Roman Arenas and Crowd Dynamics / De Arte Gladiatoria: Recovering Gladiatorial Tactics from Artistic Sources

Date: January 31, 2010

Time: 2:00
Location: Manhattanville College, 2900 Purchase Street, Purchase
Speakers: Garrett Fagan, Pennsylvania State University, Steven L. Tuck, Miami University (OH)

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, he examines the social psychological components of the Roman arena’s lure, with a special emphasis on crowd dynamics. In particular, he examines 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.

Prof. Fagan has taught at Pennsylvania State University since 1996. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He received his Ph.D. from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, and has held teaching positions at McMaster University, York University (Canada), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Davidson College, and, the Pennsylvania State University. Professor Fagan has an extensive research record in Roman history and has held a prestigious Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship at the University of Cologne, Germany. He has published numerous articles in international journals, and his first monograph, Bathing in Public in the Roman World, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1999. He has also edited a volume from Routledge on the phenomenon of pseudoarchaeology (2005). His current research project is on spectatorship at the Roman arena, and he is also working on a book on ancient warfare.

De Arte Gladiatoria: Recovering Gladiatorial Tactics from Artistic Sources

The tactics gladiators used in the arena remain a mystery. Their training was almost certainly oral so no training manuals survive. The extant literary sources are of little help. Written by elite men, many specifically deploring the activities of the arena, they remain silent on the specifics of the contests. Our best sources to recover this lost martial art may in fact be artistic representations of the events in the arena. Because of the enormous public interest in gladiatorial combat, these provide a wealth of images in all conceivable media. They are demonstrably specific concerning the circumstances of arena combat, and transcend generalized images of victory and defeat to show detailed and repeated images of arms, armor, opponents, non-verbal communication, and contexts. The artists certainly had a firsthand knowledge of the events in the arena and created these works for a knowledgeable and interested public. Examining representations of gladiators and their counterparts, venatores, and comparing them with the illustrations from the first western fighting manuals of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, allows us to reconstruct the tactics of gladiators and venatores. Identifiable in the art are certain details such as stance, weapon placement, angle of attack, and tactics. Notable in images of gladiatorial combat is evidence of close work: grappling, throws, and wrestling that were, and remain, integral to military personal combat. This study confirms the notion that gladiators were highly skilled, specifically trained, and determined not just to kill their opponents but to entertain and display virtus.

Prof. Tuck earned his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan and a post-doctoral fellowship at Ohio State University. His areas of specialization are Roman spectacle entertainment, and imperial art, and archaeology, especially ideological display. He has conducted fieldwork, research and study tours in Egypt, England, Italy and Greece. He has published articles on Greek and Latin epigraphy, sculpture, architecture, and the monument program in the harbors of Portus and Lepcis Magna, and his recent publications include “Latin Inscriptions in the Kelsey Museum” (2006, University of Michigan Press). He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Classics and History, Miami University, where he directs a summer study program in Italy and was named a Distinguished Professor in 2007 and 2008.