Even though that it has already been close to 1500 years, since Rome was sacked by Gothic barbarians, the cultural, political and social legacy of Roman Empire never ceased affecting just about all the aspects of Western living, as we know it. This continues to be the case even today. The soundness of this suggestion can be illustrated in regards to what accounts for the political attributes of ‘Roman Empire’ of modern times – The United States of America.
After all, one does not have to possess extraordinary analytical abilities to be aware of a simple fact that the symbols of America’s statehood closely mimic those of Roman Empire – the Statue of Liberty (dressed in Roman toga), Capitol Hill (Capitolium), Senate, American Eagle (which strikingly resembles Roman Eagle), etc. The resemblances between today’s America and Roman Empire, however, do not only amount to solely external ones.
After all, just as it used to be the case with Roman citizens, during the course of Empire’s decline, more and more Americans grow comfortable with adopting the slogan ‘bread and circuses’, as their lives’ foremost guiding principle. Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that there is essentially no qualitative difference between America’s entertainment-driven mass culture and what used to account for the entertainment-driven mass culture of ancient Romans.
In this paper, I will aim to explore the validity of an above suggestion at length, while exposing the parallels between public spectacles, which used to be held at the Circus Maximus in Rome, and sport-related public spectacles, deeply embedded into the very matrix of American contemporary living.
Ancient Roman historians, such as Livy, used to date the founding of the Circus Maximus back to the Etruscan era – around 600 B.C. Back then, the Circus Maximus was nothing but an essentially 621 meters-long and 118 meters-wide sandy strip, surrounded by a wooden fence. Nevertheless, as time went on, the Circus Maximus never ceased being subjected to a continuous improvement.
By the end of Rome’s Republican era, it became the equivalent of Greek hippodrome, featuring wooden starting stalls and amphitheater-styled rows of spectator seats. It is now being estimated that, even before the Circus Maximus’s architectural structure began to feature concrete and marble blocks, the hippodrome could already seat 150.000-200.000 people, which makes its holding capacities well comparable with the holding capacities of today’s largest stadiums (Goldsworthy 43).
Nevertheless, it was during the reign of Emperor Augustus that the Circus Maximus attained its classical dimensions. Through 50 B.C. – 540 A.D., the Circus Maximus remained a largest semi-architectural creation in the whole world.
The Circus has commonly been used for holding chariot-races in time of ludi (public games, dedicated to Roman gods and organized by Rome’s Emperors/politically influential citizens). Even though that initially, these games used to be held for no longer than for 34 days per year, by the time Trajan had taken over the Imperial throne, the overall duration of ludi was increased to 75 days per year.
The parallels between what used to be the specifics of holding chariot-races at the Circus Maximus and what account for the specifics of holding car-races in today’s America (such as NASCAR, for example) are quite apparent.
For example, just as it is being the case with contemporary car-races, in which drivers compete on behalf of their corporate sponsors, Roman charioteers also used to defend the colors of their teams, sponsored by Rome’s socially prominent citizens: “The traditional four racing stables (or factions), namely the Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens, probably existed as early as the fourth century B.C. Like modern sports clubs, they (factions) traded drivers and possessed official quarters where supporters and others could meet regularly” (Crowther 130).
Thus, there is nothing utterly surprising about the fact, as time went on; chariot-races at the Circus Maximus were being gradually turned into nothing short of an extremely lucrative industry – just as it is being the case with today’s sports of hokey, football, NASCAR racing, etc.
Apparently, one of the foremost motivations behind Roman citizens’ enthusiasm to be present at chariot-races was the fact that, while in the Circus Maximus, they were able to bet money on their favorite charioteers. It is needless to mention, of course, that this accounts for another striking similarity between ancient Roman chariot-races and a number of contemporary sports, capable of gathering huge crowds of spectators.
As we are well aware of, today’s politicians often exploit the most popular sporting events in America to boost the spirit of patriotism in watching audience’s members.
For example, not a single opening of The Super Bowl goes without some popular singer being invited to sing the American National Anthem. The same can be said about the ritualistic aspects of holding ludi at the Circus Maximus. The games’ official opening used to be preceded by a ceremonial march (pompae), consisting of the actual participants (charioteers, gladiators, wild animals).
