Blood on the orchestra floor – gladiator games in Roman Greece

Last week somebody sent a question to my blog: “Why are there no amphitheatres in Greece?” I’ve somehow managed to lose the question but in the hope that whoever asked it is reading – and because I find this an interesting subject – here’s an answer.

At the outset a disclaimer: there’s actually a very good article on this very subject by Katherine Welch*, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University and author of a book about Roman amphitheatres so much of what I’m going to say here is based on her work.

Leaving aside the thorny problem of “Romanisation” familiar to any student of ancient history, it pretty straightforward to see how the culture of northwest Europe was transformed when the area became part of the Roman Empire: an iron age tribal culture was transformed into one in which people lived in cities, used Roman coins to buy Roman goods and went to the baths. It’s always been more difficult to see what exactly changed when the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean was conquered by Rome.

After all, the people had lived in cities for hundreds of years, worshipped (more or less) the same gods as the Romans and enjoyed a loosely similar form of political organisation and agrarian economy. Roman culture had of course itself been deeply transformed through contact with the Greek world – Rome had been “Hellenized”. So what did change in the Greek world? There are a few markers that scholars have tended to point to as evidence for a more Roman way of life: worship of the emperor (the Imperial Cult), Roman-style bathhouses and watching the bloody entertainments that have become synonymous with Rome in the modern imagination – gladiatorial games.

And there is, perhaps surprisingly, evidence enough that the Greeks did watch gladiator fights – inscriptions, grave stones and even – at Ephesos in Turkey – what is believed to have been a cemetery full of gladiator skeletons. The person who asked me the question was right, however, there is almost no evidence for the type of building that the Romans used for these fights in other parts of the Empire – the amphitheatre.

The Theatre of Dionysos at Athens - showing the Roman period barrier
The Theatre of Dionysos at Athens – showing the Roman period barrier

Instead the Greeks tended to convert existing structures for that purpose. In Athens a barrier was erected in the orchestra of the Theatre of Dionysus to transform that building into an arena for Roman-style blood sports. I remember pointing the barrier out to a group of students when I was teaching the Roman part of the British School at Athens summer course and a friend of mine, responsible for teaching the Bronze Age component remarked that they must have been very short gladiators – the barrier is, it’s true, only waist high. But I don’t think the idea was to stop the gladiators from running away. We shouldn’t imagine that all gladiators were like Spartacus waiting to rise up and fight for their freedom. It was probably quite rare for gladiators to fight to the death – for one thing that would have been too expensive for their owners – so for slaves of a certain violent disposition being a gladiator was probably not too bad a life. No, I think that the idea of the barrier was more to make sure that no gladiators fell with their swords or tridetnts on the rich, important people who would have been seated in the good seats at the front.

It’s hard to be sure exactly when the barrier was added but we know the theatre was modified by a local elite sycophant at the time of Nero so it seems a reasonable guess that it was around then. That, at least is what Welch and others assume. We can be sure that the barrier was for this purpose and that the theatre was indeed being used for gladiator fights because a Greek author, Dio Chrysostom (the Golden Mouthed – named for his oratorical skills), expresses his disgust at the fact it in the late first century AD – he found it a travesty that this building where great works of tragedy and comedy had been performed and where the Athenian assembly had met to vote, a sanctuary of the god Dionysos – was now being used for this unseemly purpose.

The complaint is repeated in the 2nd century by Lucian and in the early 3rd century biography of a legendary contemporary of Dio Chrysostom, the miracle-working sage, Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratos. We shouldn’t imagine, however, that this distaste for gladiator fights was necessarily an anti-Roman sentiment. Some members of the Latin-speaking western elite are also known to have been critical of the games. Enough people in the Greek world must have enjoyed Gladiator fights or else there would have been nothing to complain about so their dislike was probably inspired part by genuine human compassion, part snobbery towards a popular form of lower class entertainment.

The theatre of Delphi with a piece of the barrier preserved to the left of the tourists
The theatre of Delphi with a piece of the barrier preserved to the left of the tourists

Other theatres in Greece were also fitted with barriers so as to accommodate gladiator fights. I know there’s also a barrier in Delphi and I’m sure I’ve seen one at some other theatre in Greece but I can’t remember where now (if anyone knows of any please let me know). I know that at Ephesos they assume gladiator fights were held in the theatre. There instead of having a barrier the cavea (seating area) was raised up above the orchestra. The main reason Greek cities didn’t build amphitheatres is therefore probably that it was simply more cost-effective to convert existing buildings.

The stadium at Messene converted into an arena with addition of late antique wall
The stadium at Messene converted into an arena with addition of late antique wall
The stadium of Aphrodisias - similarly converted into an amphitheatre
The stadium of Aphrodisias – similarly converted into an amphitheatre

In a much later period at other cities it was the stadium, the arena for athletic competitions, that was converted to serve as an amphitheatre. At both Messene, in the southern Peloponnese and Aphrodisias, hundreds of miles away in western Turkey, probably in the 4th century AD, a makeshift curved wall was inserted into the running track to close off one end of the stadium to accommodate gladiatorial fights. At Aphrodisias small rooms were even added around the base of the seating area that were presumably used as cages from which to release animals for beast fights.

I said that there is almost no evidence for amphitheatres in the Greek world but – to come clean – there are actually a few cities that did have them, though not imposing stone buildings like the famous Colosseum. These tended to be cities where there was a particularly strong Roman influence – Gortyn and Knossos on Crete, the first the Roman provincial capital, the second an Augustan colony and, in Greece itself, Corinth, an old Greek city but one also re-founded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar. There isn’t all that much to see of the amphitheatre today and even in antiquity it was an earth-bank structure. Dio says that in his day the Corinthians watched gladiator fights in a ravine outside the city. In keeping with his negative attitude to this form of entertainment this might have been his sneering way of referring to the amphitheatre.

