Abstract: Roman Arenas and Crowd Dynamics

Lecturer: Garrett Fagan

In popular perceptions, the gladiator is one of the most characteristic symbols of Roman civilization. The popularity among the Romans of arena games – incorporating animal hunts, executions, and gladiatorial bouts – is not in doubt. Explanations thus far offered by scholars for this popularity have rested on anthropological, sociological, or symbological interpretations of the arena’s function in Roman culture. Yet even a cursory glance at comparative evidence shows that people beyond the Romans have long found the sight of animals and people pitched against each other in bruising and/or lethal encounters both appealing and intriguing: think of combat sports, the medieval tournament, public executions, bullfights, bear-baiting, etc. Psychological factors offer the likeliest explanation for the transcultural and transhistorical appeal of violent spectacle.

In this lecture, I examine the social psychological components of the Roman arena’s lure, with a special emphasis on crowd dynamics. In particular, I examine how the physical disposition of the spectators at Roman arenas facilitated the processes of the crowd and lent the events a heightened excitement and emotional pitch. Other factors were at play too – such as sating prejudices or excitement at sports spectatorship – but crowd dynamics served to channel and focus the spectators’ energies, and this was an attractive prospect in itself.

Featured Lecturer

Dr. Bridget Buxton is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of Rhode Island. She holds her degrees from Victoria University of Wellington (M.A.) and University of California,... Read More

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