Roman spectacles: theaters, stadiums, the arena, and more
360 CE to 400 CE
Hebrew and Aramaic
Title of work:
Avodah Zarah 1:7, 40a
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
- Bar Kokhba Revolt
- bath house
- beast hunt
- Great Revolt
- Jewish war
- Rabbi Nathan
- Roman legal system
- secular games
- Torah study
This section from the Jerusalem Talmud discusses Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:7, which limits certain aspects of Jewish economic associations with gentiles: some are related to restrictions on commerce and some are related to labor. These regulations articulate a rejection of two Roman institutions: The arena – implying games and public executions – and the legal system:
A) It is not [permissible] to sell to them (gentiles) bears, lions or anything that may harm the public.
B) It is not [permissible] to build [the following structures] with them (gentiles): a basilica, a scaffold (for torture or execution), an arena (stadium), or a bimah (platform for a judicial tribunal).
C) But they [are permitted to] build [the following structures] with them (gentiles): public bathhouses (from the Greek dēmosion) and [private] bathhouses. [However, when] they reach the [phase to construct the] vaulting, where they position idolatrous statues (lit. foreign cult; ‘avodah zarah), it is prohibited to build it (the arch).
Section A prohibits the sale of bears or lions to the gentiles or any other thing that may be harmful to the public. Wild beasts had a central role in the venatio, the beast hunt that was a popular Roman spectacle which took place in the arena. The people who participated in the hunting were often condemned criminals, prisoners of war, or slaves. This type of death sentence was called damnatio ad bestias meaning “condemnation to the beasts.” Section B deals with four buildings that according to the Mishnah a Jew is not allowed to build for gentiles. These constructions were associated with the Roman legal and penal system, especially the basilica, the scaffold, and the bimah, but also the arena that was often related to the execution of people from the lower stratums of society. Section C indicates that the Roman bathhouse was not in the same category as these four structures, for the Mishnah permitted Jews to participate in its building. The Mishnah prohibits Jews from building the specific niche in which the statues were set up, but does not object to the entire institution as it did in the case of the Roman legal system and spectacles. Jews must only refrain from participating in the erection of certain elements in the building that were associated with idols.
The Talmud first comments on the first section of the Mishnah: “It is not permissible to sell them bears and lions or anything that may cause harm to the public” to conclude that it is permitted to sell something which does not endanger the public (A). At that point (B, C, and D), the Talmud cites a tannaitic tradition that supports (according to the redactor) the view of the Mishnah. This tannaitic teaching includes laws regarding Roman theaters and stadiums, along with types of performances and entertainments, especially ordinances regarding Jewish participation in the audience in these events. This tannaitic tradition generally prohibits going to spectacles and permits it only in certain cases. It also provides several reasons for avoiding such activities with different levels of severity: 1) considering it as idolatry; 2) participation in shedding blood; 3) not sitting “in the seat of scoffers” following the verse “Happy is the man who has not followed the consul of the wicked, or taken the path of the sinner or [sat] in the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1:1, based on JPS and NRSV); 4) wasting time that could be used for Torah study. These four reasons for not going to the Roman spectacles are not considered as having the same level of severity. While the first and second represent two of the most severe sins in rabbinic literature (see Jerusalem Talmud Shevuot4:2, 35a; Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a), sitting “in the seat of scoffers” is simply being in the company of the wicked or the scoffers. To better understand this one may recall Mishnah Avot 3:2, in which two men sit together without discussing the Torah “Behold – this is ‘the seat of scoffers.’” Such behavior may be lacking but is far from idolatry or shedding blood, and so is the neglect of Torah study. Thus, although these sections discuss the prohibition of going to public spectacles or watching performances, the reasoning is very important as it indicates different levels of rabbinic opposition toward these Roman institutions. This tannaitic teaching cited in the Jerusalem Talmud has a parallel in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 2:5-7, but there its parts are organized in a different order and there are also dissimilarities in some of the details. The internal order of the tannaitic teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud seems more reasonable than in the Tosefta for it associates each form of entertainment with a different level of severity.
