A Futrell, The Roman Games: A Sourcebook. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Pp. viii + 253. ISBN 1-4051-1569-6. UK£19.99.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg
For both teachers and students of this fascinating (and disturbing) aspect of the ancient Roman world, Alison Futrell’s book is a welcome addition to the growing list of publications in this field. As part of the series ‘Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History’, it succeeds admirably in providing the reader with ‘direct access to the ancient world’ through ‘new translations of the raw material of ancient history’ (p. ii). However, the book goes much further than merely collating a comprehensive selection of source passages in translation -- over 370 in total, ranging from several pages in length to brief CIL and other inscriptional entries. All of the source passages are prefaced or linked by informative discussions that highlight the salient points of the extracts and/or place them in context. The slightly smaller font size and, in particular, the shaded backgrounds of the translated passages (each prefaced by its source details) allow them to stand out clearly from the interspersed discussions.
While this book can serve as a reference work on almost every facet of the Roman games, it also provides an absorbing read for anyone interested in a comprehensive overview of the topic: at no stage is the reader made to feel that the juxtaposing of the discussions and the source passages results in unnecessary repetitiveness. It is a pity, however, that the quality of some of the photographic illustrations does not always do justice to the liveliness and usefulness of the text.
The source passages and accompanying discussions are organized into six main sections. Section 1 (pp. 1-51) is entitled ‘The Politics of the Arena’. To provide the reader with some idea of the comprehensiveness of this survey, here are all the subsections under this heading: ‘Origins and Growth of Games’ (games and the Roman state, origins of gladiatorial combat, origins of wild animal shows, Roman spectacle overseas); ‘Spectacle and Roman Politics’ (politics and shows, costs, control, violence, shows as political assembly); ‘Imperial Spectacle’ (ordinary spectacle, the emperor and the arena, the emperor and political spectacle, gladiators outside Rome).
Section 2, ‘The Venue’ (pp. 52-83), describes the development of the amphitheatre from Republican times (including the ever-topical issue of disaster and control), the nature and importance of the Circus Maximus in Rome and the staging of extravagant naumachiae. This sets the scene for what are surely the most grimly fascinating themes: ‘A Day at the Games’ (section 3), ‘The Life of the Gladiator’ (section 4) and ‘Christians and the Arena’ (section 5). In the first of these (pp. 84-119), a rich array of source material -- both literary and visual -- provides a detailed picture of the procedures of the arena (including the ludi meridiani or mid-day executions, famously deplored by Seneca), the types of combatants, their equipment, their fighting techniques, and so on -- as well as an insight into the attitudes and behaviour of spectators. Specific munera are brought to life by selections from Martial’s sycophantic Spectacles, in commemoration of Titus’ inauguration of the Flavian amphitheatre, and from Dio Cassius’ eyewitness account of the abominable arena-antics of the emperor Commodus.
Section 4 (pp. 120-59) deals inter alia with the provenance of gladiators (with particular focus on the saga of Spartacus), their legal and social status, life in the ludi, the mortality rate of the arena, female performers, and ‘crimes of status’ perpetrated by members of the elite -- including emperors -- who appeared in the arena. The inclusion in this section of a number of epitaphs to gladiators by fellow-members of their familiae (fighters belonging to the same ludus) and by their widows provides a poignant reminder that these men were not merely brutalized killers, devoid of feelings or the need for human companionship. Most of us probably have a vivid impression from grand cinematic recreations, such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, of what it must have been like for many of the unfortunate victims of Roman bloodlust; but who could fail to be moved by the horror and pathos of Seneca’s account (p. 148) of a German bestiarius who, in desperation, ‘withdrew in order to relieve himself’ out of sight of the guard and proceeded to suffocate himself with a ‘stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was used for the vilest purposes’? It is accounts such as this that so often bring sharply into focus the true horror and anguish caused by this infamous social institution.
Section 5 (pp. 160-88), entitled ‘Christians and the Arena’, also serves as a useful resource for those interested in the broader theme of the attitude of the Roman administration towards the sect, starting with discussions of the Neronian persecution (Tacitus, Annals 15.44) and of the important correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. This is followed by an extensive and fascinating selection of writings by Christian apologists, such as Eusebius, Tertullian, Polycarp, and Augustine, arranged under the headings ‘Christian denunciation of the arena’, ‘the arena and Christian identity’, ‘martyr acts’ and ‘Christian Rome and the arena’. Of particular interest is the discussion of how the gladiatorial arena was exploited by Christians in constructing their identity and faith: ‘[c]laiming the arena as a crucial and positive element of Christian symbolism partly involved inverting Roman assumptions about hierarchy and honor, as demonstrated by spectacle, transforming the social stigma transmitted by the arena into marks of “glory”’ (p. 169).
The sixth, and final, section (pp. 189-221) deals with chariot races and water shows. The former is treated in exhaustive detail, beginning with Livy’s reverent, and Ovid’s humorous, accounts of the rape of the Sabines during the celebration of the Consualia (which included ludi circenses). In addition to information about the nature of the events, the charioteers and the horses, there are interesting observations on circus fans and what might be termed the ‘yobbo culture’ of the ancient Roman world: ‘Ammianus Marcellinus’ condemnation of the circus crowd emphasizes the parasitic role played by the idle poor in the fourth century, whose values have deteriorated to encompass solely their sources of immediate physical pleasure’ (pp. 213f.).
This highly recommended book is concluded by a timeline of Roman history, a glossary of terms and names, notes, suggestions for further reading and, of course, a detailed index.