How a Roman amphitheatre really worked
"Roll up! Roll up! Roll Up! There will be a magnificent spectacle at the amphitheatre today, and you mustn't miss it! Magerius is giving it. Of course, you all know Magerius who has just finished his term of office as mayor. He's a pompous old ass but he thinks the world of himself and he's going to lay on a big spectacle and he is paying through the nose for it, and he wants everyone to know how generous he has been."
"He is bringing in the Telegenii. You've heard of the Telegenii – they are the best theatrical producers in North Africa. They have all the best beasts and all the best hunters too. Today they have for your delight four leopards, all home grown and well trained. They are called Crispinus, Luxurius, Victor – who of course is going to be conquered – and then, Ho! Hum! there's Romanus, 'The Roman' who is going to bite the dust at the hands of a hunter. And then he's got four of his best hunters, Hilarinus, Bullarius, Spittara, who always hunts on stilts, and finally the champion, Mamertinus. It's going to be a great spectacle, so hurry along to the amphitheatre. Who's going to win – the beasts or the hunters?
"The sport begins in fine style. Luxurius is the first to fall – well, with a name like that you can't expect to be a raw, brutal leopard, can you? He expires with blood pouring from his chest but Bullarius is having a hard time with Crispinus, so Hilarinus rushes to his help and together they eventually pin down Crispinus and he too expires. But the big appeal is always Spittara. He's a clown, and has everyone in fits of laughter at his exploits. He always fights naked – well, nearly naked – he likes to show off his torso and is very hunky – the women just love him. He always fights on stilts, just to make it more difficult for himself. He is up against Victor – but will Victor be victorious? No! No! Spittara spears him in the throat, and Victor too is vanquished. And finally, what is going to happen to 'The Roman'? He is up against the wily Mamertinus, but once again, the huntsman is Victorious, and 'The Roman' dies the death. Big Joke, this, and there are cheers all round when 'The Roman' finally expires. It's been a wonderful afternoon, with four leopards killed. What a great spectacle! Everyone is exhilarated.
"Then the Herald appears. My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, he says. If this spectacle has earned your approval, let someone give the Telegenii ten thousand quid for each leopard. The crowd then takes up the chant. They are well coached in this, and they all know what to say. Their chanting is magnificent: Come on, someone, pay up! By your example, set a benchmark of generosity for future generations, something that will put all previous generosity into the shade! Could Manchester United put on such a spectacle? Could the millionaires of Chelsea vie with you for such splendid generosity?
"At this point, Magerius steps forward. His steward is carrying a tray with four huge moneybags. There's twenty thousand quid in each – that's double what the herald had put forward. Wow, that's terrific! That's what it is to be rich! That's what it is to be powerful! Yes, that's really it! But it's getting dark now. It's time to go home: let's send the Telegenii back with their bags full of money."
Certainly this all makes for a nice story: but how much of this is our imagination, and how much can be tied down with firm evidence? Let us begin at the beginning. David Bomgardner has been studying the mosaic, and told the story in the recent Amphitheatres conference at Chester.
In 1966, in the little village of Smirat, in the fertile olive oil belt of Tunisia, a splendid mosaic – shown on the opening pages of this feature – was discovered. Presumably it formed part of a magnificent country villa belonging to Magerius. It was carefully lifted and taken to the museum at Sousse where it is one of the highlights of their collection.
