Entertainment in the Empire

19/12/2016 15:58

Ancient Rome citizens were fond of public entertainment that scarcely differs, except for a few details, from those that are now offered on football stadiums, sports palaces or bullrings. In imperial times tens of thousands of spectators flocked to venues where watch races, fights or dramatic performances. The poet Decimus Iunius Juvenalis summarized stating that the Romans wanted just two things: panem et circenses, bread and circus. Nothing has changed.

At the beginning the facilities were temporarily mounted for each show joining floorboards and wooden bleachers that once the function or festival ended, were dismantled. The first enclosure made of stone in order to have a permanent facility was built in Rome fifty years before our era, in times of Pompey the Great.

In the theatres, heirs of the architectural structure of the Greek stage were played works of classical Greek or Latin authors as Livius Andronicus, Ennio, Plautus, Terence and Seneca were performed, although the Roman public had a preference for lighter works, burlesque, mime and pantomime genres. The complexity of the space characterized the Roman theatre were action happens. Regardless the cavea, the bleachers to seat the audience, the scaenae frons, unlike the Greek theatres, used to be built of stone looking like a building façade. In front were the porticus post scaenam, a portico with columns beside the pulpit where the actors played.

Some of these venues have arrived in good condition to our days and have found continuity. Perhaps the best examples are in the theatre of Emerita Augusta, Mérida, or Orange in Provence. About the latter King Louis XIV said C'est la plus belle muraille of mon royaume. (It’s the most beauty wall in my kingdom). Near the Tiber Rome has retained the Theatre of Marcellus, Emperor Augustus devoted to his nephew Marcus Claudius Marcellus, died prematurely at age nineteen. In Verona theatre is practically along the course of the Adige and its grandstand is a good point of view above the city. Almost interspersed with the theatre is the Archaeological Museum displaying many pieces and statues discovered at place. From the ancient Tarraco are just some ruins. At Cesar Augusta, Zaragoza, it was found in 1972, while works; once cleared the space has been added a municipal museum and a structure that covers the stands and the scene to protect them. In better condition, although not much more stands than the bleachers are those of Pollentia in Majorca, Baelo Claudia in Cadiz. In the city of Cadiz, within walking distance of the New Cathedral and in the Popolo neighbourhood, was discovered the grandstands in excavations made just in 1980. Thirty years before had been discovered these in Malaga, at the foot of the Arab Alcazaba. Not far away, in the Serrania de Ronda, Theatre Acinipo, in the old walled city, retains the elevation of the stage and the stands that were carved into the stone building on the slope of the land, a fact that was quite common at the time to select an appropriate location.

Liking for theatre was shared in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some of the ancient Decapolis cities as Philadelphia or Gerasa disposed of their own scenarios. In Philadelphia, the current Jordanian Amman, the stands lasted downtown, not far away from the Al Hussaini mosque. Jerash or Gerasa had two theatres, one north and the second south, near the colonnaded oval square. In Petra to build the theatre was used a slope at the end of the gorge where is Al Khazneh, the famous treasury temple. In Gortyn, south of the island of Crete, to build the Odeon were reused the stone blocks where was inscribed the Law Code from Mycenaean times, it would be rediscovered and translated in the nineteenth century. In the middle of the Cyclades, in Ancient Thera, Santorini, the small facility enjoyed by the population is facing the sea. It accommodated about fifteen hundred people and was built during the Hellenistic period and renovated during the Roman rule. While in Athens, with the new roman forum added, a new theatre was built, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which exceeded the capacity of the neighbour Theatre of Dionysus, both under the Acropolis, beneath the Parthenon shades.

