which, according to Pliny (33.54), “went all around the city.” The most comprehensive description of the Golden House is offered by Suetonius (Nero 31.1-2): “Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor 120 feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great number of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of pearl. There were dining rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied by sea water and sulfur water.”119 The main creators of the whole complex (magistri et machinatores), Severus and Celer, designed the complicated mechanisms that used water pressure to make the “circular dining hall” revolve. ← 58 | 59 →

4. The complex, built on the Oppius Hill (which was the southernmost point of the Esquiline), was located precisely on the east-west axis meaning that the 370-meter-long, façade, gilded and studded with precious stones, was facing south. The building was to shine a blinding light all day long. From then on, each sunny day was supposed to be a Golden Day.

The emperor himself came up with the name for the palace in 64, after the burning down of Rome. The Golden House was to herald the advent of a Golden Age. Nero tried to match, yet at the same time exceed, the work of Augustus. The great fire in the city most likely was not accidental. In ancient times, it was certainly thought that Nero was behind it. Suetonius (Nero 38) and Cassius Dio (62.16) blame him openly, much as Pliny (HN 17.5), who was an eye witness of the events. Only Tacitus (Ann. 15.38-40) is not one hundred percent sure. However, an exceptional piece of evidence has survived. The tribune Subrius Flavus, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the emperor, during a trial that took place a year after the fire, publicly confessed: “I began to hate you when you turned into the murderer of your mother and wife – a chariot driver, an actor, a fire-raiser [incendiarius].” When citing the tribune’s confession Tacitus adds (Ann. 15.67.3): ipsa rettuli verba (I have reported his exact words).120 Flavus knew best, for he accompanied Nero during the fire.

5. The Romans sarcastically commented on the emperor’s passion for all things grand. Martial jokes (Spect. 2.4): Unaque iam tota stabat in urbe domus (in all Rome there stood a single house). Others would come up with verses along the lines of these (Suetonius, Nero 39):

Rome is becoming one house, off with you to Veii, Quirites!

If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well.

According to traditional accounts, a move to Veii, an Etruscan city north of Rome, was considered after the fire in the city in 390 BCE (also on July 19!).

Individual buildings, terraces, and an artificial lake were imposed upon the existing topography. In order to build the complex on the Esquiline, a piece of the hill was cut off, while the terraces in the front were supported with some powerful construction. Art triumphed over nature. The Golden House was actually not a house: the palace with its artificial sea, cities, and villages was a recreation of the Roman Empire. Domus Aurea was a gigantic theater in which Rome was portrayed as the land of the god of the Sun. ← 59 | 60 →

6. Nero was not driven by theology but by ideology. Suetonius claimed that the emperor despised all religious worship.121 Nero did not identify himself with the gods, and neither recognized his own divinity, nor asked of others to treat him like a god.122 The Golden House was a radical artistic experiment. By turning Rome into a work of art, Nero bore extreme witness to Roman artistic powers. Nothing could limit the creative powers of the artist-Emperor from then on.

Nero, however, did not manage to finish the Golden House in his lifetime. His successor Otho took on a huge credit to continue the construction, but after Vespasian took over, gradual demolition of the Golden House began. “Rome has been restored to herself,” wrote Martial in 80 after the inauguration of the Amphitheater, later the Colosseum, built on the land which remained after the lake of the Golden House had been drained. Between 123 and 128, Hadrian moved the statue of Nero to the square near the amphitheater with the help of 24 elephants. In the eleventh century, the amphitheater was named the Colosseum, that is, near the Colossus.123

7. Nero’s last spectacle was his triumphant entrance into Rome toward the end of 67 after his victory over Greece. However, the celebrated victory was unique: the Emperor had defeated the Greeks… in an athletic competition. Over his triumphal purple costume, Nero put on a Greek cloak with golden stars. He was wearing a wreath of olive branches on his head as a proof of his victory in the Olympics. In the famous chariot, which the Divine Augustus used for his triumphs, next to Nero stood Diodorus, the musician defeated by the emperor in a competition of singing and cithara playing. They were accompanied by Nero’s ever present claqueurs, the Augustiani, as well as by knights and senators. The claqueurs did, in fact, shout “We are Augustiani, the soldiers of his triumph,”124 but it was not a typical triumphal procession of a Roman commander. It was an artistic triumph.125

Nero opposed reality with the art of the spectacle. As a result he himself lost touch with the real world. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The le ← 60 | 61 → gions were revolting. When the Emperor was informed of the successive stages of the rebellion of C. Julius Vindex, the governor of one of the provinces in Gaul, he ignored it for a long time. He took action only when he heard that Vindex was questioning his musical talent. He offered 10 million sesterces for the rebel’s head. But it was too late. The rebellion had spread far and wide. Thus, Nero decided to pay a visit to the legions in Gaul. He wanted to stand in front the soldiers unarmed, and not to say a word but cry. This was supposed to move their hard hearts. He was to be accompanied by his concubines with their hair shaved like men to play the role of amazons. The Emperor even selected the vehicles in which he wanted to transport theatrical props and a gigantic water organ. He had promised to give a concert. Later he considered escaping to Alexandria to spend the rest of his days as a professional musician.

8. The triumph of the artist proved to be the defeat of the emperor. In the critical moment, his imagination proved useless. He could choose between a dagger and a sword at most. A lonely artist, who happened to be an emperor, the finale of the grand spectacle into which he had made his own life and the lives of others, was played out in front of four freedmen. At least that is what the Roman historians claim. His suicide was the last role he played.

Rome had survived probably the most radical artistic experiment in its history. The fragments of the paintings of the Golden House found centuries later in the cellars beneath some later-built buildings, fascinated the artists of the Renaissance. Paintings in which fantastic elements dominated were given the name “grotesque” after the “grottos” in which the paintings of the Golden House were found. The author of the murals was the painter Famulus (or Amulius or Fabullus), an artist worthy of Nero. He would paint only for several hours a day, always wearing a toga even while on high scaffolding (Pliny, HN 35.120).

The word “grotesque” could be a punch line of the chapter devoted to this ambitious artist sitting upon the imperial throne, if the Romans had not had to pay such a high price for his creative freedom. After the nine days of fire in 64, of the fourteen districts of Rome only four remained without much damage, three were burnt to the ground, and what was left of the remaining seven was only smoking ruins.126 Thousands of people died in flames. Nero managed to make two hundred thousand people homeless almost overnight. ← 61 | 62 → ← 62 | 63 →

1       Lictores (from ligare, “to bind”) – members of the honorary guard attached to the highest offices. Before them, they bore bundles of rods (fasces) that were bound up with executioners’ axes. The also carried out court decisions. They were recruited among free persons and freedmen. They received an annual salary, which in the early Empire amounted to around 600 sesterces.

2       Cf. Gruen (1984); Kallet-Marx (1996).

3       The veterans did not like the general as he was overly fond of discipline. By the end of the vote, just to make sure, Servilius threatened them that he would stand between the electors and check who followed the demagogues. Livy 45.36.9-39.20; Plutarch, Aem. 32.1. Cf. Yakobson (1999), 124-125; Leigh (2004), 184-185.

4       Reports differ. Plutarch goes into more detail, while Diodorus seems to focus on numbers. Cf. Künzl (1988), 65; Beard (2007), 116-117, 137-138, 150-151.

5       Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 3.31.6: τροπαιοφóρος. According to Plutarch (Marc. 21.1-2), Greek works of art were first presented in Rome by M. Claudius Marcellus after he had looted Syracuse in 211 BCE. Florus in Epit. 1.13 (1.18.27) claimed, however, that this happened earlier: in 271, Manius Curius Dentatus presented in Rome the treasures from Tarentum. Cf. Beard (2007), 147-149; Rüpke (1990), 229; Künzl (1988), 108.

6       Rüpke (1990), 229; Künzl (1988), 109-118.

7       Cicero, Verr. 5.77; Livy 38.43.10, 40.39.9. Cf. Rüpke (1990), 229.

8       Pliny, HN 35.22-28; Polybius 6.15.8; Joseph, BJ 7.5. Hoesch (2002), 847-848.

9       Plutarch, Caes. 50; Suetonius, Iul. 37.2. Cf. Livius Andronicus, Ex incertis fabulis 4 Warmington: adfatim edi bibi lusi (I have eaten well, drunken, and made merry, trans. R. Beacham).

10     Pliny, HN 35.135. Künzl (1988), 34.

11     Appian, Mith. 117, BCiv. 2.101; Cassius Dio 51.21.8.

12     Beard (2007), 153-159.

13     Servius (Aen. 7.712, 755) reports that the tradition of cinctus Gabinus came from Italy (the city of Gabia) and that its draping consisted in putting on the toga over the head and wrapping it tightly, so that the garment would not slide off during combat or ritual. Cf. Stone (2001), 396; Rüpke (1990), 34.

14     Main accounts: Livy 45.33.1-2; Appian, Pun. 48.133, Mith. 45; Plutarch, Mar. 22.1-3. Cf. Livy 8.30.8; Appian, Syri. 42. Rüpke (1990), 199.

15     Terence, Hecyra 39-41.

16     Valerius Maximus (5.10.2) claims that one of the boys rode with Perseus on the triumphant chariot; Eutropus (4.8) claims that both of them did.

17     Carcer: LTUR 1.236-237 (F. Coarelli). The term Tullianum comes from the spring (tullius), which is said to have run there.

18     Tertullian, Apol. 33.4: respice post te, hominem te (esse) memento (cf. Arrian, Epict. diss. 3.25.85). Other sources, however, do not confirm this information. Perhaps an earlier version of this phrase is documented by Pliny (HN 28.39): recipe post te, meaning: “hold your horse.” Köves-Zulauf (1998); Rüpke (1990), 233. Plutarch does not mention a slave; however, Dio (6, in: Zonaras, Epit. 7.21.9) suggests that the slave’s words meant that the general had to be wary of any misfortunes in the future. Cf. Beard (2003), 2622, (2007), 85-92.

19     Cicero, Cael. 34; Valerius Maximus 5.4.6; Suetonius, Tib. 2.4; Dio Cassius 22, fr. 74; Orosius, Historia contra paganos 5.4.7.

20     Livy 10.7.10: ornatus Iovis optimi maximi; Suetonius, Aug. 94.6: exuviae Iovis optimi maximi; Juvenal 10.38: tunica Iovis; Servius, Ecl. 10.27: Iovis insignia. Versnel (1970), 56-93; Künzl (1988), 94-97; Rüpke (1990), 30-34, 2006. Arguments against associating the attire of the triumphal general and Jupiter are found in: Versnel (2006); Beard (2007), 225-233.

21     Varro, Ling. 7.37; Livy 31.14.1, 41.10.5. Rüpke (1990), 135-136.

22     Plautus, Trinummus 83; Livy 10.7.10; Pliny, HN 33.7(36), 11-112, 35.12(45).157; Servius (auct.), Ecl. 6.22, 10.27; Isidore, Orig. 18.2.6; Tzetzes, Ep. 97.

23     Diodorus Siculus 14.117.6; Plutarch, Cam. 7.1; Livy 5.23.5-6. Cf. Ovid, Fasti 6.721-724; Servius, Aen. 4.543. Commentary in: Versnel (1970), 67-68; Weinstock (1971), 68-75.

24     Rüpke (1990), 207-208, 234; Künzl (1988), 119-133.

25     Suetonius, Tib. 9.2; Tacitus, Agr. 40.1; CIL 11.5743 (Umbria). Barini 1952.

26     Rüpke (1990), 208.

27     Varro, Ling. 6.68; Livy 45.38.12; Tibullus 2.5.118; Suetonius, Iul. 51. Cf. Beard (2007), 245-248.

28     Livy 4.53.11-13; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 7.72.11. Cf. Livy 4.20.2; Plutarch, Rom. 16.6, Marc. 8. Many testimonies in: Wille (1989), 214-219.

29     Reich (1903), 194-195.

30     Rüpke (1990), 225-226.

31     Near the temple of Fortuna according to Martial (8.65). The location is debatable: Rüpke (1990), 228-229.

32     Coarelli (1992), 1.11-118.

33     Appian, Pun. 66. Versnel (1970), 95; Vendries (1999), 198.

34     Debord (1994), no. 4. Cf. Brilliant (1999), 222.

35     Seneca, De brev. vitae 13.3; Eutropius 2.14.

36     Valerius Maximus 2.7.13. On the relationship between sacrificial murders and triumphs, see: Futrell (1997), 190-194. Cf. chapter 2.3. “Theater of Animals” (Theater of Death).

37     Joseph, BJ 7.153-157; Pliny, HN 33.111-112. Künzl (1988), 65-84.

38     Valerius Maximus 2.8.6; Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 80 (Moralia 283a).

39     Rüpke (1990), 224.

40     Varro, Ling. 6.68; Servius, Aen. 10.775. Versnel (1970), 11-38, 48-55.

41     Versnel (1970), 38-48.

42     Versnel (1970), 284-303; Briquel (1991). For the Etruscans as the original inhabitants, see: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.30.

43     From 231 BCE such triumphs are recorded in monte Albano (Livy 42.21.6-7cf. Plutarch, Marc. 22.1-4), less frequently in Rome (Livy 10.37.6-12; Valerius Maximus 5.4.6).

44     Cf. Beard (2003), 38.

45     Suetonius, Calig. 47. Cf. Persius 6.46-47.

46     Tacitus, Agr. 39.1; Pliny, Pan. 16.3.

47     SHA Hadrianus 6.3. Cf. Epitome de Caesaribus 13.12. See Richard (1966).

48     Beard (2003), 41, (2007), 253-256.

49     De viris illustribus 66.13.

50     Cicero, Dom. 100: In conspectu prope totius urbis domus est mea.

51     Tacitus, Ann. 2.83.3. Cf. Valerius Maximus 5.7. ext. 1; Ad Liviam de consolatione 183; Seneca, De vita beata 28.1, De brev. vitae 20.3, Ad Polybium de consolatione 14.2; Lucan 2.22; Tacitus, Ann. 2.82, Hist. 1.62. See also: Wallace-Hadrill (1988), 46, (1994), 5; Flower (1996), 925, 188.

52     Flower (1996), 217-220. Cf. inter alia: Hunt (1920); Kroll (1933), 187-190.

53     Juvenal 3.126-128. Martial (3.46.1) – clients’ service is called opera togata.

54     Wallace-Hadrill (1996), 12; Mau (1902), 248-258; Kroll (1933), 187-190.

55     Wallace-Hadrill (1994), 12.

56     Flower (1996), 220.

57     Commentary in: Hermann (1971). Cf. Flower (1996), 218.

58     Seneca, Ben. 6.34.1-2. Cf. Flower (1996), 219.

59     Millar (1998), 124-166 (125): “throughout the 50s, physical domination of the Forum became a crucial weapon in politics”; Lintott (1999), 74-88. Cf. chapter 1.4. “The Forum Romanum as Stage.”

60     There is a collection of documents in: Flower (1996), 281–332.

61     In Latin: sacerdotes (Varro, Ling. 5.83, 85; Servius, Aen. 8.663); in Greek: hieropoioi (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.80.2; Cassius Dio 44.6.2). Cf. Wiseman (1995), 19320.

62     ILS 1923, 4948; CIL 6.33421; Festus, ed. Lindsay, p. 78: Faviani et Quintiliani; p. 308: Fabii, Quintilii.

63     Pliny, HN 34.24: quam oculatissimo loco, eaque est in rostris (in the spot most eyed, that is on the Platform). Cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.87.

64     Nippel (1995), 61. Cf. Dunkle (1967), (1971); Erskine (1991).

65     Cicero, Phil. 2.34.86. Cf. Cassius Dio 45.30-34 (Cicero’s speech).

66     Suetonius, Iul. 75.4. The statues were destroyed once the news of Caesar’s victory over Pompeii in Pharsalus in 48 BCE had arrived (Cassius Dio 42.18.2).

67     Pliny, HN 22.6; Cassius Dio 44.4.5. Cf. Velleius Paterculus 2.61.3.

68     The formula of the prayer was not fixed. Cf. Cicero, Div., 1.102: quod bonum, faustum, felix fortunatumque esset (may the issue be prosperous, propitious, lucky and successful); Livy 1.17.10: quod bonum faustum felixque sit (may this be good, propitious and fortunate); Varro, Ling. 6.86: quod bonum fortunatum felix salutareque siet populo Romano Quiritibus reique publicae populi Romani Quiritium mihique collegaeque meo, fidei magistratuique nostro (may this be good, fortunate, happy, and salutary to the Roman people – the Quirites be good, fortunate, happy, and salutary Quirites – and to me and my colleague, to our honesty and our office). Cf. Pina Polo (1996), 1951; Hahn (2015).

69     Coarelli (1992), 2.233-257.

70     Cassius Dio 44.6.3. Weinstock (1971), 281-282.

71     Cf. Baudy (1999); Linderski (1996); Wiseman (1995), 77-88, (1995A); Pötscher (1984); Ulf (1982); Smits (1946), 19-32.

