Sarah Bond: Displaying Status: The Roman Theater and the American Airliner

Image Credit: Barbara McManus, VRoma.
According to Josephus (AJ. 19.86), Caligula constructed a theater on the Palatine that had no boxes reserved for equestrians or senators. What resulted was rather a melange of seats that transgressed both status and gender boundaries in Roman society, mixing men and women, free and unfree (the horror!). This did not sit well with the Jewish historian, and it appears to have caused consternation and animosity among the elite as well. After all, why would elite Romans attend a public event where their status was not projected, reinforced, and (above all) celebrated?

The idea that Roman theater seating visualized social hierarchy is not a new thesis. I vividly remember reading Jonathan Edmondson's piece in the Togo Salmon papers as a graduate student, and then thinking about how public events today similarly serve to reinforce the social levels of society. I revisited this thought today, reading a piece on the way we board airplanes. Essentially, it shows that the current way that most American planes are boarded (i.e. first class, business class, then economy classes) is ridiculous.

Seat map of a Delta B-777.
Data has repeatedly shown that boarding front to back, moving from first class to economy, is the slowest way to board a plane. The fastest is apparently to let people board all at the same time or via the method proposed by astrophysicist Jason Steffen. The physicist has projected that more efficient boarding could ultimately save the airplane industry billions, but if the Romans have taught us anything, it is that this will likely never happen.

Livy notes that the first time the senate segregated itself from the common people was in the ludi Romani of 194 BCE. Some were alright with senators receiving such an honor, while others viewed it as haughty, but the practice persisted. Later, the princeps Augustus used theater seating as part of his restoration of the res publica, and late in his reign composed the lex Julia theatralis. It stipulated that the first 14 rows of the theater be set aside for those freeborn persons whose fathers or grandfathers "had a patrimony of at least 400,000 sesterces" (Berger [1953], 555). This meant they qualified for equestrian status. The law was apparently a revival of the Republican lex Roscia theatralis of 67 BCE. Suetonius reinforces Augustus' outrage at haphazard theatrical seating in his life of the emperor (Aug. 44). Honor could be conferred or revoked via public seating, and Augustus stood as the grand dissignator in this public spectacle.

Roman theater seats with inscriptions from Heraclea Lyncestis.
Humans continue to love to project their status during spectacles, and while we may hate flying, it is indeed a form of public ritual. The spectacle is really the boarding of the plane, when we all stand around, wait, and watch as others board first, second, third, fourth, fifth. First class passengers like to go first because the rest of us can only stand and gape as they go by. Then, when we board, we pass through first class on our way to the economy seats. It is a procession that advertises wealth (or lack thereof), even if the elite keep their heads buried in their iphones and walk quickly by. Monetizing this feeling of status and superiority is what is important to many airlines--not how quickly you can board. You simply cannot sell this high by letting the masses board haphazardly....it is just too déclassé. 

Other Stuff (Just Because):

Check out Sebastian Heath's list of Roman amphitheaters.

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