Spectators as spectacle in the modern world

There has been a lot coverage of fan behaviour at Euro 2012 during the last week. Much of it seems to be linked with the idea that the character of a nation is signalled by its fans’ behaviour. There have been allegations of deep-rooted racism in Ukrainian society, leading to calls for black football fans to stay away: for example here. Nor is it just Ukrainian fans who have been attracting attention. Since the tournament began there have been several reported disturbances, including this account of Russian fans attacking stewards and directing racist chanting against one of the Czech Republic’s players, all of which has led UEFA to launch disciplinary procedures against the Football Union of Russia.

Obviously we’re also familiar with other less negative versions of the idea of spectators on show. There’s quite an idealised version of that idea in Riefenstahl’s Olympia, her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Repeatedly she lets the camera pan over the huge audience in the Berlin stadium, lingering on their faces often in quite a leisurely way, allowing us to appreciate their role as part of an unified body of German and Olympic spectators (e.g. here at 1:42 or 2:53 or 3:35, to take some examples almost at random). As so often, Riefenstahl’s film looks surprisingly modern here. Modern sports coverage has inherited that camera technique–albeit in a more frenetic and less interesting form, for example in the shots between balls in cricket coverage, and in other sports too, where you see brief glimpses of spectators in the crowd, sometimes just for half a second before the camera pulls away.

Dio Chrysostom and the Alexandrians

What I’m most interested in here, however, is the idea of moral judgements about spectator behaviour in the Euro 2012 stories, and the idea that the behaviour of an audience can reflect on the character of a city or a nation. Those ideas were very widespread in the ancient world too, in fact probably even more so than they are for us.

Here’s an example, from a speech by the orator/philosopher Dio Chrysostom, dating from the late first or early second century AD. These extracts are from a long speech criticising the people of Alexandria for their behaviour at public spectacles–musical performances, athletic contests, horse races etc.

He is worried particularly about what visitors to the city will think. He also worries about the Alexandrians’ loss of self-control. And he presents this kind of audience madness as a disease or a drug:

whenever they enter the theatre or the stadium, it is as if they are affected by drugs which have been buried there, and they lose all consciousness of their former state of mind, nor are they ashamed to do and say whatever comes into their heads…And when the terrible event is over and they are dispersed, the extremes of the upheaval are extinguished, but still their behaviour continues at street-corners and in alleyways throughout the whole city for many days… (32.41-2)

That kind of denunciation carries on for pages and pages. For example later:

Whenever you come into the stadium, who could describe the shouting there and the disturbance and the anguish and the bodily contortions and the changes of colour and the many terrible curses you utter? (32.74)

What he seems to want instead is silence and attentiveness:

For it is a divine and really holy and impressive thing when the face of the people is gentle and composed and neither convulsed with violent and unrestrained laughter, nor disturbed by continual and disorderly clamouring, but instead there is a single act of listening, despite the huge size of the crowd. (32.29)

Conclusion

Some of the behaviour Dio describes sounds very familiar. He might have felt that the behaviour of those Russian fans was part of the same phenomenon–emotional turmoil spilling out on to the streets outside the stadium. And there is certainly other evidence for fighting and rioting among ancient spectators, for example the famous chariot racing riots in Constantinople in AD 532–the Nika riots–which saw thousands of people killed; or the Pompeii riots of AD 59, which followed a gladiatorial show–famously depicted in this image:

However, some aspects of Dio’s approach does also sound very odd by modern standards. The moralising language he uses is more draconian than anything we are familiar with. I suspect even the most demanding modern critic wouldn’t go quite so far as Dio in his dislike of noise and laughter and emotional engagement (in a concert hall perhaps–but surely not on the football field). It’s hard to believe he would get much of a hearing today.

But then maybe the Alexandrians didn’t pay any attention to him either…

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