72     Cicero, Cael. 26. For a discussion of the ancient etymology, see: Wiseman (1995), 77-79.

73     Varro, Ling. 5.85; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.32.3-5.

74     Cinctuli (Ovid, Fasti 5.101), cincti (Valerius Maximus 2.2.9), perízomata (Plutarch, Rom. 21.5), campestre (Isidore, Orig. 19.22.5, 33.1). Commentary in: Wiseman (1994), 82-84.

75     Cinctuli (Ovid, Fasti 5.101), cincti (Valerius Maximus 2.2.9), perízomata (Plutarch, Rom. 21.5), campestre (Isidore, Orig. 19.22.5, 33.1). Commentary in: Wiseman (1994), 82-84.

76     Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.80.1; Plutarch, Rom. 21.4, 21.8.

77     Wiseman (1995), 81 and 19432 (discussion on the sources).

78     Varro, De gente populi Romani fr. 21 Fraccaro (ap. Augustine, De civ. D. 18.12).

79     Varro, Ling. 6.34: lustratur antiquum oppidum Palatinum.

80     Ovid, Fasti 2.32, 5.102; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.80.1; Festus, ed. Lindsay, pp. 75-76.

81     Wiseman (1995), 80; Carandini (1997), 184-185.

82     Ovid, Fasti 2.425-452.

83     Virgil, G. 2.380n; Horace, Ars P. 220. Commentary in: Burkert (2001), 1-36.

84     Kocur (2001), 146-148.

85     Livy, fr. 14 Weissenborn–Müller (Gelasius, CSEL 35.456-457); Orosius 4.2.2; Augustine, De civ. D. 3.17. Cf. Holleman (1974), 20-21; Wiseman (1994), 63-64.

86     Varro ap. Tertullian, De spect. 5: sicut et Lupercos ludios appellabant.

87     Velleius Paterculus 1.15.3: Cassius censor a Lupercali in Palatium versus theatrum facere instituit. Cf. MRR 1.449; Hanson (1959), 24-25. See chapter 4.1. “Theater without Theater” (Theater as Rome).

88     Livy 1.5; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.79.8-80.4.

89     Inter alia: Tacitus, Ann. 12.24; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.87; Livy 1.7.

90     Varro in Tertulllian, De spect. 5.3; Cicero, Cael. 26; Livy 1.5.2.

91     A letter from the Pope survives, condemning the faithful for taking part in the Lupercalia: Gelasius, Adversus Andromachum (CSEL 35). Cf. Beard–North–Price (1988), 1.ix-xii, 388; 2.123-124. Holleman (1974).

92     Rawson 1991, p. 169-188.

93     Appian, BCiv. 2.108.

94     Moore (1998), 131-139; Wiles (2003), 100-103; Marshall (2006), 40-43.

95     Gellius 2.28.6; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 1.74.3; Cicero, Leg. 1.2.6. Cf. LTUR 4.189-192 (Regia, R.T. Scott).

96     Appian, BCiv. 2.144-146. According to Suetonius (Iul. 84) Antony decided against giving a funeral oration, instead he ordered a herald to read the senatorial decree giving him all possible honors, divine and human.

97     Suetonius, Iul. 84.2: men servasse ut essent qui me perderent? Cf. Appian, BCiv. 2.146.

98     They refer to Varro in the comments to Horace (Epod. 16.13-14), Pseudo-Acro (pro rostris, in front of the podium), and Porphyry (post rostra, behind the podium). Cf. LTUR 4.295-296 (Sepulcrum Romuli, F. Coarelli); Coarelli (1992), 1.188-199.

99     Lintott (1999), 42; Pina Polo (1996), 11; DNP 3.153-153 (C. Gizewski). According to Gellius (18.7.7), the term contio was also used for the tribune from which the speakers gave their speeches.

100   Appian, BCiv. 3.24.

101   Aldrete (1999), 3–84.

102   Trans. F. Millar. Cf. Axer (1991), 54-60, (1988).

103   Zanker (1988).

104   Res gestae divi Augusti 34; Suetonius, Aug. 7, 28; Cassius Dio 53.3-11, 16; Velleius Paterculus 2.90; Ovid, Fasti 1.589. Ten years later a coin, which shows Augustus (the savior) helping the kneeling (fallen) Republic up, was minted (Aureus of C. Lentulus, Rome before 12 BCE). Cf. Zanker (1988), fig. 74.

105   Winterling (2003) claims that Caligula was mentally sound and was a victim of a conflict with the aristocrats. Contra: inter alios Ferrill (1991).

106   Cicero, De or. 3.214 (ORF 1.196). Cf. Quintilian, Inst. 11.3.115. Of course, this is merely a hypothetical reconstruction of such gestures. Cicero does not say where the speaker was standing or whether or not the audience could see the buildings.

107   Cicero, Scaur. 46. Edwards (1996), 16–18, 27–43.

108   Cicero, Leg. Man. 44. Cf. Millar (1998), 223-224.

109   Coarelli (1992), 2.222-225.

110   Pliny, HN 19.6.23; Cassius Dio 43.24.2. Cf. Welch (2007), 38-43; Ville (1981), 70.

111   Vitruvius 5.1.1-2. Cf. Welch (2007), 30-68; Purcell (1995), 332; Tosi (2003), 709-720.

112   Main sources are: Cassius Dio 63.1-6; Suetonius, Nero 13; Pliny, HN 33.54; Tacitus, Ann. 16.23-24. Cf. Champlin (2003), 126-127, 228-229.

113   On the subject of Nero’s appearances as an actor on the stage, see chapters: 5.1.6. “Mask,” 5.2.3 “Famous Actors: Nero Claudius Caesar” (Drama) and 9.6. “Theatromania” (Status).

114   Champlin (2003), 228.

115   Strabo 15.3.13. Cf. Boyce–Grenet (1991), 300-304, 479-483; Clauss (2000), 3-7.

116   Champlin (2003), 229.

117   Cassius Dio 63.1.2.

118   Champlin (2003), 227.

119   Cf. Tacitus, Ann. 15.42.1; Martial, Spect. 2. See LTUR 2.49-50 (Domus Aurea, A. Cassatella), 50-51 (Domus Aurea: Vestibulum, A. Cassatella, S. Panella), 51-55 (Area dello stagno, C. Panella), 55-56 (Porticus triplices miliariae, E. Papi), 56-63 (Il palazzo sull’Esquilino, L. Fabbrini), 63-64 (Complesso del Palatino, E. Cassatella).

120   Nero’s responsibility has been questioned. An overview of the opinions with convincing evidence of the emperor’s guilt is found in Champlin (2003), 178-209.

121   Suetonius, Nero 56: religionum contemptor. According to Tacitus (Ann. 15.74), Nero would refuse to be honored as a god out of fear of turning the concept of Divine Nero into a bad omen that would bring death.

122   Champlin (2003), 132.

123   Cf. LTUR 1.30-35 (Amphitheatrum, M. Rea), 295-298 (Colossus: Nero, C. Lega); Ball (2003).

124   Suetonius, Nero 25.1. Cf. Cassius Dio 63.20.1-24. There is a further discussion of these in chapter. 9.6. “Theatromania” (The Actor’s Status).

125   Griffin (1984), 163.

126   Tacitus, Ann. 15.40. Cf. Champlin (2003), 180.


Populus Bellicosus

1. The Romans, a warrior race (populus bellicosus),1 did not only kill during warfare. Murder was their favorite entertainment. At the Roman Forum, in amphitheaters, in circuses, and in many other places, they organized bloody massacres, during which people and animals lost their lives on a massive scale. At the end of the Republic, rituals which were initially very private, became a popular means of entertainment. Even the rightful execution of a criminal could become the motivation for organizing a theatrical staging. “Man,” Seneca wrote in a letter to Lucilius (95.33), “an object of reverence in the eyes of man, is now slaughtered for jest and sport [satisque spectaculi]”.

A dedicatory inscription of the oldest known amphitheater, built around 70 BCE in Pompeii, calls the building spectacula.2 Dragging the dead corpse of Sejanus with a hook out of the arena was, according to Juvenal (10.67), spectandus, gaudent omnes (a show and joy to all). Eusebius of Caesarea, in the History of the Church (8.10) talks about Alexandria, and of the horribly tortured naked bodies of Christian martyrs who were left out in public as a spectaculum. Death was a spectacle.

2. The acceptance of death defined the military oriented ideology of Rome from the very beginning. It was often accompanied by theatrical gestures. In 362 BCE, the earth opened up. This ominous abyss split the Roman Forum in half and even though the Romans tried to fill the hole up, they never managed to. Prophets predicted that the Republic would last forever if the Romans would offer their most precious belongings to the abyss. When people discussed the meaning of the ← 63 | 64 → prophesy, a young and brave soldier Marcus Curtius asked if anyone believed there was something more important than arms and virtue in war (arma virtusque). Then he sacrificed (devovisse) himself to the gods of the underworld: he put on his armor, got on his horse, and plunged into the abyss.3 Every year in Tarracina to the south of Lazio, a young citizen volunteered to give his life for the good of the city. Before he put on his best armor and rode his horse off a cliff into the sea, for many months the city organized celebrations in his honor.4

Livy used the phrase devovisse to describe Curtius’s sacrifice, which, in turn, suggests the practice called devotio. This was a war ritual, during which one would sacrifice oneself or one’s enemy to the gods of the underworld and death. After the evocatio ritual, calling on the chthonian gods (Dis pater, Veiovis, Manes – Jupiter and Tellus/Terra mater were only the witnesses), they were asked to destroy the enemy and protect Rome. The lives of enemies and three black sheep were given as an offering for the gods. The term devoveo comes from voveo (a pledge), that is why devotio is a special kind of pledge, a votum. The prefix de- suggests two possible interpretations: “individually” (devotio as in assigning something for the gods) and “downward” (devotio as a pledge to the gods of the underworld).5

3. Livy (7.8.19-7.11.1) in his description of the battle between the Romans and the Latins, which took place in 340 BCE in Campania at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, records an example of a different variant of the devotio ritual. During a crisis in this battle, the Consul Publius Decius Mus offered himself and his enemy’s army to the gods of the underworld (legiones auxiliaque hostium mecum Deis Manibus Tellurique devoveo). The details of this spectacular ritual were scrupulously written down by Livy, a man sensitive to theatricality. First the consul threw his ceremonial toga (praetexta) over his head; next he stood on his spear and under his toga he touched his chin with his hand. After that the priest (pontifex maximus) began reciting a prayer, in which Decius summoned the gods and announced to everyone his decision. Then the consul adjusted his toga in the traditional way of one going to war (cinctus Gabinus),6 put on his armor, got on his horse and set off in the direction of the foe to meet death. Upon seeing him, the Latins were struck by religious awe. When he finally fell, the Romans, believing that no evil powers could now touch them, went to battle with a new energy, and their enemies ran away in terror. If ← 64 | 65 → Decius had survived, he would have become sacer (“devoted to the gods,” “holy,” “cursed”), in other words, for the rest of his life he would have been excluded from taking part in all private and public rituals. A military leader, instead of sacrificing himself, could choose a legionary for the ritual. If the legionary somehow survived, they had to bury a giant statue of their leader in the ground, at least seven feet long (the Romans believed that the dead were bigger than the living).7

The self-sacrifice of Decius was an act of expiation. It belonged to primitive magical rituals: in prayer, repeated after the priest, the consul cursed his enemies, and his appearance brought fear and terror into the hearts of the Latins. The prime function of the consul’s death was to be a substitute sacrifice – one for all (unus pro omnibus) – just as in Greek tragedies.8 The history of Rome was a sequence of tragedies played out on real battlefields and in real palaces. The ritual devotio was also practiced in the Empire, but with a new message: “for the well-being of the emperor” (pro salute principis). When a ruler was ill, some citizens made vows to sacrifice their lives in order to cure the ailment. But these gestures where not treated literally. So Publius Afranius Potitus, a plebeian, and the knight Atanius Secundus were unlucky, when in a moment of emotion, the former vowed to give his life for the ill Caius Caligula, and the latter offered to take part in gladiatorial combats. After recovering, Caligula did not thank them the way they expected and forced both of them to keep their vows.9

4. A real tragedy, worthy of Aeschylus, took place on the battlefield that same year in which Decius offered his life to the chthonic gods. Livy offers a vivid description of this event (8.7.1-22). Young Titus Manlius, at the head of a small group of Roman cavalry (a turma, twenty-two mounted soldiers), was sent on reconnaissance to determine the enemy’s position and allowed himself to be provoked by the leader of a Latin cavalry unit, Geminus Metius, to a duel, against clear orders from the consul and his father. After winning the combat on the mound, Manlius had to face his father. First, he gave a short report of his success, proudly underlining that he had just proven himself worthy to be the son of his great father. In reply, his father, as ← 65 | 66 → in a Greek drama, turned his back to his son and gave the order to call together the soldiers by signaling them by trumpet (classicum). At the meeting, the consul gave a shocking monolog in which he accused his son of going against sacred Roman discipline, of ignoring the will of the consul and his father, and then ordered the lictors to execute him.10 Livy suggests that the young Manlius was a tragic hero: he could not ignore Geminus Metius’s insults against Roman honor, and anyway, just as in Aeschylus’s and later in Seneca’s works, these events were controlled by the insuperable force of fate (inexsuperabilis vis fati). At the sight of the young hero’s blood, the soldiers fell quite silent, just like an audience in a theater. Then suddenly shouts emerged from the crowd and the legionaries began expressing their outrage.

The irony of the story is that, two decades earlier, the strict father took part in a similar conflict with a giant Gaul who challenged the Romans to a fight. The record of this conflict can be found in several sources, but, of course, the most vivid account is given by the reliable Livy (7.9.6-7.10.14), who underlines that this event felt more like a theatrical play rather than a military conflict.11 During the Republic, the Romans often took part in individual combats like these ones, especially in the third and second centuries BCE. This custom lasted all the way to 45 BCE, when Anthony challenged Octavian to a duel, so that they might, in one-on-one combat, decide the outcome of the war. Octavian cautiously refused.12 Combats like these, apart from earlier times in Roman history, never decided the outcome of a battle or a war, and never replaced the mass efforts of soldiers. They did, on the other hand, prove the courage of the individual participants of the campaign and brought fame and glory, which, especially in the case of aristocrats, could become invaluable political capital after returning to Rome. But in most cases, military leaders did not take part in these duels, only lower-ranking soldiers. This custom, also practiced by many other peoples – for example, the Maori, Eskimos, or the Jews – in Rome was a form of propaganda theater. A certain tribune was victorious in eight separate combats.13 It is no surprise that Livy describes these combats like the struggle of gladiators fighting in the arena, giving over much space to descriptions of the audience and their reactions.14 Putting one’s life at risk for one’s country defined the model attitude ← 66 | 67 → of a warrior race, and as basis of militaristic ideology most surely formed a very specific audience for the Roman theater of death.


1. Gladiatorial combats – the word originates from gladius, a “sword” – were something the Roman people treasured the most. Their origin is unclear. Nicolas of Damascus, quoted by Athenaeus (4.135-136), claimed that the Romans took this tradition from the Etruscans. Unfortunately, in paintings found in Etruscan tombs dating back to the fifth century BCE, we cannot find any depicting a gladiator. The first time one appears is on a wall of a tomb from the Paestum area from the fourth century BCE. Based on this, it is thought that gladiatorial combats were invented by the Samnite–Oscan peoples from the south of Italy.15 Nonetheless, the term lanista, describing a tradesman and trainer of gladiators, comes from the Etruscan language.16 Romans could watch gladiator tournaments during the Samnite wars in Campania, in the second half of the fourth century BCE. In Rome, up until the end of the Republic, tournaments were organized only during funerals of great and important people, which, in turn, suggests that this tradition could have originated from the cult of the dead.17

The word munus means “gift,” “an offering to the gods or the audience,”18 was a kind of voluntary duty; in later times it was also applied to an obligation. Munera in the form of a public celebration – for example gladiator combats – were organized by private initiative, and these “gifts to the people” never became part of an official cult.19 According to Roman chroniclers, the first gladiatorial tournament was organized by (dederunt) the brothers Marcus and Decimus in honor of their dead father Junius Brutus Pera.20 This took place in 264 BCE on the Forum Boarium.21 At the time, the Junius family was one of the most elite Roman families. By organizing a munus the young Junius brothers set the standard of behavior for the rest of ruling aristocracy (nobiles22), one that was in later ← 67 | 68 → years gladly copied and elaborated on. The popularity of gladiator tournaments meant that the term munera became a synonym for them.

2. Gladiator tournaments were a means to prolong funeral ceremonies (funeralia), similarly to making offerings to the common people or the distribution of meat. Gladiatorial tournaments would close the proceedings, and could take place during the funeral ceremony, but they were not a part of it.23 Sometimes, though, munera were seen as an integral element of the funeral. In the Ligurian city of Pollentia, during the reign of Tiberius, a crowd of people physically prevented the children of a centurion from taking his body from the forum, until they promised that they would give money and would organize a gladiatorial show.24

These cruel spectacles grew more extensive at an astonishing rate. At the first tournament, only three pairs of gladiators fought. In 216 BCE, during Marcus Aemilius Lepidus’s funeral, the three sons of the deceased offered a munus on the Roman Forum with twenty-two pairs of gladiators. In 200 BCE, Valerius Laevinus’s two sons organized one with twenty-five pairs, and in 183 BCE, 120 gladiators fought in honor of the memory of Publius Licinius. In 174 BCE, seventy-four gladiators took part in a ceremony organized by Titus Quinctius Flamininus.25 The munus lasted for four days.