The Roman circus was the superlative expression of these leisure facilities. Inspired by Greek hippodromes, the circus possessed racetracks where developing horses and chariots competitions. The charioteers used to compete in chariot races pulled by two or four horses and had come to be considered true heroes. They were known by their names like today are elite athletes, as Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a Lusitanian charioteer who competed in the early second century in Rome Circus Maximus. Along twenty-four years he won in 1462 chariots and got over three thousand victories on other horse competitions. Animals could also become famous, there’s the memory of a horse named Victor, winner on 429 occasions. The arena was divided by a spina, a low wall which split the path of the competitors, which used to be decorated with statues and obelisks, some of them imported from Egypt. One end used to be bent to facilitate the shift of the spina. On the other were the carceres, the point where editor muneris signalled the race start; and the finish line. The competition was full of symbolism: the arena represented the earth and the chariots the sun. The races had to complete seven laps corresponding to the seven days of the week. Each of the four participating team squads had assigned a corresponding colour to each of the seasons and each team consisted of three chariots totalling twelve as the signs of the zodiac. At the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the colours were finally related to political factions that sometimes led to violent clashes, the most serious was the Nika riots, around the residence of Emperor Justinian in 532.

The audience take seat on the ascending steps that generally used to surround the premises almost completely and were divided into three grandstands marking social difference among the spectators. Dimensions and capacity varied with the importance of the city, ranging between the 800 feet length in the Jerash Circus in Jordan that could accommodate fifteen thousand people while the Circus Maximus in Rome measured two thousand feet and could seat up to one hundred fifty thousand.

Several circuses operated simultaneously in the city of Rome. In the Circus Maximus, nearest to the Roman Forum, the layout and the tilt in the slope that have left the stands are still distinguished. The spina was decorated with an obelisk brought from a temple dedicated to Ramses II in Heliopolis, Egypt, which today can be seen in Piazza del Popolo. In the fourth century works they were made to improve the facilities. The emperor Constantius II added a new great obelisk, the highest of the city, sent from the temple of Tuthmosis III at Thebes, now it is facing St. John Lateran church. The Circus Maxentius or Caracalla has been preserved in better conditions than the first. It still has the ruins of some structures and was the second in size of the whole Empire. The Vatican sits where the circus of Nero was before and the Piazza Navona has maintained the elongated shape of the Stadium of Domitian. This latter was rather dedicated to athletic competitions such as the Domus Augustana Stadium on the Palatine hill. The Circus Maximus of Emerita Augusta, in Mérida, Spain, was almost a copy of the one in Rome. Tarraco Circus have been hidden, buried under the city although currently a part is exposed and some of the arched corridors that supported the bleachers. The last race of charriots was run in the Circus Maximus in Rome in the years 549 and was organized by the Ostrogoth king Totila.

Unlike circuses, the amphitheatres were often oval and more limited though had considerable size, the largest was the Coliseum in Rome were sat fifty thousand spectators. They were designed to hold fights that initially took place in the forum and later in the circus. As time goes by and growing popularity they finished erecting specific installations. About two hundred and thirty sites are currently known, seventy-five of them are still standing and preserved in good conditions. Despite being uncovered several vellums, a tarp, could extend to protect the public from the elements. In the centre, in the arena were performed the shows, usually violent. In the early times of persecution of Christianity were used to torment believers throwing them to the beasts. Basically, there were two types of fights: the munera where gladiator with different types of weapons and defences fight each other and venationes, where wild beasts were involved. The word gladiator specifically designates a kind of fighter that who was armed with a short sword called gladius. Nets, tridents, helmets, shields and other protections completed a remarkable variety of equipment for combat. The most common combination faced the retiarius, armed with a net, trident and dagger against the secutor, provocator or mirmillion equipped with sword, shield and helmet. The hoplomachus brandished a medium length spear and arbelas or scissor had a handle finished in a sharp shaped crescent blade devised against retiarius net. Despite the violence of the confrontations just over ten per cent of the gladiators lost their lives in the arena, they were prized and expensive because the time needed for their training, and appreciated by the public.

