Ever go to a college football game with nearly 80,000 crazy fans ready to tear the stands apart? Just imagine going to an event where players routinely died before your eyes, in a culture with a strictly stratified value of life — one where your life might be absolutely worthless to the person sitting next to you. That could be awkward.
Thankfully, a ticket system arose for entrance into many events in the Roman Empire, so that you didn't have to sit next to the wrong sort of people. Pottery shards, emblazoned with writing, became the first tickets, imposing order on a chaotic situation. These shards provide exceptional insight into the organizational abilities of the Romans — and many of their ticketing techniques are still in use today.
Get your tickets!
Over 50,000 individuals from all walks of Roman life poured into the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Roman Colosseum, for events ranging from concerts to wild animal displays to gladiator bouts. Controlled chaos is the definition of my mental image of this 1st Century A.D. scene, but one ingenious invention made everything a little better: the ticket.
Tickets to events at the Roman Colosseum bore no face value (hence the common "Bread and Circuses" theme), but these tiny pieces of broken pottery bore details of the cuneus (the section of the arena), the gradus (row), and the locus (seat) - the same information carried on modern tickets to a sporting event or concert. A pottery shard ticket for an event might be inscribed CN VII, GD XII, LOC III - the third seat of the twelfth row of section seven.
Writing on a pottery shard technically defines the object as an ostracon, with ostracons sort of like the sticky notes of the Greek and Roman Empires. As time passed, ticket making technology moved from pottery shards to tesserae, individually crafted tokens roughly the size of a penny inscribed with writing that granted admission to an event.
Admission to events
Tickets did not bear a face value, with local social groups, religious organizations, and workplaces carried out the task of distribution. Although intended to be free, it is likely that many tickets found their way into the hands of ancient scalpers and exchanged for goods or services.
Eighty individually numbered hallways led into the Roman Colosseum, with four additional ones lacking numbers assigned as entrances for members of the upper class. The walls of hallways included diagrams of seating charts. The hallways of the Colosseum — often called vomitoriums — could spew the spectators out of the amphitheater and into the streets of Rome within a matter of minutes, with bodyguards of the emperor present to quell problems.
Very similar to bleachers at modern college football stadiums, grooves in a row of seats denoted the personal space for each ticket, but lines often fail to enforce an invisible wall. Marble covered a portion of the seats in the grandstands, with the poorer members of the crowds bringing along wooden planks to prevent their gluteus maximus from falling asleep. Those able to afford cushions or chairs often hauled them to the amphitheater for the day's events.
The Roman Colosseum fell into disrepair after government coordinated events declined in the 5th and 6th Centuries, with the Roman senator Flavius Anicius Maximus holding one of the last government-sponsored event, a series of contrived animal hunts.
Over the next several centuries the area within the Flavian Amphitheatre became divided in sections, with parts serving as a church, a cemetery, a quarry, and a fortress under the control of the Frangipani family in the 13th Century. Several of the original hallways that thousands exited through after gladiatorial events are still present, with the thirty-two entrances marked from XXIII to LIV visible today.
The top image, entitled Pollice Verso, is by 19th Century French painter Jean-Leon Gerome and currently on display at the Phoenix Art Museum. Ostracon image courtesy of Marsyas/Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. Sources linked within the article.