Entertainment in Ancient Rome

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Entertainment was an essential part of everyday life in ancient Rome. Massive monuments were built for the sole purpose of distracting the average Roman. Evidence of their existence today, long after the Empire has fallen, indicate that the Romans took entertainment very seriously, and devoted a large portion of their time and finances for this endeavour. The spectacles ranged in size and splendour, from the modest but technically advanced theatre performances to the massive and brutal gladiatorial battles pitched in the Colesseum. Juvenal, a poet of ancient Rome, once said the all the Romans cared about was “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) - meaning that as long as a Roman had nourishment and diversions, they were happy. But why? It is reasonable to say that living in ancient Rome was not always a world of luxurious comfort for all, yet all Romans, regardless of class could enjoy the entertainment that was arranged. Even though most forms of entertainment were financed by the wealthy, they were usually available to all inhabitant of Rome. Massive amounts of funds were poured into keeping the average Roman busy and unquestioning, arguably leaving the true leaders of Rome to employ the considerable power they had over the known world. It is clear that the entertainment of Rome served more than just the purpose of being a pleasant relaxation of the average citizen, but was a tool wielded by the powerful to gain or maintain influence and also subdue the masses so that they were not challenged.

It is clear that in terms of arena spectacles, there were games offered to demonstrate the power of the Emperor to the average Roman, meant to instill fear and obediance. Spectacles also offered the Roman a view of glorious and noble death, one that could, hypothetically be theirs through extreme dedication to the state. It could be said that the more violent spectacles served as propaganda for the powers of Rome, and were a usefull tool in their arsenal. Those who financed the spectacles were usually well known to the public, and became champions for the regular citizen in an attempt to curry favour from the masses.

Many spectacles were purely for the benefit of the leader of Rome. Though they were usually metaphorical in nature, the message was clear: Obey your leader, or terrible things will happen to you. There are various examples of spectacles used as a warning to others, ranging from the subtle to the obvious. An example of subtle propaganda would be a theatrical piece, staged to demonstrate the punishment that occurs when one does not obey the leader. An example from the other end of the spectrum is as simple as public executions. The end result for both was the same. In Entertainment and Violence in Ancient Rome, Masgnus Wistrand explains how this was used by the powerful. “In this first book of epigrams Martial repeatedly describes a stunning show of lions and hares; the lions were seen to play with the hares holding them carefully in their giant jaws or letting them jump peacefully around in their mouths. The scene is interpreted in several ways by the poet. When he first describes it, Martial places it side by side with a reference to Jupiter’s eagle flying away with the boy Ganymedes without harming him and then asks the reader: “Which miracle do you think is the greatest?” He does not answer the question, but comments: there is the highest authority for both, since the emperor is behind one, Jupiter the other. What Martial is really saying here is that the emperor is Jupiter incarnate. In the next epigram, depicting the peaceful and idyllic performance, the question is asked: “What makes the rapacious lion spare his prey?” The answer follows immediately: “The lion is said to be your animal, Caesar, that is why!” The idea is, of course, that the King of the Beasts - nemorum dominus et rex in Martial’s own words- is subject to the emperor, whose godlike power or numer pervades all of nature. Thus the...
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