The Roman arena is often described as an exotic or peripheral institution. Alternatively, it has been seen as a culturally central institution. In this case one traditionally assumes either that the arena is used to pacify the lower classes or that it expresses themes of violence at the heart of Roman society. In the first view the arena's politics are cynical; in the second they are often described as decadent or full of despair. While none of these readings should be neglected, this essay argues that the arena can be examined as a productive institution which helps in the maintenance of Roman social relations from the top to the bottom and from the violent to the banal. When viewed in the light of Louis Althusser's idea of the ideological state apparatus, the arena can be read as political and psychological without recourse to notions of cunning calculation or psychic crisis. The arena is not only normal, but it participates in the production of normativity. This study pays particular attention to the ways in which the arena enables a specific kind of vision of the Roman world. In this vision the Roman nobiles in general and, later, the emperor in particular are reaffirmed as legitimate authorities: the rulers perhaps need the arena more than does the mob. The arena is also a locus at which the relations of domination which subsist between Rome and its subjects and between the sexes are reproduced in both the social and theatrical senses: the arena stages culturally vital spectacles. Indeed the export of the arena into the Roman provinces also entails the exportation of the Roman social structures which the arena serves. The Romanness of the arena is in fact so pervasive that even many of the hostile appraisals of the arena which come to us from antiquity reproduce the hierarchical social vision which the arena enables even as the institution itself is repudiated. Accordingly all representations of the arena need to be read within the logic of the arena itself. The ideology of the arena has no outside.
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Erik Gunderson; The Ideology of the Arena. Classical Antiquity 1 April 1996; 15 (1): 113–151. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/25011033
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