As Brazil prepares itself for the World Cup this summer, furor is building over the hosting of the 2022 World Cup (the one after the one after this one). Qatar won hosting rights back in December 2010, but ever since the international community has debated both the transparency of the original competition and the medical risks of playing – and watching! – sport in 50 degree heat.
In fact, the World Cup is not the only international sporting occasion of 2022 whose host is unclear. It has recently been revealed that the Commonwealth Games is struggling to find willing host countries, with the high cost cited as a contributory factor to the lack of volunteers. Normally the vast cost of hosting such an event is judged worth the international prestige and recognition. But in the current financial climate the value is apparently being questioned.
These modern concerns provide a lens to study spectacles in the Roman world. Games in the Roman provinces, involving theatrical shows, racing, and gladiatorial combat, were usually hosted and paid for by members of the local elite, sometimes risking bankruptcy, because of the opportunities for recognition and renown they offered men running for public office. But the 3rd C “Magerius mosaic” from Smirat in Tunisia seems, at first look, to cast doubt on this picture.
The mosaic shows four gladiators fighting four leopards. Both gladiators and beasts are individually named, so these may be celebrities; Cristiano Ronaldo toying with Pudsey. Most interesting is the central figure carrying a tray with four bags of money. The Latin on either side of him announces that at the completion of festivities, a herald has asked that somebody pay the Telegenii, who have provided the beasts and fighters. The price is 500 denarii per leopard. The crowd has taken up the call, goading the local bigwigs to pay up. Then Magerius has sent in his representative with four bags, each containing 1000 denarii – double the requested figure. His extraordinary generosity is, predictably, praised by the crowd.
This suggests that the event was put on without a guaranteed financial backer. A risky procedure – it’s hard to imagine the World Cup being staged on a similar basis. It also raises a number of troubling practical issues, about preparations beforehand. So many, in fact, that it seems unlikely this post-payment ever occurred. Like the 2022 World Cup, perhaps we should be suspicious of this bidding process.
A more likely scenario emerges if we consider the medium on which this message is recorded. This is a mosaic, likely paid for by Magerius himself, preserving in a permanent medium a necessarily temporary occasion. It was designed for display, probably in a dining room (since the images face outwards on three sides, where diners could have reclined looking in). The mosaic is an ostentatious demonstration of Magerius’ generosity. Moreover, he has paid double the requested amount. Is it not more likely that Magerius orchestrated this theatrical gesture where he rescued the town in order to be seen as more generous than his fellow townsmen? Or even that he has simply memorialised the event in this way, however he actually paid for it?
Whatever the truth, to earn the good reputation he clearly craved Magerius will have had to be as concerned for the wellbeing of his spectators as the modern opponents of a Qatar World Cup. The summer sun in North Africa wouldn’t fall far short of Qatar’s, and the hosts of Roman games needed to take precautions to protect their spectators from its worst excesses. This was often done via vast awnings fixed atop amphitheatres to provide shade. But rather more ingeniously, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Australian Open where “misters” pumped cooling air onto grateful tennis fans, Seneca tells us about “a means of spraying saffron perfumes to a tremendous height from hidden pipes, [which] fills or empties channels in one sudden rush of water… (Letters 90.5)”
It remains to be seen whether Sebb Blatter’s FIFA prove kinder organisers than Caligula, who famously removed the awning from the Colosseum and left his fellow Romans to bake in the afternoon sun (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 26.5).