A businessman, the negotiator familiae gladiatoriae, although he was commonly called lanista or butcher, was responsible for recruiting and training fighters, usually slaves or convicted, although not lacking freemen who enlisted voluntarily in search of fame and glory. The lanista trained them in the ludus gladiatorum, the fighting schools. There were fares per quality or category of the men who were send to the arena and the start of the fight was coated with a studied liturgy that began with the pompa, a parade made at the time of entering the amphitheatre like that followed nowadays by bullfighters and their crews to start each bullfight. The combats were strictly regulated. As in boxing today one or two referees were close behind the confrontation. Obviously, the death of a gladiator supposed victory of his opponent, but it was not common. Usually when one of the two fighters, injured or exhausted, surrendered, he raised a palm up for clemency. Referees looked at the stands to consult the public verdict.

Venationes brought wild animals from the limits of the Empire, Egyptian crocodiles, bears and boars from Central Europe and Gaul, lions and leopards from Asia and rhinos, hippos and elephants from Africa. In the year 107, to celebrate their victories on the Danube, Emperor Trajan organized games that lasted one hundred twenty-three days. Ten thousand gladiators participated and eleven thousand beasts were killed.

At the end of the fourth century interest in the shows began to decline, particularly under the influence of Christianity, then religion of the empire. The first of January of the year 404 was held in Rome the last gladiatorial combat that it is known, and a few years after games were banned during the reign of Emperor Flavius ​​Honorius. The shows with wild beasts, venatione, remained, particularly in Gaul and Hispania. Bullfighting is no longer than a legacy of Roman amphitheatre’s spectacles.

The largest amphitheatre of the Empire was the Coliseum in Rome. They called it Amphitheatrum Flavium by the ruling dynasty. Construction began with the Emperor Vespasian and finished during the reign of his son Titus in the year 80. Had place for fifty thousand spectators and thanks to the seventy-six entries and one hundred sixty passages allowed to seat everybody only in ten minutes. There are also in excellent condition those built in Arles and Nimes, in France, in Tarragona, Merida and Italica in the Iberian Peninsula, El Djem in the ancient city of Thysdrus in Tunisia or Verona in Italy.

Arles Arenas were built in the same age of Roman Coliseum and as the Nimes Arenas, these earlier in the time of Augustus, in both, shows, concerts and bullfights are still held. Lillebonne was a thriving Roman port near the mouth of the Seine, as evidenced by the remains of the amphitheatre. Verona Arena, in the year 30, was located outside the walls and today due to its good acoustics, hosts the annual opera festival of the city between June and September. Tarragona Roman Amphitheatre, in Hispania, was built near the circus. In the sixth century, in the same spot where St Fructuous was martyred, a Christian basilica dedicated to him was raised, the foundations are clearly seen. Also, the Empuries one was built out of the walls, now just the outline is perceived but even more than in the old Londinum, where facing the Guildhall, the consortium of the City of London, is marked on the ground the contour that occupied the amphitheatre. Some remains can be seen in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery. In Caerleon, Wales, is the only fully excavated amphitheatre in Britain, with a partially constructed wood stands could seat up to six thousand spectators. In Salona, capital of the province of Dalmatia and birthplace of Emperor Diocletian, the amphitheatre was built on a hillside, so the closer side of the structure needed less arches to support the tiers while the opposite side needed three levels.

At the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at the Rhodes Island Knights Palace among many other museums, are preserved many pieces from the Roman world heritage related to the games and stage performances: mosaics depicting venatio scenes or chariots including the names of the horses, charioteers or bronze Samnite gladiators. They are represented in everyday items such as oil lamps or vases.

Some gladiators were really appreciated by the public. There have survived numerous tombstones with inscriptions that refer to their status as fighters. Sometimes, in addition to their names, figure their age, victories and other details as in those in display at the Archaeological Museum of Nimes. So, we know that mirmillions Columbus Serenianus, Calistus, neither Thracian Quintus Vettius Gracilis, Orpheus nor retiarius Lucius Pompeius went from twenty years old. Three of them wives, Sperata, Optata and Julia Fusca paid their funeral slab.

© J.L.Nicolas


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