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Blood in the Arena

Blood in the Arena
The Spectacle of Roman Power

An exploration of the Roman amphitheater as a key social and political institution for binding Rom and its provinces.

December 1997
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
352 pages | 6 x 9 | 27 photos, 9 line drawings, 6 maps, 7 tables |

From the center of Imperial Rome to the farthest reaches of ancient Britain, Gaul, and Spain, amphitheaters marked the landscape of the Western Roman Empire. Built to bring Roman institutions and the spectacle of Roman power to conquered peoples, many still remain as witnesses to the extent and control of the empire.

In this book, Alison Futrell explores the arena as a key social and political institution for binding Rome and its provinces. She begins with the origins of the gladiatorial contest and shows how it came to play an important role in restructuring Roman authority in the later Republic. She then traces the spread of amphitheaters across the Western Empire as a means of transmitting and maintaining Roman culture and control in the provinces.

Futrell also examines the larger implications of the arena as a venue for the ritualized mass slaughter of human beings, showing how the gladiatorial contest took on both religious and political overtones. This wide-ranging study, which draws insights from archaeology and anthropology, as well as Classics, broadens our understanding of the gladiatorial contest and its place within the highly politicized cult practice of the Roman Empire.

  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • I. Beginnings
    • Campanian Gladiators
    • Etruscan Gladiators
    • Origines Gladiatorum
    • Early Spectacle in Rome
    • The Late Republic: Spectacle and Political Manipulation
    • The Imperial Games
  • II. A Scatter of Circles
    • The Iberian Peninsula
    • Britannia
    • The Northeastern Frontier
    • The Galliae
  • III. Order and Struggle: Cult in the Amphitheater
    • Imperial Cult
    • Celtic Cult
    • Nemesis
  • IV. The System of Construction
    • The Early Builders
    • Builders during the Empire
    • Management
    • Labor
    • Military Amphitheaters
    • Technology
    • Tickets and Seating
  • V. The Magic Ring: Human Sacrifice in the Arena
    • Patterns of Human Sacrifice
    • Human Sacrifice in Rome
    • The Ideology of Human Sacrifice
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix I. Amphitheaters and Central Place Theory
  • Appendix II. Pliny in Bithynia
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Alison Futrell is Assistant Professor of Roman History at the University of Arizona.


The year of 42 B.C. was troubled by disturbing evidence of divine disquiet, warning the Romans of violent disruption awaiting them, of the utter transformation of heaven and earth. The signs were, quite literally, unearthly. The sun would shine both day and night, its orb growing to enormous proportions, three times its usual size, and then shrinking dramatically, to the merest pinpoint of light. The boundary between the cosmic and terrestrial realm was ruptured, as bolts of lightning and meteorites rained down from above. Roman sleep was broken by eerie sounds: the call of trumpets, the clash of weapons, and the clamor of phantom men in arms came from the gardens near the Tiber. One dog buried the corpse of another, killed in a canine coup, beside the Temple of Ceres. Prodigies were born, whose mutations spoke of excess and discord. Most dreadful portent for the unity of the Roman State, those gathered on the Alban Mount for the festival of Latiaris saw the statue of Jupiter gush blood from its right arm. Warnings appeared in other areas of Roman activity: in Macedonia, where Brutus and Cassius, the assassin liberators, had their headquarters, rivers dried up or ran backward. Bees swarmed threateningly outside the legionary camp. A boy carrying the statue of Victory in procession fell down, and that hallowed symbol of Roman solidarity and achievement plummeted to the dust. Overhead, vultures and other carrion-eaters gathered, shrieking in warning and in anticipation of carnage to come.


Thoroughly alarmed by these marvels, men sought to avert misfortune through ritual expiation, taking extraordinary measures to assure the gods of Roman piety and devotion. The urban praefect took on the duty of holding the Feriae Latinae, the Latin festival, which was meant to be a celebration of the unified Latin people and a ritual expression of the state's success in expansion. Normally this task fell to the consuls, but they were not available to fulfill their obligation. The plebeian aediles decided that the circus races usually held in honor of Ceres were inadequate tribute to the goddess; instead, gladiatorial combats were presented. This too was an innovation and not only for the festival of Ceres. Gladiatorial games had never before been held as part of the official spectacle of the Roman State. Despite their increasing prominence as a means of political persuasion, the munera, or gladiatorial games, were traditionally presented on a private basis, in loose association with the public funerals of eminent citizens. Now the power and grandeur of this ritualized exhibition would be harnessed to serve the state in its hour of need; the munera would be part of the formal interaction between Rome and the cosmic forces that determined its fate.