The Emperor himself often headed this march. While watching the pompae marching procession, spectators were expected to give Roman salutes – hence, showing the strength of their patriotic feelings (Balsdon 316). Moreover, every chariot-race, held at the Circus Maximus, was dedicated to commemorating Rome’s victories over its enemies.
Apparently, the chariot-races, held at the Circus Maximus, were not merely meant to serve the purpose of entertainment, but also the purpose of endowing spectators with the sense of pride, on the account of their belonging to the greatest nation on Earth. This explains why Circus’s spina (barrier between racing tracks) was embellished with the obelisk, dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris.
Given the fact that this obelisk was brought from Egypt, after this country agreed to submit to Roman ruling, having an Egyptian ‘artifact’ displayed on top of spina was meant to symbolize that Rome’s geopolitical dominance simply could not be challenged. This also explains why, on many occasions, the official opening of ludi at the Circus Maximus used to be followed by gruesome executions of barbarian tribes’ captured leaders.
Moreover, these races were also meant to increase the extent of Roman citizens’ loyalty to the Emperors, who used to take an active part in organizing ludi. This was the reason why most Roman Emperors would never skip the chance of being present at the Circus Maximus, during the course of ludi.
By presenting themselves to the cheering crowds, Roman Emperors wanted to show to the citizens that, despite their high Imperial status, they shared the values of Roman living to the same extent, as it was the case with the majority of ordinary Romans: “The Circus Maximus became a general meeting place for emperor and subjects, where the ruler tried to appear as a first citizen among equals, primus inter pares…
The circus became so socially and politically significant that the emperors never closed it on a permanent basis” (Crowther 131). It is needless to mention, of course, that there is an apparent similarity between Roman Emperors’ tendency to indulge in populist socialization with their subjects, while at the Circus Maximus, and many American politicians’ tendency to do the same, while showing up at some popular sporting event.
After all, just as it is used to be a tradition for Roman Emperors to ‘bless babies’, prior to the beginning of chariot-races at the Circus Maximus, the American Presidents, who ‘accidentally’ show up at the Super Bowl game or some other sporting event, also do not skip the chance of ‘holding babies’, in front of cameras.
Another similarity between mass-entertainment, provided to the Roman citizens by chariot-racing, and mass-entertainment, provided to the American citizens by sport-related public spectacles, such as NASCAR racing, is being concerned with the fact that, just as it used to the case with Romans, Americans attend sporting events for a variety of different reasons that do not necessarily relate to sport proper.
Apparently, the factor of socialization plays an important role in attracting entertainment-seeking individuals to sport-related mass events. By finding themselves amidst mind-likes, intellectually marginalized Americans attain an emotional comfort, which lasts well beyond the duration of the actual event. The same could be said about ancient Romans, who used to attend chariot racing.
Nevertheless, unlike what it is being usually the case with today’s Americans, there were strongly defined sexual undertones to how ancient Romans thought of socialization-related opportunities, provided to them by the popularity-seeking Emperors. According to Henderson: “The CM (Circus Maximus) audience came to eyeball displays of manhood in a muscular variety , brinkmanship and bravura, necks on the line… CM was thus made, even more obviously , the place to hunt down women, thanks to imperial legislation.
To get hunted here, women only needed to take their seats, next to men” (50). Therefore, it is fully explainable why; every nine months after the holding of ludi at the Circus Maximus, there would be a dramatic increase to the childbirth rate in Rome.
Nowadays, it would prove quite impossible to reflect upon the realities of American mass culture, without mentioning the phenomenon of ‘celebrities’. After all, it is namely by reporting ‘celebrity-news’ that even America’s mainstream TV Medias are able to dramatically increase the rate of their popularity of with the viewers.
As it was noted by Austin: “Unless you’ve been pushing up daisies for the last several months, you know all about what has been happening with Paris Hilton… One literally cannot get away from the coverage of her life, seen in American news outlets as the most important news of the day” (2007).
