When Sports Met Spectacles: Festival Cultures in Roman Asia Minor (15 min)


Tianqi Zhu, University of Cincinnati


By the first century C.E., Asia Minor became the festival hub of the Roman Empire. As the center of Greek sporting activity moved eastward from mainland Greece, Roman spectacles likewise spread widely across the Anatolian provinces. Earlier scholars envisaged a sharp distinction between Roman spectacles and Greek sports, and recent scholarship often accepts that long-established division and focuses either on the eastward diffusion of Roman spectacles as proof of Romanization, or the local continuity of Greek sports as resistance to Roman rule. The simultaneous proliferation of the two festival cultures in civic life and their influence on local identity in their encounter have received too little attention, and it is now time to examine spectacle and sport culture together and within the civic life of particular cities.

Taking Aphrodisias as a case study and using both epigraphy and archaeology, I investigate the relationship between Greek sports and Roman spectacles and their influence on local identity building in one civic setting. I argue that the two seemingly disparate festival cultures not only coexisted with each other and flourished with great popularity, but also composed an intense cultural entanglement, together constituting one coherent component of civic life. For example, local priests of the imperial cult not only held gladiatorial combats but also organized traditional agonistic contests. Moreover, the unique architecture of the stadium—the double sphendonai—made it suitable for staging both types of games. In this way, the cultural interaction between sports and spectacles represented an ongoing discourse between imperial ideology and local agency in Aphrodisias. Their synchronous proliferation enabled the citizens to repeatedly congregate, commemorate, and celebrate a common lived experience, thus cultivating a collective Greco-Roman identity.