Tuesday, August 20, 2019


Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire. Townsend lectures / Cornell studies in classical philology. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 328. ISBN 9780801456886. $45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols, Georgetown University (Marden.Nichols@georgetown.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

In July 2017, news broke that an extraordinary Roman tomb, with the longest epitaph ever found, had been discovered near the Porta Stabia, a gateway to the ancient city of Pompeii.1 This funerary monument of an unnamed city magistrate celebrates the role of the deceased in sponsoring gladiatorial contests, which are mentioned in the inscription and depicted in a large and lively marble frieze, long since a part of the Naples Archaeological Museum and now recognized as belonging to the tomb (MAN inv. 6704, Dunbabin fig. 7.4). Much of the press coverage to date has focused on the epitaph's corroboration of Tacitus' account of riots (c. 59 CE) in the Pompeian amphitheater (Annales 14.17). For students of Roman art, culture, and social history, however, such a tour de force of posthumous self-presentation offers much more to explore. As analysis of this remarkable discovery proceeds, scholars will benefit enormously from the timely appearance of Katherine M. D. Dunbabin's Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire, a magisterial evaluation of how entertainments of various kinds were depicted across the visual arts, over hundreds of years and throughout the Roman empire.

Artistic representations survive for all of the most popular varieties of Roman theater and spectacle. Yet the frequency with which they appear in the material record, the iconographic conventions that govern their representation, and their regional and temporal distribution vary widely. Dunbabin's monograph, the fruit of decades of careful research and synthesis, should be the first port of call for anyone interested in locating individual works of Roman art on theatrical or spectacular themes within their broader art historical context. Throughout the book, Dunbabin elegantly summarizes the history, parameters, and geographic distribution of each type of entertainment before delving into its iconography. While her treatment is selective, rather than exhaustive, the breadth of information reviewed and synthesized is truly magnificent. Readers of this substantial work will be rewarded, on every page, with both new insights about specific objects and careful bibliographical documentation. Moreover, Dunbabin's study raises important questions about the use of works of art as documentary evidence: When and why can we hazard that a representation is meant to commemorate a particular occasion, such as a performance or contest? How much should two-dimensional images be trusted to convey a sense of the visual experience of ancient spectacle? Should the prevalence or absence of artistic representations be interpreted as an index of the frequency with which such entertainments were staged? On many occasions, Dunbabin judiciously avoids definitive answers to these questions. After all, the materiality of performance is, by definition, ephemeral and thus frustratingly difficult to reconstruct. Nevertheless, one of the many virtues of Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire is the author's unwillingness to gloss over the thornier aspects of her topic; the stakes and ramifications of studying this corpus of material are always in full view.

In Chapter 1, which functions as an introduction to the book, Dunbabin outlines, in broad strokes, the differences between the entertainment cultures of the Greek East, where competitive agones showcased performances ranging from foot races to concerts, and those of Rome and the Latin West, where there were two major originating contexts, the munera, for gladiatorial games and animal hunts, and the ludi, for most everything else. These distinctions are essential background to Chapter 2, which traces the movement of agonistic imagery from East to West over the duration of the Roman Empire. Central to the argument are works of art in which the constituent parts of a typical Greek agonistic festival, including athletic, musical, and theatrical scenes, appear collectively. (Readers of this book who have not spent time with Dunbabin's 2006 article on the round, disk-shaped objects with projecting knobs that seem to have indicated the progress of a play through its various acts will want to read that earlier piece, because Dunbabin's identification of these objects with theatrical spectacle is a lynchpin for the identification of many scenes.2) Few of these pan-theatrical and -spectacular compositions survive. Nevertheless, analysis of their distribution supports what becomes a sustaining argument of the monograph: that in the Greek East, where high-status individuals participated in agones themselves, theater and spectacle were absorbed into the visual culture of monuments and public spaces, while in the Latin-speaking West, where the elite kept such festivals at arm's length, participating merely as patrons and spectators, this iconography was considered appropriate for humbler or more private settings, such as tavern floors and domestic interiors (31-32).

Chapter 3, on the "traditional theater," is chiefly concerned with depictions of performance, rather than with the theatrical motifs and evocations of stage sets that appear across Roman mosaics and wall paintings of many periods. Scenes of comedy are far more prevalent than scenes of tragedy. When the playwright responsible for the drama in question is identifiable, it is often Euripides or Menander. Owing to Dunbabin's stated focus on the second to fourth centuries CE, the old chestnut of ancient Roman wall painting's relationship to scaenographia and stage design, for which the richest trove of evidence predates the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, is only briefly addressed. Dunbabin argues that images of performances in progress "act as assertions of culture and devotion to the Greek classics," rather than as records of or responses to contemporary stagings (62). Nevertheless, she credits a vigorous performance culture with inspiring the vogue for theatrical scenes in Roman houses during the second and third centuries CE (82-83) and interprets the large number of illustrations in the Vatican Terence as proof of the continued vibrancy of traditional theater into the fourth century CE (77).