Finally, it is possible that at some cities gladiator fights might have been held in the agora. We know that in Roman culture gladiator fights were originally held on the Forum and at early Roman colonies in Italy post-holes have been found that may have been for grandstands for such spectacles. Writing in the age of Augustus the architect Vitruvius recommends that Roman fora should be rectangular, unlike Greek agoras that tended to be more square, because that shape was more suitable for spectators watching gladiator fights. For what it’s worth the Forum of Corinth follows his recommendation so maybe – although I’ve never heard of anyone else making the suggestion – that’s where the fights took place before the amphitheatre was built.

Artistic reconstruction of gladiator fights on the agora of Hierapolis
Artistic reconstruction of gladiator fights on the agora of Hierapolis

At Hierapolis in Asia Minor the excavators have also speculated that gladiator fights took place in the agora. An imposing stoa-basilica that lined one side of the square was decorated with reliefs depicting gladiatorial scenes. The outside colonnade of the building facing the square would have made a suitable grandstand and the unusual propylon (monumental entrance) at the centre of the colonnade might, at times of spectacles, have been where important local dignitaries would have sat. The capitals of the columns of the entrance are unusually decorated with sculpted lions attacking bulls which might have been intended to evoke the beast-fights that along with gladiatorial combats were a popular form of Roman entertainment, the two often being staged together. At the very least the presence of gladiator reliefs in this Greek speaking town in distant, land-locked Phrygia, attest to how deeply this Roman “sport” had become embedded in Greek culture. With the Roman conquest things certainly had changed.

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8 thoughts on “Blood on the orchestra floor – gladiator games in Roman Greece

  1. When I first started reading this, I thought, But of course there were amphitheaters in ancient Greece: I’ve seen them. But I caught on pretty quickly that you were talking about ones used for blood sport. Funny coincidence too that you should write this just now, as I was just tweeting about Vespasian yesterday. Life is full of coincidences, overlaps, and whatnot between civilizations and Twitter timelines, I suppose.

    Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment and sorry for leaving you for so long suspended in the limbo of awaiting moderation (I don’t know how that happened because I’m sure I clicked approve when I first read it!). I’ve actually been meaning to reply but last week was a bit hectic. I really was talking about “amphitheatres”. What you have seen in Greece are “theatres”. They are curved – Roman times semicircular and in earlier periods slightly more than a semicircle- but they are not completely enclosed. They were designed for plays and political meetings. Amphitheatres were a Roman type of building that were completely circular or oval and specifically designed for gladiatorial games and beast shows.

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  2. “so their dislike was probably inspired part by genuine human compassion, part snobbery towards a popular form of lower class entertainment.”

    Unless there’s actual evidence for “genuine human compassion” I’m inclined to doubt it. And when it comes to watching gladiators being a “lower-class” phenomenon, that may well have something to do with it, but I suspect that what bothered Dio Chrysostom, Lucian and Apollonius is that gladiatorial games (and the associated beast events) were clearly an import from the Roman west and had nothing whatsoever to do with the Greek culture of Classical period, which the Greek literate/literary elites adopted as the paragon for themselves in the self-image that they created. That is, within the context of complete acceptance of Roman political domination, the literary figures of the Greek-speaking east idealized the Classical period and took themselves to be the cultural heirs of the old literary tradition. While some authors like Dionysius of Halicarnassus (from the very beginning of the development of Greek literary identity under the Roman Empire) tried to argue that the Romans were actually Greeks in origin (and had “deviated” a bit over time), there could have been no doubting that the gladiatorial games had been imported from the west under Roman influence, and so they were “a bridge too far” for the elites of the east to accept. This would have been particularly true if, as you say, Greek architectural monuments specifically associated with older cultural activities (e.g., theaters previously used for theatrical productions and perhaps also associated with the political life of the polis) were “mutilated” to accommodate the new form of entertainment. In effect, there was no way to fit gladiators in to the idealized Greek past that the men associated with the so-called Second Sophistic took to be their model, and so they (or some at any rate) sneered at this cultural intrusion from the west.

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    1. I take your point that I’m maybe being too generous in crediting these authors with compassion for the gladiators, victims of Roman style executions and wild beasts. I’d need to look into this a bit more to be able to say whether there is concrete evidence for that. I do remember some source concerning an episode where Roman crowds had sympathy for the slaughter of some elephants in an arena.

      You may well be right that there was an anti-Roman element to this. However, I’m inclined, like I said, to lean towards a point of view that is argued for by Simon Swain in his book Hellenism and Empire that by the time of the Second Sophistic these members of the elite class had become so thoroughly integrated into the Empire that they could be proud Greeks without being anti-Roman. Swain argues that there is very little evidence for actual resistance to Rome in their writings. Disdain for the lower classes on the other hand is a recurring motif. But this is, of course, a contentious area that continues to be debated. Perhaps their dislike of gladiator games was a mixture of both cultural pride and snobbery.

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  3. I can remember that some people believe the Roman barriers functioned to stop the water whenever there would have been staged naval battles in Roman period. Although I find this myself hard to believe (I think anyone who has visited the theater of Dionysos in Athens gets why this barrier would never stop water), I can vaguely remember from my tour through Delphi that they did in fact find a drainage system at the theater. Interesting stuff. What do you think Dr. Dickenson?

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