The Emperor Augustus ordered the praetors to organize munera every year, with no more than 120 gladiators taking part in them, and it is from this point that munera stopped being something that was organized only to honor the dead, but more often became a “gift” for the people. During the Empire, munera evolved into a never-ending carnage. Of course, emperors were allowed to do whatever they pleased. Trajan holds the record. To celebrate his victory over Dacia, Trajan organized tournaments which lasted 123 days, in which 10,000 gladiators fought.26

3. Of course, during these seven hundred years, the equipment and fighting techniques of gladiators fundamentally changed. Different types of weapons required a proper fighting technique, and the gladiator had to become a specialist very fast. Schools for gladiators were created (ludi gladiatorii),27 and inscriptions confirm the need for specialists called a doctor.28 In time, they became instructors for le ← 68 | 69 → gionaries. In 105 BCE, the consul Publius Rutilius Rufus summoned the doctores from Gaius Aurelius Scaurus’s school for gladiators in Capua, to teach legionaries more effective ways to use a sword.29 Gladiators where also sometimes recruited into the Roman army.30

The oldest descriptions of gladiators come from the way they were armed31: the Samnis (Samnite) and the Gallus (Gaul). In the first century BCE these terms were changed to murmillo, secutor, provocator, and (h)yplomachus – all of which indicate heavy armor. This gladiator had a helmet, a long oval or rectangular shield protecting his entire body, greaves, and a leather band on his left leg, while on his right he wore only a band. He wielded swords of different lengths. In the second century CE, the dimachaerus appears – a gladiator wielding two swords.

Lightly-armed gladiators were called Thracians (Thraex) and net-men. A net-man (retiarius) fought barefoot and without a helmet or a shield. His only means of defense was a galerus – a kind of shield that was small, flat, and attached to his left shoulder, big enough to protect his face. In his right hand, he held a net and a trident, in his left a dagger. A Thracian had a helmet and metal greaves which went up to his knees. He had a small round or rectangular shield and fought with a curved dagger. The only rule was that gladiators who fought each other should be in different armor classes, heavily-armored gladiators always fought lightly-armored opponents. Sometimes there were two heavily-armored combatants, but in this case they would both represent different types of the heavily-armored class of gladiators. Festus preserves the words of a song in which a gladiator wearing light armor, a retiarius, was annoying a heavy armored murmillo: “I don’t want you, I want [to catch] a fish. Why are you running away, Gaul!”32 According to Festus, the murmillo, whom he also calls a Gaul, had a fish painted on his helmet (Greek mórmylos). The Retiarius waved his net around. The words to this song were written in the sotadic meter, which suggests lust and effeminacy. Perhaps this was performed by the so called “net-men in tunics” (retiarii tunicati), who demonstratively manifested a passive homosexuality, and with that provoked not only their opponents, but also the audience. Seneca called them ← 69 | 70 → degenerate gladiators. Juvenal, to provoke scandal, described the appearance of Gracchus in the role of a net-man.33

4. During the Republic, gladiators where chosen from among prisoners of war, criminals, and slaves. Augustus, on the other hand, did not have anything against knights taking part in combats in the arena. The Senate, however, was against this. While Tiberius was in power, young men from the most powerful families, for a small fee (auctoramentum) rented their services out for a year to a gladiator manager (lanista). In the second century CE, more gladiators with contracts (auctorati), rather than slaves, would come to fight in the arena. An unusual gladiator tournament was organized by Nero in 57 CE. In a wooden amphitheater – no one died, not even a criminal.34 Four hundred senators and six hundred knights fought each other (there were also venationes [hunts] on the program).

Munera gladiatoria were a product of Roman wars. At first, it was not meant for mass entertainment, but was supposed to provide a military example. Gladiators before the fight were taught drill (disciplina militaris). Even Cicero (Tusc. 2.41), who was against violence, talked with admiration about their bravery and obedience in the face of death35. Gladiator tournaments, even more than theatrical shows and chariot races, defined the Romans’ identity. They reinforced the military foundations of Rome, rulers of the world. Certain types of gladiators were identified with the most dangerous enemies of Rome – the Samnites, the Gauls, or the Thracians – and their constant presence in the arena was a reminder of possible danger and raised alertness. During the spectacles, they were killed, over and over again, and the danger was, in a symbolic way, overcome, and the unity of the “warrior race” was reinforced. Gladiators presented and strengthened the basic virtues of war. Those who distinguished themselves with their bravery, after their victory, would very often regain their freedom.36

5. Up until the general Statilius Taurus built the first amphitheater, the main and possibly the only Roman arena where gladiators fought was on the Roman Forum.37 Most likely, the elliptical shape of amphitheaters built in the coming years was inspired by the topography of the Forum – temporary seats for the audience raised up in a trapezoidal area between the basilica Aemilia and the basilica Sempronia.38 The top floors of the basilica were a great place to watch the spectacle. The ← 71 | 72 → term maenianum (gallery) – from the surname of censor C. Maenius, who, in 318 BCE, was the first to raise balconies around the Forum for the audience,39 became a synonym for the audience of gladiator spectacles. The Tribunes built wooden constructions for spectators. All these seats were most likely ones you had to pay for, because in 123 BCE C. Gracchus, in a populist gesture, tore down scaffolding, so that the poor could watch for free.40 Tickets were also sold in the Empire. Only on special occasions was admittance free of charge, for example, when Caligula organized a free, two-day animal hunt in the Circus Maximus, in honor of his sister. Tickets were most likely hard to get, because even knights had to fight to get a free ticket. People also used the services of “ticket-scalpers” (locarius). Martial (5.24.9) called the gladiator Hermes a “gold mine for ticket-scalpers” (divitiae locariorum), and his popularity was a source of income for them.

Munera became the calling-card for Rome. For these spectacles they even designed a new type of building – the amphitheater, from the Greek “theater on both sides,” “theater with two halves.” The Romans saw their amphitheaters as a symbol of their identity, so they constructed them in their colonies and municipia (self-governing municipalities),41 to underline their cultural dominance over the territory. Amphitheaters were built everywhere except in the Eastern provinces of Rome. In that area gladiators more often fought in theaters and in stadiums. To this day, we can find the remains of about three hundred amphitheaters.

The Theater of Animals

1. Venatio means “hunting.” In literature and in epigraphs this term describes theatricalized hunts for dangerous animals, combined with the killing of the animals in artificial environments.42 The Romans introduced venatio as a special addition to their already established ceremonies, a way to prolong the public games, the ludi publici. Organizing and supervising the hunt was the curule aediles’s responsibility. If the hunt was organized during the official games (ludi), ← 72 | 73 → it would take place in the Circus Maximus.43 This event was usually organized to celebrate special occasions, for example triumphs. Then in the first century BCE hunting animals started to appear in the gladiator munera tournaments,44 and as a separate spectacle.

The first documented venatio was organized in Rome by M. Fulvius Nobilior45 in 186 BCE. In 169 BCE, sixty-five predatory wild cats from Africa, forty bears, and forty elephants were slaughtered in a spectacular manner.46 In the years to come the number of animals killed rose even higher, even though the Senate forbade it. From the very beginning, these staged hunts were organized to show exotic animals from conquered Roman territory. In this way, the leaders of the Republic proved their power and the geographical reach of their successes in battle. Emperors organized never-ending massacres to popularize the policies of the Empire. Nero, in a giant wooden amphitheater on the Field of Mars, presented a whole menagerie of unknown animals to the Roman public, in preparation for the final takeover of the planet.47 Trajan, after returning from Dacia, slaughtered 11,000 animals.48 To dominate animals symbolized social domination. An Emperor himself never fought with animals. He only supervised the spectacle. Up until the sixth century CE, spectacles in the arena confirmed that the natural world was under control.49

2. In 80 CE, the Emperor Titus, during the inauguration of an amphitheater, instituted a new type of venationes: hunting wild animals in water. During this time, the Roman people saw animals never before seen in Rome.50 In later years, ← 73 | 74 → water hunts became an opportunity to present crocodiles and hippopotamuses.51 Commodus (180-192 CE) in water, with his own hands, killed a hippopotamus, two elephants, and a rhinoceros.52

In the fourth century CE another type of venationes was created. Armed huntsmen were replayed by people without weapons, who did not usually kill the animals, but rather tried to stay away from tooth and fang and stay alive. The organizers stopped killing the animals at the end of the spectacle in order to reuse them in later shows. In 498 CE, the Emperor in the East, Anastasius I, passed a law banning the killing of animals during a venatio. From this time on, the Eastern Roman Empire organized only “tame” (mites) venationes. The main evidence of similar behavior in the western parts of the Roman Empire are a series of diptychs made of ivory, souvenirs from consular games given to senators, and a detailed account from Cassiodorus.53 Actors in these spectacles where either convicted criminals (naked, wearing only headbands) or well-trained professionals (in long tunics with symbols on their chests that repelled evil). In its most basic form, the “tame” venationes were basically acrobatic shows that kept the audience on the edge of its seats with spectacular jumps and somersaults over wild animals. In more elaborate versions barred doors were used. The actor would first annoy the wild animal and then hide behind the bars. They also used rotating doors made from boards so that the actor could disappear from the animal’s line of sight and by this madden it even more. They also constructed giant carousels with baskets, which would be lifted just high enough above the ground so that the animals could not reach the people sitting inside them. These baskets which hung from a center pole would go around in circles above the animals’ heads and make them even angrier, which of course greatly pleased the spectators. When someone was brave enough to face a bull in the arena, assistants would throw straw dummies, which resembled gladiators, at the animal. These dummies would be destroyed instantly by the animal. Cassiodorus pointed out that trained bears were as dangerous to human life as wild ones. “Tame” venationes were as vicious as a hunt is bloody, and the audience watched the action unfold with a similar enthusiasm. These spectacles were a clash between wild nature and human civilization. It was a demonstration of technology conquering nature. ← 74 | 75 →

3. If venationes were organized during a gladiator tournament – as was the custom for example in Pompeii, where people would hunt wild deer and hares54 – they took place before noon.55 There were gladiators who specialized in combat with wild animals, who were at first called bestiarii. In classic Latin, the term bestiarius meant a person who fought animals in the arena, which is very different from the word venator, which designates a hunter hunting animals in a natural environment. From the second century CE, venator appears more and more often in the context of a spectacle.56 Bestiarii fought animals wearing a full suit of armor and venatores wore only a short tunic and fought with a spear.57

Bestiarii were kept and trained in special barracks, “a morning school” (Ludus Matutinus)58 – because they would hunt in the morning. To begin with, their daring feats were not as highly appreciated as those of regular gladiators.59 In time, that changed because the venatio was more often depicted in art than regular gladiators.60 From the third century CE, mosaics of hunting became very common in Rome. They would be found in dining rooms and even in moderately wealthy provincial houses. The greatest mosaic, which can be found in Villa di Dar Buc Amméra in Zliten (Libya),61 is from the second century CE. Water organs are also immortalized in this work of art. Literary texts and epigraphs confirm that animals were slaughtered to the music played on a water organ, a trumpet (tuba), the tibiae, and horn (cornu).62 ← 75 | 76 →

Theatrical Executions

1. Ancient sources suggest that the venatio from the very beginning was combined with public executions. These tendencies became more evident in the early days of the Empire. Slaves and criminals, who were not Roman citizens, were forced to fight wild animals (damnatio ad bestias) or gladiators (damnatio ad ludos). The damnatio ad bestias sentence was a death sentence. The convicted was tied up and thrown to the animals to be devoured. Theatrical executions were usually held in the arena during spectacular venationes, usually, but not always, as the first event in a gladiatorial tournament (munus). For example, this kind of event would be organized for the inauguration of the Colosseum.63 Someone condemned ad ludos had a better chance of survival. If he learned how to become a gladiator, fought bravely, and did not get himself killed, he could even be granted his freedom by the Emperor.

Condemned men were sometimes forced to take on the role of mythical beings. One of the earliest records is from around 30 BCE. Selurus, a Sicilian bandit, was put on the top of an artificial Mount Etna. He then fell with the fake volcano into a cage with wild animals.64 This spectacle was shown in the Roman Forum. Another unlucky person had to reenact the fall of Icarus. He hit the ground with such force that his blood stained the robes of Nero.65 Women were not treated any differently. In order to reenact the myth of Pasiphae, one was put into a wooden cow and raped by a real bull.66 Apuleius clearly states that in Corinth yet another woman was sentenced to copulate with a donkey in the amphitheater.67 The audience roared with laughter when “Attis” was really castrated, and “Hercules” burned alive.68

2. Nero used to play his own perverse version of the conventions of damnatio ad bestias. Wearing the hide of a wild animal, he would jump out of a cage and throw himself on the genitals of naked boys and girls who were tied to wooden posts.69 Next he was “killed”, or more accurately “finished off” (conficeretur) by an assistant ← 76 | 77 → called the confector, “he who finishes off,” because his role was to finish off people and animals in the arena. Of course, no one actually died and this whole event was a series of sexual acts – conficio means to “kill,” but it also means to “bring the male to orgasm.” The emperor’s animal-like attack on his “victims” was no more than an act of oral sex. The one who “finished off” Nero was called Doryphoros, the Spear Bearer – not only does this word have a very sexual meaning, but it is also a name for a priest in the ecstatic cult of Magna Mater Cybele. Perhaps this spectacle was also a parody of a religious initiation. Doryphoros “finished off” the aroused Nero-animal through an act of sexual penetration – the Emperor “died” impaled on the “spear” of the Spear Bearer.

Suetonius described these excesses as quasi genus lusus, “a kind of game,” “a practical joke.” By changing the rules of the spectacle, Nero changed damnatio ad bestias into a theatrical performance, which was meant to entertain as much as it was meant to shock. The actors in this “bizarre pantomime” (Champlin) were most likely concubines and prostitutes of both sexes. The possibility of even playing games with a convention like this proves that theatricality in public executions was well-embedded in the consciousness of Romans. 3. In a seaside villa in Silene, Libya, there is a mosaic from the second century CE that presents a very realistic giant bull impaling victims with its horns.70 Two limp bodies are shown falling face down to the ground. The third is being led by a gladiator in the direction of the bull. These tortured people are wearing white clothes, which suggests their connection with some religion, possibly Christianity. In Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas (18.4), there is a description of an attempt to put costumes of the priests of Saturn on condemned Christians in Carthage in 203 CE.

The popularity of theatrical executions is also proven in a mosaic in the Domus Sollertiana in El Jem in Tunisia (from the end of the second century CE). Bound criminals, held upright by assistants, are attacked by wild animals. The realism in this work of art is striking: from the open wounds blood is flowing and creating a giant puddle on the ground. In one of the scenes, a leopard is biting a victim’s face off. This mosaic could be a record of a gruesome spectacle organized by the owner of the house, used as a reminder for guests of the generosity (munificentia) and the public virtues of the host.71 ← 77 | 78 →

Water Battles72

1. Theatrical water battles were organized very rarely because they were very expensive. The first water battle was organized by Caesar to celebrate his fourth triumph in 46 BCE. He gave the order to dig a giant artificial lake (stagnum) in the Campus Martius and put on a naval battle between the fleets of “Tyre” and “Egypt.”73 Caesar, to prove his superiority even over history, created fictional events. There is no historical record of a sea battle between Tyre and Egypt. Three years later, for health reasons (there was a threat of an epidemic), the lake was filled in.74 To this day no one knows exactly where the lake was situated. Ancient historians call this staged battle proelium navale (the battle of ships)75 and a naumachia (from the Greek naumachía, water battle)76.

