Spectacle Buildings in Late Antiquity

Spectacle Buildings in Late Antiquity
Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Archaeology Department   
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. core article


Abstract:  The paper examines the disappearance of spectacle buildings in Late Antiquity from the territory of the Roman Empire and the reasons that led to it. Is the disappearance of these buildings related to the imposition of Christianity, as the sole religion, or are there other reasons that led to this? An attempt has been made to trace the sources, the historical picture, the material culture of the era, and the existence of parallel facts.

Keywords: Late Antiquity, Late Roman Empire, Rhetoric, Entertainment, Spectacle Buildings


The widespread perception about the disappearance of spectacle buildings, linking it to the imposition of Christianity and their decline in Late Antiquity, throughout the Late Roman Empire, is interpreted as a response to the emergence of Christians and Christian norms. The reason for this is the martyrs of the Christian faith who lost their lives in the arena (Fig. 1). For example, in the middle of the 2nd century in Smyrna, a group of Christians was thrown to the beasts [1]. This constitutes a public execution/ dismemberment by animals – damnatio ad bestias. One reason for such an act is that Christians refused to perform sacrifices[2]. This did not disappear with the declaration of Christianity as the official religion.  Damnatio ad bestias, conducted mainly with Christians, continued to be practiced even after the fall of the Western empire (476)[3]. It used to take place during the reign of Justinian I, but the punishment is canceled during the reign of Phocas[4].

Rhetoric between Gentiles and Christians

According to Christians, the spectacles are “clear and free from ideology”[5], however, their dislike of spectacles is rooted in pagan religious festivals and funeral games (or worship of the dead). They believed that the spectacles were inspired by demons and led people to delusion. The spectacles were dangerous to the ordinary Christian because they were deceptive, seductive and corrupting due to their idolatrous elements (a delight to the eyes and ears)[6]. Tertullian argues that „there is no spectacle without violence to the soul,” and the games inspire in those watching them “madness, grief, anger, and pain” – the opposite of the “calmness, gentleness, tranquility, and peace” by which Christians reach the Holy Spirit[7]. It is clear from Augustine's „Confessions“ that the emotions surrounding theatrical spectacles cause „sore spots, festering and repulsive wounds“ on the soul and that were Christians to observe gladiatorial combat, they could be „struck right in the soul with a mortal wound worse than a gladiator, who strikes the body“[8]. Going to spectacles forces the Christians to have contact with pagans/sinners and unfaithful people[9]. Moreover, in order to get to such a place the Christian must pass through “brothels, through the naked bodies of prostitutes, through indolent lust, through public disgrace, through vulgar sensibility, through the reproaches of every sane person“[10]. Some Christians believed that „to watch a murder is akin to killing oneself.”

Many Christian writers decried the executions of the spectacles in the arena not only as sinful and corrupting but also as useless and wasteful. St. Ambrose (bishop of Milan in the 4th century) considered the spectacles as both a senseless waste of human life and as a misuse of economic resources that could be put to nobler ends[11]. The Christians refused to live the traditional daily life of the ordinary Roman, and because of this were accused of apathy[12]. On the other hand, the pagans accused the Christians of being cannibals because they did not understand the eating of the body and blood of God (the bread and wine)[13]. Novatian and Tertullian argue that Christians don't need pagan spectacles because they have their own, better spectacles to enjoy [14]. Tertullian writes that Christians „have nothing to say, see, or hear in the madness of the circus, the shame of the theater, the savagery of the arena and in the vanity of the gymnasiums.“[15].

Theatrical performances, chariot races and hunting scenes with wild animals were banned on Sundays and holy days, by Theodosius I, in 390 AD.[16] The Codex of Theodosius and Justinian inform us about a law of Constantine I the Great in 325 AD that prohibited gladiatorial contests. However, such contests took place in the 4th century not only in Roma from 390 but also elsewhere on the Apennine peninsula. In the late 4th century, gladiatorial contests were not as popular in Rome compared with chariot races. Following the Vandal attack in 455 AD, thanksgiving games were organized by Pope Leo I (440 – 461).

