Spaces that Captivated an Empire

El Djem Amphitheatre in Tunisia, 3rd century CE.

Sometime in 380CE, while walking through the ancient streets of Rome Alypius, a young law student, saw several friends going to the amphitheater. As a Christian, Alypius was wary of the madness of the gladiatorial games and had been taught to keep away from these miserable pleasures. As a Roman citizen, something urged him forward. It was a tense internal debate: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there,” he is reported to have said, “you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows.” In the amphitheater, the crowds swelled with the frenzy of the fight and as each combatant fell, the audience grew louder.

The noise compelled Alypius to engage in the spectacle, which certainly impressed his friends that day. Peering down to the arena he saw the wounded gladiator, we learn, “as soon as Alypius saw the blood, he drank in it with a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness… He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who brought him there" (Augustine, The Confessions, 6.7-8, translated by A. Outler, slightly modified).

Across the Roman world, crowds flocked to spectacles seeking entertainment. What else could these buildings provide? Proud cities with an amphitheater, circus, or theater marked the spaces as tributes to their Roman identity. Many citizens, like Alypius, thought of themselves as morally compromised, yet still indulged in public spectacles. Entertainment captivated an expansive and changing Empire throughout Late Antiquity.  

To understand the centuries-long allure of the games before this time, we can turn to some of the most well-known Roman voices. Early in Rome’s history, politician and orator Cicero identified the theater with the people saying, theatrum populusque romanus, the Roman theater and people. To be Roman was to attend public spectacles–competitions, games, circus races, theatrical performances, and amphitheatrical shows. Entertainment offered leisure, community, pleasure, and a powerful form of unspoken public communication. Monumental buildings dedicated to spectacle dominated cities, asserting their presence on ancient skylines and within the city streets as citizens walked past. Today, the immense amount of surviving structures across Europe, Africa, and Asia attest to their importance in late antique society.

Looking at entertainment in late antique cities provides insight into the values, concerns, and popular ideas that upheld everyday life across the Empire. Experiences like Alypius’ in the fourth century remind us that the madness of gladiatorial combat was largely synonymous with ancient entertainment. Often remembered as violent, bloodthirsty, and barbaric, this popular legacy neglects a greater cultural and political significance. As cultural performances, gladiatorial games celebrated military activity and bravery. They also served as a testament to the empire’s power, the rule of law, and the imperial cult, which revered emperors on the level of a deity. Emperors, or city magistrates, presented these games to the city as a gift and form of patronage.

Gladiators were often prisoners of war, criminals, salves, volunteers, and sometimes even women. n addition to combat sports between people, fights between animals or between animals and humans were also fan favorites in the Late Antique arena as this 3rd century CE mosaic shows. Most frequently, criminals starred in these spectacles alongside big cats, elephants, crocodiles, snakes, bulls, and rhinoceroses. These shows became outlawed by Constantine in 325CE when he also banned gladiatorial games.

Originally, gladiatorial displays, and other spectacles such as wrestling or horse racing, took place in the forum. Over time, cities began to build more permanent housing for such events in the form of amphitheaters to cater to the population’s growing cultural needs. Staging these events, and eventually building structures, at or near the forum, symbolically situated them in the political heart of the city. The construction itself became a political act as well, as Emperors gained political favor by giving amphitheaters to the public. Building of this nature took place throughout the empire’s history, including the Late Antique era, but cities often continued to use older amphitheaters as an alternative to newer structures.

Restoring older buildings came to hold a similar significance as building them, it became an act of good will, political support, and civic investment for emperors, senators, magistrates, and other state officials to help in these projects. Evidence for these restorations comes in inscriptions on the buildings themselves. The most famous amphitheater offers an excellent example of imperial restorations. Built in the 70s CE, the Flavian amphitheater, or Colosseum, remained a source of Roman pride throughout late antiquity and underwent many renovations to maintain its grandeur. Repairs to the floor, imperial box, doors, and seating took place between 443-444 CE when gladiatorial combat had already been outlawed. This indicates that even without the Colosseum’s most celebrated spectacle, the space remained an important artifact of Roman life. Today, this monumental structure continues to dominate Rome and modern memory.

Constructed by Emperor Vespasian on the previous site of the late Emperor Nero's private lake, the Colosseum was a marvel in Rome. With marble arches adorning each level and seating for between 45-55,000 people encircling the arena, it provided a spacious and beautiful space for Roman citizens. Structures left today show the interior passageways where spectators walked to their seats and the subterranean chambers that housed both fighters and animals below the arena.