In 2 BCE, the Emperor Augustus organized a water battle to celebrate the inauguration of the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) on the right shore of the Tiber (situated in today’s Trastevere).77 He gave the order to dig a giant lake – 533 by 355 meters – which during his reign was later turned into a landscape park. Subsequently, it was called the vetus (old)Naumachia. In a staging of the Battle of Salamis, thirty ships with two or three rows of oars and with re-enforced hulls were used, and there were 3,000 people involved, not counting the oarsmen.78 In 59 CE – on the ships sailing on the lake – Nero organized a banquet for the people celebrating the Juvenalia. Then at midnight he sailed down a canal toward the Tiber.79 In 80 CE, during the inauguration of the Amphitheatrum (later called ← 78 | 79 → the Colosseum), the Emperor Titus used an island in the middle of the lake80 (which originally symbolized the island of Salamis) and re-enacted an episode in the Peloponnesian Wars, the attack of Athens on Syracuse. Nowadays, no trace of the lake can be found.81

Domitian gave the order to dig a lake close to the Tiber so that he could organize regular battles for his flotilla. Surrounding the lake Domitian built stone steps for an audience. In later years these stones were dismantled and the materials were used to renovate the Circus Maximus after the Great Fire of Rome.82 Domitian’s Naumachia did not end well, because, as Cassius Dio (67.8.3-4) writes about these events one-hundred years later, when it started to pour down with rain, the emperor did not let anyone leave before the show was done. Many people fell ill and died because of this. To cheer the people up, Domitian organized a feast that lasted the entire night and was funded by the state. The last historically confirmed naumachia on an artificial lake was organized by Philip the Arab in 248, for the one-thousandth anniversary of Rome.83

2. The biggest naval battle was organized by the Emperor Claudius in 52 CE. It did not take place in Rome, but rather it was organized on the Lake of Fucino (lacus Fucinus) in central Italy.84 Nineteen-thousand sailors and soldiers, most of whom were condemned men, were forced to take part in this spectacle. They were divided into two groups, one representing Rhodes and one Sicily. Each group had fifty ships at its disposal. The area where the battle took place was surrounded by legionaries on rafts who were supposed to make sure that none of the “actors” escaped from the “stage.” The shore and surrounding hills were occupied by crowds of Romans, “just like in a theater” – Tacitus later said with irony. Claudius wore a magnificent military costume and Agrippina wore a gold cloak.85

Water battles were also organized in amphitheaters. Nero was the first to do this, and it was no easy feat. In 57 CE, after the morning venationes, the Emperor gave the order immediately to fill the wooden amphitheater (built only a year earlier on the Campus Martius) with sea water, so that he could reenact a Per ← 79 | 80 → sian – Athenian battle among sea animals. After the battle, the construction was emptied as fast as it had been filled, and foot-soldiers (or gladiators) began their part of the spectacle. At the end of their performance, Nero gave the order to fill the amphitheater with water again and then organized a lavish feast.86

From the fourth century CE water spectacles started to become performances of (usually naked) male and female mimes of Tethys. Orchestras of many buildings, starting from the Dionysus theater in Athens, were rebuilt into pools.87

The Teater of Seneca

1. Seneca, while discussing spectacles of death in his famous seventh letter to Lucilius, concentrated more on the impact the shows had on the audience, rather than on the fate of the victims. He demonstrated his disapproval toward spectators responding too emotionally during the show, but he did not disapprove of the gory show itself. He himself wrote dramas soaked with brutality and the macabre. Seneca’s tragedies are an example of the Roman theater of death formulated as art. In Troades (41-56) Hecuba describes in detail the brutal murder of Priam. In Oedipus (952-979) the blinding of the main character is described with medical precision – torn veins hang from the empty eye sockets. In Thyestes (749-775) the sacrificing of Thyestes’s sons is a regular bloodbath. In Phaedra (1080-1114) the messenger describes the massacred remains of Hippolytus, thrown about, so that it would be impossible to gather them all up – this macabre ending becomes even more powerful when it is compared to Euripides’s ending in which Hippolytus not only is whole at the end, but lives long enough to be reconciled with his father before dying. The ending of Seneca’s Phaedra, which was in later years often made fun of by critics, in fact quite literally presented the appearance of an amphitheater after a bloody spectacle: there were pieces of Hippolytus scattered all over the stage, pieces which his father could not recognize.

In Medea, Seneca went even further and ordered the main character to murder children on stage – this was against the Greek convention, and most importantly against Horace’s beliefs, beliefs to which Seneca usually kept – the first son is killed by Medea during a monolog (970), the second son is killed during a dialog with Jason (1019). Many characters commit suicide on stage. This was something that was already shown in theaters, as in Sophocles’s Ajax. In Seneca’s version these events are literally shown in an different way: when Jocasta in Oedipus the King stabbed herself with a sword, streams of blood gushed out on the ← 80 | 81 → stage. During the period of the emperors, theaters would often overuse bags with blood on stage. They also used theatrical swords with push-in blades.88 The reaction of audiences to Seneca’s plays was conditioned by the abundance of violence and death during public spectacles in Rome. Murder and executions were the essence of Roman entertainment.

2. Seneca never gave an opinion on his own tragedies,89 but he did comment on the Roman theater of death. In the imperial period, munera, gladiatorial tournaments, financed by public and imperial funds, became a part of the public entertainment industry. In the mornings, there were spectacles with animals, at noon executions, and in the afternoon gladiatorial combats. In amphitheaters a physical barrier radically divided two realities: the victims and the audience. The people sitting in the audience belonged to the civilized world, rational, with law and order. People and animals in the arena represented a barbaric reality, wild,irrational, and, above all, alien. They were used as a tool to reinforce the audience’s idea of Romanitas, Romanness, Roman rule over the world. Spectacles of death, according to Seneca, had three functions:

    they punished criminals who endangered the cohesion and durability of Roman military civilization (breaking the law, deserting from the army, attacking Rome, etc.);

    they put fear in the hearts of others: death in the arena as an example (exemplum) deprived of moral values, represented a symbolic value;

    they restored a feeling of safety: executions guaranteed that the criminal would not commit a crime ever again.90

The audiences for these brutal events were drawn from all social classes. Scenes of death decorated normal everyday items (lamps or pots); in the form of mosaics they decorated walls and floors of private houses. Romans took the symbolism of public spectacles and decorated their own private space with it.91 Death as a show became an esthetic fact; distance separated the victims and the audience both in the arena and in villas. ← 81 | 82 →

3. During spectacles of death, one could admire the combat and, by doing so, also reinforce one’s virtue, bravery, and endurance. But it was also a good time to think about death. Seneca made the gladiator a metaphor for a follower of stoicism; events in the arena illustrated the stoic’s struggle for a virtuous life; they taught him how to face the odds and accept his fate with a stony face.92 “Bravery is the virtue that scorns legitimate dangers,” writes Seneca (Ben. 2.34.3), “yet we call a gladiator a brave man.” Seneca found the loss of life in the arena interesting and a good example of two model stoic rules: you should not be afraid of death and with death comes liberation.

Seneca compared the bravery of a stoic wise man (sapiens), willingly choosing a life of virtue (Prov. 3.4, Constant. 16.2), to the bravery of a gladiator who gave an oath that he will allow himself to be “burned, tied up, and killed with an iron weapon.” He also willingly chose to fight. Romans expected the same from a brave gladiator, as from a sacrificial animal.93 An animal was led, with a loose rope, to the altar. This was done so that the sacrificial animal did not give the impression of going against its own will – any resistance on the animal’s part was interpreted as a bad sign. The Greeks dripped water on the neck of the sacrificial ox so that it would bow its head, and by doing so, agree to be slaughtered. The wise man and the gladiator chose their own fate, no matter the outcome.

Seneca’s concept of liberation through death (Ep. 70.20) was illustrated by the example of a German prisoner, who was chosen to fight animals as a bestiarius, but chose to commit suicide by stuffing a sponge down his own throat.

4. In 1809, August Wilhelm von Schlegel, one of the “founding fathers” of German Romanticism, formulated a subsequently very influential thesis about the non-theatricality of Seneca’s tragedies. In his opinion, the bombastic, unnatural, and shocking dramas of this Roman philosopher misappropriated and manhandled the soul of Greek genius and were at most rhetorical exercises. Half a century later, the French scholar Gaston Boissier (1861) also expressed his distaste for the macabre tendencies of Seneca and expanded on Schlegel’s theory. The canonization of the opinion that Seneca’s dramas were written only for recitation was accomplished by Friedrich Leo. He forged the term “rhetorical tragedies,” in which ethos does not exist, only pathos.94 From then on, countless books have repeated this ← 82 | 83 → theory “as established fact.”95 This was also the opinion of one of the best of the younger generation of publishers and commentators of Seneca’s tragedies, Otto Zwierlein, who even programmatically entitled his book Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas (1966).

On the other hand, more modern studies of these dramas show that many of these scenes have great theatrical power, but when only recited, some of them stop being understandable. Phaedra faints at the sight of Hippolytus, throws herself at his feet, and struggles with him to take away his sword (Phaedra 585, 703-714). The key event in Medea, which the entire tragedy appears to lead up to, is the murder of children. The first murder happens during the monolog of our heroine, but the text does not specify when Medea should kill her son. But there are many allusions in the text that, if it is simply recited, could raise consternation in the audience. When it appears that the child is dead, Medea starts talking to him as if he were alive. Only after careful reading, can one define when the actual murder happens. Thanks to staging, this almost random moment can be played out in a spectacular way. This surprising murder scene, unclear to an audience of a recitation, most surely would have moved the audience in a theater – like a wild animal unexpectedly attacking a convict during an execution.

The influence of the stage is even more relevant in the ending of the tragedy Thyestes. Thyestes is the twin brother of Atreus. Their story is one of mutual acts of vengeance. Thyestes seduces Atreus’s wife. Atreus decides to take his revenge by serving up his brother’s children to him to be eaten. At the beginning of the fifth act, Atreus stands triumphant in front of his palace, in which behind closed doors, his brother is taking part in a terrifying feast. Just like a theatrical director, Atreus tells his people to open the gates, so that he can take delight in the trap he has set for Thyestes. In the climax, when – as is written in the script (990) – the lights dim, Atreus uncovers the faces of Thyestes’s children. The effect of the crucial scene of discovery depends entirely on how it is presented on stage, the way the children’s heads are show.96 The script does not clearly indicate that the children are dead. On the contrary, Atreus up until the very end talks about the children as if they were still alive: but what he is doing is more important than what he is saying. Just a recital of the text would not be enough fully to understand this scene. When Thyestes suddenly says that he knows that Atreus has killed his children, he does not explain how he comes to this realization. If the ← 83 | 84 → audience has to depend on only the text, a critical moment of this tragedy would not be understood.

5. For a long time it was considered impossible to show the scene of sacrifice from Seneca’s Oedipus (289-383) on stage. The first problem is with the bull, which is frightened by the rays of light of the setting sun. Then it turns out to be hard to kill – it is still kicking after the second blow. Then there is the scene where there is a close inspection of the innards of the killed animals. Finally the gutted animal comes back to life and attacks the priest with its horns.

This scene was possible to show with drugged calves or specially trained animals.97 Pliny (HN 8.70.182) saw trained bulls, which during a show fell to the ground, got back up again, and even rode chariots and mounted horses. These types of shows were rarely perfect and did not affect the audience as strongly as a recital that would provoke the imagination.98 Some scholars even claimed that Seneca’s tragedies are made of two different kinds of modules: one is made for the stage and one is made for recitation.99 During the reign of the emperors, it was common practice for only excerpts of dramas to be performed. Perhaps Oedipus, in contrast to Seneca’s other tragedies, was an experiment in drama, testing the boundaries of recited theater.

6. The performance reception of ancient drama in the modern times began c. 1485 when students of Pomponius Laetus, a Professor at the University of Rome, staged Seneca’s Phaedra. “Inghirami’ performance was highly praised and he became known as Tommaso Phaedra thereafter.”100 Ancient sources are silent concerning stage versions of Seneca’s tragedies in theaters.101 If they were shown during public games, actors acted out scenes in places where on other days real spectacles of death took place.

Seneca experimented with forms of drama to bring into the theater an audience fascinated with the theater of death. In times of the “privatization of cul ← 84 | 85 → ture,” his tragedies could have been shown in smaller buildings. Close contact of the actors with the audience would have made the play have a more emotional impact on the viewers. The rich vocabulary and complex narrative structure indicate that Seneca made his tragedies for a more sophisticated audience. Rhetoric separated his dramas from the art of mimes, pantomimes, or from extravagant stagings of tragedies. The recital of such texts could have been reserved for a more educated and elite audience.102 In this context, a full, stage version of a Seneca tragedy would be contradictory to its social and ethical function, and a recital, enriched only with key stage elements, should be thought of as a performative practice addressed to a certain kind of spectator – an aristocrat who had a taste for death and rhetoric in theater.

If tragedies were recited in private homes, then quite possibly the rooms were decorated with scenes of death from amphitheaters. With this “scenography,” Seneca’s novel dramatic solutions could have provoked the imagination of the audience in a substantial way. Jerzy Axer discovered one of his strategies. The Polish scholar points out that the real addressee of the song of the hunter that opens Phaedra was the audience “who loved venationes.” In the first part of the monolog (1-30), borrowed from Euripides, Hippolytus sends his huntsmen off to different regions of Attica – indicating thereby a great knowledge of the topography. The theme of the final part (54-84) is setting the borders of “Diana’s Kingdom.” The goddess of the hunt rules all the lands which lay beyond Nero’s Empire. That world is transformed into a giant hunting ground by Seneca. This is where Rome got all the animals that were later shown in the arena. Seneca “uses this common training of the Roman audience in the amphitheater, for the theater. He later appeals to this training, awakening the imagination of the spectator in order to associate the proposed situation in a drama with a situation known by audiences from the amphitheater.”103

It is hard to believe that Seneca wrote dramas with no intention of showing them in theaters, or, at least, without the idea of showing them at some form of public presentation. He addressed his plays to a concrete audience. Just like every great writer for the theater, Seneca, in his tragedies, writes in the language of his contemporary audience, using means that, without any difficulty, a Roman spectator, a very specific spectator, one who loved the theater of death, could decode. ← 85 | 86 → ← 86 | 87 →

1       In Rome there was a long tradition of contrasting the skills of the soldier and the actor. In this sense, the phrase appears in the writings of Livy (7.2.3), Suetonius (Gram. 1.1.), Portius Licinius (fr. 1.1-2) and St Augustine (De civ. D. 1.32). See also: Ovid, Fasti 5.586; Plutarch, Eum. 2.2, Otho 5.8; Tacitus, Ann. 15.59.2. Cf. Oakley (1998), 39-40.

2       CIL 10.852 = ILS 5627. Cf. Vitruvius 5.1.1-2; Festus, Breviarum rerum gestarum populi Romani 22. There are commentaries in: Tosi (2003), 710-712; Welch (2007), 32-33, 43-55.

3       Livy 7.6.1-6; Varro, Ling. 5.148-150; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 14.11.1-5; Zonaras 7.25.1-6. Cf. Oakley (1998), 96-102.

4       Versnel (1981), 152-156.

5       Macrobius, Sat. 3.9.9-13. Cf. Oakley (1998), 481; Versnel (1997).

6       See chapter 1.1. “Street Theater” (Rome as Theater).

7       The accounts of two other rituals are less credible: that concerning the son of Decius (Livy 10.28: Sentinum, 295 p.n.e.) and his grandson (Cicero, Fin. 2.61; Tusc. 1.89: Ausculum, 279 BCE.). There is a full discussion of the sources and their possible interpretations, along with a bibliography in: Oakley (1998) 477-486, 501. See also: Versnel (1981), 157-159.

8       Cf. Sophocles, OT 498-499; Euripides, El. 1024-1026; Cicero, Sest. 48; Livy 7.9.8; Virgil, Aen. 5.815: unum pro multis dabitur caput.

9       Suetonius, Cal. 27.2; Cassius Dio 59.8.3.

10     Cf. Zonaras 7.26.3-5; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 7.79.2; Cassius Dio, fr. 35.2. Many ancient authors allude to the occurrence. Cf. Oakley (1998), 436-439.

11     Livy 7.10.6: spectaculi magis more quam lege belli. For more on the subject of this duel, see: Oakley (1998), 113-125.

12     Plutarch, Ant. 62.4, 75.1.

13     Valerius Maximus 3.2.24; Pliny, HN 7.102, 22.9; Gellius 2.11.2.

14     Oakley (1985); (1998), 123-125; Futrell (1997), 193-194. Cf. Goldsworthy (1996), 265-271.

15     Ville (1981), 1-8.

16     Isidore, Orig. 10.159.

17     Latte (1960), 155.

18     On the subject of the word’s complex etymology, see: Benveniste (1966), 315-326; (1969), 1.96-97, 187; Veyne (1976), 770-77110.

19     Wiedemann (1992), 1-8.

20     Valerius Maximus 2.4.7; Livy, Per. 16 (He mentions the name of only one of the brothers of Decimus).

21     A discussion of surviving texts is in: Ville (1981), 42.

22     There is more on the subject of nobiles in chapter 9.1. “Nobiles” (The Actor’s Status).

23     DNP 8.488 (Hönle 2000).

24     Suetonius, Tib. 37.3; Cicero, Mur. 37. Cf. Bodel (1999), 261.

25     Livy 23.30.15, 31.50.4, 29.46.2-3, 41.28.11. Cf. Ville (1981), 42-43.

26     Cassius Dio 68.15.1; SHA Hadrian 3.8; AE 1933.30. Cf. Wiedemann (1992), 11.

27     Cf. Sabbatini Tumolesi (1980), 69-74, 147-149 (a gladiatorial school in Pompeii).

28     CIL 6.10174, 10181, 10192.

29     Valerius Maximus 2.3.2.

30     Caesar, BCiv. 1.14; Velleius Paterculus 2.58.2; Appian, BCiv. 3.49; Tacitus, Hist. 2.11, 23, 34-35, 43; 3.57, 76; Suetonius, Aug. 14; Herodian 7.11; Pliny, Pan. 13.5.

