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Seminar 1: Spectacles in the Arena

Week 4: Varying Perspectives on Spectacles in the Arena

Study Skills: Consolidating Lecture Notes & Reconciling difference sources

Seminar debate:

‘This House Would Ban The Gladiatorial Games’.

This seminar will focus on the attitudes towards arena-spectacles which can be detected in Roman literature, but you can also make use of the material/visual evidence discussed in the lecture in Week 5. Look out for in particular for gladiatorial games, wild beast hunts, and criminal executions. Think about the contexts in which the spectacles took place, and the evidence for popular as well as elite attitudes. The seminar is designed to raise questions about using literary texts to answer historical questions. Our debate will focus upon ancient attitudes to the games, rather than modern. Please come prepared to argue for or against the motion - perhaps adopt a character (eg, emperor, plebs, senator, Stoic, Christian, gladiator - the possibilities are almost endless).


All students should consider:

  • the range of attitudes towards arena spectacles which are attested through literature, epigraphic and material evidence.
  • the factors that gave rise to varying perspectives on the games,
  • the differences between ancient attitudes to the games and some of the attitudes which might be expressed today by a modern audience.

During your work for this seminar, you should think about how we use literary texts to answer historical questions. You will become familiar with practical ways of approaching literary texts, such as using commentaries or biographies of authors (section B). You will encounter various interpretations of the given texts in secondary works (section A), and should also seek to formulate your own interpretations. Please consider the following general questions about the use of literary texts in history in advance of the seminar:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of literary texts when compared with other sources of evidence, such as archaeology, inscriptions, works of art, or coins? Think about the material examined during the lecture.
  • Can any one interpretation of a literary text ever be considered ‘correct’?
  • When approaching an ancient text, can we distinguish between the processes of literary criticism and historical analysis?

Work your way through sections A-C.

SECTION A- Consolidating material from the Lecture Handout

Each seminar group has been assigned a different role and class in experiencing the Roman games, that is represented by one section of the handout (and on the the corresponding section of the lecture powerpoint).

The Emperors will be covered in Lecture but we will need someone to play Augustus... anyone feeling primus inter pares?

Seminar Group 1: The Literati & Gliterati

Seminar Group 2: The Masses

Seminar Group 3: The Performers

Within your group you must cover all the MATERIAL EVIDENCE provided in that section: (inscriptions (graffiti, tombstones, mosaics, buildings), so EACH PERSON SHOULD LOOK AT 1 PIECE OF EVIDENCE.

When you have selected 2 pieces of evidence consider the following

  1. When was this object made/inscribed? Is it contemporary with the event?
  2. Who was the intended audience? What percentage of the audience was this?
  3. What was the function of this evidence in the Roman world?
  4. How do the above factors affect the integrity of the source?
  5. What does this source tell us (&what doesn’t it tell us) about the games
  6. Do other accounts support or contradict this view? (Keep this in mind in SECTION B!)


Keeping in mind your groups perspective and your selected evidence, read at least ONE of the following:

  • R. Auguet (1972) Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (London: Allen and Unwin) pp. 190-199 [DG 95.A8 + module online bibliog]
  • C. A. Barton (1993) The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press – chapter 1, ‘Despair’. [DG 78.B2 + module online bibliog]
  • D. Bomgardner (2000) The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre (Routledge, London) pp. 201-221, ‘The End of the Spectacles’. [NA 313.B6 + module online bibliog].
  • G. Fagan (2011) The lure of the arena : social psychology and the crowd at the Roman games [HF4062.5.F2]
  • A. Futrell (1997) Blood in the Arena. The Spectacle of Roman Power (University of Texas Press, Austin) pp. 44-51, ‘The Imperial Games’. [DG 95.F8 + module online bibliog].
  • *A. Futrell (2006) The Roman Games (Blackwell) pp.29-51, ch.3-5 [DG 95.F8]
  • K. Hopkins (1983) ‘Murderous Games’ in Death and Renewal (Cambridge) pp. 1-30. [DG 103.H6]
  • M. Grant (1967) Gladiators (New York: Barnes & Noble) pp. 108-115, ‘The Attitudes of Ancient Writers’. [DG 95.G7]
  • E. Köhne and C. Ewigleben (2000) Gladiators and Caesars: the power of spectacle in ancient Rome (London: British Museum) pp. 131-134 [qto DG 95.G5]
  • D.G. Kyle (1998) Spectacles of death in ancient Rome (London: Routledge) Introduction, esp. pp. 2-7 [DG 95.K9]
  • T. Wiedemann (1992) Emperors and Gladiators (London: Routledge) Chapter 4, ‘Opposition and Abolition’. [DG 95.W4].
  • M. Wistrand (1992) Entertainment and Violence in Ancient Rome: The Attitudes of Roman Writers of the First Century A.D. (Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg, Sweden) chapter 2, ‘Arena’. [DG 95.W4]

