Thursday, February 14, 2013

Domitian's Terrifying Dinner

It always surprises me how little we know about the history of our own profession. I did not know much myself until after I stopped producing shows a few years ago and finally found time to look at some history. Knowing what I do now, I would have to say that we are only barely beginning to scratch the surface of creativity, especially when it comes to comparing ourselves with ancient event producers and what minimal "raw materials" they had to work with.

The emperor Domitian

I'm going to begin these visits to the past with an example of a Roman theme dinner that was created by the notoriously paranoid and cruel emperor Domitian in or around 88 or 89 CE, and to which he invited leading senators and other VIPs to commemorate Romans lost in the Dacian War. The account by the Roman writer Cassius Dio provides a good description:

"On another occasion he entertained the foremost men among the senators and knights in the following fashion. He prepared a room that was pitch black on every side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of the same colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests alone at night without their attendants. And first he set beside each of them a slab shaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest's name and also a small lamp, such as hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered like phantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took up their stations at their feet. After this all the things that are commonly offered at the sacrifices to departed spirits were likewise set before the guests, all of them black and in dishes of a similar colour. Consequently, every single one of the guests feared and trembled and was kept in constant expectation of having his throat cut the next moment, the more so as on the part of everybody but Domitian there was dead silence, as if they were already in the realms of the dead, and the emperor himself conversed only upon topics relating to death and slaughter. Finally he dismissed them; but he had first removed their slaves, who had stood in the vestibule, and now gave his guests in charge of other slaves, whom they did not know, to be conveyed either in carriages or litters, and by this procedure he filled them with far greater fear. And scarcely had each guest reached his home and was beginning to get his breath again, as one might say, when word was brought him that a messenger from the Augustus (Domitian) had come. While they were accordingly expecting to perish this time in any case, one person brought in the slab, which was of silver, and then others in turn brought in various articles, including the dishes that had been set before them at the dinner, which were constructed of very costly material; and last of all came that particular boy who had been each guest's familiar spirit, now washed and adorned. Thus, after having passed the entire night in terror, they received the gifts."

Talk about an experiential event! We love to trigger emotions in modern events, but seldom consider fear as one that our guests would appreciate. I wonder if any of us would be prepared to go as far as Domitian did.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bull Leaping in Minoan Crete: 1700 - 1450 BCE

If there is an ancient mystery that still begs to be solved in the 21st century, none can fire our imagination more than the secrets of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization.

Centred in Crete but living throughout the Aegean Sea, the Minoans lasted some 1500 years, from 2600 to 1100 BCE. These mysterious people have been linked to myths and legends that have been part of humankind’s collective fantasies for centuries, including the lost civilization of Atlantis and the legend of the Minotaur.

Although several major Minoan centres have been discovered, the reason so little is known about them is that their language has yet to be deciphered. This is not unlike the experience with the Mayans, whose hieroglyphs were not decoded until the last part of the 20th century.

The little knowledge available has been gleaned from archaeological discoveries, primarily frescoes, pottery, and jewelry. Much of this has come from the main palace centres in Crete, namely Phaestos, Malia, Zakros, and that of King Minos at Knossos.

The pinnacle of Minoan civilization was reached during the “second palace period” between about 1700 and 1450 BCE, a time when even Egypt was barely in its prime. During this period, religion, art, and architecture coalesced with the construction of beautiful palaces, works of art, and a fascinating mixture of symbols that still defies a complete explanation.

Some of the most interesting symbols and works of art depict what is known as bull leaping. This was a dangerous athletic activity practiced by both males and females, most appearing very youthful.

I have chosen to include this sport in the compilation of spectacles because it was both unique to the Minoans (although the Myceneans picked it up a bit later), and because it was supposedly practiced as either part of a larger religious/sporting event and as a regular public activity that would attract large portions of the population.