31     DNP 8.493-494 (Hönle 2000); Grant (1967).

32     Festus, ed. Lindsay, p. 358: non te peto, piscem peto. Quid me fugis, Galle? Cf. Ville (1981), 408.

33     Seneca, QNat. 7.31.3; Juvenal 2.117-126; 8.199-210. Cf. Suetonius, Cal. 30.3. Cerutti–Richardson (1989); Bettini (1995), 93-94.

34     Suetonius, Nero 12.2 (neminem occidit, ne noxiorum quidem); Tacitus, Ann. 13.31.2. Cf. Ville (1981), 138-139 (no. 104).

35     The same in Pliny, Pan. 33.1. Contra: Gellius 12.5.13-14. Cf. Coleman (2006), 233-234.

36     Ville (1981), 325-329.

37     Ville (1981), 42-46; Jory (1986); Golvin (1988), 298-313; Purcell (1995), 331-332; Tosi (2003), 709-720; Welch (2007), 30-70.

38     Golvin (1988), 59; Welch (1994), 76; (2007), 32-71.

39     MRR 1.155. Festus, ed. Lindsay, p. 120. Cf. Vitruvius 5.1.1-2; Cicero, Acad. post. 1.22.70-71; Valerius Maximus 9.12.7; Pseudo-Asconius ad Cicero, Div. Caec. 16-50; Isidore, Orig. 15.3.11; Digesta 50.16.24; Nonius, De compendiosa doctrina, p. 91. Coarelli (1992), 2: 143-146; Welch (2007), 32-35.

40     Plutarch, C. Gracch. 33.5-6. Cf. Futrell (1997), 161-167.

41     Welch (1994), 66-67; (2007), 189-264; Bomgardner (2000), 121-196 (North Africa). In Italy, Tosi (2003) has catalogued 182 amphitheaters.

42     TLL, see bestia. Cf. Hönle (2002 in DNP 12.2).

43     Humphrey (1986), 175-294.

44     Ville (1981), 99-118.

45     Livy 39.22.2: venatio data leonum et pantherarum. Pliny (HN 8.6.17) writes that in 252 BCE a combat of elephants from Sicily was shown in the circus, but he also cites the opinion of L. Piso that there was only a parade of these creatures at that time. Plautus, (Persa 199) suggests, in turn, that ostriches appeared in the circus before 197 BCE. Cf. Ville (1981), 51-52.

46     Livy 44.18.8. The elephants were perhaps spared. Ville (1981), 52.

47     Axer (1991), 94-98. There is a poetic account of the spectacle in: Calpurnius Siculus, Ecl. 7.4-83. Cf. Ville (1981), 141-142.

48     Cassius Dio 68.15.

49     Wiedemann (1992), 65. Roman legions played an important role in providing animals for the spectacles. This was the task of soldiers called venatores immunes: CIL 6.130 (Rome, 241 CE), 3.7449 (Bulgaria, 155 CE). See Ville (1981), 348-352; Eppelett (2001).

50     Cassius Dio 61.25.2; Martial, Spect. 34.4: ignotas feras. Cf. Traversari (1960), 110-117; Coleman (2006), 254.

51     SHA Antonius Pius 10.9, Gordiani tres 33.1, Heliogabalus 28.3, Firmus 6.2.

52     Cassius Dio 73.10.3; see 73.19.1.

53     On the series of diptychs, see Delbrueck (1929). Cassiodorus, Var. 5.42. Cf. Bomgardner (2000), 217-218.

54     Bomgardner (2000), 57-58.

55     Seneca, Ep. 7.4.

56     Coleman (2000), 251169.

57     Edmondson (1996), 81.

58     Seneca, Ep. 70.20. Cf. Wiedemann (1992), 57. There were also schools in Pergamon (IGUR 1060), Alexandria (ILS 1397) and a Ludus Gallicus et Hispanus probably in Barcino (CIL 2.4519). Cf. Edmondson (1996), 8147.

59     Petronius 45.11.

60     Wiedemann (1992), 57.

61     Dunbabin (1999), 120-121, fig. 123; (1978), pl. 1.1, 20.46-49; Coleman (1990), 54, fig. 1-2; Wiedemann (1992), fig. 5. Today in the Archaeological Museum in Tripoli.

62     Petronius 36.6; Quintilian, Declamationes 9.6; Juvenal 3.34; CIL 3.10501; 10.1037, 4915. Cf. Ville (1981), 372-375. The sources cited also refer to music during gladiatorial combats.

63     Martial, Spect. Cf. Coleman (2006).

64     Strabo 6.272. Cf. Coleman (1990), 53-54, 64-65; Csapo–Slater (1994), 387, V 53.

65     Suetonius, Nero 12.2.

66     Suetonius, Nero 12.2; Martial, Spect. 6 (5). Cf. Coleman (1990), 60-70; (2006), 62-68.

67     Apuleius, Met. 10.34. Cf. Coleman (1990), 64.

68     Coleman (1990), 61. Seneca (Dial. 6.20.3) describes one unfortunate with his genitals stuck on a stake; self-castration was for him the only way to escape death.

69     Suetonius, Nero 29; Cassius Dio 63.13.2. Cf. Champlin (2003), 165-170.

70     Dunbabin (1999), 123-124, fig. 127.

71     Coleman (1990), 50-51.

72     Coleman (1993); Tosi (2003), 815-833.

73     Suetonius, Iul. 39; Cassius Dio 43.23; Appian, BCiv. 2.102 (the fleets each had 4,000 oarsmen and 1,000 fighters).

74     Suetonius, Iul. 44; Cassius Dio 45.17.8.

75     Res gestae divi Augusti 23; Suetonius, Iul. 39.4, Aug. 43.2, Dom. 4.6 (navalis pugna); Tacitus, Ann. 12.56.1. In 204 BCE, before a battle with Carthage, Scipio Africanus attended military exercises in the waters off Syracuse, called by Livy (29.1-2)simulacrum navalis pugnae.

76     Suetonius, Iul. 44.1; Cassius Dio 43.23.4.

77     Suetonius, Aug. 43; Tacitus, Ann. 12.56, 14.15; Velleius Paterculus 2.100.2; Cassius Dio 46.25; Statius, Silvae 4.4.5. Cf. Tosi (2003), 817-821; LTUR 3.337 (A.M. Liberati); Taylor (1997).

78     Res gestae divi Augusti 23; Cassius Dio 55.10.7. The defeat of the Persians at Salamis doubtless was meant to symbolize Octavian’s victory at Actium. Cf. Tosi (2003), 817-818; Taylor (1997).

79     Suetonius, Nero 12.2; Cassius Dio 61.20.5.

80     Martial, Spect. 34; Suetonius, Tit. 7.3. Cf. Cassius Dio 66.25. Ville (1981), 146-147; Coleman (2006), 249-259.

81     Coarelli (2001), 430-431.

82     Suetonius, Dom. 4.2, 5.

83     S. Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 28.1.

84     Suetonius, Clad. 21.6; Tacitus, Ann. 12.56.

85     Tacitus, Ann. 12.56: in modum theatri. Cf. Pliny, HN 33.63; Cassius Dio 60.33.3-4; Suetonius, Claud. 21.6.

86     Cassius Dio 61.9.5, 62.15.1.

87     Traversari (1960).

88     Sutton (1986), 63, 67.

89     There is an attempt to reconstruct Seneca’s views on tragedy in Staley (2010).

90     Seneca, Clem. 1.22.1; De ira 1.19.7. Cf. Gellius 7.14.4. There is commentary in Shelton (2000), 91.

91     Wiedemann (1992), 23.

92     Seneca, Constant. 16.2 (wise men are like gladiatores fortissimos, the strongest gladiators). Cf. Prov. 2.9.

93     Barton (1993), 14-15.

94     Leo (1878-79), 1.148. Cf. Hook (2000), 682.

95     Fortey–Glucker (1975), 699.

96     Braun (1982), 45-46.

97     Sutton (1986), 23.

98     Rosenmeyer (1993), 242-243.

99     Fitch (2000). According to Zanobi (2008), Seneca wrote his tragedies “with pantomime in mind.”

100   See online Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama: Hippolytus (1485), accessed at http://www.apgrd.ox.ac.uk/productions/production/3658 <11 September 2017>

101   Quintilian (Inst. 8.3.31) only recalls that in his youth he was witness to a dispute between Seneca and Pomponius Secundus on the proper language of tragedy.

102   Goldberg (2000), 224-227.

103   Axer (1991), 85.


The ludi as Ceremony

1. Ludi scaenici – theatrical games or spectacles – were never independent. They were included in the program of other older religious ceremonies, either public or private. Ludi Romani are considered to be one of the oldest ceremonies, established in the age of kings, at the end of the sixth century BCE. For two and a half centuries their program included only circus performances. According to historians of the late Republic, actors made their first debuts during these ceremonies. They were brought from Etruria in the year 364 BCE during the plague, in order to placate the gods. The gods, however, did not react to these performances and the epidemic continued, but the Romans adopted the new form of art, and later developed it into their own. Livius Andronicus’s first plays premiered in the year 240 BCE also during the ludi Romani. This can be considered to be the inauguration of Latin literature.

Regardless of the historical value of this information, known mostly thanks to digressions made by Livy (2.7), one must stress that the ancient commentators believed it to be appropriate to assign the art of Roman theater a religious origin and exegesis. Near the end of the Republic, a similar opinion was current: the Roman games were held “in honor of the gods” (in honorem deorum). Varro, while commenting on the religious significance of funeral games, as a generalization, emphasizes the religious dimension of all games. Pseudo-Cyprian analyzing spectacula rhetorically asks which of the games could take place without offering sacrifice? Ovid recalls the religious fear connected to country festivals in honor of the god Liber, who was associated with Dionysus. This is also mentioned by Virgil. 1

2. Since the games were considered to be a religious holiday, they had to be celebrated according to a specific order. Any violation of the ceremony (vitium, mistake) or interruption would result in repetition, that is, a procedure called “renewal,” instauratio. The noun comes from the verb instaurare, “to renew” or “to reset.” In sacred language, the term instauratio meant a ceremonial repetition of a religious act, declared or supposed to be invalid because the observance was executed incorrectly or interrupted. 2 Plutarch (Cor. 25.3) mentioned that these rituals could be repeated up to thirty times for even the most trivial of reasons, so great was the Romans’ devotion. It was enough to stop the whole procession and repeat it if the cart that carried holy paintings of the god stopped, or if the coachman grasped the reins with his forbidden left hand. When in 364 BCE, the River Tiber overflowed, thus hindering the organization of the games, the Romans reacted with panic (Livy 7.3.1-2).

Games were also repeated under the following circumstances (Cicero, Har. resp. 11.23):

    one of the dancers suddenly stopped dancing, or one of the musicians stopped playing;

    a boy whose parents were both still alive lost contact with the ground or the holy cart;

    the aedile’s tongue slipped, or he used a wrong word. ← 88 | 89 →

3. Ancient accounts mention a procedure of renewal used exclusively for the sake of games, and, in fact, not always in a religious context. The celebrations were prolonged during the Punic Wars, to calm a frightened people. In later years, this procedure would become an instrument used by candidates for office, hoping thereby to gain the sympathy of the electorate. Organizing lavish games was an essential element of one’s political career path in Rome.3 L. Aemilius Paullus speaks of this in his famous, subsequently frequently repeated, motto “the man who knew how to conquer in war could also arrange a banquet and organize games” (Livy 45.32.11).

Livy mentions the instauratio procedure nineteen times, but only in reference to religious holidays such as the ludi Romani and the ludi plebeii.4 Festus (ed. Lindsay, pp. 436-438) only once mentions the renewal of the ludi Apollinares. All references concern the years from 216 to 179 BCE, the time in which a new Hellenized Roman identity was formed. Victories in subsequent wars enriched potential sponsors and enabled the prolongation of expensive celebrations. The greatest intensity of these renewals happened in the years 197 and 189 BC, at the time the Romans possessed enormous wealth after ending the second Macedonian war, defeating the Aetolians, and victoriously defeating King Antiochus III under Magnesia in the year 190 BC.

3. Surviving documents suggest that from its very introduction theater quickly dominated the program of the Roman games5:

    from 240 BCE at least one day6 of the ludi Romani program was occupied by theater;

    from 235 BCE – at least two days7: ludi Romani;

    from 214 BCE – at least four days8: ludi Romani; ← 89 | 90 →

    from 212 BCE – at least five days: ludi Romani (4 days), ludi Apollinares (1 day)9;

    from 200 BCE – at least six days: ludi Romani (4 days), ludi Apollinares (1 day), ludi plebeii (1 day)10;

    from 194 BCE – at least eight days: ludi Romani (4 days), ludi Apollinares (1 day), ludi plebeii (1 day), ludi Megalenses (2 days)11;

    from 190 BCE – at least nine days: ludi Romani (4 days), ludi Apollinares (2 days), ludi plebeii (1 day)12, ludi Megalenses (2 days);

    from around 180 BCE – 14 days (or 24 including spectacles performed during funeral games).

    at the turn of the second and first century BCE – 28 out of the 36 days of the regular games were reserved for theater;

    in 44 BCE – 42 out of 59 days (at the time, mostly plays of long-dead poets were revived);

    354 BCE – a record year – 101 out of the 175 days of the games were devoted to theater performances13 (this is when mime and pantomime finally replaced comedy and tragedy).

During the remaining days of the games, other spectacles took place. At first, it was mostly horse or chariot racing, but later it also included gladiator combats and venationes. The sudden growth of holidays in the Roman Empire was a result of successive emperors’ introducing new festivals such as the ludi Palatini, established by Livia after Augustus’s death14, or the Augustalia, as a commemoration of Augustus’s return to Rome in 19 BCE. The Romans gladly accepted such a turn of events. Juvenal (10.80-81) speaks of this in his famous expression: “The people need two things – panem et circenses (bread and games).”15 The expression appears in a grim context, for the poet speaks of people getting killed in ← 90 | 91 → the arena, of the maltreatment of corpses, and of the refusal to bury Sejanus’s body. Roman games did not resemble the Greek Olympiads or Dionysia, nor did they resemble contemporary theater festivals. However, there were two common points for most ancient religious festivals – the procession and making offerings.

The Holy Procession

1. The Latin word pompa, “procession”, comes from the Greek pompē, “escort.” The procession that preceded the games essentially amounted to “escorting the gods” from their sanctuary to a place of worship (pompa deorum). In the Roman world, as in Ancient Greece, the statues of gods were perceived as the gods themselves.16

A description of a model procession was kept by a rhetorician of Augustus’s times, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 7.72-73). It was based on the account of Quintus Fabius Pictor (FGrH 809), the first Roman historian, who wrote in Greek in the third century BCE. The text raises many questions. It is not known where Pictor learned about early Roman processions, or to what degree his account has been tampered with, for the sake of assigning Greek roots to Roman institutions.17 The surviving description refers to the ludi Romani, but it is very probable that the course of the celebration was typical for other games. Ancient testimonies also mention a procession in the context of the ludi Apollinares and the ludi Megalenses.

2. The Ludi Romani, as Dionysus reports, began with the procession. It went from the Temple of Jupiter to the Capitol, through the Roman Forum to the Circus Maximus, which is in the opposite direction that of a triumphal procession. It was led by the most important state officials. Young Roman men would follow them in a military order: first the cavalry (the sons of the knights), then the infantry, and chariots drawn by two or four horses. Next came boxers and wrestlers, all naked, with only their genitals covered. After them, came many dancers in three groups: the men, the young men, and the boys. They were followed by musicians who played on short traditional auloi – “as is done even to this day” (this is around the year 200 BCE, in the time of Fabius Pictor) – and also on a seven-stringed lyre made from ivory (in Greek the bárbita). The dancers wore scarlet tunics, tied with brown belts, with swords hanging by their sides; they also had short spears. The ← 91 | 92 → men wore helmets decorated with crests and feathers. Each group was preceded by a leader who demonstrated to the others the subsequent dance steps, among others, the rapid four-beat military step.

Armed dancers were followed by satyrs girdled with goat skins, with spiky manes and phalluses. They would perform their traditional Greek dance, the síkinnis. The fathers of the satyrs, known as the sileni, wore hairy tunics and coats made of various flowers. Together they would all imitate and mock the serious dances that had been performed before them. A “crowd of musicians” with lyres and pipes would follow the dancers. The scent of perfume and incense would accompany them. Next came men carrying golden and silver vessels.

The procession was closed by a group of men carrying statues of the gods on their shoulders. One may presume that the statues were raised up onto the orchestra and placed near the senators’ seats. Lucretius (4.78-80), when describing the colored curtains hung above the theaters, says that they colored everything: the whole audience, the stage, and “the senators, the matrons and the gods” in the orchestra. This excerpt provokes controversy because there is no proof that the matrons sat with their husbands in the front rows.18 However, one thing seems sure: a statue or painting of a god was present within the audience of every public games.

