From the Colosseum to Wembley: crowd watching through the ages

Sunday 21 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Fountain Room

From the Colosseum of Rome to the modern football stadiums of today, the behaviour of crowds has often been a matter of moral and political concern. In Ancient Rome, thousands roared their approval as gladiators fought to the death against each other and against wild beasts. This year the Scottish government has enacted the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act to prevent fans from chanting songs which could cause offence to others. The booing of Tomas Berdych after he refused to shake hands with his opponent at the Australian Open tennis this year came in for much criticism. Beyond sport, traces of historic concerns about the urban mob can be seen in the tight policing not only of political demonstrations, but any mass public gatherings, from New Year celebrations to summer gatherings in parks, especially when alcohol is involved.

But are the seething multitudes really such a problem? Why shouldn’t sporting crowds be able to show their passion and even vent some spleen. If they have paid their money, haven’t they got a right to sing traditional songs, insult the opposition and revel in the misfortune of others. In the case of Berdych, it could be argued that it was the crowd which upheld the spirit of tennis against an overly sensitive player. And surely lively, sometimes raucous gatherings in public space, from the Notting Hill Carnival to flash mobs, are a sign of a healthy and vibrant social life. In contrast, many argue that individuals in a crowd should not be allowed to behave in a way which is not acceptable in normal life. If a fan sings an offensive song or makes an abusive gesture why should they be able to get away with it at a football match but not on the Clapham omnibus? If children and an international audience are watching, surely it is best to mind your Ps and Qs. For some, there is a thin line between an unregulated street party and a criminal riot.

Is the banter at football fixtures all part of life’s rich tapestry, such that we should all just grow a thicker skin? And shouldn’t we be encouraging people to come together in public at a time when many fear society has become atomised and individuated? Do we need stricter regulation of how people behave in large groups, or should crowds be left to police themselves? Isn’t it all just bread and circuses anyway?

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor,; author, Radical Blake

Dr John Drury
senior lecturer, social psychology, University of Sussex; co-editor, Crowds in the 21st century: perspectives from contemporary social science (forthcoming)

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Geoff Kidder
director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters

Produced by
Geoff Kidder director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters
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