Gerasa and the Games under Trajan

Establishment of the first agonistic festival in Gerasa for the salvation of Trajan
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
West end of the stage in the south theatre, Gerasa
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Museum of Gerasa, no. 43 (Jordan)
105 CE to 114 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Rounded pedestal. The top is a double moulded surbase
The pedestal is 90 centimetres in height, and 53 centimetres in diameter. The inscribed surface is 136x36. Letters are 2,5 to 1,3 centimetres tall.
Roman, Greek

Welles, Charles B., The Inscriptions: Gerasa City of the Decapolis, New Haven, American Schools of Oriental Research, 1938, p. 443, no. 192 [SEG 7.825]


A Roman citizen called Titus Flavius Gerrenus received honours in the southern Syrian city of Gerasa. He was praised for being the first president of the first games (ἀγωνοθέτης/agônothetês) in the city and this agonistic motive is fundamental for understanding the rich content of the document.

While the stone is quite damaged from lines 1 to 6, it is possible to restore the name of the organisation behind the approval of this honorific decree (ψήφιζμα/psêphizma) as follows: “the sacred guild of ecumenical, victorious, crowned artists in the service of Dionysus.” This very long series of titles refers to the imperial (hence ecumenical) association in charge of the supervision of performing spectacles in the Graeco-Roman world for which Dionysus, god of the theatre and symposiac inspiration, was the divine patron. As for the references to the crowns (στεφανείται/stephaneitai), these were the awards that victors in sacred agonistic competitions (ἱερονείκαι/hieroneikai) received. This guild of performing artists had already been instituted in the Hellenistic age (see Le Gruen, Les Associations), and its activities continued and even increased during the imperial period thanks to the numerous privileges granted by the Roman rulers (see Millar, The Emperor, p. 456-463). From the emperor, they also received their title “sacred” (ἱερά/hiera): this subordination to imperial power is explicit in our document because the name of Trajan follows that of Dionysos (l. 4). By virtue of the titles of the emperor –namely the appearance of Dacicus but not Optimus or Parthicus– the document can be dated between 105 and 114 CE. The synod, however, did not only care about fostering good relations with Rome, but was also in charge of overseeing provincial festivals in which stage contests were organised (see Petzl, Schwertheim, Hadrian und die dionysischen Künstler). On account of this local concern, the honours for Gerrenus in Gerasa can be explained.

Even if Gerasa claimed to have been founded by Alexander the Great and the Macedonian heritage was still present in the imperial period (Cohen, Hellenistic Settlements, p. 248-253), there are no indications that large constructions for public entertainment were built in the Hellenistic age. This absence is not exceptional but rather the norm in Syria and Palestine (see Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 11-55). The region witnessed its major urban flourishing under Roman rule and the impressive archaeological remains still existing in Gerasa are among the most illustrative proofs of this (see Browning, Jerash and the Decapolis; Raja, Urban Development, p. 137-189). The development of performing venues follows this trend and, indeed, the building of the first Gerasan theatre does not appear to have been completed until Domitian’s reign (see Segal, Theatres, p. 7-12, 75-77). On the podium of what is today called the “south theatre” an inscription was carved for the salvation of this emperor by a Roman veteran called Titus Flavius, son of Dionysos (Welles, Inscriptions, no. 52). The similarity between the nomenclature of this former soldier and our Titus Flavius Gerrenus is not accidental, as both indicate that Roman citizenship had been granted by the Flavian emperors. Consequently, the possibility that either Flavius Gerrenus or his father Flavius Flacus were veterans should not be discarded. If that were the case, their participation in the Jewish war is certainly possible. What remains unquestionable is that this native family granted Roman citizenship belonged to the local elite of Gerasa and became promoters of imperial rule (see Jones, “Inscriptions,” p. 155).Gerrenus’s affection for both the emperor and his city is evident from the beginning of the decree, where the adjectives φιλοκαίσαρ/philokaisar and φιλόπατρις/philopatris are bestowed on him (l. 5-6). Moreover, his munificence (φιλότειμος/philoteimos) and generosity (μεγαλόφρονος/ megalophronos) were recognised by the highest representatives of Roman administration in the region; i.e. the governor (ἡγεμών/hêgemôn) and the procurators (ἐπίτροποι/epitropoi). For all these motives, the people of Gerasa – still with the old Seleucid name of Antioch on the Chrysorhoas – chose him as the first president of the annual games (l. 7-8). Their election was therefore not drawn by lot (as many magistracies in Greek cities were), but a conscious one. Indeed, the authorisation of such events depended on the approval of the Roman authorities, as perfectly attested in the foundation of the Demostheneia festival at Oinoanda under Hadrian. The corresponding dedication of games in Gerasa to the “salvation” (σωτηρία/sôtêria) of the “lord” (κύριος/kyrios) Trajan was convenient, and there was no one more suitable than Gerrenus to wear the purple robe of the game-presidents; a man with a superlative devotion (εὐσέβεια/eusebeia) towards the Augustan house and good-will (εὔνοια/eunoia) towards his fatherland (l. 9-11).

