The Lure of the Arena

Garrett G. Fagan

The one book The Lure of the Arena most reminds me of is Kraut and Resnik with their volume about online architecture, if you could somehow believe that. Each are an academic volume which claim to be about one thing, by their titles if anything else, yet throughout have only the surface pretensions of interest in it all. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn in this book, and then you’ll be surprised by how much you didn’t learn about the social life of the coliseum. The depths and desperations of the Roman Arena only take up a small, and comparatively uninteresting, part of this book.

Fagan’s subtitle here is “social psychology and the crowd at the Roman Games,” which highlights his core hypothesis. It is less a cogent point or new assertion and more of a question: what was the extent of interest in the Roman coliseum by Roman society, and what were the social dynamics which made the crowds and audiences at these games give their social acceptance, to what could charitably be described as violent bloodsport? Of course, social psychology is not a very easy thing to do for a historical subject, so radically gone these past two millennia. Thus, Fagan compensates for a lack of empirical inquiry by interrogating the phenomenon of crowd dynamics at the Roman games from every possible angle. ... and every possible angle is then tried. This is what gives the book its varied, smorgasbord-like flavour, with each new chapter being about something most unlike what came before it, and the Roman Arena itself merely a fleeting image which is chased through–or perhaps away from–these various topics.

Sadly, its not a perfectly safe read, and not just because the “catalogues of cruelty” may document a traumatic path through the injustices of a bloodthirsty past. Ironically, it is precisely when Fagan tries to interrogate the central subject matter of the social psychology of crowd dynamics, when he is at his weakest. As a book published in 02011, many of the psychological bases which he underwrote his theories on crowd dynamics, namely the “Robbers Cave” experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, would later be proven as academic frauds by journalists who attempted to re-investigate the original datasets of the experiments in 02017 and 02018. (Only two in a whole slew of fraud accusations which would beset the field of social psychology during its “replication crisis.”) While Fagan did not have the advance knowledge that these experiments were fraudulent, he did at least note in his own retelling that both experiments always produced wildly different results on each separate replication attempt. But hey! While it lasted, at least they made for some pretty good stories, right? ... right?

At the end of it all, Fagan is not able to answer the question why the Roman Games were accepted by their historical peers. All he could do was pose the question, and pose it quite vigorously. So dedicated is he to asserting it as a question that Fagan even went out of his way to rule out what might seem like simple and easy answers. I expected within this book some section which may have revisited the scapegoating theories of René Girard which had so enchanted me ages ago, yet even that hypothesis was ruled out as a matter of course. While many of the munera featured public executions of socially-ostracized noxii, even down to how many of the historical accounts of the munera were from the perspectives of persecuted-soon-martyred Christians, a strange detail is present in the historical record that most modern readers tend to skip over: public executions were usually the least popular aspect of the Roman Games, even by the standards of the historical period. Most accounts of the Roman Games came from people who did not have the privilege of attending them regularly, thus compelling them to observe for the entire day and not—as the others did—come and go to the specific events that interested them. For the executions of noxii, the arena was mostly empty and without many spectators in the cavea; the grim business of state punishment rendered too dull and boring when compared against the exotic animal shows and the much-advertised bouts between professionally-trained gladiators. Even the simple reasons for why a crowd would elect to attend a gladiator battle, or even a sporting match in general, is also a question where some answers are surreptitiously ruled out. Of relevance to Girard, and many theorists of media and fiction writing, is the Aristotelian idea of catharsis: the feeling of expurgation and pathos to come as a result of a properly-done theatre-based ritual. Catharsis has become the explaining factor for everything in both the ancient and modern world about why people indulge in listening to stories as entertainment, but Fagan disagrees. To him, the catharsis hypothesis has no empirical basis, as people can be often viewed leaving things like movies and sporting events feeling more wound-up and excited than when they entered. It’s a simple observation that I’ve so curiously ignored until it is pointed out. ... but even if it is so easily disproved, Fagan alone offers no functional alternative to replace it.

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  • ISBN: 978-0521185967

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