But how is it to be interpreted? At the centre stands the steward, with four moneybags on a tray. On each moneybag is a symbol of a figure of 8 on its side, which symbolises a thousand denarii. Around the outside is the spectacle: four leopards, each of them named, being speared by four hunters, each of whom is also named. There are also three other figures: two are presumably divinities. On the left, a figure striding forward, confusingly labelled Mageri, is usually identified as the goddess Diana, holding a tall stalk of millet in her hands. On the opposite side, upside down, is a smaller figure, again labelled Magerius. He is naked, with a saucer-shaped object in his right hand, and a staff in his left: he is usually identified as the god Bacchus, or Liber Pater. Next door to him, in the corner is another large figure, unfortunately mostly destroyed; is this in fact Magerius? Probably, though he does not appear to be wearing a toga as one might expect. It is a fascinating inscription, but there are numerous oddities about it. In the first place, it would appear that the show has been put on before anyone has agreed to pay for it, and that Magerius is simply standing by with four bags of money on the off-chance that he may be required to pay up. There are two possible interpretations. The first interpretation is that the inscription should be read as it stands and it represents a spontaneous interaction between unpaid performers at the end of a spectacle and members of the rich and powerful spectators (i.e. the 'lords') with heavy pressure brought to bear upon them to foot the bill, until eventually the harangues work and a donor agrees to the terms followed by universal adulation for his beneficence. (This is the interpretation implied by Robin Lane Fox in his commentary on the illustration in his new book The Classical World.) Such an example of an unpaid, unsolicited venatio hopefully being paid for by a wealthy, powerful member of the spectators is, to the best of my knowledge, without precedent in the ancient world. Such spectacles were often given by successful candidates for civic magistracies, required by statute law (or at least tradition), or else formed part of a scheduled festival or special anniversary. Does this inscription provide evidence for a new type of munus, perhaps unique to North Africa, where an itinerant troupe of performers put on a show and then ask the wealthy spectators in the audience to pay, urged on by the unrelenting harangues of the crowd, until a donor (munerarius) at last voluntarily comes forward, to universal acclaim? Perhaps some elements of an auction were involved in the process; this would explain why Magerius had 16,000 sesterces in coin – twice the original asking price! – to pay the performers (an idea suggested by Kathleen Coleman).
This leads to the second possible interpretation, that this inscription is a clever piece of 'grand theatre', a seemingly spontaneous action that is in fact a cunningly contrived piece of manipulation. Such an example of 'contrived spontaneity' is the well-known theatre claques of Nero, who applauded 'spontaneously' at all the 'right moments' and they were well rewarded for their applause. If Magerius had already agreed with the Telegenii to pay for the venatio, but had wanted a more dramatic denouement to the day's events, he could arrange with his fellow local gentry the broad outlines to the 'charade' to be enacted in the arena. This has a double
pay-off: first, Magerius is given greater honour by being portrayed as a primus inter pares of his fellow 'squirearchs', second, the crowd receives a heightened perception of its own power to influence the events of the arena; this would be a win-win situation all round.
At present it is impossible to decide between these alternatives; the jury is still out and further evidence will be needed to determine the precise significance of this intriguing inscription and mosaic.And after it was all over, Magerius proudly had this mosaic laid down to celebrate his own generosity. But how generous was he, and where did the spectacle take place?
If one assumes that Magerius gave this spectacle as the result of having been elected to one of the civic magistracies, where was this town? If one assumes that his countryside villa was within a day's travel from the town in which he made his civic life, then there are only four such places that had amphitheatres: Hadrumetum (Sousse: 37 km away as the crow flies), Thysdrus (el-Djem: 26 km away), Thapsus (25 km away) and Leptiminus (20 km away): we can eliminate other venues such as fora (market squares) or theatres as they lacked the special protective measures of an amphitheatre to ensure the safety of spectators – and there is no evidence of restraints such as collars, chains and tethering rings on any of the leopards.
It is tempting to assume that the spectacle must have taken place in the amphitheatre at el Djem that still survives barely 15 miles to the south and which must always have been one of the marvels of North Africa, being among the largest arenas in the Roman world.
But the cost of putting on a spectacle at the top-level amphitheatres was considerably more than Magerius paid. The magistrate usually was obliged to put money into a local building project, regale his fellow citizens with a slap-up banquet, or pay for a set of games to be staged locally. Thus a citizen of a minor town, such as Althiburos, who attained the aedileship of his community (among the most junior of municipal offices) might expect to have to pay 500 denarii: At the other end of the scale, the successful priest of the imperial cult in a cosmopolitan metropolis such as Carthage, Utica, Hadrumetum or Lepcis Magna, could expect to have to pay at least ten times as much, usually much more.
When one examines the actual amount that Magerius was asked to pay, i.e. 2,000 denarii, it is clear that it was below the uppermost range of prices and thus could not have occurred in a cosmopolitan metropoleis. Thus both Hadrumetum (Sousse) and Thysdrus (el Djem) are ruled out, since by the early 3rd century AD both cities were metropoli of the first order. Thus a city of importance, but not pre-eminence, is what we are looking for: Thapsus or Leptiminus both fit the bill, for both had an amphitheatre that was in use at the time of the mosaic's construction.
