Sports of the Christian Roman Empire (“Byzantine Empire”) – Part 3

Here we present, in parts, the paper ‘Sports of the Byzantine Empire‘, by Barbara Schrodt (Associate Professor in the School of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, at the time of publication), from Journal of Sport History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Winter, 1981)


The circus factions of Byzantium were important elements in the conduct of chariot races, and differed in a number of significant ways from the racing companies of Rome. By the beginning of the sixth century, the eastern factions were simply four groups of performers and partisans, administered and financed within a single guild of public entertainers. These groups were assigned the time-honoured colours—Blue, Green, Red, and White—that had been associated with chariot racing since the days of the Roman Republic, but they were not independent enterprises as those earlier companies had been. Instead, the Byzantine factions were state-controlled and state-financed groups of performers and fans—in effect, nationalized institutions. Contrary to the traditional view presented by most modern Byzantine historians, the circus factions of the Eastern Empire were not political parties, had no specific religious orientations, did not divide the population along class lines, and represented no particular geographic sections of the capital city. Rather, they consisted primarily of fans of the circus, theatre, and arena, whose boisterousness and hooliganism often resulted in partisan riots associated with these public entertainments. When the imperial state absorbed the factions into the
administrative structure of Byzantine public life, they became a recognized and integral part of the imperial liturgy of the Empire, and thus received sanction and support from the emperor and, with some reservations, from the Christian Church.

The evolution of this phenomenon had its roots in the final period of Hellenistic sport and entertainment. In the middle of the fourth century, the Greek gymnasium disappeared, probably because of financial starvation, Christian anti-pagan pressures, and fundamental changes in public taste and attitudes. Other forms of entertainment continued to flourish, including the pantomime theatre, gladitorial games, venationes, and wild-beast shows; and Greek-style chariot racing was still included in the athletic festivals conducted in the eastem provinces. But by the end of the fifth century, gladiatorial games and venationes had been permanently abolished, and pantomime dancing had fallen towards the end of his reign, the colour factions became prominent in the circus, and demonstrations and riots were associated with all facets of public entertainment. This period coincided with the increase in importance of the emperor as an absolute monarch of near-divine status, and with the inclusion of imperial acclamations in the ceremonies of the hippodrome. The numbers of Blues and Greens increased significantly, following amalgamation, for there had originally been far more theatre partisans than circus fans. In the final stages of this evolution, the Blues and Greens, as the principal factions, were associated solely with imperial ceremonies, both inside and outside the hippodrome.

During the later empire period, the political importance of the Blues and Greens was derived primarily from their role in the ritual acclamations of the emperor, and not as the voice of opposition to authority. With their institutionalization as part of the state administration, the factions effectively forfeited the ancient tradition of parrhesia, or collective freedom of speech, that had been an important part of their Greek and Roman heritage. This is not to say that there were no demonstrations, or that emperors no longer heeded protests when the people of Constantinople assembled in the hippodrome to voice their frustrations in a tightly-controlled and centralized society. But rarely were the circus factions actually responsible for these protests, and factional riots were usually the result of strong rivalry arising from the chariot races as mere sporting events.

Factional riots associated with the races probably decreased to an insignificant level in the seventh century, after the factions had become an established part of the imperial court. They rioted less, if at all, because, as part of the official life of the court, they were now above that kind of behaviour. Thus, while the records give the impression of a decline in the importance of factions, in fact, they had simply attained a more elevated status.

Because the Blues and Greens dominate all accounts of factional activity, it is often assumed that the Reds and Whites disappeared at an early stage in the history of the Byzantine Empire. There is sufficient evidence, however, to show that all four colour parties were included in the imperial ceremonies until at least the tenth century. The colours were paired—usually Red with Green and White with Blue—and these two groups of pairs formed the basic rivalry organized and presented by the guild of public entertainers. We are thus presented with another example of the dualistic nature of ritual sport found in so many early civilizations.

The factions were responsible for the ceremonial performances associated with public appearances by the emperor. Their ritual duties consisted of prescribed acclamations, applause, chants, and hymns, and were strongly influenced by Christian litrugy and purpose. Details of the faction duties were described in the Book of Ceremonies, written in the tenth century by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and this document indicates that these functions were performed as early as the sixth century.

The principal political influence of the Blues and Greens stemmed from their duties at imperial coronations. Not until he had been properly proclaimed by the people in the hippodrome, under the leadership of the Blues and Greens, could a new emperor be installed in office. On occasion, formal proclamation was withheld by the factions for political reasons, but this only occurred at times of serious conflict, and the final resolution of such conflict was actually effected by the leaders of the state, rather than by the circus partisans themselves. Therefore, although the factions had the power to withhold approval of a new emperor, in practice this power was seldom used.