Section (B) deals with watching the performance of several types of magicians, clowns, celebrations and festivals. These shows are prohibited on account of “the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1:1, NRSV) and on account of neglecting Torah study. The Talmud uses Psalms 1:1-2 to tie these two reasons together: “Happy is the man who has not followed the consul of the wicked, or taken the path of the sinner and in the seat of scoffers he did not sit. But the Torah of God is his wish and on his Torah he mediates day and night” (Psalms 1:1). While in the Tosefta these performances are located in arenas (stadiums) and camps, in the Jerusalem Talmud the location is not specified. As Martin Jacob writes about the names of the different performances: “The text uses quite a lot of corrupted loan-words of Greek and Latin origin… There have been many attempts to identify their meaning or to reconstruct a correct text” (“Theaters and Performance,” p. 333). Scholars suggest that these forbidden performances and festivities included theatrical characters such as Bucco and Maccus (for more details see Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 126-127). The moliyon “may be derived from Morio, another well-known fool” (Martin Jacob, “Theaters and Performance,” p. 334). Several suggestions were given to milarin, the miliaria (see Martin Jacob, “Theaters and Performance,” p. 334 for bibliographic references). This passage also prohibits participation in the Secular Games (from Latin: Ludi Saeculares) and the Sigillaria (the Image Feast), the last day of the Saturnalia, which according to the Tosefta also took place in arenas (stadiums) and in the camps. According to Martin Jacobs, the terms sagilarin and Sigillaria “[have] been interpreted as a reference to the (ludi) saeculares games to be celebrated once every century, and which included theatre performances, circus games and sacrifices… and their three days and nights were dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Apollo” (“Theaters and Performance,” p. 334, but see other suggestions there).
Section C, which presents the prohibitions related to the theatre, also includes a disagreement between the sages and Rabbi Meir, who was active in the second century CE after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Rabbi Meir prohibits going to the theatre on account of idolatry, probably because sacrifices and religious offerings were common in these places. Zeev Weiss describes altars in theaters found in Palestine, the Decapolis, and Arabia (Public Spectacles, p. 91). According to the sages, however, going to the theatre does not automatically include idolatry. The sages distinguish between shows that include idolatry and those that do not: “When they are ‘manuring’ [it is] forbidden on account of idolatry (lit. foreign cult; ‘avodah zarah), but if not, [it is] forbidden on account of ‘the seat of scoffers.’” The word mezablin which literally means “they are manuring” is not completely clear and it may be a euphemism for offering sacrifices, idolatrous entertainments, or vulgar performances. The sages distinguish here between theatre shows that include idolatry and others that do not. The teaching continues to state that the one who goes to the theatre (assuming in cases where there is no idolatry) may shout for the benefit of the public. Zeev Weiss explains that “Municipal matters in the Roman period were handled by the boule, whose constituents were the local wealthy inhabitants. The rest of the citizens who did not take part in the decision-making process expressed their views regarding such matters during the performances and games or directed their requested with either acclamations or cries of derision to the important people in attendance… At first the masses blessed the gods and the emperor, mentioning the good name of the ruler and the other dignitaries present, and then they set forth their demands, all the while interjecting words of blessing in the rulers’ honor” (Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 202-203). This teaching, however, prohibits one from going for his own benefit: either “to satisfy his own needs, to enjoy himself, to see and been seen by others, or to cooperate with non-Jews” (Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 202).
