The concept of VIP seating isn’t new, it turns out. Reserved seating areas with the names “Lukios”, “Alexandros” and “Agathopous” engraved on them were found during an excavation campaign at the amphitheater of Pergamon, in today’s Turkish province of Ismir.
The discovery by researchers from the German Archaeological Institute and Berlin Technical University is even more significant given that not even the majestic Colosseum in Rome displays these types of inscriptions.
The ancient city of Pergamon was the capital of the Hellenistic Attalid dynasty, which came to an abrupt end when the mighty Rome began to exhibit greater ambitions in Asia Minor. From 133 B.C.E., the city became a major political and cultural center of the Roman Province of Asia.
During that period, the Romans embarked on constructing their hallmark monuments, including the prominent amphitheater, which is one of the largest and best preserved in Asia Minor.
Similarly to its bigger brother, the Colosseum, the amphitheater of Pergamon was frequented by all segments of society, providing comparably decadent and bloody scenes of munera (gladiatorial combats) and venationes (animal fights staged between animals or men hunting animals).
The men participating in these animal performances were professional animal fighters, in general. However the Romans quickly turned them into a spectacle of justice (summa supplicia), in which prisoners and condemned criminals were thrown into the arena to meet their savage animal assassins (damnati ad bestias).
The whole population was encouraged to attend orchestrated executions, and the amphitheatre was the most convenient venue to host these types of mass “entertainments.”
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Death became a grand-scale spectacle with the aim of leaving a strong visual impact on the audience. The performances were ritualized, bathed in mythology within the splendid and monumental décor of the amphitheatre, and were ultimately intended to reinforce the notion of the Roman justice.
The popularity of venationes among the Roman public were such that far corners of the Empire were combed for wild and exotic beasts that would provide excitement and thrill to the people that came to marvel at their display and slaughter. The cast was varied in fauna: from lions, panthers, bulls, bears, crocodiles, and elephants to hippos.
The arena also provided “standard” Christian executions, and we know of several Christian martyrs who received their martyrdom at the Pergamon amphitheater.
Yet, the Amphitheatre of Pergamon had a specialty of its own: the re-enactments of rather less bloody water games and naval battles, or Naumachiae.
Prof. Felix Pirson, director of the Pergamon-Excavation and the Istanbul branch of the German Archaeological Institute, explains that one of the most fascinating aspects of the amphitheater is its engineering that allowed these kinds of performances. It was constructed between two slopes, separated by a river. The stream was retained by a vaulted water channel that could be blocked as easily as it could create a water surface in the arena.
About 25,000 spectators would fill the amphitheater’s seats according to their social rank, demanding “bread and circuses”.
Upper-class citizens or individuals from distinguished families enjoyed the comfort of exclusive lodges made of a costlier stone and offering higher backrests, the equivalent of private corporate areas found at sports arenas or boxes at the opera. We knew that some of the seats were personalized by an official inscription of initials, ensuring that the seating arrangement would be respected and that their noble or distinguished holders would be accommodated graciously.
Unfortunately for the rest, as in the case of one “Lukios” who couldn’t count on VIP treatment, the only remaining choice was to take the matter into their own hands. Trying to secure the best possible spots for themselves and their families, they rather clumsily engraved their names on the seats that they claimed to be theirs. Perhaps that was the less distinguished option in the eyes of the Roman society, but not necessarily in the hands of the Fates: 1,800 years later, Lukios’ seat still bears his name inscribed in Greek.
Archaeologists also uncovered two other names, Alexandros and Agathopous, the second perhaps being rather pleased with his lower limbs, since his nickname translates to “beautiful leg”.
More engraved stone seats have been discovered, but their keepers remain nameless for the nonce as epigraphists from the University of Zürich are still deciphering them.
“It would be very interesting to know how seriously people took this type of reservations,” Pirson tells Haaretz. Given the amphitheater’s capacity to host up to 25,000 people, he explains that it is rather unlikely that those semi-legal inscriptions were recognized. Nevertheless, a deliberate disrespect towards the proclaimed seat must have resulted in heated discussions.
The researcher doesn’t exclude the possibility of stumbling across the presence of women as the excavation progress: “It wouldn’t be surprising to find female names, as it is clear that women have been present at the amphitheater despite the seeming male atmosphere of the gladiatorial games,” Pirson says.
The seating blocks are now on view at the Red Basilica, the monumental ruined temple in the ancient city of Pergamon, today’s Bergama.