3. Both Dionysus and Fabius Pictor before him tried to prove that Greek games were held in Rome. The opening procession itself, arranged by its main organizers and the most noble youth, calls to mind the Athenian Panathenaic festivals or the Dionysia. Dionysus’s description concerns the celebration that proceeded the circus games, hence the prominent presence of the athletes in the procession. However, artists, musicians, dancers, and most importantly, satyrs were also present. The procession would also herald the performances of theater artists. It is possible that more theatrical games than the Roman Games, for example the Apollonian or the Magdalenian games, began with processions where the artists’ role was much more prominent. The strong presence of satyrs suggests that Dionysus’s description could just as well reflect the nature of a typical theater procession (pompa theatralis).19

Dionysus wanted to prove the Greek ancestry of Rome so much that he would sometimes bend certain facts. In his account, the men would transport the stat ← 92 | 93 → ues of gods on their shoulders. However, according to other sources we know that the Romans used either stretchers (fercula20) or special carts (tensae, thensae21) for this. It was the Greeks who carried the attributes of gods on their shoulders. The author is silent about these uncomfortable facts.22 The official who opened the procession in Rome had the same insignia as the triumphal general during his triumphal procession, and most importantly he wore a purple toga. All of this had little in common with the outfit of a Greek dignitary. Dionysus also fails to mention the gigantic puppets that were one of the attractions of the procession in Rome, but were completely unknown in Athens. Festus in his lexicon gives us the names of three of these puppets: Manducus, Citeria, and Petreia. Manducus was frightening because he would grind his gigantic teeth (he would also appear in Attelan farces), Citeria brought laughter, and Petreia had the shape of an old, drunken woman, and would precede the procession in the colonies.23

Despite many attractions, the Roman processions provoked contradictory reactions. Some observers, such as Seneca the Elder, were indifferent to them or even bored by them (Controv. 1, pr. 24).

Making Offerings

After the procession ended, but before the entertaining part of the games begun, it was time to make offerings to the appropriate gods. This was also done according to a strictly defined procedure. One of the functions of the procession was to bring the sacrificial animals to the altar. The Romans placed extreme importance on the proper pronunciation of the recommended ritualistic formulas. Without the appropriate prayer, there could be no sacrificial offerings to the gods. During the prayers, one of the highest officials would read formulas from a text, and another would check if the words were correctly pronounced and whether they were read in the correct order. Another official would make sure that the audience stayed quiet. A musician played on pipes during the ritual to drown out any accidental sounds from the outside, which could not only disturb the prayers but, above all, foreshadow misfortune.24 ← 93 | 94 →

The ritual slaughter consisted of five stages25:

    the prayer of the main celebrant combined with making liquid offerings at the altar, in other words, libation;

    cleaning the animal by pouring clean water or wine and coarse ground flour (mola salsa) onto its head;

    the killing of the animal by slaves – this had to be done with one cut (there was a variety of incisions, and each had its own technique26) and slicing the body;

    reading divinations from the insides (exta);

    burning parts of the animal on the altar.

Ludi publici

1. Roman Ludi may be divided into public (ludi publici) and private (ludi privati). The first took place on a regular basis, usually every year. The second type, funeral games (ludi funebres) or games dedicated to new temples (ludi ob dedicationem aedis) were more random, because they depended on the individual initiative and wealth of the organizers. Ludi publici was held on predetermined days of the holiday calendar (fasti). Such days as public holidays (feriae publicae) were free from work for everyone. Ludi publici were religious rituals, addressed both to the gods and to the people. “At the public games which are held without chariot races or the contest of body with body, the public pleasure shall be provided for with moderation by song to the music of lyre and tibia [cantu et fidibus et tibiis], and this shall be combined with honour to the gods” – proclaimed Cicero (Leg. 2.9.22).27

Public holidays were financed by the state from the public treasury (aerarium),28 and their organization was the responsibility of an official, first a republican official and later an imperial one.29 The monies for ludi taken from the state treasure were referred to as lucar.30 According to Festus, the word first ← 94 | 95 → meant income derived from the holy grove; it is possible that it also included a percentage from the sales of temple goods. Before the appearance of stamped coins, lucar could be a synonym for valuable items. One may imagine that the Etruscan dancers who were invited to Rome in the year 364 BC, were paid for their performances in benefits in kind, from the goods belonging to the sanctuary of Jupiter on the Capitol Hill. Their spectacle was performed as part of the ludi Romani, organized in honor of Jupiter. State funds usually were not sufficient to organize a decent games. That is why the official had to add his own money, or get it from his political friends (Seneca, Ben. 2.21.5).

According to sources from the early Empire, donations for the early ludi Romani came to two hundred thousand sesterces.31 The larger part of the sum probably covered the expenses connected to non-theatrical performances such as the preparation of horses or the performances of boxers. After 200 BCE, there was no limit to the costs of a games, and ambitious politicians could spend as much as they liked or as much as they could gather from their followers. Although the Senate tried to restrain citizens from excessive expenditures, the political dimension of the games dominated over the religious one. During the Imperial period the costs of games brought members of the senatorial class to bankruptcy, even though Augustus allowed one to spend only as much of his money on ludi as the state put up itself. A few years later, he even permitted for the sum to be three times what the state contributed, but this law was still commonly ignored.

3. The officials who organized ludi were called “curators” (curatores ludorum). Sources from the middle and late Republic see aediles as typical curators.32 In 494 BCE, the patricians agreed to create a new office that represented the interests of all those who were not part of the privileged patrician class (in other words, aristocratic clans, whose status was inherited). Thanks to this, the unprivileged and undefined masses, excluded from performing priestly, official, or senatorial functions, became recognized as a separate social group, the plebs (most likely ← 95 | 96 → derived from the Greek plimagethos, “mass”). The masses, in fact, formed themselves into an organized group, and their interests were represented by special officials.33 Two plebeian aediles were appointed at this time. They were responsible for such things as taking care of the main sanctuary of the plebs, at the time placed on the Aventine – the temple of the gods Ceres, Liber, and Proserpina (aedes Cereris Liberi Liberaeque). The term aedile (aedilis, pl. aediles) comes from the word aedes, a “temple.” Possibly along with the opening of a plebeian temple, came the establishment of plebeian games, in response to the ludi Romani, controlled since royal times by the patricians.34

4. In the year 493 BCE, by the decision of the Senate, the plebeian aediles, as curators of the public games, were granted royal insignia:

    a purple toga (toga purpura), and at the latest from 272 BCE, also a decorated toga (toga picta, similarly to the purple toga adopted from the Etruscan kings of Rome);

    a tunic with the ornament in the shape of a palm tree (tunica palmata)35;

    and also a special chair (sella).36

Thus, from then on, curators of Roman games wore the costume of a triumphal general (vestis triumphalis). The statue of Jupiter on Capitol hill was dressed similarly.37 The curator of the games held a dominant position during theater ceremonies, like the god on the Capitol Hill. He sat on a distinctive, highly visible place, above the side entrances to the stage (tribunal), so that no one in the audience had any doubt regarding who was to be thanked for the outstanding spectacle.

5. The Ludi Romani are the only public games that derive from the royal period. The other games were established in the Republic: the ludi plebeii, ludi Apollinares, ← 96 | 97 → ludi Megalenses, ludi Florales, and ludi Ceriales. These holidays expressed and strengthened republican ideology: the official aristocracy ruled, and the plebs rejoiced in the spectacle. All ludi publici included theatrical spectacles in their programs.

Near the end of the republican period, public games underwent fundamental changes. The ludi Victoriae Sullanae, established in 81 BCE by the dictator Sulla, according to tradition honored the gods, but this time the goddess Victoria personified the victory of one man, of Sulla himself. Likewise, a generation later, Pompey the Great celebrated his military success by building a theater that technically was a temple to the goddess Venus the Victorious (Venus Victrix). However, no one in literature mentions this building as a temple. It is almost exclusively known as the Theater of Pompey. Caesar brought games to a new level, when in 45 BCE, during the inauguration procession of the ludi Victoriae Caesaris, he flaunted a statue of himself and emblems of his power. In this way, Sulla and Caesar built the foundations for the imperial games.

In the time of the early Empire, the program of the games was expanded and enriched, though in fact they did not differ substantially from republican games.38 There was one exception: in Rome the emperor from now on was the only founder of all the major games. Private festivals were allowed only in the provinces, and usually only as a part of worship of the emperor.

Ludi Romani

1. They were the most important games in Rome, famous for their chariot races in the circus. They took place in honor of Jupiter. Chroniclers ascribe the establishment of the games to the Etruscan kings. Livy preserves the most details. King Tarquinius the Old, after his return from the war against the Latins, decided to organize in Rome the greatest games any king had ever organized. After plundering the city of Apiolae, he had abundant resources to do so. He chose a special place between Aventine and Palatine, that is where the Circus Maximus was built some time later. For the audience he built tribunes (fori) supported by piles, with separate places for senators and knights. The program included horse and chariot races and fistfights. The games had various names: the Roman (Romani) or the Great (magni) Games.39 ← 97 | 98 →

Later Dyonisus of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 3.68.1) mentions the benches being built. He adds that they were roofed; this is an interesting piece of information, but as a testimony to Augustan practices. Livy’s report, however, is confirmed by archeological discoveries. On a mural painting from the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, preserved in the Etruscan tomb delle Bighe in Tarquinia, you can see not only racing horses and fighting boxers, but also tribunes with spectators, close to what Livy describes. On the other hand, a relief on a tombstone from the beginning of the fifth century BCE found in Chiuso40 clearly presents people sitting separately on single chairs, later known as the sella curulis, the honored places of Roman officials.

2. The establishment of the ludi Romani was associated with the foundation of the temple of Jupiter on Capitol Hill. Chroniclers also ascribe to Tarquinius the Old the pledge to build the main sanctuary of Rome. The work was most likely finished by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and then the consul Marcus Horatius (Pulvillus) in the first years of the Republic.41 Livy (7.3.5-9) also tells us that on September 13 each year, it was necessary to drive a nail into the right wall of Jupiter’s cell (cella Iovis). Two hundred and four such nails were counted in the year 304 BCE.42 One may assume, thus, that the date of the temple’s dedication falls between 509 and 507 BCE. It is possible that the ludi Romani were established at that time as well, since their relation with the Capitol is very strong. The procession that inaugurated the ceremony would begin on Capitol Hill, and there, while Jupiter’s birthday and the anniversary of the sanctuary’s inauguration were celebrated, a sacred meal for Jupiter (epulum Iovis) was arranged. This was probably the central event of the ludi Romani. Cicero (Orat. 3.73) calls the celebration a sacrificial meal (ludorum epulare sacrificium). However, the organizing of feasts in honor of Jupiter during the ludi Romani is confirmed only by the calendar from imperial times, when sixteen days were dedicated to the holiday.43

During the holy meal of Jupiter, senators would sit down to a shared meal on Capitol Hill. The ludi Romani represented the interests of the Roman elite. In 194 BCE, by the order of Scipio Africanus, the Senate was allocated distinct and ← 98 | 99 → designated places in the audience.44 The ritual strengthened the mutual bonds not only of the participants in the feast, but also among members of their family; during one of these feasts, Publius Scipio offered the hand of his daughter to Tiberius Gracchus.45 This is why the ritual did not take place in times of great conflict.46

3. Jupiter, present in effigy, accompanied these ceremonies. The first statue of the god made for the temple of Jupiter on Capitol Hill was done in terra cotta by the Etruscan artist Vulca from the city of Veii, and ordered by Tarquinius the Old.47 This was a decisive step in the progressing anthropomorphization of the Roman gods. The statue of Jupiter on Capitol Hill presented the god in a sitting position.48 During festive occasions, the face of the statue was painted with red coloring or cinnabar, and in later years the god was dressed in ceremonial clothes and a crown.49 Only after the introduction of the image of Jupiter, combined with the founding of the Capitol temple and the construction of the Circus Maximus, was it possible for the ludi Romani to take place in the form we know.

The establishment of the games by the Etruscan kings was both a religious and political act. A more political element may be seen in the fundamental reorganizing of the holiday in the fourth century BCE. Finally, in 367 BCE, the famous equalization of the estates took place. The patricians came to an agreement that one of the consuls could come from the plebs. A year later, a new, two-person office of curule aediles was created and entrusted with organizing the games. In 364 BCE, within the program of the ludi Romani, the first performance involving actors took place. The plebeian context of this event was obvious; one of the curule aediles who was responsible for the games at the time was Marcus Poppilius Lenas, the first plebeian in that office.50 ← 99 | 100 →

4. Initially the ludi Romani were held on September 13. From 214 BCE, the celebrations lasted at least five days.51 After Julius Caesar’s murder, the ludi Romani were extended to sixteen days; they lasted from September 5 to 19.52 Theater performances were presented on the days preceding the Ides of September, September 13, because that was the date of the ceremonial feast in honor of Jupiter on the Capitol (epulum). Chariot races were held in the circus on September 15.

    364 BCE – according to late republican chronicle tradition, the Etruscan dancers inaugurated the creation of theater in Rome (though there is no evidence that clearly proves that this happened during the Roman Games; Livy only names the Circus Maximus as the performance site)53;

    240 BC – Livius Andronicus stages the first Roman plays, most likely a tragedy and a comedy54;

    235 BC – Naevius presents his plays to the common people55;

    161 BC – Terence’s Phormio (information in the stage directions of the play).

Ludi plebeii

1. Cicero56 calls these games the oldest of all (ludos antiquissimos), and this further proves the plebeian roots of theater in Rome. It is even possible that the introduction of special days intended for ludi into the Roman calendar was a form of official recognition of the plebs by the state. The lack of traces of early ludi plebeii could only indicate that the plebeian ceremonies were not recognized by official institutions of state religion, and that is why the priestly colleges did not make record of them in their chronicles.57 The ludi plebeii could have begun in the fifth or fourth century BCE, when the plebs gained their distinctive identity. The name “plebeian games” itself suggests that they originated from political bat ← 100 | 101 → tles of the early Republic; indeed, an anonymous ancient scholar mentions this in his commentary to Cicero.58

Traditionally, it has been usual to link the establishment of the ludi plebeii with the building of the Circus Flaminius by Gaius Flaminius in 220 BCE. The only evidence that serves as proof of ludi plebeii taking place in that circus is anachronistic and unreliable. It comes from Tiberius’s times from Valerius Maximus (1.7.4), a witness of poor reliability. The Circus Flamius did not have a racecourse for chariots, and was never used as a substitute for the Circus Maximus.59 The earliest mention of ludi plebeii known to us comes from the year 216 BCE, but it mentions the games as if they have existed for a long time. (Livy 23.30.17): “The Plebeian Games of the aediles Marcus Aurelius Cotta and Marcus Claudius Marcellus were repeated three times [ter instaurati].”

Peter Wiseman (1995) argues that the performances presented in Rome during the ludi plebeii in the fourth century BCE could have served the plebs in defining their own individuality by inventing the myth about Remus, the brother of Romulus. According to the British scholar, the myth about the two brothers was meant to express the constitutional dualism that developed after 367 BCE, when the patricians and the plebeians participated in the exercise power. Romulus was an eponym of Rome (from Greek rhimage, “strength,” “power”). The plebs identified themselves with Remus, “the leisurely” (from the noun remores, connected to the verb remorari, “to delay”).

2. In the face of ambiguous historical documentation, the question regarding the origins of the plebeian games remains without one clear answer.60 It does, however, seem quite probable that the games were founded in the period of the Republic, as a counterbalance and imitation of the official ludi Romani,61 which were controlled by the patricians.

The ludi plebeii in their fully developed form lasted from November 4 to 17. They were organized quite like the ludi Romani, and honored Jupiter. The pro ← 101 | 102 → grams of both holidays were similar. Theatrical performances preceded the holy meal in honor of Jupiter (Iovis epulum).62 The circus shows came after. As a result of shortcomings in the celebratory procedure, they were often extended (ins-tauratio) by some days, and once, in 204 BCE, even by seven63. The curator of the ludi was a plebeian aedile, and the program included horseback and theater performances.

    200 or 144 BC – Plautus’s Stichus (information in the stage directions of the play).64

Ludi Apollinares

1. The games were established in 212 BCE, after Gnaeus Marcius’s prophecy (carmina Marciana) accidentally fell into the hands of the praetor Marcus Aemilius. Marcius was a reliable prophet, because he had predicted the defeat of the Romans in the Battle of Cannae four years previously, and was a necessary prophet, because the Punic War was still going on.

“If you wish, Romans, to drive enemies,” Livy quotes the divination (25.12.9-10), “the sore which has come from afar, I propose that a festival be vowed to Apollo, to be observed with good cheer in honour of Apollo every year. When the people shall have given a part out of the treasury, private citizens should contribute on their own behalf and that of their families. In charge of the conduct of that festival shall be a praetor who is then chief judge for the people and the commons. The decemvirs shall offer the victims according to Greek rite. If ye will do this rightly ye shall forever rejoice, and your state will change for the better. For that god who graciously nurtures your meadows will destroy your enemies.”

