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Sharing Spectatorship with the Divine: Watching as Worship at the Ludi Megalenses

Krishni Burns

University of Illinois, Chicago

When the Romans incorporated the Mater Deum Magna Idaea into Roman civic religion in 204 BCE, they deliberately introduced theater games into her public festival, the Megalensia. During these games, the audience experienced the play not only as a theatrical event, but also as a form of religious communion.

            The Ludi Megalenses had to take place in the sight of the goddess’s cult statue. The games’ earliest iteration was held in front of the Magna Mater’s temple on the Palatine hill (Cicero De Har. Resp. 12.24). The audience sat on the steps with the temple doors behind them open to provide the cult statue an unobstructed view (Goldberg 1998, Manuwald 2001, Marshall 2006). Later, when the temple complex was remodeled, the games moved to the Circus Maximus directly below. The temple’s podium was increased to the unprecedented height of 8.4 meters, (27.5 feet) and the temple’s pedimental sculpture was replaced with an image of a sellisternium to maintain the line of sight (Hanson 1959, 14-15, 82-85, Pensabene 1985, 182). These architectural innovations suggest that watching the Ludi Megalenses with Magna Mater was essential to the festival.  

In the Greek world, the goddess was honored through mystery rites. Theater offered a way of collectively engaging in a conceptually similar form of worship. Theater itself is experienced within two frames: the outer frame of the production, and the inner frame of the play itself. When actors perform, they create a liminal space where they are both themselves, i.e. actors, and the characters whom they portray (Turner and Schechner 1986). Spectators participate in that liminal space by accepting the actors’ dual identities, willfully suspending disbelief for the space of the performance (Gaylord 1983). Through the dialogue of belief between actor and audience, the secondary world of the play is created (Moore 1998). When the audience includes the Magna Mater, she becomes part of the audience’s collective. 

Because the act of spectating together was an act of worship, Roman audiences at the Megalensia must have been thoroughly enculturated spectators. High audience literacy in theatrical convention allows spectators to correctly interpret and accept the conceits necessary for complete engagement (Bennett 1997). At the same time, Megalensia audiences must maintain their consciousness of the outer frame of the performance, so as to retain their awareness of the goddess sharing their spectatorship. That hyperawareness would have ensured a deep investment in the excellence of production quality and a critical reception of the quality of the performance. Faults in performance and flaws in production would have been nefas, and might necessitate a repetition of the rite.

Physically sharing viewership with the Magna Mater made the Ludi Megalenses an alternate plane of existence in which the goddess and her worshipers share an experience (Knowles 2004). When Roman audiences watched the Ludi Megalenses together with the Magna Mater, not only did they enjoy a good show, they also shared a moment of communion with their goddess.


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New Approaches to Spectatorship

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