In 1900, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated a huge complex of palace buildings near the Cretan capital of Heraklion. It turned out to be the palace of Knossos, at 700,000 square metres more than three times the size of Buckingham Palace, and home to the legendary King Minos, from whom the Minoan civilization takes its name, and a central figure in the myth of the Minotaur.[1]

According to Mcinernery and Castleden, it was subsequently found that bulls were “ubiquitous” on Crete and that there was “evidence of a pervasive preoccupation” with them.[2][3] Some have argued that there was a bull cult, others a religion. Whatever the case, bull leaping was a distinctive part of this. The actual sport was practiced apparently by upper class youth and took place in a large central palace court such as has been found at Knossos, or as some argue, a separate compound close to the palace and designed specifically for it such as at Malia.[4]

We can imagine the scene… 

The lithe, tanned young athlete waited nervously at one end of the massive, tiled courtyard, just beneath the large horns of the sacred bull. He hopped from one foot to the other, trying to loosen his legs and arms. He was clad in high sandals, with a blue and red long loincloth and matching arm bracelets and anklets. His dark hair was tied in a topknot and several long strands hung in ringlets down his back.

The king and the entire city were cheering excitedly from the stands surrounding the courtyard. The magnificent palace of Knossos gleamed behind them in the afternoon sun, its red pillars standing out in counterpoint to its whitewashed walls. This was the culmination of the last week’s sacred games and his performance preceded the final sacrifices. He had to get it right. It was the will of the gods.

Suddenly, from the far end of the courtyard, a snort could be heard, followed by the shaking of the ground under his feet. The massive animal began its charge across the open space. Two girls with a similar appearance ran alongside the bull to try to keep him on course. The athlete started a slow run to meet them and with two skips leapt into the air just as he met the bull in the middle of the courtyard. He missed the bull’s deadly horns by inches but executed a perfect vault over them, landing with his arms on the charging animal’s back. In one swift push he was upright on the ground behind the beast and running to the safety of the surrounding fence as his companions guided the bull to its pen.

The entire crowd stood up and cheered him. His face shone as he bowed to the king. He knew what he had accomplished and its importance. The games were now concluded and the taurine gods happily appeased.

See Figure 1 for a depiction of bull leaping, taken from a fresco found in the palace of Knossos. Figure 2 shows the central outdoor court of the palace where the bull leaping may have occurred.


Figure 1: Bull leaping, from a fresco in the palace of Knossos 

Figure 2: Central court of the palace

Will we ever know if this was the exact sequence or if and why this event even took place? Maybe. For now, my imaginary “bull leap” must suffice.

The sequence I have described is the one that most scholars interpret happened, in other words a frontal “assault” and leap over the bull, essentially with the bull acting as a modern gymnastic vaulting box. However, another interpretation has been suggested and that is that the athlete might have grasped the horns of the animal and used the bull’s subsequent head movement to literally toss him into the air so he would land upright on the bull’s back. Arguments abound as to whether this would even be possible. It seems that more time is still needed to determine what really happened and why.

If there were any legacy to this particular celebration, it would have to be that it has drawn intense interest to the Minoan civilization, and from that we should eventually be able to learn about them. It is also possible, as mentioned by Sakellarakis, that the arena or compound set up for this event was the first in history to be so designed, that is specifically for a game. Indeed, this and other Minoan sports had an eventual influence on the Greek Olympics.

Notes and Further Reading 

[1] Hudson, C. (Oct. 23, 2004). Raging Bull. Daily Mail (London).
[2] Mcinerney, J. (2010). The Cattle of the Sun: Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Castleden, R. (1990). The Knossos Labyrinth: A New View of the "Palace of Minos" at Knossos. London: Routledge.
[4] Sakellarakis, J. (2003). Sport in Crete and Mycenae. The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece: Ancient Olympia and The Olympic Games. Athens: Edotike Hellados S.A. pp. 15-24.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What Was the Legacy of the Roman Triumph?

Possibly nowhere in antiquity is there a more relevant manifestation of the epic, mythical hero’s journey than in the Roman triumph.[i] If the Romans did not make the obvious connection between the exploits of the demigod heroes Achilles from Homer’s Iliad, Gilgamesh from Sumer, or Dionysus from Greek culture, and those of the triumphing general, it would be surprising. After all, these heroes were well known to them by the time of Paulus. Indeed, the attire of the general—including a red-painted face—has been described by writers and debated by scholars as being associated with the god Jupiter. Whether this association was a complete one, in that the Romans actually believed him to be a god, or just a temporary association because of his personal qualities and heroic actions, may never be proven.[ii] The cry, “Io triumpe,” by the soldiers and onlookers was another indication that they either believed he was a god or considered him to be like one because of his heroic feats. The slave at his ear, of course, constantly reminded him that in spite of the accolades he was but a man. Either way, he was very clearly a state hero.

