Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Staring into the Face of Roman Power: Resistance and Assimilation from behind the 'Mask of Infamia'

  • Author(s): Stevens, Jeffrey
  • Advisor(s): Mellor, Ronald
  • et al.

The power to define and characterize various groups, as well as those individuals commonly associated with them, remains one of the most effective ways to reinforce social hierarchy in almost any society through a justification of status, influence, and privilege based on identity. This dissertation represents an exploration of the power of social identity utilizing the framework of infamia (dishonor, ill-repute, disgrace, social stigmatization, civic disability) within the world of ancient Roman spectacle and entertainment. Such an analysis will illustrate how the Roman elite used the concept of infamia as something to define themselves against in order to augment their perceived moral and political authority. In an era of social turmoil and transformation, the gradual increase in the legal restrictions placed upon public performers in the late stages of the Republic suggests infamia was used as a social and political tool to reinforce the integrity of the traditional orders of elite Roman society. How were these disreputable performers able to create a distinctive sub-culture of their own despite a popular perception, both ancient and modern, that they lived in a state of `social death' resulting from the moral censure and civic disability associated with the stigma of infamia? How might socially marginalized people have envisioned their unique place within Roman society, and in what ways did those of degraded civic status preserve or construct a sense of identity, both individual and collective, in the face of overwhelming Roman power? The evidence suggests some of these people constructed their own form of community, in many ways modeled on traditional Roman society, with a complex network of social bonds based on family, occupation, dependency, and religion. The iconic gladiators and actors of ancient Rome conducted their daily lives in a public arena that provided an environment for them to challenge the limitations of the traditional `social death' models that are so often associated with the subjugated elements of hierarchical societies.

Main Content
Current View