Roman Sports and Spectacles by Anne Mahoney

Book Review by caldrail

Imagine for a moment that by chance you happened to be at the Roman arena one lunchtime, expecting some light entertainment. What would you see, hear, or experience? Slaves providing their masters with satisfactory performance, proving that even they could be courageous, or perhaps seeing men thrown to beasts, and later, to the whim of the crowd.

This sort of imagery is common enough when dealing with the Romans. When the time comes to learn about their culture, their daily business, their daily lives, the arena is unavoidable. It looms large in the popular image, and for that matter, in the Roman consciousness too.

But of course the bloody duels and animal hunts weren't the sole source of Roman entertainment. The circus held the hugely popular chariot races, whose racing factions were so important that they influenced politics. There were athletic competitions, or stage performances by actors and musicians. You see, as much as the Romans loved their blood sports, they also loved to be moved, or to laugh. If you can understand that, you can understand the Roman spectacle.

For many people this sort of understanding is not so easy. The popular image of Roman spectacles is by its nature an illustration of our ancestors’ decadence and power. But is this popular image correct? Many books try to explain the reality of the Roman spectacle; others seek the glory in all its monstrosity and not to turn away. Of course we learn about the Roman spectacle, the various details of performance and politics, but do we understand? I think in many cases, we do not. As close in entertainment style as we are to our ancestors, we see the world with modern sensibilities and not through the expectations of a Roman audience.

It makes sense then to study what the Romans themselves say about their spectacles. Unfortunately the Romans rather inconveniently didn't leave us a full description of their view on things, so the student must search for evidence in the histories, letters, tomb inscriptions, or archaeology of Rome. Except perhaps, now you don't have to, because Anne Mahoney has done the work for you.

By its nature this book is a collection of text and literary quotations. You won't find detailed analyses, maps, photographs of ruins, artifacts, landscapes, or Roman re-enactors. It is in fact a rather modest volume, yet it must be said, the author hasn't wasted any time with unnecessary padding. Her explanation of the Roman spectacle and relevance is confined to the introduction. For the rest of the book, it's the Romans themselves who speak to us. We can read their opinions, experiences, and epitaphs, all in one book.

This is without doubt a useful publication. I've had it in my hands for a few days and already I've used it to find the text I was looking for. However, it ought to be said that this book is not quite as extensive as might be thought. Whilst the important information is provided, it remains a selection of the available evidence, and many of the minor references to performers in the Roman histories don't appear in this work.

For the casual reader, perhaps this book isn't for you. If however you want to learn something about how the Romans entertained themselves at public displays, to understand what the spectacle meant to them, then you have every reason to consider this book, because ultimately it's What The Romans Wrote For Us.

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