The Senate debated the meaning of the prophecy, after which games in honor of Apollo were established, and the city praetor (praetor urbanus), who was responsible for its conduct, was given twelve thousand sesterces and “two full-grown victims” (25.12.12: duas hostias maiores) for this occasion. Submitting donations (stips) was recommended to all Romans.65 The crowd sat in the audience with wreaths on their heads, the matrons prayed, and everybody feasted “in the atrium with open doors.” Livy (25.12.15) notes that the games were a pledge to ← 102 | 103 → achieve victory. They were meant to divert the threat caused by the ongoing war with Hannibal. Religious solidarity and almost brotherly kindness was recommended to the Romans as an antidote for wartime troubles.66

2. In the year 228 BCE, Rome was permitted to take part in the Panhellenic Isthmian Games in Corinth. A dynamic process of civilizational catching up begun. Even up to the end of the fourth century BCE, Rome was no real military power, just a provincial city.67 The participation in a Greek agon signaled that the Hellenistic world was ready to accept the Romans into their community. Belonging to a superior civilization became an especially urgent propagandistic need during the wars with Carthage, the symbol of barbarism. The introduction of Apollonian Games into the official calendar was part of a wide-ranging Hellenization of Rome. It is possible that political maneuvers of the office-holding section of the aristocracy (nobilies) stood behind the prophecy of Marcius quoted above. In 213 BCE, the Senate decided to reduce the activity of certain over-popular prophets (vates), which, of course, triggered the people’s discontent and led to riots. The establishment of the ludi Apollinares could have been a form of concession on the part of the Senate and the praetors in order to prevent an uncontrolled chain of events.68 Once more the “plebeian factor” accompanied the establishment of a theatrical festival.

In 208 BCE the games were repeated to drive off the plague, and a decision was made to celebrate them on a regular basis. Apollo had long been worshiped in Rome, and a pledge was made to erect a temple to him in 433 BCE because of the epidemic (Livy 4.25.3-4). From the outset, the Greek god functioned in Rome as the Healer, Medicus – Apollo’s nickname as certified by Macrobius (Sat.1.17.15).69

3. The Ludi Apollinares were celebrated in the middle of July,70 while during the Imperial period the celebrations would last eight days from April 6 to 13.71 Horse races were held in the Circus Maximus.72 However, the fundamental part of the festival included theatrical performances. During the first games in 212 and 211 ← 103 | 104 → BCE, the artistic performances became legendary. A dancer did not interrupt the sacred performance despite an attack by the enemy.73 It is possible that for some time Apollo was the patron of the Roman theater in place of the Greek god Dionysus; indeed, the first stone theater was meant to be built next to his temple on the Palatine in 17974 BCE. The Theater of Marcellus which was initiated by Caesar, and finished by Augustus, created an architecturally unified group of buildings along with the Temple of Apollo.75 This temple was headquarters to the collegium of mimes, also known as the parasites of Apollo (parasiti Apollinis).76 This association functioned in Rome at the latest from the end of the third century BCE.

The site of the early performances, however, raises disputes. Livy (25.12.14) claims that in 212 BCE, the Senate instructed the praetor to prepare the games “in the Circus Maximus” (in circo maximo). John Hanson considers this statement to be hardly sufficient. He believes Livy’s statement refers only to the first games, which were of a strictly circus-like nature77. This, however, is not so obvious, because mentions of a dancer’s performance have survived. Besides, Livy mentions the Circus Maximus on two occasions (25.12.14, 30.38.10-11) as a place of theatrical performances. The famous Etruscan artists’ performance in the year 364 BC (7.2) took place there as well. It is quite possible that some time later in 179 BCE, there were attempts to separate the circus performances from the theatrical productions with the idea of constructing a permanent building near the Temple of Apollo (more on this topic in chapter 4.1. Theater Without Theater).

4. According to Festus (ed. Lindsay, pp. 436-438), the holiday program included ludi scaenici, theater games from the start. Varro (Ling. 6.18-19) suggests that during the Apollonian games serious historical plays (fabulae praetextae) were performed. It seems that the cheerful character of the festival did not exclude such productions. ← 104 | 105 →

    169 BCE – the mythological tragedy Thyestes by Ennius (it was also the year the author died)78;

    59 BCE – the actor Diphilus performed in an unknown tragedy79;

    57 BCE – the undisciplined audience interrupted a performance of Accius' Brutus mounted by praetor Lucius Caecilius Rufus80;

    44 BCE – the mythological tragedy Tereus by Accius; the organizer of the games planned to present a different play by Accius, the historical drama (praetexta) entitled Brutus81.

Ludi Megalenses

1. Games dedicated to the Great Mother (Magna Mater) Cybele were established in the year 204 BCE, during the Second Punic War. One day, a rain of stones came falling from the sky, and this, according to the Sibylline Books, meant that the enemy would be driven from Italy only after the goddess from Mount Ida in Troad was brought to Rome. So a black stone that symbolized the goddess was brought from Asia.82 In 191 BCE, an inauguration ceremony was held for the temple of the Great Mother on the Palatine, within the city’s sacred borders. This was the first time when an Eastern cult with ecstatic music83 was officially brought to Rome. However, the ideological context of this happening was Hellenistic.

The names of the festivals – ludi Megalenses, Megalesia – come from the Greek term describing Cybele as “Great” (Megale). The goddess from Mount Ida was believed to be patroness of Troy. The introduction of her cult to the center of the city, into the borders of the pomerium, just like the establishment of the ludi Apollinares, was meant to ensure the success of Rome and contribute to the expulsion of her enemies, such as Hannibal. The festival’s character was both religious and military. At first, the black stone of Cybele was kept in the Temple ← 105 | 106 → of Victory. During dangerous times, the Romans would often ask foreign gods for help. In Cybele’s case, her ecstatic cult was paradoxically meant to Hellenize Rome.84

2. Cicero claims that during the ludi Megalenses in 194 BCE, senators were given special seats in the audience.85 This piece of information is controversial, because Livy credits the ludi Romani with this very same happening in the same year. It is most likely that Cicero is wrong, because it was only from 191 BCE that the goddess’s temple was active and the games could take place on a regular basis. They lasted from April 4 to 10.86

The ludi Megalenses were entrusted to a curule aedile. From the very beginning, at least two days were reserved for theatrical performances (in the finale of Plautus’s comedy Pseudolus, performed during the inauguration of the temple, one of the actors invites the audience to come the next day). Shows were performed “on the Palatine before the temple and under the very eyes of the Great Mother.”87 A surviving relief from the Augustan period88 presents the front of the temple of Cybele; in front of it stands a chair with a pillow, and on it a stone crown with two towers and a gate. On either side stand two lions, and two male figures holding tambourines, the latter most likely priests (galli). The Romans practiced a ritual adopted from the Greeks called sellisternium (Latin, sella, chair + sternere, lay out). During these performances, the Great Mother – possibly not only in the shape of a black stone, but also symbolized by a wreath – would sit in front of her temple on the decorated chair. Other members of the audience, people, would take their seats on the bottom stairs of the sanctuary steps. Cybele sat on her throne high above the people, like Venus the goddess of Victory who later sat above the audience of the Theater of Pompey. The temple was a both a theater and the site of a cult.

3. Sander Goldberg has shown that the space in front of the temple of Cybele, which could be taken up by seats for the audience, was remarkably small: during ← 106 | 107 → the premiere of Pseudolus it could hold no more than two thousand people!89 The space for the wooden stage was also limited and irregular because of its triangular shape. During performances, the audience’s contact with the artists was very close, which contributed to the interactive character of these encounters. Plays written by such authors as Plautus offered scenarios open for mutual negotiations. The actors would directly address the spectators, and react to comments from the audience. Cicero in his letters makes many references to the active participation of the Roman audience in these performances.90 It is possible that this tradition dates back to the beginning of Roman theater.

Along with the black stone that symbolized the goddess, there arrived in Rome charismatic priests (galli), castrated in honor of the mythological Attis, who, brought to madness by the jealous goddess, cut off his own genitalia, but was later resurrected by the goddess. According to an Arcadian text, the priests were castrated by the command of the Great Mother “in order to spread awe among men.”91 In the “day of blood” (dies sanguinis) – presumably on March 23, a month before the ludi Megalenses – the temple’s gates were open to everyone, and the eunuch-priests with long hair and female robes would dance on the streets accompanied by drums.92 Acts of self-mutilation even took place. During the ludi Megalenses in April 161 BCE, Terence’s comedy, significantly entitled Eunuchus, was performed before the goddess Cybele. The play subversively twists the myth that defined the March holiday: a young man pretends to be a eunuch in order to sneak into the women’s chambers and rape a virgin. Here, the act of “self-castration” leads to increased male potency. The priests castrated themselves as a symbol of their sexual renouncement.

Under the Empire, the cult of Attis became formalized. On the day of blood, its followers would forsake their self-mutilation, and only the high priest (archigallus) would cut his shoulder and symbolically drain some blood.93 Initially the citizens of Rome were forbidden to perform priestly functions in this ecstatic cult94; however this prohibition was lifted some time later. Inscriptions from ← 107 | 108 → imperial times mention only Roman citizens, mostly freedmen, as priests and priestesses of the goddess Cybele.

4. The bringing of the holy stone of the Great Mother to Rome was accompanied by a miraculous event; one of the ships ran aground and despite many efforts could not be moved. At the time, Claudia Quinta, accused of immoral behavior, begged the goddess for a chance to prove her innocence. Cybele favored Claudia, and when the girl grabbed the rope she effortlessly pulled the boat off the sandbank. According to Ovid (Fasti 4.326), this story inspired a theatrical production. It is possible that the performance was presented during one of the games. Famous authors of comoediae togatae, such as Lucius Afranius and Titus Quinctius Atta, even wrote plays entitled Megalensia; however, we do not know their contents nor when or where they were performed. Arnobius (4.35, 7.33), in turn, informs us that there was a stage production based on the myth about the beautiful eunuch Attis, beloved by Cybele. According to later statements the gory rituals in honor of Attis took place in March. It is most likely that it was then that the dancer Aristagoras took the role of the priest of Cybele (AP 11.195), and artists sang hymns to Attis.95

All the plays mentioned above and holy songs could also be performed during the ludi Megalenses. However, during the games dedicated to the Great Mother Cybele in April, most of the performances were comedies:

    191 BCE – Plautus’s Pseudolus (didascalia);

    166 BCE – Terence’s Andria (didascalia);

    165 BCE – Terence’s Hecyra (didascalia);

    163 BCE – Terence’s Heautontimorumenos (didascalia);

    161 BCE – Terence’s Eunuchus (didascalia).

Ludi Florales

1. The first public mime performance in Rome, or, to be precise, the first female mime performance, took place during the Floralia festival (ludi Florales), the holiday of Flora96 or Mother Flora,97 the ancient Italic goddess of flowers and ← 108 | 109 → blossoming (flos), worshiped by the Osci and Sabines,98 who later perhaps also became the patron of prostitutes (meretrices). Ovid gives a detailed report of the establishment of the holiday (Fasti 5.295-330). The poet does this through the voice of the goddess herself. We learn from her that during the holiday a venatio was organized, in other words a hunt, but its objective was not to kill lions or other predators, but goats and hares.99 Peas and broad beans were scattered among the audience.100 The origin of the holiday was just as interesting. It was established in the year 238 BCE,101 sponsored by the money collected from the penalty (pecuarii) imposed on the wealthy cattle owners, who kept their herds on public land (ager publicus), thus breaking the law from 367 BCE (leges Liciniae Sextiae102). At first, the holiday did not take place every year, and Flora, feeling neglected and abandoned by the Romans, brought down scarcity on the Roman lands. The Senate reacted immediately, vowing to organize games in honor of the goddess, anything to end the crisis. From the year 173 BCE, the holiday took place every year as ludi scaenici, the theater games. The ceremony began on February 28, on the day that commemorated the ordination of the Temple of Flora (aedes) on the Aventine near the Circus Maximus in 238 BCE.103

Indeed, the origin of the Floralia is complicated. The holiday was established at the command of the Sibylline Books104 soon after the end of the terrible war with Carthage, in which Rome paid for her victory with great losses. Under the guise of an Italic name, a Greek holiday was introduced in Rome. Similarly to other festivals, this was connected to a huge program of constructing national identity in the face of deadly threats. The Romans included themselves within a Greek cultural heritage in order to enhance their own prestige. The Greek character (ritus Graecus) of the cult of Flora can be witnessed, above all, in the central place of theatrical performances in the festival’s program.

Once again, we observe the relationship between theater and the plebs. The plebeian character of the holiday is suggested by its origin indicated by Ovid ← 109 | 110 → (punishment for the rich), but also by the distribution of peas and broad beans, the principal food of the poor; maybe even the goats and hares hunted in the arena were offered to the audience. The Floralia, created by the nobiles, canalized and helped control plebeian needs. Flora is a plebeian goddess, for “she wishes her rites to be open to the common herd.”105 At first, the plebeian aediles were responsible for organizing the ceremonies,106although in the early period of the Empire, the function was taken over by the praetors.107

2. Surviving texts do not allow us to establish the exact time when performances by actresses were included into the program of the festival. It must have happened no later than the year 173 BCE, when the decision was made to hold the games every year; the ludi Florales in all Republican sources are characterized as the theatrical games.108

Stage performances consisted mostly of performances by female mimes. Lactantius (Div. inst. 1.20.10.) claims that the artists were recruited from among prostitutes, who, during performances, would present lewd pieces of dialog, take their clothes off at the audience’s request and excite spectators with their somewhat dissolute movements.109 The ancients told the story of the great Roman moralist, Cato the Younger, who took part in the Flora Games which were organized by the plebeian aedile C. Messius in 55 BCE. Cato left the audience in an ostentatious fashion, so that his presence would not inhibit the crowd or the female artists.110

From the start, the Floralia programs would include performances by actresses, although it is difficult to find any Greek model for this. It is possible that it was a typically Roman tradition. In 217 BCE, on the instructions of the Sibylline Books, a cult dedicated to Venus Ericina with its ritual prostitution, was established.111 ← 110 | 111 →

3. Theatrical performances most likely took place in front of the temple of Flora on the Aventine (aedes Florae). St. Augustine (De civ. D. 2.26) claims that in Carthage performances dedicated to the goddess Caelestis (Heavenly), whom he compares to the Roman Flora, were presented ante ipsum […] delubrum (before the very shrine). Arnobius, on the other hand, rhetorically asks: “Does Flora think she is being honorably treated when she watches shameful deeds acted out during her festival and sees a procession from the houses of prostitutes to the theaters?”112 If she could watch them, she must have been present during the performance.

An enormous bazaar surrounded the Circus Maximus, usually packed with astrologists, fortune-tellers, cooks, and, of course, prostitutes.113 They believed the Floralia to be their own holiday and would not only perform naked but would even take part in gladiator combats.114 Flora was also the most popular name amongst prostitutes.115 Pompey requested a painting of his favorite hetaera Flora to be hung up in the Temple of Castor.116 According to Tertullian (De spect. 17.3), once a year during the festival of Flora, or more likely after it ended, prostitutes would parade on stage in front of a full audience. They were called out by name, residence, and price. Later they were supposed to take off their clothes and run around the stage while performing what were indeed mimic gestures, though not very decent ones. Thus, Roman hetaeras should be differentiated from eastern or Greek priestesses, who would practice sacral prostitution. In Rome, prostitutes were surely not priestesses of Flora, and their work would not be considered as part of a cult. Most likely, they were allowed to gather around the temple of the goddess in order to control the finances of the thriving profession.117

Shows were often performed at night. Ovid (Fasti 5.361-368) clearly speaks of the “lights” (lumina) that accompanied “nocturnal license” (nocturna licentia). On one occasion, one of the organizers of the games (curator ludorum), the praetor Lucius Caesianus, ordered five thousand slaves to light the way for the audience ← 111 | 112 → exiting the theater. Every slave was bald, just like emperor Tiberius;118 this was a sarcastic allusion to the Emperor’s reluctance as regards any form of entertainment. The praetor got away with this mockery, though it was the night shows that especially stimulated the licentiousness that Tiberius denounced so strongly.

4. There is no evidence to support the claim that the cult of Flora was related to the ceremony called sellisternium, a custom during which an image of the goddess was placed on a decorated chair, similar to that on which the Holy Mother “sat.”

The ceremonies lasted from April 28 till May 3. The program of the licentious Floralia also included serious productions.

