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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 348-349

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Book Review

Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome

Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome.Richard C. Beacham. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; pp. xii + 306. $35.00.

Richard Beacham seeks to provide, in the words of his introduction, "a 'theatrical history' of Rome from the last decades of the Republic to the death of Nero" (x). "Theatrical history" for Beacham includes not only all kinds of spectacle--theatrical performance, gladiatorial and similar games, the circus, triumphs, and funerals--but also what he describes as the increasing "theatricalization" of Roman society from the rise of Pompey through the Julio-Claudian era. Beacham argues not only that spectacles became ever more important in these years, but that public life in general became more and more like a theatrical performance. The various steps in this progression form the central themes of Beacham's narrative: the use of spectacle by the competing aristocrats of the Republic, climaxing in the massive productions sponsored by Pompey and Caesar; Augustus' remarkable sense of theatre; the failure of Tiberius and Claudius to make effective use of spectacle; the theatrical megalomania of Caligula; and finally the ultimate spectacle of Nero, himself an actor on stage.

Beacham has provided a valuable service, bringing together much scattered material from ancient and modern sources into a highly readable and coherent account. He is at his best in his lucid descriptions of specific spectacles and places for spectacles: Pompey's theatre, Augustus' funeral, the murder of Caligula, Nero's Golden House and trip through Greece. Twenty-eight illustrations, including some original drawings by Jerry Glover, enliven the text.

Nevertheless, the book is disappointing in many respects. Beacham relies heavily on the interpretations of others and too seldom provides original insights into the events and trends he describes. When he does venture his own generalizations, he [End Page 348] is often unpersuasive. It does not seem to me, for example, that Caesar was as innovative as Beacham suggests in making himself "part of the spectacle" at the games: as presiders, magistrates would have been on display from time immemorial. Beacham's suggestion that Augustus encouraged the development of pantomime to unite elite and lower classes is intriguing but unfounded. The somewhat half-hearted attempt to attribute a political motivation to Nero's theatrical performances fails to convince. Some of Beacham's conclusions rely upon unwarranted assumptions about Roman society. Why should we assume, for example, that only upper-class spectators appreciated the refinements of pantomime (144)? Parallels from modern society (sport, popular music) prove that even the most uneducated can be connoisseurs of spectacle.

Following the lead of such scholars as Shadi Bartsch, Beacham repeatedly uses theatrical metaphors to describe the government of the principate. Sometimes these metaphors are quite insightful: Augustus as the "emperor-impresario," for example, and the attempts of Agrippina and Nero to "impose a script" on each other. Elsewhere, however, the theatrical imagery seems merely clever and unhelpful. Can Nero's violent nighttime excursions through Rome really be described as "street theatre" (201)? Sometimes the insistence on the importance of spectacle is not only strained but misleading. Caligula was murdered because of his erratic cruelty, not, as Beacham claims, because he overstepped the limits of imperial theatricality.

Beacham's narrative leaves many fundamental areas unexplained. The reader does not finish the book with a greater understanding of the most important--and strangest--theatrical genre of the empire, pantomime. Beacham proposes cogently (again following others) that public spectacles replaced assemblies as outlets for popular sentiment in the principate; but aside from citing anecdotes, he offers little analysis of just how this outlet may have worked. On several occasions Beacham refers to the performance in games by members of the senatorial and equestrian class, but he fails either to explain this astonishing phenomenon or to distinguish between voluntary participation in such events and coercion by the emperors.

Beacham is careful to point out in his introduction the problems with our evidence for this period, and he presents balanced and thoughtful responses to a number of thorny...


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