Theses Doctoral

Mass Spectacles in Roman Pompeii as a System of Communication

Sheppard, Joe

In this thesis I detail how large-scale public entertainment, in the form of gladiatorial games (munera) and dramatic festivals (ludi), could function as a tool for social control in the Roman West. Using late-Republican and imperial Pompeii as a test case, I argue that these spectacular performances provided local notables with a rare and powerful platform for mass messaging. The chief purpose of this communication within the arena and theatres of Pompeii was not to transmit particular words or gestures from wealthy benefactors to their captive audience, but rather to arrive at a public consensus that implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of local political, religious, and cultural institutions while also underscoring existing social hierarchies and power relations within the unified community. The local laws, traditions, and setting conditioned the behaviour of the entertainers and spectators, who played central rôles in a series of formulaic rituals at these regular events. The processions that preceded games, for example, and the prize-giving ceremonies after munera were staged as dialogues between benefactor and spectators, structured in ways that celebrated the prosperity, civic identity, and political stability of the community. Such a function was particularly important to ensure stability in periods of great uncertainty. I suggest that the construction and renovation of venues for public entertainment should also be understood in terms of crisis communications, as part of a response to political turbulence following the wars of the late Republic and a string of local catastrophes under Nero. In the highly urbanized regions of early imperial Italy, however, the emphasis on civic politics at mass spectacles risked inflaming tensions between neighbouring rivals.
This system of social control was not, however, limited to the duration and location of mass spectacles. The Pompeian council limited freedom of association and the production of formal texts and images concerning mass spectacles to the margins of the city. The unofficial forms of expression that clustered here, often in dialogue with one another, suggest that individuals continued to identify with their rôles as consensus-building spectators beyond the games. In spite of its rich and varied dossier of evidence for quotidian life, genuinely original or subversive content that is independent of official messaging appears only rarely in the archaeological record at Pompeii.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
De Angelis, Francesco
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 12, 2019