Entertainment Activities

Although Byzantium is the Roman Empire itself, there are many differences from the former Roman Empire. During the reign of Anastasius I, the two most important forms of spectacle were pantomime in the theatre and chariot racing in the hippodrome [17]. A dancing pantomime was used to be performed in the theatre as Procopius's Secret History mentions. The latter writes that Empress Theodora, when she was a dancer in the theatre, she didn‘t perceive it as something shameful to be naked in front of the audience. The pantomime was so important that banning theatrical performances was regarded as a severe punishment, as happened when Justin I suspended all pantomime performances in the Empire following the great revolt of 522.[18] There was also an uprising in the theatre of Constantinopolis in 501 AD. (The Spectacle Buildings of Constantinople), which cost thousands of lives, as we learn from the chronicle of Comes Marcellinus [19]. There was also an uprising in the theatre of Antioch in 529, after which Justinian banned theatrical performances in the city, a fact reported by Ammianus Marcellinus in his Chronographia[20]. Due to the frequent short-term bans on theatres, the citizens of the empire in the early 6th century were mostly directed to the remaining popular entertainment: chariot racing[21]. The Nika Riots of 532 are the most infamous, when during that time many buildings were destroyed, including the Church of Saint Sophia. There was an uprising in April 550 in Constantinopolis, which is reported in the Chronicle of John Malalas[22]. In 561 in Constantinopolis, followers of the green deme attacked the followers of the blue deme. Justinian ordered the suppression of the revolt, but he failed[23]. The hippodrome was used also during the coronation of new emperors and celebrated military triumphs [24]. Theophylact Simocatta wrote in 602 that there were 1500 “extreme“ green fans/supporters and 900 blue supporters. The Hippodrome in Constantinopolis was in use until about 1200 and was demolished when the Blue Mosque was built in the 17th century.

Chariot races were very popular throughout Late Antiquity, with four teams - blue, green, white and red. It is strange why the government tolerated the violence associated with the races and how the latter were so popular despite the recommendations of the Christian religious authorities. John of Ephesus writes that the hippodrome is „the church of Satan”[25]. John Malalas describes 9 destructions in Constantinopolis, during the reign of Justinian I, which happened due to uprisings that began in the Hippodrome [26]. Thus, it seems that there have been major uprisings every 9 years, and at the same time the Green and Blue factions had not been banned, hence they were tolerated. Perhaps they were not banned because the same factions, besides dragging the crowd with them in uprisings, they used to do the same when the new emperor was crowned on the hippodrome, i.e. motivating the crowd (aclamatio – cheering, greeting). An example of this is the case of Mauricius, who in 602 used the zealots to convince the crowd that Phocas's revolt was not legitimate. The Blue faction supported Mauricius by suggesting that he should defeat his rival, a fact reported in the History of Theophylact. Monograms with aclamatio have been found in Ephesos and Aphrodisias [27] (Fig. 2 – 3). The historian Agathias writes that Justinian I granted to young men (as the zealots mainly were) military rank to “restrain them from misusing their energy and losing their time in wild skirmishes in the turbulent atmosphere of the hippodrome, with its chariot races and popular factions. All of these things have a low influence on the mind of the young.”

In Late Antiquity, venatio (spectacles with beasts) was still popular but the supply of animals posed a problem[28]. These entertainment activities, however, differ from the games held earlier - animals were not killed, and people tried to avoid their attacks. Information about this can be obtained from various diptychs and circus covers (Fig. 4). The more territory the Empire loses, the harder and more expensive it becomes the supply of animals. The last venatio took place in the 6th century, but they no longer had the symbolic or political significance as earlier.  In the West, which does not belong to the Roman Empire at that time, but on its former territory, spectacles did not lose popularity.


The state of research shows an uneven picture of the use of different buildings for spectacles in the 2nd century, including the odeon / bouleuterion (The Spectacle Buildings of Late Antiquity in Bulgaria) (Fig. 5 – 9 ). This is mainly due to research problems. In Late Antiquity the situation is even more obscure because of the lack of summarizing studies. Similar studies exist for Palestine and the Western Roman Empire [29] (Fig. 10 – 11). Information from the Western Empire shows regional differences, while at the present time, evidence from the territory of Bulgaria indicates that the spectacle buildings ceased to function towards the end of the 4th century. (The Spectacle Buildings of Late Antiquity in Bulgaria). An interesting phenomenon that needs further research is the transformation of hippodromes into amphitheaters [30]. The stadium at Philippopolis was originally misinterpreted as an amphitheater, but more recent excavations have uncovered an arcuate wall that limits the area of the trackway (The Spectacle Buildings of Late Antiquity in Bulgaria). Future research could shed light on this issue along with the subsequent fate of the building.

The evidence on the spectacle buildings that have been converted into churches indicates, that there was such a transformation throughout Late Antiquity, but most of the examples are after the beginning of the 5th century and until the end of the 6th century. (Spectacle Buildings from the territory of Bulgaria converted into churches in Late Antiquity).


The disappearance of spectacles during the 4th-6th century was not related to moral or religious norms in the Roman Empire – they disappeared because the Empire did not have the means to display/exhibit them (animals, games, entertainment). Christian opposition was strong, but the historical and archaeological evidence indicates that these buildings and events continued to be carried out despite the widely held view that they disappeared in the 4th century. This is due to the uneven research of the sites in different parts of the Empire, which has led to the misinterpretation of the sites. A curious question, which has not been answered until now is whether there is a connection between the ban on spectacles after the Nika riots and the subsequent “reconquest” of Justinian I? Does the question loom whether the suspended state funding of these buildings had been diverted to fund the Emperor's military campaigns? Only future research could shed light on these question


[1] Carter 2014, 624-626.

[2] Epplett 2014b, 529.

[3] Ibid., 529.

[4] Ibid., 530.