    57 B.C. – two plays written by Accius were revived, the historical drama Brutus and the mythological tragedy Eurysaces, and also Afranius’s Roman comedy Simulans.119

Ludi Ceriales

1. The games held in honor of the goddess Ceres were at the discretion of the plebeian aedile. They took place in April, at the latest from 202 BCE.120 It is not clear when theatrical productions were included in the program,121 but it could have been in 175 BCE. Evidence only suggest plays being performed during the imperial period. For example, Tacitus states (Ann. 2.55) that during the Cerealia in 69 BCE, the common people were in the theater.122 In the Empire, seven days were dedicated to theatrical productions, and only one to circus performances, which would imply the strong dominance of theater during the ludi Ceriales, maybe, indeed, from their very beginning.123 Ceres, the goddess of vegetation, comparable to the Greek goddess Demeter, was known in Rome as the protectress of the plebeians. Her temple was founded in 496 BCE in hope that she would put an end to the famine then current. ← 112 | 113 →

2. Very few ancient sources mention the Cerealia. During the reign of August, spectacular circus games were held on April 19; during them foxes with tails set on fire were let loose at the Circus Maximus (Ovid, Fasti 4.679-682). This weird tradition finds its source in the fox’s punishment for destroying gifts from Ceres. A certain boy once caught a fox stealing a chicken. The boy wrapped the fox in straw and set fire to it. The animal, however, freed itself and set fire to nearby crops. Many contemporary commentators do not connect these horrible shows with the Cerealia festival itself, which also took place on April 19.124

Festus suggests in one damaged fragment (ed. Lindsay, p. 186) that the ceremony would begin with nuts being thrown within the audience (sparsio nucum), in accordance with the vegetative character of the goddess who was patroness of these rituals. Ceremonial meals were also organized, to which the plebeians would invite each other (Gellius 18.2.11) – the so-called cenae Cerialis, which Plautus mentions in his comedy Menaechmi (101).

Sources, however, do not speak of a procession, but the sacrifices and theatrical games surely proceeded according to Greek traditions.125

Ludi victoriae Sullanae

The goddess Victoria did not belong among the oldest goddesses of Rome, since her worship probably began no earlier than the start of the third century BCE. The cult of victory emerged with the increasing importance of the position of the aristocracy (nobiles), as an expression of the thorough transformation of the ruling class’s consciousness. Military success enlarged the fortunes of clans, and this led to increased competition. The practices of Hellenistic rulers were also very influential. Plutarch informs that in Pergamon the goddess of victory (Nike) in the shape of a statue, mechanically animated, crowned the Pontic kings during a public ceremony in the theater.126

The first Roman games in honor of victory – ludi Victoriae – were organized by Cornelius Sulla.127 They were meant to commemorate the Battle of the Colline ← 113 | 114 → Gate near Capua. It was there on November 1, 82 BCE, that Sulla finally defeated his political opponents in a brutal civil war. Sources, however, only mention the circus games, but considering Sulla’s love for Roman comedies, and his close contacts with actors, one may presume that performances by theatrical artists were included in the program of the games. Earlier, in 86 BCE, the Roman leader provided the finances for theatrical performances presented during an agon in honor of the hero Amphiaraus in Oropos, between Attica and Boeotia. The program of these Greek festivities celebrating Rome’s victory over Greece included tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays.128 From 81 BCE, the games in honor of Sulla’s victory during the civil war were resumed as ludi publici. The Roman people accepted the dictator Sulla’s role in the restoration of the Republic. He himself, while establishing the games, made reference to the old tradition of dedicating the holidays to the gods, in this case to the goddess of victory (Victoria), with one fundamental difference: the ludi Victoriae Sullanae were games in honor of the victory of a mortal, the victory of Sulla! In later periods, the games are referred to as ludi Victoriae.

Ludi victoriae Caesaris

1. On September 26, 46 BCE, on the last day of celebrating his quadruple triumph, Julius Caesar dedicated the temple he had built to the mother Venus (Venus Genetrix).129 The sanctuary was erected on the new Julian Forum (Forum Iulium). The inauguration of the temple was accompanied by splendid games, the ludi Veneris Genetricis, which were more lavish and costly than anything ever seen before in Rome.130 During these games, glorifying the victory of Caesar, funeral ceremonies in honor of his daughter Julia, who had died in the year 54 BCE, were held on the Roman Forum. The program of the spectacles was extremely rich:

    Venationes and gladiator fights took place in a wooden amphitheater on the Forum;

    In the Circus Maximus, enlarged and surrounded by moat filled with water, “young men of the highest rank drove four-horse and two-horse chariots and rode pairs of horses, vaulting from one to other [desultores].” Two horse ← 114 | 115 → troops of younger and older boys fought as part of the “Trojan games” (lusus Troiae).131 Battles with wild animals lasted for five days (the ditch with water surrounding the arena was supposed to keep the audience safe). There was also “a battle between two opposing armies, in which 500 foot-soldiers, 20 elephants, and 30 horsemen engaged on each side.”;

    Athletes fought in a temporary stadium near the Campus Martius;

    A huge artificial lake was dug on the Campus Martius, in which the first Roman staging of a sea battle (naumachia)132 took place;

    Theatrical performances, ignoring the stone Theater of Pompey, took place in front of the temple of Venus Genetrix. Rome’s military victory added splendor to the games, and this is probably why fighting spirit permeated most performances;

    Troupes of actors “of all languages” performed on squares and streets. Caesar wanted to include the whole city in the celebrations;

    Finally, a lavish feast was given, during which, among other dishes, 6,000 Moray eels were served.133

2. The games were a great political and propaganda success; the ludi Victoriae Caesaris (games in honor of Caesar’s victory) became a permanent part of the Roman holiday calendar. Caesar also appointed and richly endowed a special council, whose task it was to supervise the yearly preparations for the games (Pliny, HN 2.93). Victoria Caesaris was created as his own personal goddess, the goddess of Caesar’s Victory. After the games in honor of Sulla’s victory, other religious celebrations in honor of mortals found their place in the official holiday calendar. A new era was coming – the Empire.

After the murder of Caesar in the year 44 BCE, the ludi Victoriae Caesaris were organized by Octavian, because – as Suetonius states (Aug. 10.1) – the officials “did not dare to do so.” In later years, the games took place on a regular basis from July 20 to July 30: theatrical productions were performed for seven days; performances in the circus lasted four.134 ← 115 | 116 →

Ludi saeculares

1. No later than the fourth century BCE, a tradition evolved in Rome, the celebration of ludi saeculares, the Secular Games – though this translation does not capture the precise meaning of the Latin term saeculum, which specifies the longest possible human life span, reckoned to be 100 or 110 years. It is not known what the name of the holiday stood for at first, but later it referred to the games that were celebrated only once every century. Later antiquaries arranged sequences of centuries, just to justify emperors’ whims, when they felt like organizing the games. From the times of Augustus, the celebrations became extremely sumptuous.

Varro connected the establishment of the ludi saeculares with the most critical period of the First Punic War, 249 B.C. At night on the Campus Martius, near the altar called Tarentum (the games were also named ludi Tarentini), black animals were sacrificed to the gods of the underworld. It is very possible that some sort of theatrical performances took place. Varro’s quote comes from the first book of De Scaenici originibus.135 In the imperial period, the games kept certain republican elements. Offerings were made to the old Roman personification of fate, the Parcae. Choruses of boys and girls also performed.

2. A slightly damaged inscription136 has survived, containing the program of the secular games organized by Augustus in 17 BCE. This date was the effect of creative calculations by scholars of that time. We also have the Sibylline Oracle’s text, in which she recommends the organization of the ceremony; it also includes the words to Horace’s hymn (Carmen Saeculare) that was popular at the time. Imperial games, unlike republican ones, placed the Emperor at the center of the celebrations. In this specific case, the ceremonies focused on two people, Augustus and his son-in-law and heir, Agrippa. The ceremonials were traditionally celebrated on the Campus Martius, near the River Tiber.

The Romans began preparations for the games with regular rehearsals; they practiced ritual procedures. The council of fifteen priests (quindecimviri sacris ← 116 | 117 → faciundis), who usually looked after the Sibylline Books, would supervise the course of the ceremony. Right before the ceremony began, the priests would divide among all free citizens measures of atonement and purification (torches, sulfur, and asphalt). Everyone had to cleanse themselves privately. All should take part in the holiday. A special decree was issued, which allowed unmarried women to participate in the celebrations, and women mourning the dead to intermit their grief. Spectacular productions were supposed to strengthen in everyone the new morality and ideology of the new state, the Empire.

3. This is the program of Augustus’s secular games137:

May 31, 17 BCE

at night

    Sacrifices are made to the goddesses of fate, the Parcae: the ceremony is conducted by Augustus himself, who according to Greek custom appears with his head uncovered. During the slaughter of nine sheep and nine goats, the Emperor mixing his recitation with archaic phrases, prays for the Empire (imperium) and the majesty (maiestas) of the Roman people, and also for their happiness, and finally for himself and his family.

    The presentation of theatrical productions: the audience has to stand around the stage, because there are no seats prepared for them; this type of games was very primitive – and probably unpopular, because it lasted only one night.

    Sellisternia (holy feasts): one hundred and ten matrons – each symbolizing one year – prepare a holy meal in honor of two goddesses: Juno and Diana. Their images are placed in front of the tables on two chairs (sellae), and this lasts until the next day, without any break.

July 1, 17 BCE

in the morning

    Capitol Hill: Augustus and Agrippa burn a whole bull each as sacrifice to Jupiter;

    a presentation of Latin plays in a wooden theater by the River Tiber, near the underground altar of Dis Pater and Proserpina on the Campus Martius (ara ← 117 | 118 → Dis Pater et Proserpina in campo138) – a wooden auditorium (theatrum)139 was added to the stage that held evening performances;


at night

    By the River Tiber, Augustus sacrifices twenty-seven sacrificial cakes to Eileithya, the Greek goddess, patron of women during childbirth.

July 2, 17 BCE

in the morning

    Capitol Hill: Augustus and Agrippa each burn a cow as sacrifice to Juno;

    the prayers of one hundred and ten matrons led by Agrippa.

at night

    by the River Tiber, Augustus single-handedly sacrifices a pig’s uterus to Mother Earth; this memorable moment was later immortalized on a coin140;


July 3, 17 BCE


    Palatine Hill: Augustus and Agrippa offer twenty-seven holy cakes to Apollo and Diana;

    Horace’s Song of the Ages (Carmen Saeculare) sung by twenty-seven boys and twenty-seven girls;

    a performance of the Song once more on the Capitol Hill. ← 118 | 119 →

during the day

July 5-11, 17 BCE (additional games)

July 12, 17 BCE

4. Augustus’s secular games became an example to follow for other Emperors. In 47 CE, similar celebrations were organized by Claudius – it was his way of celebrating the Eternal City’s eight hundred years of existence, and he did not mind that the span of time between the games only came to sixty-four years. Domitian organized secular games in 88, and Septimius Severus organized them in 204. Following Claudius’s example, emperors organized an additional cycle of secular games in 148 (Antonius Pius) and 248 (Phillip the Arab), though they are not mentioned in the official lists of games.

3.14. Ludi Privati

Citizens of Rome organized and financed ludi privati (private games) depending on their financial resources, derived mostly from war spoils.

Ludi triumphales

Otto Ribbeck and Harriet Flower suggest that Pacuvius’s Paullus was performed during Aemilius Paullus’s triumphal games in 167 BCE to celebrate the slaughter of the Macedonians in the Battle of Pydna. Martin Hose believes, however, that Varius Rufus’s Thyestes was performed in the theater in 29 BCE during Augustus’s triumph celebrating his victory at Actium.141 However, there is no proof of theatrical productions being performed during triumphs. Any mentions that ← 119 | 120 → scholars cite are unclear – especially Tacitus’s note (Ann. 14.21.1),142 suggesting that the first public performance in Rome by actors took place during Lucius Mummius’s triumph in 145 BCE.

The dedication of temples

From time to time, the state used the solemn dedication of a new temple to initiate new regular games.143 Admittedly, this did not take place during every dedication mentioned by Roman sources, but when games were initiated, they were theatrical games. The dedication of a temple inaugurated the ludi Florales (241144 or 238145 BCE, plebeian aediles L. and M. Publicius Malleoli),146 the ludi Mega-lenses (191147 BCE, praetor urbanus et peregrinus M. Junius Brutus), and also the ludi Victoriae Caesaris (45148 BCE). Not all celebrations, however, became public games:

    173 BCE – the consul Q. Fulvius Flaccus celebrated his victory by dedicating a temple to the equites’ goddess of fate (Fortuna equestris) and by organizing theatrical and circus games lasting five days149;

    69 BCE – the pontifex Q. Lutatius Catulus organized splendid theatrical games on the occasion of dedicating the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, rebuilt after being burned down fourteen years earlier150;

    55 BCE – Pompey the Great organized the celebrated theatrical games as part of the dedication of the theater and temple of Venus Victrix.151

Ludi funebres

We know that Roman plays were revived after some years, as, for example, Naevius’s drama on the history of Rome (praetexta) Clastidium. It may be that after the first performance, the play became the property of the family of the victor of ← 120 | 121 → the Battle of Clastidium, M. Cornelius Marcellus, and thereafter it was presented regularly during funerals of members of the family as part of the funeral oration (laudatio funebres). The son of Marcellus could have had copies made and made the text available for performance at other games organized by someone from the family.152 However, records give no Roman name connected with the repeated presentation of the drama.

The phrase ludi funebres, funeral games, for the first time occurs in Plautus’s comedy Mostellaria (427-428), as a joke. Five times Livy mentions games accompanying funerals, usually, however, in the context of broadening the program of ceremonies with gladiatorial combats; only once does he mention theatrical performances. But other sources confirm the presentation of plays in the course of funeral ceremonies:

    215 BCE – the funeral of M. Amilius Lepidus with a show containing combats by twenty-two pairs of gladiators on the Forum (Livy 23.30.15);

    206 BCE – Scipio Africanus added “gladiator performances” to the funeral games for his father and uncle (Livy 28.21.10);

    200 BCE – the sons of M. Valerius Levinus added gladiatorial combats to the funeral games in honor of their dead father (Livy 31.50.4);

    183 BCE – the funeral of Publius Licinius Crassus was honored by a battle of 120 gladiators (Livy 39.46.2);

    174 BCE – ludi scaenici were part of the funeral celebrations of the “liberator of the Greeks” consul T. Quinctius Flamininus (Livy 41.28.11);

    160 BCE – Terence’s Adelphoe and Hecyra were in the program of the postmortem games organized in honor of Aemilius Paullus153;

    44 BCE – tragic actors performed during Caesar’s funeral (Suetonius, Iul. 84).

Ludi Iuvenalium

In 59 CE, the Emperor Nero, celebrating the first time that he had his beard shaved, established new, private games, known in brief form as the Juvenalia.154 The beard was placed in a golden ball and offered up to Jove on the Capitol. The unusual genesis of the festival must have been connected with the ancient tradition of the freedoms of young Romans, a tradition that the Emperor wanted to ← 121 | 122 → resurrect for his own purposes. In imperial times, boys from aristocratic families often indulged in night-time riots. Not only the young Nero did so, but also other future caesars, such as Otho, Lucius Verus, and Commodus; even the virtuous Marcus Aurelius had a record of scattering a flock of sheep and terrifying the shepherds.155

Although during the Juvenalia Nero forbade the use of masks to conceal faces, in Greek and Latin performances Romans from the highest social strata did so of their own free will, women and men, without regard to age and position, performing – as Tacitus bemoans – gestures and melodies “never meant for the male sex.” Even the most respectable ladies performed inappropriate roles. Elderly matrons and consuls performed too, and the eighty-year-old Aelia Catella danced in a pantomime.156

Performances were private, and took place in the imperial palace or gardens.157 The public was limited to invited guests. In a clearing surrounding Augustus’s artificial lake on the other bank of the Tiber (Naumachia), Nero had booths erected selling food and drink. Money was distributed to all. The culminating moment of the first Juvenalia was the Emperor’s own performance. He sang to the accompaniment of a lyre. He was surrounded by teachers, soldiers, and the praetorian Guard. He was showered with divine epithets by the Augustiani, claqueurs recruited from among Roman equites.

At a later time, the Emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) and Gordian (18-238 CE) also organized Juvenalia. Inscriptions also record the holding of Juvenalia outside Rome.158

3.15. Agon

During imperial times, there appeared a new kind of festival in Rome: the Greek agon.159 Gymnastic (athletic), horse-riding, and musical agons expressed a Greek ← 122 | 123 → culture of participation,160 just as Roman games expressed a culture of spectacle. The essence of the agon was shared emulation in which the Greek competitors did not differ from the citizens in the audience. In sacred agons only free persons could take part. The essence of Roman games, however, was entertainment.161 On the track or in the arena in Rome, slaves, freedmen, prisoners of war, and animals appeared, and spectators rarely perceived beings worthy of sympathy in such “actors.” The most famous Greek agons – the Olympic (musicians were not invited to the Olympiad, and therefore went to Argos for the Heraea), the Pythian, the Isthmian, and the Nemean – created the so-called períodos, to win which brought with it great fame. This system lasted into late antiquity.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Roman theatre History of theatre Roman comedy Ancient pantomime Ancient mime Mask
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 438 pp., 9 color ill., 10 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Miroslaw Kocur (Author)

Mirosław Kocur is Head of Cultural Studies at the University of Wrocław and Professor at the Academy of Theater Arts. His research focuses on reconstructing the origins of performing practices. He is the author of «On the Origins of Theater» and «The Second Birth of Theatre: Performances of Anglo-Saxon Monks».


Title: The Power of Theater