Herein lay a problem. The social status and political influence that attached to the conquering hero eventually led to the triumph changing from a ritual with “primitive religious significance to a political power play and self-advertising spectacle.”[iii] For army generals, gaining a triumph became highly competitive and the route to political power. According to Robert Payne in his book detailing the history of the event,

“The highest honor open to a Roman was the honor of a triumph: for this men fought, intrigued, suffered and died. For the honor of a triumph immense sums of money were expended, innumerable people were needlessly killed, vast treasures were dissipated, and whole countries were laid waste. The economy of Europe, Africa and Asia was mercilessly disrupted, and a hundred cities and a hundred thousand towns were pillaged, so that the conquerors could return laden with plunder to Rome and show what they had accomplished.”[iv] 

Strangely, though, throughout the long history of the triumph, the curious social mores of the Romans demanded a certain reticence from the triumphator to take on a role that held such power. Because of this, the triumphator was forced into a peculiar tug-of-war between the intoxication of fame and the feigned false modesty of not being worthy of such an award. In the end, those who played the game did well. Paulus was one of them. According to all the source writers, he, of all too few, maintained his integrity and his unflinching dedication to the Roman Republic, choosing to remain poor rather than take a larger share of the spoils for his personal gain and the loss of the state. To the populace, he was revered right up to his death, according to Plutarch and others, in spite of continuing as a member of the aristocracy. He was a true hero, achieving greatness in spirit and in action.

Not all to follow modeled themselves after him, and by the time of the Empire the “popular hero” in the form of the army general was far too greedy and self-absorbed. (Could this have been an early start to celebrity culture?) Finally, Augustus, the first Emperor, put a stop to the competitive nature of the triumph by permitting only Emperors to parade victoriously before the people. By then, though, the triumph had become firmly entrenched as a defining feature of Roman culture.

The first legacy of the triumph, then, is the implantation into an entire civilization’s culture of the concept that a human being could complete a hero’s journey and achieve success. He—and the fact that the hero is male is noteworthy—could leave home for a distant land, battle enemies, strange foreigners, or evil forces, and return home to be rewarded. From thence forward it was to be a dominant theme in all western culture.

As author Margery Hourihan states, “It is a story about superiority, dominance and success. It tells how white European men are the natural masters of the world because they are strong, brave, skilful, rational and dedicated. It tells how they overcome the dangers of nature, how other ‘inferior’ races have been subdued by them, and how they spread civilization and order wherever they go…It tells how their persistence means that they always eventually win the glittering prizes, the golden treasures, and how the gods—or the government—approve of their enterprises. It is our favorite story and it has been told so many times that we have come to believe that what it says about the world is true.”[v] Some examples of relatively modern times, both fictional and real, include the likes of Terry Fox, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Christopher Columbus, Yuri Gagarin, and a host of other individuals. One could also argue that it influenced the concept of the American Dream, typical heroes of which include Elvis Presley, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. Potentially, professional athletes could fall under the term “hero” and major professional sports such as ice hockey, golf, tennis, auto racing, baseball, soccer, and American football as “miniature” manifestations of the journey itself. In fact, it has so influenced our own culture that, with a handful of notable exceptions (e.g. Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others), it has not been until recently (i.e. from the mid-20th century) that the white, male characteristics of the hero, along with the dominant theme of condoning physical violence to achieve a worthy goal, have been questioned. Whether the basic story will ever change much, or a changed version wholly accepted by western culture as a result, remains to be seen.

Although modern parades might have had their genesis in much earlier processions as mentioned in the last chapter, it was the Roman triumph that solidified this form of celebration in the world’s consciousness. This is its second legacy.

The first example of this is in the triumph’s relation to religion, specifically Christianity. The apostle Paul wrote his letters to the people of Corinth around 56-57 CE, just near the beginning of the Empire in Rome. He was well aware of the triumph. In 2 Corinthians 2:14 he famously refers to “God, who made us his captives and leads us along in Christ’s triumphal procession.” He further compares the Christian way of life to the smell of temple incense at a triumphal procession wherein “to those who are perishing (i.e. sinners) it is a fearful smell of death and doom, but to those who are being saved (i.e. following the Christian way) it is a life-giving perfume.” Of course, the inevitable comparison of Christ as a triumphator has been made ever since that period, with Christ entering Jerusalem in triumph for the final time. As he entered perhaps he was even mocking the Roman version, representing a humbler triumphator but simultaneously representing God, the king (i.e. the Roman emperor), and the prisoners about to be executed.

