Macquarie University
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Subversive spectacles: the struggles and deaths of Paul and Seneca

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posted on 2022-03-28, 02:12 authored by James R. Unwin
Subversive Spectacles explores the way the apostle Paul, in his Corinthian correspondence, and Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and tutor to emperor Nero, appropriated imagery from gladiatorial spectacles to confront their own sufferings and deaths under the power structures of Roman imperialism. While the last three decades have produced an overwhelming amount of Roman scholarship on every feature of the gladiatorial institution, critiquing and overturning many outdated biases, New Testament scholars have remained reluctant to engage with gladiatorial spectacles, which have been taken to cast a cruel shadow over life in the early empire. However, this is to miss the social and ideological importance of gladiatorial spectacles in the time of Paul and Seneca. The amphitheatre became a site for the display of power and the replication of social relations in a ‘society of the spectacle.’ The vivid images that emerged in the arena spilled out of these sites to shape the landscape; and, amongst these images, Paul and Seneca contribute their own exhibitions. The first part of this thesis explores the spectacle landscapes of Rome and Corinth, attempting to recover and reconstruct the Neronian and Corinthian amphitheatres. After recovering these sites of spectacle, both dated to the time of Paul and Seneca, I linger inside these amphitheatres and examine the social, political, and cultic elements on display in the stands and on the sand. I attempt to observe the ideological forces structuring spectators and spectacle alike. In the second part, I turn to a closer reading of Paul and Seneca and their deployment of vivid, yet familiar, images from the arena. All of these representations, which permeated community life—be it in mosaics, on oil lamps, inscribed on walls, or part of large monuments, among other media—worked toward a variety of ends. In the disparate figures of Paul and Seneca, however, we observe imagined performances that seemingly subvert the ideology of the arena. A differential comparison of Paul and Seneca with respect to gladiatorial spectacles reveals that Seneca was attempting to ‘perform’ a version of Stoic virtue to a significantly disempowered Neronian elite, while Paul uses similar imagery to take up a position amongst the lowest members of society.


Table of Contents

Introduction. Images of friendship -- Part One. Rome, Corinth, and their Spectacles of Death. 1. Sites, sponsors, and spectators : the popularity of Roman and Corinthian arenas 2. The stands and the sand : ideology and representation of arenas empire-wide -- Part Two. Paul, Seneca, and their spectacles of death. 3. “Thrown down but not destroyed” : arenas of suffering and struggle 4. “In honour and dishonour” : confronting death and criticising performances -- Conclusion. Images of life -- Appendix -- Bibliography.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 187-208

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Ancient History

Department, Centre or School

Department of Ancient History

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

L. L. Welborn

Additional Supervisor 1

Cavan W. Concannon


Copyright James R. Unwin 2017. Copyright disclaimer:




Italy Greece


1 online resource (xvi, 208 pages) illustrations (some colour)

Former Identifiers