Despite these frenzied efforts by the Roman people and their leaders, the peace of the gods was not to be restored. Ambiguous success, at best, was the result of all the pious attempts made in 42 to avert the portended cataclysm. The Battle of Philippi followed shortly thereafter, and the victory of Antony and Octavian over the assassins of Julius Caesar guaranteed the failure of the oligarchy, thus transforming the Republic forever.


The choice of gladiatorial combats as an innovative means of expiation in this context can be interpreted as an encapsulation, in symbolic form, of the changes taking place in the Roman world. Just as would soon happen at Philippi, opponents drawn from the same group battled at the Cerialia, in a contrived combat whose power was in what it represented rather than in what it achieved. The gladiatorial battles accomplished no strategic gain, led to no diplomatic arrangements. Their meaning and significance was as a means of communicating the message of Imperial authority; the medium of spectacular death was a persuasive piece of performative rhetoric. The reading of this message is hardly straightforward: the munera had become endowed with a number of meanings in the public sphere, which form the subtext to Dio Cassius' text.


Gladiatorial combats in Rome had always been surrounded with the miasma of death. This was due not merely to the bloodshed involved but to their origin in the ceremonies of the public funeral. The choice of formalized combats as funeral performances was a directed one: the heirs of the deceased had a munus, or duty, to ease the transition between the world of the dead and the world of the living by providing the lubrication or sustenance of blood as a rite of passage. The blood spilt in ritualized combat guaranteed the community's continuity despite the passage of its leaders. Thus death is not an end but a transition, just as the empire itself does not end but continuously recreates itself anew. With this in mind, we can see that the munera of 42 retain their association with death; there is, however, no funeral as such for the death of the Republic. We can view these as the last of the funereal games; henceforth, munera would be presented as part of the offficial calendar of public spectacles, meant to ensure the continuity of the state through regular acknowledgment of its protective forces. The gladiatorial games were thus disassociated from the death of the individual, held, rather, in celebration of the continued life of the Roman State.


Death to ensure life, bloodshed to guarantee safety, the paradox of the arena extends to its political context as well. The games of 42 can be interpreted as the logical fulfillment of Republican competition. Politics during the Roman Revolution had become increasingly violent, in terms of methods and goals. From the early civil discord that resulted in the deaths of the Gracchi to the mayhem committed on the Roman citizenry by officially sanctioned proscriptions and unofficial gangs of thugs, Rome was stained with its own blood. The civic bloodshed occasioned by Rome's leaders was deliberately paralleled in their presentation of Roman spectacle, where the expression of violence in representational form increased in scale and in production values. Rome committed a vast amount of energy, resources, and attention to the extravaganza of destruction, a celebration of the violence turned inward. Rome in the arena consumed itself in grand style, as Rome watched from bleachers in the Forum.


Dio's description of the events of 42 also highlights the cataclysmic, almost performative nature of the conflict and its larger meaning. Philippi was a battle surpassing all others, not in the number of troops involved or the physical scale of the destruction but because of what it represented, because of the political impact of the outcome. Philippi has been seen as the last stand of Roman liberty, the final clash between tyranny and self-government. Liberty was doomed to fail at Philippi. We can read the seeds of failure in the institutionalization of gladiatorial combat at the expiatory games of the same year; the munera have often been portrayed as the ultimate expression of an autocratic regime and its ability to compel extraordinary services, extraordinary sacrifices.


Yet Dio admits that the issues were not so clearly drawn, that Philippi was not a stark conflict between good and evil but a civil war. In such circumstances, victory could never be unambiguous, as "the people at one and the same time triumphed over and were vanquished by themselves, inflicted defeat and were themselves defeated.'' The amphitheater partakes of a similar dualism; the arena contained the force inherent in a totalitarian system, replicating the brutality of empire in a controlled environment, which dramatized the cost of empire paid not only by Rome's opponents but by Rome as well, a cost that was gladly paid.


Far more than merely an architectural construct, the amphitheater is saturated with the dynamism of Roman politics and society. To study the spread of the amphitheater throughout the empire is to reveal the process of Romanization itself, as seen in the imposition of an institution and its accompanying set of values on the people of western Europe, where the amphitheater is most prevalent.