These comparisons were not lost on the early popes in Rome. Possibly some, like Gregory the Great who grew up basically on the route of the triumphs in Rome at the time the Empire was disintegrating in the 6th century CE, might have made the obvious connections by pure observation alone. Whatever happened in the years between Constantine, the first Christian emperor in the 4th century CE, and the fall of the Empire, it appears that the papacy adapted many of the rituals and symbols of the triumph. For example, the title Pontifex Maximus originally referred to the chief priest of Roman religion and was conferred on a person other than a ruler. From Augustus onwards the title was part of those given only to the emperor. At some indeterminate date after 376 CE, the title went to the Christian pope, thus relating him with the same person who would be considered a conqueror. Further, the tunica palmata became the alb (the long white vestment worn by priests of today) and the toga picta became the dalmatic (the main colored vestment worn on top of the alb by priests and higher ranking church officials). Part of Papal coronations mirrored triumphal processions.[vi] Even today, the eminently practical and secure “popemobile” can be compared to an absurd offshoot of the triumphal chariot, and a priest’s entry procession into a church to a mini-triumph.

On secular western society, the impact was even more profound. In the historically muddled Middle Ages, from about the 8th through the 12th centuries, triumphal celebrations were sporadic and subdued, primarily taking place in what was then the center of the world, Constantinople. They did, though, begin to diverge from the traditional. As Michael McCormick states in his well-researched book on the triumph in this period, “In addition to the light they shed on the organizational aspects of early medieval triumphs, the records of these celebrations evidence a couple of significant trends. Special ceremonies are staged involving audiences, in that the traditional triumphal parade through the city and the victory races are flanked by a series of more private festivities for the senatorial order and the bureaucracy at large. Secondly, there may have been some movement away from the fusion of civil and military elements which was typical of the late antique triumphal parade.”[vii] Some of these “separate” ceremonies included very large banquets for select guests and, in 879 CE, the emperor Basil was actually crowned in the Hagia Sophia church, perhaps the first time a coronation was attached to triumphal ritual.[viii] 

The real impact of the triumph on secular western culture, however, would not be felt until the Renaissance, roughly between the 14th and 17th centuries. During this period, when the creative genius of artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers like Tintoretto, Rubens, Petrarch, Dryden, Monteverdi, and Leonardo da Vinci was applied to the triumph, the celebrations that emerged were truly spectacular. They set the stage for the elaborate events of the present day.

Notes and Further Reading

[i] According to Joseph Campbell who coined the phrase “monomyth” for this journey, it comes in two versions: a physical trial or a spiritual quest. Although the distinction between the two is not always clear, they both involve three main phases: departure, initiation, and return. Departure deals with the hero's adventure prior to the quest, initiation deals with the hero's many adventures along the way, and return deals with the hero's return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey. See Campbell (2008). Some of the best-known examples of this mythic journey from the time of the Roman Republic or earlier include the Epic of Gilgamesh from about 2700 BCE in Sumer, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad probably written in the 8th century BCE, the god Dionysus’s journeys introduced to Rome around 200 BCE, and Aeneas’s mythical founding of Rome itself, the Aeneid, written by Virgil at the end of the Republican era/beginning of the Empire.
[ii] Beard (2007; pp. 219-256) discusses this at great length.
[iii] See Beard (2007; p. 289).
[iv] See Payne (1962; p. 17).
[v] See Hourihan (1997; p.1).
[vi] See Payne (1962; pp. 211-224).
[vii] See McCormick (1986; p. 150) who covers the subject of the triumph in the Middle Ages very well.
[viii] McCormick (1986; pp. 155-157).


  • Beard, M. (2007). The Roman Triumph. Harvard University Press.
  • Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.
  • Hourihan, M. (1997). Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature. London: Roiutledge.
  • McCormick, M. (1986). Eternal Victory: Triumphal Rulership in Late Antiquity, Byzantium and the Early Medieval West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Payne, R. (1962). Rome Triumphant: How the Empire Celebrated its Victories. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.