[5] Mammel 2014, 610.

[6] Ibid., 610.

[7] Ibid., 610

[8] Ibid., 610.

[9] Ibid., 610-611.

[10] Ibid., 611.

[11] Ibid., 611.

[12] Ibid., 612.

[13] Ibid., 612.

[14] Ibid., 612.

[15] Ibid., 612.

[16] Harries 2003, 132-135.

[17] Harris 1972, 227-243; Cameron 1976; Bomgardner  2000 (2001), 197-227; Puchner 2002, 304-324; Potter 2011, 308-320; Webb 2011, 221-256; Parnell 2014, 634; Kyle 2015, 329-339.

[18] Parnell 2014, 634.

[19] Ibid., 634-635.

[20] Ibid., 635.

[21] Ibid., 635.

[22] Ibid., 638.

[23] Ibid., 633.

[24] Ibid., 636-637.

[25] Ibid., 633.

[26] Ibid., 639.

[27] Roueché 2007, 64.

[28] Epplett 2014a, 515-516.

[29] Weiss 2014, 227-253; Underwood 2019, 143-150, 159-165.

[30] Dodge 2009, 29-45.



Bomgardner, D. L. 2000 (2001) The story of the Roman amphitheatre (London and New York).

Cameron, A. (1976) Circus factions. Blues and greens at Rome and Byzantium (Oxford, New York).

Carter, M. J. (2014) “Romanization through spectacle in the Greek East” A Companion to Sports and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity. P. Christesen, D. G. Kyle (ed.). (Pondicherry), 619-632.

Dodge, H. (2009) “Amphitheatres in the Roman East” Roman amphitheatres and spectacula: a 21st – Century perspective. Papers from an international conference held at Chester, 16th – 18th February, 2007. T. Wilmott (ed.). BAR International series 1946 (Oxford), 29-45, plate 11-13.

Epplett, C. (2014a) “Roman beast hunts” A Companion to Sports and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity. P. Christesen, D. G. Kyle (ed.) (Pondicherry), 505-519.

(2014b) “Epplett. Spectacular executions in the Roman world” A Companion to Sports and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity. P. Christesen, D. G. Kyle (ed.) (Pondicherry), 520-532.

Hanson, J. W. (2016) An urban geography of the roman world, 100 BC to AD 300 (Oxford).

Harries, J. (2003) “Favor populi. Pagans, Christians and public entertainment in Late Antique Italy” ‘Bread and circuses’. Euergentism and municipal patronage in Roman Italy. K. Lomas, T. Cornell (ed.) (London and New York), 125-141.

Harris, H. A. (1972) Sport in Greece and Rome (London and Southampton). ( (09.03.2022)

Jones, Ch. (2012) „The organization of spectalcle in Late Antiquity“ Entreriens sur l’Antiquité Classique, LVIII. L’Organisation des spectacles dans le monde Romain (Vandœuvres – Genève), 305-328.

Kyle, D. G. (2015) Sports & spectacles in the Ancient World (second ed.) (Chichester).

Mammel, K. (2014) “Ancient critics of roman spectacle and sport” A Companion to Sports and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity. P. Christesen, D. G. Kyle (ed.) (Pondicherry), 603-616.

Parnell, D. A. (2014) “Spectacle and sport in Constantinople in the sixth century CE” A Companion to Sports and spectacle in Greek and Roman antiquity. P. Christesen, D. G. Kyle (ed.) (Pondicherry), 633-645.

Potter, D. (2011) The victor’s crown. A history of Ancient sport from Homer to Byzantium (Oxford).

Puchner, W. (2002) “Acting in the Byzantine theatre: evidence and problems” Greek and Roman actors. Aspects of an Ancient profession. P. Easterling, E. Hall (ed.) (Cambridge), 304-324.

Roueché, Ch. (2007) “Spectacles in Late Antiquity: some observations” Antiquité Tardive, XV – Jeux et spectacles dans L’Antiquité Tardive. N. Duval, J.-P. Caillet, K.-M. Carrié (ed.) (Paris), 59-64.

Sordi, M. (1994) The Christianization of the Roman empire (Oklahoma).

Underwood, D. (2019) “(Re)using ruins. Public buildings in the cities of the Late Antique West, A. D. 300 – 600” Late Antique Archaeology (Supplementary series), volume 3. L. Lavan (series ed.), M. Mulryan (managing ed.) (Leiden – Boston).

Webb, R. (2011) “The nature and the representation of competition in pantomime and mime” Entreriens sur l’Antiquité Classique, LVIII. L’Organisation des spectacles dans le monde Romain (Vandœuvres – Genève), 221-256.

Weiss, Z. (2014) Public spectacles on Roman and Late Antique Palestine (Harvard – Cambridge – London). ( (09.03.2022)


This page is part of the project LABedia: Еncyclopedia of Late Antique Balkans, 4th-5th c.,
financed by the National Science Fund, contract КП-06-Н30/6, 13.12.2018