Roman Public Entertainment

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Jackie Sparagna
Gregory Sumi

Roman Public Entertainment: A Juxtaposition
Between the Circus and Amphitheater

Public entertainment was a crucial component of Roman culture and identity in the ancient world. Thousands of fanatical fans would gather in numerous venues which hosted exciting games and events to cheer on their favorite competitors, curse their rivals, and celebrate their victories. The circus and the amphitheater were the prime structures which displayed gladiatorial fights, chariot racing, executions, and wild beast hunts. The progression in the building of these venues displayed how social status and political power were enormous factors in public displays. The seating in both structures displayed separation of class and rank, indicating the importance of hierarchy in Rome. The most famous of these venues are the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. Though they each focused on different events, the social experience of both the amphitheater and the circus provided each spectator with an entertaining show and the constant reminder of the empirical power of Rome.

The Circus Maximus dates back to the 6th century B.C. and is located between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. Though it is most commonly known for chariot racing, the venue provided a variety of different shows that entertained the public. “The contestants were young noblemen who drove four horse and two horse chariots or rode pairs of horses, jumping from back to back… wild-beast hunts took place five days running, and the entertainment ended with a battle between two armies, each consisting of 500 infantry, twenty elephants, and thirty cavalry.”(Suetonius, Julius Caesar 39) The construction of the Circus Maximus needed to be spacious enough for these numerous events and yet maximized visibility for the spectators. It was 550 meters in length, with seating that allowed for at least 150,000 spectators. (Evidence indicates that the number might be as high as 350,000, seats). The arena itself was divided lengthwise by a 344 meter barrier called a spina, around which the chariots ran. Carceres, or starting boxes, were located at the short end of the arena, allowing formal beginnings of races by releasing all of the horses at once. Up to twelve chariots could race at a time, which is indicated by twelve slots in the starting boxes. White lines were painted on the track to organize each charioteer’s designated space. “Not far from the gates, a white line has been drawn, straight as a ruler, to either parapet: when the quadrigae set out, their contest begins from that point.” (Cassiodorus, Variae 3.51)

Seating in the Circus Maximus provided an unclear differentiation between the senatorial class and ordinary citizens. “…The wooden stands being supported by beams, for till then the spectators had stood. And dividing the places among the thirty curiae, he assigned to each curia a particular section, so that every spectator was seated in his proper place” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 3.68, pg 69) The hierarchy of Rome was not easily visible in the Circus Maximus because it seems the audience was in “a political light, not one so overtly class based.” (Futrell, 69) Augustus added the pulvinar, a platform that supported the imperial box. Raising the imperial box symbolically increased the emperor’s power by further separating himself from the public. Augustus, however, was known for sitting with his friends in the circus stands. Regardless of this fact, the visibility of the box coupled with the elaborate circus and the view of the Palatine Hill and the Temple of Apollo, “drew a powerful link between the emperor and spectacle in Rome.” (Futrell, pg. 70) Julius Caesar and Trajan reconstructed the Circus Maximus by expanding seating to the public. These renovations were seen as acts of generosity and tremendous leadership. “To the Emperor Nerva Trajan Augustus Germanicus Dacicus… set up by the thirty-five tribes...
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