Why did the Romans take so much pleasure in watching gladiatorial combats? What sparked this grotesque, albeit fascinating, pastime? Was the kernel of the munera purely Roman, or did some alien culture induce the gladiatorial habit? We begin with an examination of the rise and development of the amphitheater, in terms of both the architectural construct and the events that it housed, which predated and inspired the building form. The origins of gladiatorial contests are a much-debated question, this interest heightened by the importance of the role played by the games in the development of an image for Rome that could be useful in the Mediterranean political dialogue.


The mid-third century B.C, gave rise to gladiatorial combats in the Roman context. This was a time of radical change in Rome, set in motion by the expansion of Rome beyond the confines of Italy and Roman participation in contemporary world politics. The increased interaction with non-Roman peoples would have heightened the need for self-definition. Public spectacle would have provided that: it not only entertained, it served the purposes of Roman hegemony as a means of bringing together the Roman community to commemorate its shared past and to invoke an ideal of a group future.


The placement of amphitheaters in the landscape of the western provinces must be considered in relation to Roman urbanization. Although the arena functioned as a key component in the Roman concept of the city, its distribution in the empire complements the process of imposing an urban network on the countryside as well. The amphitheater held a unique and independent status, one obscured by the standard interpretation of the amphitheater as a fairly superficial part of a typical Roman city. This oversimplification cannot stand, once the true importance of the imperial amphitheater becomes clear. There is, for example, no real one-to-one correspondence between major urban centers and the placement of amphitheaters. Other factors were more important in determining the construction of an amphitheater, such as the presence of a military frontier in Britannia and on the Rhine and Danube. In Gaul we find the phenomenon of the rural amphitheater, where construction of arenas was mandated despite their complete isolation from any habitation center. Gaul demonstrates that the mere size and urban setting of the potential audience were not determining factors in planning an amphitheater; greater weight was given to the projected sociopolitical impact, either in quelling potential unrest or in incorporating non-Roman peoples into the Roman worldview.


The Imperial goal of assimilating provincials made use of the arena as a sacred space. When religion is understood as a functional means of unifying a community and providing the individual with a sense of corporate identity, we can view the amphitheater as a setting for public ritual for the provincial populace. In three cultic practices, the Imperial Cult, Celtic ritual, and the cult of Nemesis, the amphitheater served as a backdrop for sacred performance and thereby served a public purpose desirable to the center of Roman power. By defining the worshipper's place within the subgroup of the cult, the individual has a basis for interaction with the larger society; more than that, he has an intellectual construct for this interaction, provided by the cult.


Augustus made clearest use of the amphitheater as an integral part of the Imperial Cult, in the earliest phase of emperor-worship. The amphitheater encouraged a large number of participants to join in the celebration of the central authority, thereby confirming the divine status of the emperor and legitimizing his rule. The establishment of this sort of corporate identity in the provinces was a more important goal in the early Principate, when a new series of social relationships was being established, running vertically and horizontally, between center and periphery, on many levels and involving many social groups. The amphitheater accommodated and fostered the formation of such communal bonds.


Celtic group identity was incorporated into Romanized forms, not merely providing continuity in the midst of political transformation but causing a new and dynamic creation, born from the combination of traditions. The amphitheater became an integral, functional part of the Celtic sanctuary complex. The images of the amphitheater are closely connected with certain issues key to the Celtic worldview, such as the concepts of liminality and the struggle for balance that liminality implies; the amphitheater, as a building type, epitomizes human conflict, the universal struggle played out on a human scale. The Romano-Celtic amphitheatrical games were therefore not merely entertaining; they were representative of the essence of human existence as understood in Celtic society.


Nemesis appears in the amphitheatrical context most often of all the Mediterranean pantheon, worshipped by lowly gladiators yet also solemnly acknowledged by Imperial magistrates. She was seen as the distributor of good and evil and was related to the basic concept of the munera as munus: obligatory distribution for the benefit of the deceased and the living. In the ritual surrounding Nemesis, therefore, the arena becomes a metaphor for life itself, for the struggle of the individual to survive against the potential hostile forces of chance and fortune.


