CHAPTER XV. HOLIDAYS AND AMUSEMENTS: THEATRE, CIRCUS, AMPHITHEATRE
Meanwhile the huge audience must not be conceived as sitting in quiet and restrained attention, but as roaring with laughter, applauding and stamping, shouting approval and encores, hissing and waving handkerchiefs. And meanwhile the claqueurs will have been duly distributed by those interested in the success of the performance. Every now and then a fine rain of saffron perfume is shed over the audience from pipes and jets distributed round the building. It deserves remark also that in the theatre, as in the other places of amusement, the gathering frequently broke out into demonstrations of its feeling towards persons and politics. There was safety in numbers, and the applause or hissing which greeted a personage or a topical allusion - or a line which could be twisted into such - could hardly be laid to the account of any individual. A certain license was conceded and fully utilised at the festivals: it served as a safety-valve, and wise emperors apparently so regarded it. At Rome the government was indeed "despotism tempered by epigram," but it was no less tempered by these demonstrations at the games and spectacles.
More worthy of imperial Rome were the exhibitions of chariot-races held in the immense Circus Maximus. That building, already described, would at this date probably hold some 200,000 persons, but it could never provide room enough for the excited people, who not only gathered in multitudes from Rome itself, but also from all the country, even all the empire, within reach. For weeks the chances of the parties have been discussed and betted upon; even the schoolboys have talked chariots, chariot-drivers, and horses. The fortune-tellers have been consulted about them; dreamers have dreamed the winners; and many an underhand attempt, sometimes including the hocussing of men or horses, has been made to corrupt the sport. The struggle is in reality not between chariot and chariot, but between what we should call stable and stable. There are four parties - the white, red, green, and blue - whose drivers will wear the respective colours, in which also the chariots were probably painted. By some means the green and blue have at this date contrived to stand out beyond the others, and the chief interest commonly centres upon these.
The day of the great spectacle arrives. Outside the building and in the porticoes surrounding it the sellers of books of the races and of cushions are plying their trade along with venders of confectionery and perfumes. The people are streaming into the numerous entrances which lead by stairways to the particular blocks or tiers of seats in which they are entitled to sit, and for which they bear a ticket. Full citizens are wearing the toga, or, if the emperor has not forbidden the practice, the brightly coloured cloak which has been already described. Seats are reserved for officials, senators, knights, and Vestal Virgins; and on the side under the Palatine is a large balcony-box for the emperor and his suite. At these games women have no special place set apart for them; they sit in their richest land showiest attire among the general body of the spectators, and flirting and love-making are part of the order of the day. A very crude form of field-glass or "spy-glass" was already in use, apparently consisting generally of a mere hollow tube, but occasionally provided with a magnifying lens. Nero himself, in consequence of his short-sight, had a "glass" in some way contrived of emerald.
At one end of the Circus is a building containing a curved line of stalls, equidistant from the starting-point, in which the drivers hold their chariots in readiness. These are all barred, and only at the signal will the doors be thrown open. The horses are commonly three-year-olds or five-year-olds. In some races there are two horses to the chariot, in others four. Less commonly there are three or six, or even a greater number. In the year 64 the number of cars running will be four, one for each club. How many races there are to be, and in what variety, will depend upon the presiding officer, who, as has been said, is paying a considerable portion of the expenses, and who will receive or lose applause according to the entertainment he affords to the spectators. Commonly there will be about twenty races run, although occasionally even that number be increased.
Down the middle of the arena, though not quite in its axis, runs a low broad wall called the "backbone," bearing various sculptures along its summit and in the middle an obelisk, now standing in the Piazza del Popolo, which Augustus had brought from Egypt after his conquest of that country. On the extremities of the "backbone" are placed the figures of seven dolphins and seven large eggs, and just free of each end, on a base of their own, stand three tall cones coated with gilt, round which the chariots are to turn as a yacht turns round the buoy. Seven times will the chariots race down the arena, round the end of the backbone, and back again. At each lap a dolphin and an egg will be removed from the wall, and as the last disappears the winning driver makes straight on for the white line which serves as the winning-post.