In the next chapters, it becomes clear that the equation between frequency of performance and prevalence of representation is not a fixed one for Dunbabin. Pantomime, the subject of Chapter 4, was mythologically themed rhythmic dancing, often by a solo performer. Imperially commissioned pantomime performers, who travelled to the provinces as "a means of cultural diffusion," help convince Dunbabin that the cultural significance of pantomime was roughly similar to that of more conventional tragedy, from which it could be difficult to distinguish (109-110). Mime, discussed in Chapter 5, refers to a loosely related group of entertainments, often unmasked, which could feature female performers. Unlike tragedy, comedy, or pantomime, mime did not bear connotations of cultural education and was instead stigmatized as vulgar, regardless of how many persons of high status might be seated in the audience. During the Empire, pantomime and mime far outstripped traditional comedy and tragedy in popularity (53), yet their depiction in the visual arts is rare. Dunbabin offers two possible reasons for the discrepancy: either these types of performance were considered less amenable to depiction (96), or they were illustrated more often than we can discern. For example, sometimes pantomime performers can be identified by their closed-mouth masks and the long hair knotted atop their heads, but not all pantomime performers are thus portrayed, and not all figures endowed with such features relate to pantomime (91-94). Mime, if one looks beyond a few recognizable stock characters, presents even greater challenges to identification: how can a group of co-ed performers, unmasked and lacking distinctive costumes, be easily distinguished from any other group of figures? (120)

For Chapters 6 and 7, Dunbabin moves from what may broadly be called theatrical entertainments to feats of strength, speed, and violence. Images of circus races and charioteers, the subject of Chapter 6, are among the most popular subjects in all of Roman art. The images are of two main types: figures of individual charioteers and/or horses and more complex scenes of races in progress, the latter of which are most commonly seen in mosaics. Whereas in Greece, wealthy owners entered chariots in their own names, in Rome, chariots were sponsored by the state in the person of the magistrate (138-139). Dunbabin locates numerous portrayals of the rivalry among the Blue, Green, Red, and White factions (organizing bodies), around which chariot-racing fans rallied. Across the material record, some drivers and horses are identified by name, suggesting the representation of individual persons, animals, or events, though in many cases the names may be conventional, or even allegorical (158-160). By and large, Dunbabin argues, chariot racing scenes and motifs in Roman houses do not commemorate specific events. Rather, this d├ęcor was emblematic of inclusion within the social circles of the magistrates who sponsored and organized the games (155).

Amphitheater spectacles, the topic of Chapter 7, originated in funerary contexts and showcased the power of the editor who produced and financed the spectacle. As in the case of circus-imagery, Dunbabin deems the large quantity of surviving images of gladiatorial contests and wild beast hunts an index of the popularity of such events (176). One striking difference between images of amphitheater spectacles and circus races, however, lies in the representation of architectural features within the composition. While it is customary for depictions of horse races to include the built structures of the track, amphitheater architecture does not receive the same attention. Sometimes doors in an arena wall are illustrated, but seldom anything more (229). Dunbabin notes that funerary monuments of gladiators display little sign of embarrassment at their occupant's low social status and take special pride in identifying the specialty of the deceased (for example, as a thraex or a murmillo [187]). These categories of fighter persist over a vast expanse of the Roman empire, from the reign of Augustus to the third century CE (226). While some representations of gladiatorial shows or animal hunts were undoubtedly commissioned to memorialize the staging of particular spectacles on distinct occasions, the images themselves are not illustrations from life, but rather conventional, schematic compositions, even if adjusted to convey individuality.

The final chapter reveals aspects of continuity during the period of transition to Christianity. While the late Empire saw the demise of gladiatorial contests almost everywhere but the city of Rome itself, many elements of the age-old festival culture endured. Jonas Barish famously identified the Christian authors Dunbabin scrutinizes in this chapter, including Tertullian and John Chrysostum, as well-springs of an "anti-theatrical prejudice," which he traced in an unbroken line from classical antiquity to his own time.3 Though Dunbabin does not engage directly with this strain of criticism, she provides some important correctives to Barish's narrative: by comparing images with texts, Dunbabin demonstrates that the church fathers inaccurately portrayed contemporary entertainments as uniquely lewd and debased, and that the voices of these men were not nearly as representative of prevailing opinion as is sometimes believed.

Throughout the book, Dunbabin's prose is thick with visual analysis, and both her notes and images are geared towards fellow scholars. Thus more familiar photographs, such as the athlete mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla, have been left out in favor of less widely published works of art, some of which, like the spectacular mosaics from Wadi Lebda, have been discovered only recently (193-194). The apparatus is extensive and generous, which facilitates the use of this book by scholars and students pursuing a wide range of subjects. Dunbabin's exhaustive research and careful distillation of key themes and trends make her book an invaluable resource that will stand the test of time.


1.   la Repubblica
2.   Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. (2006) "A Theatrical Device on the Late Roman Stage: The Relief of Flavius Valerianus," Journal of Roman Archaeology 19: 191–212.
3.   Barish, Jonas. (1981) The Antitheatrical Prejudice. London, esp. 38–65.

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