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Mob Politics: The Political Influence of the Circus Factions in the Eastern Empire from the Reign of Leo I to Heraclius (457-641)

Mob Politics: The Political Influence of the Circus Factions in the Eastern Empire from the Reign of Leo I to Heraclius (457-641)

By Robert W. Main

Master’s Thesis, University of Ottawa, 2013

Ruins of the Hippodrome, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in his work De Ludis Circensibus (Venice, 1600.)
Ruins of the Hippodrome, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in his work De Ludis Circensibus (Venice, 1600.)

Abstract: This paper seeks to continue the research started by scholars such as W. Liebeschuetz and P. Bell in order to challenge the traditional argument put forth by Al. Cameron, namely that the circus factions did not have a political role in society. The objective of this study is to examine the political importance of the circus factions from the reign of Anastasius (491-518) to Heraclius (610-641). Furthermore, it explores the political motivations behind the factions’ violent behaviour, the evidence for their involvement in the military, and their role in accession ceremonies. The methodology includes establishing a typology for sixth century riots, an examination of the hippodrome and its role as a medium between people and emperor, tracing the shift in the focus of imperial ideology, and a re-evaluation of the primary sources, with a focus on the literary and epigraphic evidence, to determine if there was a political aspect to the factions. The study concludes that Cameron did undervalue the factions’ political importance and outlines the conditions that were influential in their rise in importance.

Introduction: I put aside serious things and chose the most disreputable instead…my enthusiasms were the brawls of the colours, the chariot competitions, the pantomime ballets. I even entered the wrestling ring. I travelled with such foolishness that I lost my cloak, my common sense and my honour.

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There have always been those who over-indulge in the excitement and frivolity of the games, but for 200 years the eastern empire witnessed a unique phenomenon, the rise and fall of a quasipolitical unit within society, namely the Circus Factions. The factions have captivated scholars from ancient to modern times. The excitement of the races and unruliness of the partisans are common topics among ancient sources, and their role within society is an ongoing debate among modern scholars. They have been called a myriad of names, including soccer hooligans, religious sympathizers, political partisans, and local demesmen but none have achieved a consensus among historians. Alan Cameron has been the authority on the factions since his seminal study, Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium and in it he does an excellent job of determining who the factions were, where they came from, and how they operated in society. However, recent scholarship has called into question some of Cameron’s conclusions. The most notable is his argument that the factions did not have any political motivations behind their activities.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Ottawa

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