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Eine Besucherin und eine Besucher bestaunen eine Vitrine im Prunksaal


The voting round for the „special exhibit“ continues! This time everything is about "Bread and circuses: Fun and games in ancient Egypt". From January 20 until February 2 you can vote online which of the precious originals will be presented from May 2020 at the State Hall

Bread and circuses

Fun and games in ancient Egypt

The poet Juvenal sneered that the Roman people were only interested in “panem et circenses” – free handouts of bread and circus games. The Greek orator Dion of Prusa accused the Alexandrians of having a similar attitude. On subjects as varied as gladiatorial fights, chariot racing, the Olympic Games and flute music as “background music” to physical labour: the papyri at the Austrian National Library offer a rare insight into the entertainment industry of ancient civilisations.


Object 1: Return of an Olympic Victor

Papyrus, 268 A.D.

During the Imperial Age, the Olympic Games and other international competitions were open to athletes from all over the Empire. However, for a long time only professional athletes and performers had a chance of a place on the podium. The prizes themselves were of more intangible than material value, but the competitors’ hometowns granted generous rewards to the winners because of the high prestige, as this papyrus shows. In it Antimachos, chairman of the board of judges, informs the city council and the people of Hermupolis in Upper Egypt of the Olympic victory of their compatriot Horion in a competition of trumpeters. The wreathed winner would deserve not only honours, but also tax privileges and a life-long pension in his hometown. A small note at the top of the document reveals that the Olympian delivered the letter to the city council personally.

Object 2: Contract with a Flute Player

Papyrus, 20 Dec 321 A.D.

The landowner Aurelios Adelphios, councillor of Hermupolis in Upper Egypt, is known from more than two dozen papyrus texts as an industrious businessman. As lord of the manor, he also cultivates wine. In this papyrus, he commissions a musician to play the flute to provide entertainment and set the rhythm during the next grape harvest and pressing. The employment contract is intended to ensure that the flute player is available during the entire duration of the grape harvest. An exact date cannot yet be given because this depends on the ripeness of the grapes. The conclusion of the contract in December, half a year before the grape harvest, shows that musicians had to be "booked" well in advance. The flute player’s remuneration is not quoted as a specific amount but rather as "the fixed sum", so that it remains unclear whether the remuneration should be in money or in wine.

Object 3: An Ancient Circus Programme

Papyrus, 6th century AD.

Chariot races were very popular in all the major cities of the Roman Empire, yet no more than a handful of circus programmes have survived on papyrus. Such programmes announced the course of the exciting spectacles, which followed a similar structure everywhere. The games were opened with an invocation of Tyches (the goddess of fortune), then a procession walked along the racetrack, probably including an introduction of the horses and charioteers, with perhaps also a presentation of a statue of the goddess of victory or the prizes. The climax was formed by several chariot races. Between the individual rounds, showmen and entertainers provided variety. In this programme, the races are not specifically named, but the programme filling the breaks is announced in detail: tightrope walkers, acrobats, actors and stilt walkers.



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