The honouring synod of performing artists was not only interested in enhancing such praiseworthy attributes, but even more surprised by the diligence of Gerrenus despite organising the contest for the first time. These aspects are developed from lines 11 to 20, which record several instances in which his generosity and skill had been demonstrated: e.g. the provision of banquets and the distribution of prizes. Such actions made him worthy of the statue that our inscribed base most likely supported. Both this monument and the instructions of the grateful guild assured both present and future fame for a man whose name and figure became inherent to the agonistic tradition of the region. This inscription is consequently important for exploring the local history of Gerasa as well as for understanding the cultural transformation of lands very close to Judea. Accordingly, an analogy must be drawn in this commentary between Gerrenus’s success and the innovations of another regional pioneer: Herod the Great.


This king is reported to have built Greek theatres in Caesarea (Jewish Antiquities XV.341) and Jerusalem (Jewish Antiquities XV.268-273). In the latter case, this construction was combined with the foundation of athletic contests of the highest rank, which featured both gymnastic, equestrian, and performing competitions. These games were established “in honour of Caesar” and Herod covered the walls of the theatre with inscriptions of the Roman ruler and the trophies of people he had subjected. Therefore, Herod did not only intend to beautify the urban landscape, but also to convey the propagandistic messages of the patron protecting his power. Indeed, the connection between such games and Rome continued under Agrippa (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIX.343), when the salvation (σωτηρία/sôtêria) of the emperor was celebrated exactly as in our inscription from Gerasa. Flavius Josephus (Jewish Antiquities XV.267) considered that these “foreign habits corrupted the ancient way of life,” and the later rabbinical sources are not much more positive (see Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 195-226). The Aramaic Targum, for example, says: “Cursed shall be when you enter your theatres and your circuses, negating the words of the Law” (Tg. Ps.-J. Deut. 28:19). However, this strict religious opposition did not prevent venues of entertainment from becoming landmarks, almost expected by the public in the cities of Palestine (as the late rabbinic midrash Exodus Rabba 15:22 still echoes).

On the other side of the Jordan, this transformation is even more evident and the case of Gerasa instructive. For this city in the Syrian Decapolis, nevertheless, there was no Hellenising and client king of the Romans. The political community on its own had decided to launch an initiative that required the collaboration of locals committed to the ideals of Roman hegemony and the support of imperial associations assisting with the organisation. And yet, the successful process attested in our inscription was not instantaneous because the theatre waited at least two decades from its completion for the time in which the first annual festival was established. The foundation of such events, even if expected in the cities of the Greek East, could certainly be accelerated and facilitated by exceptional circumstances (e.g. Trajan and Pergamum). In this case, the most likely triggering factor was the addition of Gerasa to the province of Arabia that Trajan had just created in 106 CE (Bowersock, Roman Arabia, 76-89). A monumental inscription on the north gate of the city informs us that this transformation made the Roman emperor a “saviour and founder” of the community in 115 CE (Welles, Inscriptions, no. 56/7). The contemporary celebration of games in his honour could also serve to transmit an equivalent message of loyalty and salvation (see Moralee, For Salvation’s Shake), which provided Titus Flavius Gerrenus with a fantastic opportunity to excel and achieve perpetual remembrance.    

Bibliographical references: 

Roman Arabia

Bowersock, Glen W.bookRoman ArabiaCambridge, Mass.Harvard University Press1983

Inscriptions from Jerash

Jones, Arnold, H. M.article-in-a-journal144-17818Inscriptions from JerashJournal of Roman Studies1928
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