Beyond Bread and Circuses: The Political Economy of Mass Spectacles in the Western Roman Empire
Beyond Bread and Circuses focusses on large-scale public entertainment, like gladiatorial games and theatrical performances, in the Roman colonies and municipalities of the western Mediterranean from the late Republic to the third century CE. These lavish spectacles provided local notables in smaller communities outside of the imperial capital with a powerful tool to establish a political consensus among fellow citizens. Beyond Bread and Circuses challenges the classic 1976 monograph of French archeologist and historian Paul Veyne (Le pain et le cirque: Sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique), which characterized public benefactions in Rome and the eastern Empire chiefly as a form of reciprocal symbolic exchange. I argue that the architecture, format, and infrastructure of mass spectacles allowed for communications broadcast by members of the local elite, who were able to prime audiences’ behavior and reinforce communal values. While these spectacles were costly to produce, local notables were the ones who stood to profit materially and politically from organizing these events. This system drove competition between neighboring communities and regional rivalries included tangible economic stakes, which may explain why historical sources often describe these spectacles as venues for explosive sectarian conflicts.