Katherine Tsanoff Brown Lecture featuring Dr. Maggie Popkin

"Humanity and Animality in the Roman Visual Culture of Sport and Spectacle"

Rome’s major entertainment industries—the sports of chariot racing and gladiatorial combat and theatrical spectacles such as pantomimes and mimes—were predicated on the exploitation of human and animal bodies who served as performers and athletes. The visual and material culture of Roman sport and spectacle played a significant role in commodifying the bodies of these performers, who were often enslaved, and packaging them as consumable goods that could be instrumentalized, often literally, by Romans from a wide range of socio-economic classes. This talk examines objects and artworks that elide the distinction between human and animal performers, thereby reducing the status of human athletes and theatrical performers to something extra-human: emblems that could be heroized or demeaned, but never treated as fully fledged humans. We will look at artworks that demonstrate the perceived interchangeability of animal and human performers, with particular focus on fascinating but often overlooked artworks that show animals performing as humans or humans performing as animals. These images raise unfortunately still-timely questions about how representations of sport and spectacle, fun or funny as they may seem, can animalize humans in ways that often reproduce highly unequal social structures.
Professor Maggie Popkin specializes in ancient Roman art and architecture. Her research interests include the relationship between architecture, art, and spectacle in the Roman world and the impact of visual culture on memory, cultural affinities, and power dynamics in the ancient world.

Prof. Popkin has published articles on a range of topics, from archaic Greek vase painting to materiality in Republican Roman architecture. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes and journals including "Hesperia, the American Journal of Archaeology," the "Art Bulletin," the "Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians," and the "Journal of Late Antiquity." Her first book, "The Architecture of the Roman Triumph: Monuments, Memory, and Identity" (Cambridge University Press, 2016), examines the monuments built along the path of the Roman triumph, an elaborate ritual celebrating Roman military victories over foreign peoples, and their role in shaping how Romans experienced and remembered the triumphal ritual. Her second book, "Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome" (Cambridge University Press, 2022), investigates ancient souvenirs and memorabilia and their profound role in mediating memory, knowledge, and cultural affinities in the Roman Empire. Her edited volume, "Future Thinking in Roman Culture: New Approaches to History, Memory, and Cognition" (co-edited with Diana Ng; Routledge, 2022) examines the impact of future-oriented cognition on Roman art and literature. Her current research examines the material and visual culture of ancient sport and its role in creating, sustaining, and subverting power structures in the Roman Empire; and the potential of extended reality technologies for studying embodied religion and sacred space.