Dwarfs in the Roman Arena

Dwarfs in the arena are the most straightforward examples of displaying human beings as spectacle in Ancient Rome. Several texts inform us that dwarfs were put on display in the arena on different occasions to show off their physical prowess as gladiators, boxers, or to re-enact mythic narratives.

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1) Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Augustus 43: “Even Roman knights sometimes took part in stage plays and gladiatorial shows until a Senatorial decree put an end to the practice. After this, no person of good family appeared in any show, with the exception of a young man named Lycius; he was a dwarf, less than two feet tall and weighing only 17 lb but had a tremendous voice.” (Translation, R. Graves, 1965)

Note: In the original Latin, the word ‘dwarf’ is not present, only that he was an adolescent male less than two feet in height, from which dwarfism is inferred (nihil sane praeterquam adulescentulum Lycium honeste natum exhibuit, tantum ut ostenderet, quod erat bipedali minor, librarum septemdecim ac uocis immensae).

2) Dio Cassius, Roman History, 67.8.2: “Often he [Domitian] would conduct the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other”. (Translation, Lacus Curtius)

Note: The ancient Greek word for ‘dwarf’ is νάνους/nanous  (ἐφ᾽ ᾧ που παραμυθούμενος αὐτοὺς δεῖπνόν σφισι δημοσίᾳ διὰπάσης τῆς νυκτὸ παρέσχε. πολλάκις δὲ καὶ τοὺς ἀγῶνας νύκτωρἐποίει, καὶ ἔστιν ὅτε καὶ νάνους καὶ γυναῖκας συνέβαλλε.).

3) Statius, Silvae 1.6.57-64: “Then in turn come forth the bold battalions of dwarfs, whom Nature from their birth cramped and bound once for all into a knotted lump. These join in battle and deal wounds; see, with Lilliputian hands they menace each his fellow with death; while Father Mars and murderous Valour, and the cranes, ere in random raid they pounce, marvel at the courage of the pygmies.” (Translation D.A. Slater, 1908)

Note: The Latin term for ‘dwarf’ is pumilus (hic audax subit ordo pumilorum, quos natura brevis statim peracta nodosum semel in globum ligavit, edunt vulnera conseruntque dextras et mortem sibi—qua manu!—minantur. ridet Mars pater et cruenta Virtus casuraeque vagis grues rapinis mirantur pugiles ferociores).

Textual Analysis

From these examples it is plain to see that there were dwarfs in the arena on more than one occasion: these individuals were intentionally placed in non-life-threatening situations, since they were valuable and would have been difficult to replace. This latter assertion comes from literary evidence elsewhere which tells of dwarf entertainment at elite dinner parties (e.g. Lucian, Symposium 18-19). Rather than engage in true gladiatorial combat with the ultimate goal of victory through death, the dwarfs recreated mythological narratives (the Pygmies vs. Cranes, or ‘geranomachy’ narrative) and performed fights. The dwarfs boxed and performed for the public, recreating for the entirety of the arena audience the sort of show typically reserved for the elite in a semi-private display of wealth (For more on this subject, see Brunet 2003). What made these displays special was this very fact, allowing the wider public an insight into the world of the elite, which included the exploitation of individuals suffering from dwarfism as entertainment. The myth of the Pygmies vs. Cranes illustrates the emphasis of the unusual bodies – rather than re-enacting this mythical narrative with foreigners as indicators of the Pygmies, the dwarfs filled this role for the sole purpose of highlighting their extraordinary bodies. Ultimately, these individuals were explicitly chosen for their unusual proportions, and therefore transformed into a visual spectacle in a public venue because of their physical appearance.

An interesting modern example of spectacle involving persons of less-than-average height is the controversial event ‘dwarf-tossing‘, which occur in places such as Canada, the US, and France.  These events draw wide criticism but are, at the same time, extremely popular and well-attended. Some of these events recur on a yearly basis, such as those held in Windsor, Ontario; regardless of personal opinion regarding the ethics surrounding the event, there is no question that this is a modern manifestation of human beings exploited as spectacle solely for their unusual physical form.


Back to: Public Case Studies                                                                                                  Next up: The Emperor and the Arena


Photograph attributed to Mary Harrsch via flickr


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