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Modeling Crowd Behavior in Ancient Rome: Claques and Complex Adaptive Systems

Bryan Brinkman

Loyola Marymount University

This paper offers one explanation for the apparent efficacy of claques (groups hired to applaud performers and politicians) in ancient Rome. Claques were a regular feature of crowds from at least the late Republic into the later empire. They were present in the theater and the arena (e.g. Cic. Pro Sest. 106; Dio Cass. 73.2; Lib. Or. 41.6), as well as in the courtroom (Pliny Ep. 2.14.4-5). Claques were particularly important in the Roman context because the response of the urban crowd was a primary instrument for popular political action (see Cameron 1976; Roueché 1984; Potter 1996; Aldrete 1999). Certain emperors would even utilize claques to elicit favorable responses from the Roman people, as with the claque that accompanied Nero (Suet. Nero 20.3; Tac. Ann.14.15). Similarly, claques were employed in court proceedings in attempts to influence the outcome; judges were apparently susceptible to responses from the audience (Potter 1996). 

I will suggest in this paper that by utilizing methods borrowed from the study of complex adaptive systems, we can better understand how claques may have operated in ancient Rome and why they were seemingly effective. In social sciences, models of complex adaptive systems aim to explain how structures of social influence can produce collective behaviors (see particularly Miller and Page 2007). I argue that the goal of claques was not simply to be an isolated section in a crowd, cheering in a particular way or for a specific person. Rather, their aim was to persuade the entire crowd to cheer in a desired fashion. They were meant to be the catalyst for collective action. This is well evidenced in the aforementioned case of Nero’s claque who would be distributed throughout the audience during performances of the emperor (Suet. Nero 20.3). We should understand these claques as one of the mechanisms of social influence that would help to create larger collective action among Roman crowds.

What is more, as models of complex adaptive systems suggest, specific factors can increase the likelihood that a crowd will follow the claque in offering applause. I will explicate these factors with specific examples from Roman history. For instance, one of these factors is the perceived degree of social capital possessed by the members of the claque themselves. I will suggest that we can see this principle in operation in a specific incident from 192 CE, where the Senators and Equites were compelled into acting as a claque while Commodus was fighting in the arena (Dio Cass. 73.2). In examining Roman claques through the lens of complex adaptive systems, we are better able to understand the reasons behind the phenomenon. These claques persisted through centuries of Roman history in large part because they were effective. 

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Winning the People

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