There is another reason too: Magerius was doubtless engaged in the growing of olives and the export of its oil. The oil would have been transported overland in animal skins before being put into amphorae at the port from where it was shipped abroad. Leptiminus is the closest of the nearby ports, only 20 km from Smirat. Leptiminus is also well known as a major centre for the production of amphorae. Finally a local road passes within a few kilometres of Magerius' villa and it leads directly to Leptiminus. Thus, two lines of argumentation, one based upon the fees for magistracies and the other based upon agricultural production, point to Leptiminus as the probable location where the spectacle took place.
But what do we know about the Telegenii, who actually put on the games? The spectacles in the amphitheatres of North Africa were overwhelmingly venationes (wild beast hunts) with few gladiatorial contests attested. This mosaic is a very rare record of the actual sums paid for animals used in the spectacles. It also identifies the Telegenii. They are a well-known professional guild very widely attested iconographically in North Africa. They ranged from the Roman colony of Thamugadi (Timgad) in Numidia to the Carthage region and to the south-eastern littoral of Africa Proconsularis and in Thysdrus itself. These professional guilds were closely regulated by the Romans to prevent subversive secret political associations from forming. Such guilds were always organised along quasi-religious lines with a patron deity, a special emblem and a special number. The Telegenii honoured the god Bacchus/Liber Pater as their patron: he presumably is the figure, shown upside-down in the top right corner of the mosaic. He has an emblem, a crescent on a stick (depicted on the mosaic) accompanied by ivy. The Telegenii used this same crescent on a stick motif; often it formed the central stroke of the Roman numeral three (III), their lucky number.
The Telegenii supplied not only the professional hunters but also the leopards for the hunts. Leopards were readily available throughout the North African provinces in antiquity; their solitary lifestyle and agility at climbing trees enabled them to exist on the verges of ancient civic territories as well as in more remote habitats. But were they wild leopards, or had they been bred in captivity? All great cats breed well in captivity. Two further pieces of evidence support this conclusion. All four of the leopards wear a garland, and no truly wild leopard would allow itself to be garlanded with ivy or millet.
Similarly the instinctive behaviour of a leopard would force it to cower in the deepest shadow provided by the arena wall and to remain there motionless until forced to move. Captive breeding/rearing would enable the leopards to be trained specifically to perform more dramatically in the arena.
Yet the mosaic is not just a record of an event: there are also ritual overtones. The most obvious reason for Magerius spending such a vast sum of money on such a large polychrome figured mosaic was to perpetuate and commemorate his moment of supreme glory, his '15 minutes of fame'. This would also form a kind of immortality as well as a physical token of the power and wealth so valued in the inscription on the mosaic.
The events depicted are not simply an entertainment for Magerius' fellow citizens. They represent a religious spectacle: the leopards Crispinus and Victor are festooned with millet, the iconographic symbol borne by the goddess Diana, while the leopards Romanus and Luxurius are bedecked with ivy, closely associated with the heroically naked figure of Bacchus/Liber Pater. And it is not just the leopards who are adorned in this fashion for along the collar of Hilarinus' tunic are embroidered four stalks of millet, possibly indicating that not just the leopards but also the hunters themselves are consecrated to the gods. The profuse outpouring of blood from the leopards onto the soil, so graphically emphasised in this mosaic, is surely an important aspect of this spectacle: the blood sacrifice to ensure the fertility of the following season.
Bacchus (often in North Africa conflated with the god Liber Pater, himself often linked with the Punic god Shadrapa), the patron god of the Telegenii, was the god of vegetation, particularly the sap of life, as for example the juice of the grape. As such he formed part of the pantheon of vegetation gods who flourished, died and were reborn reflecting the cycle of the crops. Tigers, panthers and leopards often formed part of his entourage, particularly in the myth of his triumphant progress through the exotic eastern lands of India in a chariot pulled by felines. Diana was the goddess of the hunt and as such is often found closely associated with both the amphitheatre and its spectacles, especially the venationes.
The Greek Artemidorus of Ephesus, writing in the latter half of the 2nd century AD, compiled a book about the interpretation of dreams. According to his expertise, if you dreamt that you were in the arena fighting against wild beasts, this was nothing to be worried about
. For this meant that, if a slave, you would soon receive your freedom, and if freeborn, you would soon become rich. Magerius probably did not dream about hunting leopards in the arena, but he certainly had his own personal dreams of power and wealth, which came true in the amphitheatre. It was a moment to commemorate in mosaic, and to treasure for the rest of his life.
Wouldn't Magerius have been pleased if he could have envisaged that we would still be celebrating his great day, 1800 years later!
The full article inlcluding all the glorious illustrations is in Current World Archaeology 25