Also look at links from 'links' page of module website, lecture 6 (Bread and Circuses).


THEN, READ ALL of the texts on the seminar text handout, and then choose one of them (try to cover all the texts between group members: don't all work on the same one) and analyse it in detail, focusing upon the following issues:

  • Who wrote the text and when? How might the author’s identity and experience have affected his perspective on the gladiatorial games?
  • To what genre does the text belong (e.g. poetry, history, epistolary accounts)? How does this affect our reading of the text and its use as a historical source?
  • What is the scope of the text? Is the author commenting on gladiatorial games in general, on a specific event or on games with particular characteristics?
  • What arguments in favour of or against the performance of games can be identified in the text?
  • What audience is the text aimed at? Does the author seem to be taking any particular attitude towards the games for granted in his audience?
  • Is the author expressing attitudes towards the games in the first person, or reporting the views of others on the games?
  • Where the author writes in the first person, do you think the views expressed in the text are the personal views of the author? Is he striking a persona, and if so, why might he do so?
  • The texts are listed below roughly in chronological order. Do attitudes change over time?
  • Does this author represent an experience of the games from your assigned perspective?

Find your way around crucial reference works:

  • Oxford Classical Dictionary
  • Cambridge History of Classical Literature

You could also use:

  • Sharrock, A. and Ash, R. (2002), Fifty Key Classical Authors [PA 3002.Z5]


I have collected the texts into a handout; for Martial, browse through the On the Spectacles online as well. Otherwise, the texts are accessible as Loeb or Penguin editions in the library, as on-line texts, or in sourcebooks. Library texts are to be preferred where possible, as online texts often feature translations which are old and out-dated (since these are out of copyright), and texts in sourcebooks are usually abridged. You should aim to read your choice of text in full. For most authors, I have provided references to commentaries on the texts, to help with your analyses. These commentaries are notes on the Latin text, intended primarily to illuminate literary and textual issues. However, they also include useful contextual information and interpretations of the text, and can therefore be read usefully alongside an English translation. Classics students (Q800) may like to skim-read their selected texts in the original Latin.

1. Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares 7.1


  • Library – Loeb [PA 6156.C4]
  • Online at Perseus (Tufts)
  • Sourcebooks – J.-A. Shelton (1998), no. 396 (slightly abridged version); Lewis and Reinhold vol. I, p. 497, no. 172 (abridged).

See also Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.7.21 (Tufts Perseus) (on Pompey’s elephants).

Commentaries and biographies:

  • J. Balsdon (1965), ‘Cicero the Man’ in T.A. Dorey, ed., Cicero; Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; pp. 171-214. [PA 6320.D6]
  • D.R. Shackleton Bailey (1971), Cicero; Duckworth, London. (For general biographical information about Cicero). [PA 6320.B2]
  • D.R. Shackleton Bailey (1980), Cicero: Select Letters; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; pp. 146-148 (notes on letter no. 18). [PA 6308.E5]

2. Seneca, Moral Epistles 1.7


  • Library – Loeb Seneca, Moral essays [PA 6156.S3] (Latin and English) - in full; Penguin translation by R. Campbell [B 616.E7]; Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, translated by R. Gummere [PA 6156.S3]
  • Online at Ancient History Sourcebook: brief extract only, in translation; in Latin (Latin Library)
  • Sourcebooks – J.A. Shelton (1998), no. 398 (longer extract); Lewis and Reinhold vol. II, p. 144, no. 40 (extract); Futrell (2006) p.91 (extract).

