Under the Republic spectacles were one important way that elites jostled for votes and attention from the Roman people. Under the empire spectacle became something that emperors were eager to control and provide for the Roman people – the “bread and circuses” that the satirist Juvenal speaks of. One particularly lavish form of spectacle was the re-enactment of land and naval battles. Click here for a short selection of readings on these.
Emperors also rebuilt and built structures for spectacle. The most famous of these is the Colosseum, built where Nero had created his private lake for the Domus Aurea. Coins were minted displaying the Colosseum, ensuring its image could spread easily. A page showing the rang of buildings (not all associated with spectacle) shown on coins can be found here. They trained gladiators in their own schools (there were four in Rome), using them in their own games and renting them out to others (here is a list of the various ludi in the city of Rome); they put on spectacles on a never before seen scale, with thousands of humans and animals involved.
The two most famous emperors who had what we might call an overly enthusiastic attitude to spectacles are probably Nero and Commodus (the emperor in Gladiator (2000)). However, all emperors understood the power and appeal of spectacles. Augustus set the tone:
43 1 Augustus surpassed all his predecessors in the frequency, variety, and magnificence of his public shows. He says that he gave games four times in his own name and twenty-three times for other magistrates, who were either away from Rome or lacked resources. He gave them sometimes in all the neighbourhoods and on many stages with actors in all languages, and combats of gladiators not only in the Forum or the amphitheatre, but in the Circus and in the Saepta; sometimes, however, he gave nothing except a fight with wild beasts. He gave athletic contests too in the Campus Martius, erecting wooden seats; also a sea-fight, constructing an artificial lake near the Tiber, where the grove of the Caesars now stands. On such occasions he stationed guards in various parts of the city, to prevent it from falling a prey to thieves because of the few people who remained at home. 2 In the Circus he exhibited charioteers, runners, and beast hunters, who were sometimes young men of the highest rank. Besides this he gave frequent performances of the game of Troy by older and younger boys, thinking it a time-honoured and worthy custom for the flower of the nobility to become known in this way. When Nonius Asprenas was lamed by a fall while taking part in this game, he presented him with a golden necklace and allowed him and his descendants to bear the surname Torquatus. But soon after he gave up that form of entertainment, because Asinius Pollio the orator complained bitterly and angrily in the Senate of an accident to his grandson Aeserninus, who also had broken his leg. 3 He sometimes employed even Roman equestrians in scenic and gladiatorial performances, but only before it was forbidden by decree of the Senate. After that he exhibited no one of respectable parentage, with the exception of a young man named Lycius, whom he showed merely as a curiosity; for he was less than two feet tall, weighed only seventeen pounds, yet had a stentorian voice. 4 He did however on the day of one of the shows make a display of the first Parthian hostages that had ever been sent to Rome, by leading them through the middle of the arena and placing them in the second row above his own seat. Furthermore, if anything rare and worth seeing was ever brought to the city, it was his habit to make a special exhibit of it in any convenient place on days when no shows were appointed; for example, a rhinoceros in the Saepta, a tiger on the stage and a snake of fifty cubits in front of the Comitium.
Suetonius, Augustus 43
His successor, Tiberius, was rather cheap and incredibly reluctant to give any sort of games at all. This resulted in a rise in private games; at one set of games at Fidenae in 27 CE the arena collapsed killing thousands of people (according to one source, 50,000). Tiberius’ heir, Caligula, returned to the days of lavish spectacle.
18 3 Caligula also gave many games in the Circus which lasted from early morning until evening; at one time he’d introduce between the races a baiting of panthers and now the manoeuvres of the game called Troy; some, too, of special splendour, in which the Circus race floor was strewn with red and green, while the charioteers were all senators. He also started some games at random, when a few people called for them from the neighbouring balconies, as he was inspecting the outfit of the Circus from the Gelotian house.
Suetonius, Caligula 18.3
26 4 He treated the other classes with similar disdain and cruelty. When he was disturbed by the noise made by those who came in the middle of the night to get free seats in the Circus, he drove them all out with clubs; in the confusion more than twenty Roman equestrians were crushed to death, with as many matrons and a countless number of others. At the plays in the theatre, he scattered the gift tickets ahead of time to create animosity between the plebs and the equestrians to induce the rabble to take the seats reserved for the equestrian order.
Suetonius, Life of Caligula