Spectacle and political culture in the Roman Republic

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“A saying of his (L. Aemilius Paullus) was commonly repeated: that a man who knows how to conquer in battle should also know how to give a banquet and to organize the games.” Livy (45.32.11) Roman culture was in many ways a culture of spectacle: spectacle was at the heart of politics and of the Romans' understanding of the identity of their community. Theirs was, therefore, above all, a visual culture, a culture of seeing and being seen, both on special occasions and in everyday life. Consequently, many actions were essentially theatrical, and there was relatively much less of what a modern person would call privacy. Indeed, a person's identity and status took on their full meaning only in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Repeated spectacles, which belonged mostly to recognizable types, reinforced Roman ways of thinking, especially through the power of the (frequently invoked) example (exemplum) and through the relation of the individual to the precedents established by traditional norms (mos maiorum). This culture of spectacle expressed the values of the political elite while at the same time serving as a vehicle for communication between all citizens, as all participated together in celebrating and reaffirming the common values, shared goals, and political institutions of the community. This chapter, using examples involving some members of the ancient patrician family of the Aemilii, explores the various spectacles that became characteristic expressions of life and politics in Republican Rome. Although many Roman Republican spectacles were based on ancient traditions, such as the triumphal processions that derived from earlier Etruscan parades, the nexus of spectacles as a cultural ensemble really emerged at Rome in the later fourth century b.c. The development of spectacle was intimately linked to the rise of the officeholding elite (nobiles), defined by the sharing of political power between patricians and plebeians. Spectacle took on renewed cultural value at the same time as the visual arts developed and was also similar to the visual arts in celebrating the achievements and virtues of this new political class. Consequently, spectacle needs to be appreciated as integral to the stability and success of Roman Republican government and of the community in general.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to
Subtitle of host publicationThe Roman Republic, Second Edition
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781139424783
ISBN (Print)9781107032248
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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