Secondary reading:

  • M.T. Griffin (1974), ‘Imago Vitae Suae’ in C. Costa, ed., Seneca; pp. 1-38 (account of Seneca’s life and character). [PA 6675.C6]
  • M.T. Griffin (1976), Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics; general biographical information; also see pp. 69 and 178 on Seneca’s attitude to the games. [DG 291.7.S5]

3. Petronius, Satyricon 45


  • Library – Loeb [PA 6156.P38]
  • Online text (scroll down to about half-way through the text or search for the name ‘Echion’ to find the beginning of the speech about an up-coming gladiatorial show). Selection of Petronius online translations.
  • Sourcebooks – J.A. Shelton (1998), no. 395 (very brief extract).

Commentaries and biographies:

  • E. Courtney (2001), A Companion to Petronius; Oxford University Press, Oxford. See pp. 5-11 on the author and 90-95 on ch. 45. [PA 6559.C6]
  • M.S. Smith (1975), Petronii Arbitri: Cena Trimalchionis; Clarendon Press, Oxford; pp. 113-120 (notes on chapter 45). [PA 6558.A5]
  • J.P. Sullivan (1968), The Satyricon of Petronius; Faber & Faber, London. See ch. 1 for the authorship and date of the Satyricon. [PA 6559.S8]

4. Martial, Epigrams

Epigrams: On the Spectacles (De Spectaculis) = in vol. 1, Loeb; AND Epigrams 1.6, 1.14, 1.104, 3.16, 3.59. 4.2, 4.35, 4.74, 5.65, 8.26, 8.55, 8.78.


  • Library – Loeb [PA 6156.M2], Aris and Phillips [PA 6501.B5] - both with Latin and English
  • M. Valerii Martialis Liber spectaculorum, edited by K.M. Coleman [PA 6501.A6 C6] (Latin and English)
  • Online translations of On the spectacles; book 1; book 3; book 4; book 5; book 8; book 9 (Bohn's Classical Library, 1897); in Latin (Latin Library)

Secondary reading:

  • *M. Valerii Martialis Liber spectaculorum, edited by K.M. Coleman [PA 6501.A6 C6]
  • J.P. Sullivan (1991), Martial: the Unexpected Classic; pp. 6-12 on the De Spectaculis; chapter 1 in general on Martial the man, later chapters on specific books of epigrams. [PA 6507.S8]
  • Coleman, K. 'Fatal charades: Roman executions staged as mythological enactments' Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990) 44-73

5. Tertullian, On the Spectacles

On the Spectacles 12.1-4, 19.1-4, 21.3-4; Apology 15.4-5


  • Loeb, Apology, De Spectaculis: [PA 6156.T35] - Latin and English
  • A. Futrell, The Roman Games (2006) p.5, 166, 168

Secondary reading:

  • T.D. Barnes, (1971) Tertullian: a historical and literary study [BR 1720.T3]

6. St. Augustine, Confessions 6.8.13


  • Library – Everyman’s, Penguin, Oxford University Press and other editions [BR 65.A9]
  • Online text
  • Sourcebooks – J.A. Shelton (1998), no. 401 (slightly abridged).

Commentaries and biographies:

  • P. Brown (1967), Augustine of Hippo: a Biography; Faber & Faber, London. See pp. 67-68 on Augustine’s friendship with Alypius. [BR 1720.A9]
  • R.L. Fox (1986), Pagans and Christians; Penguin, Middlesex; chapter 9, ‘Persecution and Martyrs.’ [BR 182.L2]
  • J.J. O’Donnell (1992), Confessions vol. II, Commentary on Books 1-7; Clarendon Press, Oxford; pp. 364-366. [BR 65.A9]
  • J. Wetzel (1992), Augustine and the limits of virtue; Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. [B 655.Z7]