Although chariot racing was the most important sport in Byzantium, and dominates all accounts of sports and amusements in the Eastern Empire, its position of pre-eminence was not reached until the sixth century. Prior to that time, the most popular spectator sports were those of the Roman arena—gladiatorial fights, venationes, and exhibitions of wild beasts. In Constantinople, these events were presented in the arena known as the Cynegion. The last recorded reference to this structure was 537; after that time, such entertainments were probably performed in the hippodrome, either in the intervals between chariot races or as separate programmes.

By the early sixth century, however, these sport forms were no longer being presented. Gladiatorial fights were the first of these activities to disappear; changing tastes, imperial disfavour, and the expense and difficulty of providing gladiators were factors in the demise of this once-popular sport. The last such event in Rome is believed to have taken place in 439 or 440, while in the east, gladiator fights ceased late in the fourth century. Venationes, or fights between men and beasts, lasted longer; Anastasius banned them in the east in 498, and the last recorded presentation in Rome was 523.

However, exhibitions of wild beasts continued to be presented in the Eastern Empire, and an examination of consular diptychs of the period reveals that the particular form of venatio performed in Constantinople during the first decades of the sixth century differed from that seen in the Western Empire at an earlier time.

Consular diptychs were ivory carvings on two hinged panels, sculpted to commemorate
the accession of a consul to office, and were presented as complimentary gifts from the new consul to important personages. A large number were executed for each consul, and many diptychs depicted the consul presiding over public entertainments at the theatre, the circus, or the arena. The lower portion of each panel was filled with figures and scenes from the corresponding entertainment, and these scenes give some insight into the Byzantine style of venatio.

It is apparent, from a study of these diptychs, that the brutality and bloodshed so common in Roman venationes were not features of the Byzantine version. Gone were the heavy armour and shields of the western venator, to be replaced by a variety of devices designed to protect the combatants, both human and animal; and designed, also, to provide lighthearted entertainment for the audience. These scenes suggest the tricks and turns of a modern circus act rather than the deadly combat of the Colosseum.

One leaf of the Areobindus diptych of 506 illustrates methods by which the venator could avoid contact with the animals. Doors at the sides of the arena are held open by attendants in case the unarmed performer or acrobat needs to make a hasty exit. A narrow platform, consisting of two uprights and two crossbars lets the acrobat climb out of reach of the animals. One performer is protected by a high, slatted, mobile barrier or shield. Another performer leaps over an approaching animal with the aid of a vaulting pole, identified by Jennison as the ‘‘Contobolon.” Finally, two men sit in baskets attached to an upright pole and move up and down away from the animals, in see-saw fashion,
with the aid of a rope strung over the top of the pole. Another diptych also depicts the see-saw baskets and vaulting pole; the open doors at each side are obviously intended as avenues of escape, with one performer shown moving toward the door, while the attendant inside is poised to close it quickly with a rope handle.

An unusual device is sculpted into a third diptych. It is a hollow ovoid, large enough to contain a man, and constructed with openings through which he can reach with his hand to tease the animals. Jennison labelled this the “Canisterum’’ and in describing its effect, stated that:

The infuriated animal falls upon it, bowls it fast and far over the arena, amid the laughter of the spectators—redoubled when the uncanny case rolls slowly and steadily back again to attack the baffled enemy. Danger is not eliminated, a leg or arm may fall to teeth or claws, but the risk of death has almost gone.

On the diptych of Anastasius of 517 (a grand-nephew of the emperor), one can see further representations of the slatted barriers, as well as whips and ropes to restrain the animals. It is evident that this form of entertainment was not without hazard, for one performer is being bitten in the leg, in spite of his flailing whip!

Not all wild beast exhibitions were bloodless, however, for a diptych of 507 contains a scene similar to the traditional Roman style of venatio. Four venatores are seen battling lions with spears, and all have succeeded in impaling their animals in decisive fashion. The left shoulders and upper arms of the venatores are covered with a form of protection, and each venator is stationed close to a door, ready to exit quickly if necessary.

These wild-beast fights and exhibitions were common and popular in the Byzantine Empire until the beginning of the sixth century, and by then, most were lacking the ferocity and danger of their western antecedents. Jennison stated that “the Christian religion, though it could not kill the shows, yet managed to soften them considerably.” Chastagnol described the events as ‘‘des jeux édulcorés, simples exhibitions de bêtes, avec simulacres de combats et exercices d’adresse ou d’acrobatie”; that is, sweetened or softened games and sham fights with an emphasis on adroitness and skill.

The enormous expense of providing wild animals, as well as the increasing difficulty in obtaining them, were important factors in the eventual disappearance of this form of entertainment. Thus, by the time chariot racing had reached its peak of popularity, wild-beast fights in the Byzantine Empire had ceased to exist.

(End of Part 3)


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