Understanding the specific planning process behind the construction of amphitheaters can show us how the center actually wielded this tool of Romanization. These structures were a special part of the public building process in the Roman world, played out against the backdrop of local and regional politics. Public works were a vital part of the interaction between Romans; more importantly, public works often left tangible evidence of this interaction, which remains today in the archaeological record. Who built the amphitheaters? Did private or public funds finance their construction? Was the sponsorship of an amphitheater, like giving games, considered a political coup, but, considering the expense and the permanence of the structures, much more important as an appeal to the electorate? If the funding were municipal as opposed to private, to what extent could the Imperial government be involved in the decisionmaking process? Pliny the Younger, writing of provincial administration in Bithynia, suggests that approval of public works by Rome became standard policy. By the Severan period, this approval was mandatory for amphitheaters and other spectacle buildings. Was it simply to cut down on fiscal waste in the provinces, or was there some greater risk in these structures that necessitated tighter control over the process?


Amphitheaters can also be analyzed according to conceptual design, which is related to what economic and material resources were available in the vicinity. The policy of controlled access to the amphitheaters, by means of reserved seating and purchased tickets, is another important issue. The stratification of Roman society was expressed in the amphitheatrical maeniana, or levels of seating, where the targeted audience was exposed to the spectacle according to the desired impact, mandated largely by the central government but varying according to the local social system. The better seats went to those who were better connected to the center of power or to those whose support was the most useful to the local representatives of Rome.


Having concentrated on peripheries and externals of the amphitheater, from the origins of the building type and the fabric of its construction to the distribution pattern in the West and its association with local and regional cult, we turn to the issue central to our study: how to reconcile the bloodiness of the arena and the events it sheltered with the arena's centrality in Roman society. The determination of the current trend in scholarship to secularize the arena, to make its events into mere "entertainment'' or "sport," does not sufficiently address the fascination it held for the Romans and the avid support it enjoyed from the Roman State. We must look elsewhere for elucidation. One explanation of this phenomenon focuses on gladiatorial combat in its larger interpretation as mass slaughter of tuman beings, that is, the munera as human sacrifice. Human immolation, as a rule, takes place as a drastic response to a crisis situation, which demands a reevaluation and renewal of the bonds of society through the performance of the highest, and yet most vile, sacrifice.


This pattern for human immolation has existed in a variety of societies whose practices in many ways mirror those of the Romans. The motivation for human sacrifice is often associated with the maintenance of an absolutist power structure. This basic pattern is detected in both the New World and the Old, in the empires of the Aztec and Inca, in China's Shang period and in early Sumeria, in the twilight years of Carthage and of Dahomey. Vestiges of other types of human sacrifice can be found in the Roman context, and the prior disposition toward this sort of activity in Roman society may have influenced the form taken by the amphitheatrical complex during the Roman Empire.


Understanding gladiatorial combat as a form of commuted human sacrifice affects our assumptions about the social institution symbolized by the amphitheater. The amphitheater was a political temple that housed the mythic reenactment of the cult of Roman statehood. The struggle of the gladiator embodied an idealized and distilled version of the military ethic of Romanitas. His passion was the foundation sacrifice, which answered the crisis of empire, validating the Roman struggle for power and offering a model for understanding the basis of that power.


The Roman amphitheater is a mighty thing. Redolent of Roman authority, it dominates the landscape like no other ruin. The facade curves endlessly, limitlessly, symbolic of tradition while defying the limitations of both post-and-lintel architecture and time. From the outside, one sees a continuous series of columned archways, an architectural motif that resonates of the stoa and shelter provided for the citizen in pursuit of his public responsibilities. From within, there still arises, however faintly, the mufffled roar of the crowd's reaction, most alive at the moment of death. This stoa is only a façade, a false openness that lures one inside, a cage surrounding the encapsulation of Imperial power. Yet the fact that the lure was taken, that the citizens of Rome's empire eagerly collaborated in the spectacles of the amphitheater, suggests that the "stoa" of the colonnade was not entirely a lie but did indeed represent a mediation between the interior and exterior, between the real world and the manufactured image. The amphitheater was more than a striking Roman architectural type; it was a venue for the enactment of the ritual of power. The munera were a means of persuasion, through the use of symbols and actions from Rome's traditional repertory, of the validity and continuity of Roman order. The amphitheater was a sociopolitical arena for interaction between the institution and its participants, between the Imperial mind-set and the provincial lifestyle, between the center and the periphery, between Rome and Europe.




“. . . bring[s] fresh perspectives to the study of the Roman amphitheater, situating the Roman arena within a larger cross-cultural framework of human sacrifice and providing important insights into the psychological dimensions of these public spectacles for the Roman viewer.”
Classical World


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