Section D discuses the stadium, equating those who sit in the arena, probably in order to watch gladiator combat or beast hunting to people who are shedding blood. According to this view, the audience in these games participated in the murders that occurred in the stadium. The people who fought in the arena usually came from the lower stratum of society and were sometimes condemned criminals, prisoners of war, or slaves. Thus, while these forms of activities were popular Roman entertainment venues, for the Talmud they were equivalent to murder. However, Rabbi Nathan, who was active in the second century CE after the Bar Kokhba revolt, permits watching combats in the arena for two reasons: 1) if a person shouts and saves lives, and 2) if a person is a witness on behalf of the wife so that she will be able to remarry. It seems that Rabbi Nathan discusses a situation in which those who fight in the arena are Jewish. A Jew who sits in the audience and shouts on behalf of the combatant may save his life, or alternatively if the combatant dies this spectator may come and give testimony that will enable the combatant’s wife to remarry. Zeev Weiss situates Rabbi Nathan’s permission in the aftermaths of the Jewish revolts: “After the Great Revolt, or at the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, some of the Jewish war captives were executed in the arena, either having been defeated in a gladiatorial combat or devoured by beasts. The loud cries of the spectators were meant to encourage the combatants in the arena who, more often than not, were condemned to death. The audience’s cries were at times known to have been crucial to the decision made by the emperor, provincial governor, or patron of the game in case of a tie or an unproven loss in the combat” (Zeev Weiss, Public Spectacles, p. 204).
To conclude, this tannaitic teaching placed in this section of the Jerusalem Talmud deals with different forms of Roman spectacles, suggesting different reasons for prohibiting them: Section B states that watching the performance of several types of magicians, clowns, celebrations and festivals is prohibited on account of “the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1:1, NRSV) and on account of neglecting Torah study. In section C, the theatre is prohibited because of idolatry, according to Rabbi Meir. According to the sages however, some performances are considered idolatry while others are banned on account of “the seat of scoffers” (Psalms 1:1, NRSV). Yet it is permitted to attend these events for the benefit of the public. In section D, the stadium is prohibited on account of shedding blood. However, Rabbi Nathan permits going there for the purpose of saving lives or allowing a wife of one who was killed in the games to remarry.
As was mentioned before, the Talmud cites this tannaitic tradition (B, C and D) while suggesting that it fits the approach of the Mishnah. The question is whether this tradition fits Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:7 and to which of its parts it refers. Whether this section refers only to section A of Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:7 (“It is not permissible to sell them bears and lions or anything that may cause harm to the public”) or whether it refers to section B of this Mishnah (“It is not permissible to build with them a basilica, a scaffold (for torture and execution), arena (stadium), or a bimah (erected platform for the judge’s tribunal)”) is uncertain, and it is difficult to explain the connection here. If it refers to section A of the Mishnah, the Talmud completely ignores section B of the Mishnah. If it refers to section B of the Mishnah, this table shows which section of the Talmud refers to which sections of the Mishnah:
According to Moses Margolies, who lived during the eighteenth century, this tannaitic tradition (B-C-D) refers to sections A and B in the Mishnah. Further, Margolies considers that in the Talmud it is permissible to build with the gentiles structures that are only problematic on account of “the seat of scoffers,” and that it is only prohibited to go there to watch these performances. Yet it is not clear how this tannaitic tradition supports the Mishnah’s approach. Perhaps, while the Mishnah (in Section B) discuses building of such structures, the Talmud regulates the general approach for going to such institutions.
Section E of this passage from the Jerusalem Talmud discusses the last part of Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:7: “But they [are permitted to] build [the following structures] with them (gentiles): public bathhouses (from the Greek dēmosion) and [private] bathhouses. [However, when] they reach the [phase to construct the] vaulting, where they position idolatrous statues (lit. foreign cult; ‘avodah zarah), it is prohibited to build it (the arch).” The Talmud brings an amoraic discussion regarding a case in which a Jew built such a vaulting. Rabbi Eleazar, who was active in the second part of the third century, claims that “If he transgressed and built” “It is permitted.” Perhaps he refers to receiving the wages for his labor. In contrast, Rabbi Mana, who was active in the fourth century, prohibited it.
To conclude, this section from the Jerusalem Talmud mainly focuses on Roman spectacles. While the Mishnah on which it comments articulates a rejection of two Roman institutions: the arena – implying games and public executions – and the legal system (also mentioning the Roman bathhouse), the Talmud ignores the basilica, the scaffold and the bimah that are mentioned in the Mishnah and only briefly refers to the bathhouse.