Book Review of “Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation”

Christopher Frilingos’s Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation (University of Pennsylvania Press 2004) is a great academic text about the Book of Revelation, but it is also a fascinating uncovering of Roman cultural curiosities.

The author, for example, documents the importance of theatrical spectacle to imperial Rome, in which spectators gazed upon gladiator combats and the public display of monstrosities from other lands (such as exotic animals).

Spectacle thus functioned to (in the author’s words) “produce [sic] knowledge for all its participants” (p.35). He then shows how the Book of Revelation adopts the motifs of spectacle and monstrosity to Christian effect, setting the imperium of Rome up as the “Beast” that is at war with the “Lamb,” and in which saints and sinners function as spectators to this cosmic battle.

In reading this book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Neitzsche’s reflections on Dionysian tragic theatre (in The Birth of Tragedy) and how he thought that tragic theatre enacted for the audience the duality of human existence (between the Apollonian and the Dionysian).

Especially interesting to me was the section on Roman ekphrasis (the art of detailed verbal description, usually of art) as part of the training of Roman rhetors. In other words, generating word-pictures for hearers functioned as an ancient technique in audience persuasion.

In short, Spectacles of Empire does a great job situating the Book of Revelation as both a cultural and rhetorical product of ancient Rome.

Here’s the link to the book at Amazon:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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