The circus, too (or hippodrome as it was known in Greek) offered the public a space to revel in their cultural and political identity. A circus hosted an important type of entertainment, chariot races, which also hold strong Roman connotations in modern memory. The largest circus, the Circus Maximus in Rome, provided the architectural model for others across the empire. This is evident in the circus found in Tyre, Lebanon, one of the best-preserved tracks built in the second or third century CE. Their presence in late antique cities provided a mechanism for negotiation and communication between the people and the ruler.

Circus games themselves often coincided with imperial processions that went throughout a city and ended in the arena, this reinforced imperial images and the status of the emperor within the urban space. The hippodrome in Constantinople, for example, provided a space where the emperor could address the public, through his actual presence and symbols. And the Theodosian obelisk mounted there in 390 CE shows triumphal scenes of the emperor and his sons, reinforcing imperial symbols through entertainment. The circus and the amphitheater offered the powerful opportunities to influence the public through patronage, by providing games and processions, they invited the people to participate in the imperial cult. 

This circus, or hippodrome, in Tyre, Lebanon was built in the late second to early third century CE. It represents one of the best-preserved examples of a Roman circus. Archeologists typically have difficulty excavating these structures because of their great size. This circus was about 450 meters long, presenting quite a challenge.

Large cities like Rome and Constantinople were not the only urban spaces to offer entertainment. Smaller cities and suburbs built amphitheaters and circuses, but they often lacked the urban space to accommodate an interior structure and would place them outside the city walls. Placing an amphitheater on a main road, or near a city gate, allowed it to maintain its political continuity with other public buildings while occupying a space that accommodated large crowds from within and beyond the city.

The circus in Milan, built at the end of the third century CE, follows this pattern. The wall of the circus is built into the city wall itself, continually connecting the space to its urban identity despite its lack of centrality. Regardless of their urban situation or size, the circus and amphitheater gave citizens a sense of civic and state pride.  These structures served a more important civic purpose than solely entertainment, they physically embodied the values of the empire in a monumental way that certainly impacted the daily life of Romans.

Theaters housed a different type of entertainment with leisure as the primary motive. Because theaters occupied smaller spaces, they could be placed anywhere in a city, and often even smaller regions or suburbs had more than one to meet the population’s increasing cultural needs. Sometimes, large homes even had their own small theater attached. Ancient theaters had multiple types of performances, such as acrobatics, mime, pantomime, comedies, tragedy, orations, and concerts. Productions often made reference to classical Greek tragedies and comedies, but more commonly took themes from contemporary life. Exploring adultery, romance, mythology, and religion, performances often included a type of satire or parody that alleviated tensions between various civic groups. Sometimes political satires made jokes at the emperors or other contemporary individual’s expense, while religious themes parodied the gods or mocked supposed outsiders, like members of the Jewish community. For the public, theater offered a different kind of respite, one that calmed the population in the midst of gladiator games and other harsher experiences.   

The Orange Theatre in southern France was built in the last part of the first century CE. The structure still maintains its original scaenae frons, which is the front facing wall. Originally, this wall would have been ornately decorated. In the central niche of the wall, there is a statue of Augustus.

Amphitheaters, circuses, and theaters all united the crowd and fostered social cohesion through entertainment.  However, many Christian citizens within the empire strongly felt these spaces and their events were morally corrupting their communities, not uniting them. Christians like Alypius were warned against the violence of these places, and their symbolic references to the imperial cult.  In 325 CE, Constantine forbid gladiatorial displays, and by the fifth century circuses began to drift away from their imperial contexts. Despite this, renovations, such as those done to the Colosseum, still occurred in these spaces.  Although under attack, entertainment still captivated the Roman world, suggesting that spectacles lasted longer than one might assume.  Christians faced difficulties reconciling their obligation to their religion and state.  While attendance at these events did decline in the end of the Late Antique period, the skeleton structures left behind attest to their great importance in society.

Scholars continually debate on the abandonment of entertainment spaces during this period. Some would suggest that the so-called fall of Rome caused the population to abandon their need for entertainment in order to fulfill local economic needs; others would say Christianity caused a shying away from it.  However, the survival of these buildings and the human need to seek community through leisure and recreation suggests otherwise.  The ruins of structures themselves suggest their monumental presences in society, but mosaics, frescos, epigraphy, mandates, and literature continually add to our understanding of Late Antiquity by depicting the lives enjoyed, struggled over, or even lost, in the spaces. 

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Judith Nelams