In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arena Spectacles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Origins
  • Spectator Participation
  • Aquatic Displays
  • Executions
  • Ritual Aspects
  • Christian Reactions
  • Social and Ideological Function
  • Riots and Calamities
  • Decline

Classics Arena Spectacles
Kathleen M. Coleman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0004


The staging of various types of violent spectacle characterizes Roman urban culture from the mid-Republic until Late Antiquity. Gradually, temporary structures erected in the Forum were replaced by permanent venues, custom-built (predominantly in the West) or adapted from preexisting theaters or stadia (in the Eastern Empire). The term “arena spectacles” covers all types of spectacle put on in these locations, including gladiatorial combat, beast displays, aquatic spectacles, and spectacular forms of public execution. Some of these spectacles were also staged elsewhere—for instance, staged hunts (venationes) in the circus, and naval battles (naumachiae) on custom-built lakes—but this bibliography is limited to the four categories of display mentioned above; other types of spectacle associated with some of the venues (e.g., chariot-racing in the circus) are not treated here. Participation in arena spectacles was a very low-status activity, although staging them earned their sponsors considerable prestige. Spectacles were a major investment, either financial or ideological, for many different constituents in Roman society. The sources are numerous but fragmentary. Dispassionate assessment is hampered by modern revulsion at the provision of public entertainment that was potentially fatal for the protagonists, whether human or animal. Many factors helped to shape arena spectacles, including the hierarchical nature and military ethose of ancient society, a short life expectancy, the provision of amenities by private benefaction, the spread of Roman power to encompass distant lands and exotic products, the gradual aggrandizement of a single man as world leader, and the development of an instinct for martyrdom in the emerging religion of Christianity. The precise function of arena spectacles is hotly debated in modern scholarship. New interpretations and new discoveries, primarily archaeological, are constantly undermining long-held assumptions. Scholars are struggling to understand an alien, challenging, and intriguing phenomenon.

General Overviews

Most overviews lag behind the scholarship in this fast-moving field, but several recent treatments contribute original interpretations based on particular theoretical approaches: Futrell 1997 (central place theory), Kyle 1998 (anthropological theories concerning pollution and cleansing), Plass 1995 (game theory), and Wiedemann 1992 (theory of redemption). Hopkins and Beard 2005 wears its scholarship lightly. Dunkle 2008 and Meijer 2004, aimed at a general audience, include brief coverage of the treatment of arena spectacles in film. Many other book-length accounts, mentioned elsewhere in this bibliography for their treatment of specific aspects, also offer an overview, if not always as comprehensive as the titles listed in this section.

  • Dunkle, Roger. 2008. Gladiators: Violence and spectacle in ancient Rome. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

    A readable overview that avoids sensationalism.

  • Futrell, Alison. 1997. Blood in the arena: The spectacle of Roman power. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    Argues that arena spectacles were a mechanism for linking center and periphery in the Roman Empire, spreading Roman culture, and establishing civic order. Focuses particularly on the West. Postulates that the amphitheater functioned as a nexus of cult practices to acculturate provincials to Roman power structures.

  • Hopkins, Keith, and Mary Beard. 2005. The Colosseum. London: Profile.

    Uses the Colosseum as the entrée to a brisk and sometimes polemical account of arena spectacles. Useful annotated list of further reading. Very readable, and illustrated.

  • Kyle, Donald G. 1998. Spectacles of death in ancient Rome. London: Routledge.

    Focuses on the institution of the arena as a means of acquiring victims, both human and animal, most of whom, Kyle argues, were destined to die. He locates the disposal of corpses within the context of Roman views about death, burial, and the afterlife, informed by anthropological comparisons from other cultures.

  • Meijer, Fik. 2004. The gladiators: History’s most deadly sport. London: Souvenir.

    English translation of popular Dutch original, Gladiatoren: Volksvermaak in het Colosseum (Amsterdam: Athenaeum-Polak and Van Gennep, 2003).

  • Plass, Paul. 1995. The game of death in ancient Rome: Arena sport and political suicide. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    A combined study of gladiatorial displays and political suicide, arguing that both are forms of socialized violence in which targeted elements in society are sacrificed for a sense of public welfare. Adapts approaches from sociology and anthropology, especially game theory.

  • Wiedemann, Thomas. 1992. Emperors and gladiators. London: Routledge.

    Surveys the entire gamut of arena spectacles. Argues, although without compelling evidence, that gladiators represented an escape from death by the pursuit of virtus (manly attitudes and behavior), and that this brought arena spectacles into conflict with the tenets of early Christianity. While somewhat repetitive, this work is frequently cited and widely available. It was also the catalyst for a thought-provoking review article by Shelby Brown, “Explaining the arena: Did the Romans ‘need’ gladiators?” Journal of Roman Archaeology 8 (1995): 376–384.

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