Yet, it would be wrong to think that the cult of ‘celebrities’ is an essentially 20th century’s phenomena, made possible by the continuous progress in the field of informational technologies. It appears that ancient Romans were just as obsessed with ‘celebrities’ as many of contemporary Americans are.
There is only one difference – whereas, the majority of American celebrities are movie stars, the celebrities of the Imperial Rome used to be exclusively gladiators and charioteers. Charioteers, who used to compete in the Circus Maximus, enjoyed a particular popularity with the representatives of Roman plebs, because unlike the majority of gladiators, they were free native-born Roman citizens.
Just as it is being the case with today’s movie-celebrities, the most distinguished Roman charioteers were enjoying ‘lives in the fast lane’, while never experiencing the lack of money. So great was the popularity of charioteers with their fans, that upon having heard of their idols’ deaths, many of these fans would simply throw themselves into the funeral pyres.
At the same time, however, many socially prominent Romans remained strongly resentful of most famous charioteers: “Charioteers had their critics among the writers in Rome. Juvenal disapproved of the fast money that they earned, declaring that they could receive up to 10 bags of gold in an hour and more than 100 times what a lawyer could make” (Horsfall 104).
This again allows us to draw a parallel between what used to be the specifics of ‘celebrities’ phenomenon in ancient Rome and in today’s America. After all, it is quite clear to the intellectually advanced Americans that the cult of celebrities, peddled by Medias, is nothing but a symptom of American nation’s degradation – just as the cult of celebrity-charioteers was the symptom of Roman Empire’s imminent decline.
It is important to understand that it was not ancient Romans’ endowment with a particularly strong sport-mindedness, which prompted them to think of attending chariot-races, held at the Circus Maximus, as one of their lives’ foremost priorities, but the fact that, as time went on, they were growing increasingly marginalized, in intellectual sense of this word.
By attending chariot-racing, these people were simply seeking cheep emotional thrills, as there was virtually not even a single instance of chariot-racing, during the course of which at least one charioteer had not lost its life (Kyle 34). It was namely the prospect of being exposed to people’s graphic deaths, which used to attract the representatives of Roman plebs to the shows, held at the Circus Maximus.
Essentially same can be said about the nature of marginalized Americans’ attraction to sport-related public spectacles. Even though that, as of yet, these spectacles do not feature people being purposefully killed for the sake of spectators’ amusement, there are nevertheless good chances for the participants of these shows to sustain life-threatening injuries.
Apparently, just as it was the case with continuously degrading Romans, who used to derive pleasure from being exposed to the sights of human suffering, a growing number of intellectually marginalized Americans also do not think that there is anything wrong about their animalistic anxieties to catch a glimpse of professional sportsmen hurting themselves.
As it was shown earlier, there are indeed a number of good reasons to draw parallels between ancient Roman and contemporary American mass cultures. After all, it is namely people’s preoccupation with seeking cheap thrills, which established objective preconditions for both cultures to thrive.
The difference between American and Roman mass cultures appears merely superficial. Whereas, the symbols of Rome’s cultural decadence were the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus, the symbol of America’s cultural decadence may be well considered the Hollywood.
Therefore, it would only be logical, on my part, to conclude this paper by suggesting that there is nothing incidental about America’s current financial, socio-economic and demographic tribulations. These tribulations were dialectically predetermined by the fact that America continues to follow the footsteps of declining Roman Empire with utter precision. I believe that this conclusion is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis.
Austin, Anastasia. “Why Are We So Obsessed with Celebrities?” Buzzle.Com. 7 Mar. 2007. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. http://www.buzzle.com/articles/why-are-we-so-obsessed-with-celebrities.html
Balsdon, John. Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1969. Print.
Crowther, Nigel. Sport in Ancient Times. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
Goldsworthy, Adrian. How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.
Henderson, John. “A Doo-Dah-Doo-Dah-Dey at the Races: Ovid Amores 3.2 and the Personal Politics of the Circus Maximus.” Classical Antiquity 21.1 (2002): pp. 41-65. Print.
Horsfall, Nicholas. “The Cultural Horizons of the ‘Plebs Romana’.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 41(1996): pp. 101-119. Print.
Kyle, Donald G. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. Florence: Routledge, 1994. Print.