Abstract: Roman Arenas and Crowd Dynamics


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.

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