The Romans



Not only was the official Roman working day a short one by modern standards, but there were comparatively few working days in the year, except for slaves, who in any case were not allowed to attend public entertainments as spectators. During the rule of Claudius, 159 days in the year were designated public holidays, on 93 of which shows were offered at public expense. Originally the games had religious significance, but under the republic more and more secular games were introduced, ostensibly to celebrate notable events, some of which lasted as long as a fortnight.

Roman thatre at Ostia

Roman theatre, Ostia, showing seats, orchestra, and stage. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

There were two kinds of games: ludi scaenici, or theatrical events, and ludi circenses. The ludi scaenici, however, suffered overwhelming competition from other forms of spectacle.

Circus Maximus

Reconstruction drawing by G. Gatteschi of the Circus Maximus. (From Albert Kuhn, Roma 1913: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Ludi circenses took place in the custom-built circuses, or race-tracks, and amphitheatres. It is not difficult for modern sports’ fans to appreciate the Romans’ passion for chariot-racing, and their devotion to the particular team they supported, with its colours of white, green, red, or blue. The public adulated the most successful drivers, and there was heavy on-course and off-course betting.

Chariot race

Mosaic of two-horse chariot and (behind) four horsemen, each in his colours, from the basilica of Junius Bassus, consul in 331 AD. The driver may be Bassus himself. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

The drivers were usually slaves, but they were also professional sportsmen, who could earn vast sums from winning. Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who died at the age of 42, having driven chariots for twenty-four years, had 1462 wins in 4257 starts, and was placed 1437 times. In the reign of Augustus there might be ten or twelve races in a day; during and after the time of Caligula, twenty-four a day was commonplace.

Chariot race

“A Chariot Race” by Alex. Wagner. (From Albert Kuhn, Roma 1913: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The chariots themselves were constructed to be as light as possible, and were drawn by two, four, or even more horses: the higher the number, the greater was the skill required of the driver, and the more sensational were the crashes and pile-ups. A race was usually seven laps of the track - a total of about 4000 metres in the Circus Maximus in Rome - with a hair-raising 180 degrees turn at each end of the spina, the narrow wall that divided the arena. Though the start was staggered, there were no lanes and apparently no rules.


Third-century AD mosaic of gladiatorial fight. One of them holds up his finger to acknowledge defeat. (VRoma: Praehistorisches Museum, Munich: Barbara McManus)

It was the ludi circenses of the amphitheatres, however, which have given the Romans the bad press that their thirst for bloodletting has earned them, though there is evidence that the Etruscans attached religious significance to the gladiatorial combat. The single rule of such bouts was that similarly armed contestants or teams of contestants did not normally fight each other. The most usual contest was between a moderately protected and helmeted swordsman and a retiarius, armed only with a net and trident. It was each man for himself, and any who appeared less than enthusiastic were prodded into activity with red-hot irons, while other attendants stood by to drag off the corpses and to pour new sand over the pools of blood.

Dragging out the corpses

(From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

It was sometimes left to the crowd to signify whether a wounded and downed gladiator should be finished off by his opponent. This they did by waving their handkerchiefs for a release, or giving the “thumbs down” signal for death.

Gladiatorial combat

Reconstruction drawing of gladiatorial combat by J-L. Gerome. (From Albert Kuhn, Roma 1913: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Gladiators were slaves, or condemned criminals, or prisoners of war, all of whom were regarded as expendable. So were wild animals, which were rounded up in their natural habitats and transported in their thousands to be hunted down and slaughtered in the confines of the arenas of the Roman empire.

ostriches being imported for a venatio

An ostrich and other exotic birds and animals being loaded aboard a ship for Rome, from a mosaic in the Corridor of the Great Hunt, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily. (René Seindal)


Bestiarii (beast fighters) with whips try to distract a bear mauling a fallen gladiator. From a floor mosaic of the second or third century AD, Nennig. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

To celebrate the opening of the Colosseum in AD 80, five thousand wild beasts and four thousand tame animals were killed in one day. For variety, animals would be goaded to fight each other. Alternatively, or as an additional attraction, the animals tore apart contingents of condemned and unarmed criminals: Christians were regarded as especially good sport.


Reconstruction drawing by G. Nispi-Landi of a naumachia in progress in the Colosseum, with the awnings in place to protect the spectators against the sun. (From Albert Kuhn, Roma 1913: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The third and most spectacular form of combat, which involved flooding the arena or transferring the show to a suitable stretch of water, was the naumachia, or sea-fight. The idea seems to have originated with Julius Caesar. The biggest ever was staged by Claudius in AD 52, on the Fucine lake, to celebrate the completion of the brick-lined tunnel to drain it which had taken thirty thousand workmen eleven years to construct. He put 19,000 armed criminals into two fleets of ships with both three and four banks of oars, and positioned rafts round the edge of the lake to block off any escape routes. All the while, soldiers fired catapults and missile-throwers from behind ramparts on the shore.

Overview of this page [Ref: 5.10]


The Roman addiction to the Games, as gladiatorial shows and chariot-racing became increasingly frequent and popular.



The pull of the gladiators

The playwright Terence (185 - 159 BC) records sadly that the first act of a revival of his comedy The Mother-in-Law was going well when someone announced that the gladiatorial show was about to begin. The audience did not so much melt away as surge out!


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Believe it or not:

Emperors used to organize one-off performances of the games. Titus’s games to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum in AD 80 went on for 100 days. In AD 108, the emperor Trajan provided 117 days of spectacles to mark his military victories in Dacia.
The Romans demanded realism, even in the performance of ballets. Nero put on one depicting the myth of Icarus, whose father built wings of feathers and wax with which they attempted to fly from Crete to Athens. Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax melted, and he fell to his death. In the ballet, the part of Icarus was presumably taken by a convicted criminal, who duly plunged onto the stage, spattering Nero with blood.
Few gladiators reached the age of 30. Flamma, one who did, fought in the arena 34 times, winning 21 of his fights. On nine occasions he was “stans missus”, sent off after an indecisive combat, and on four others he was “missus”, beaten but spared by the wishes and generosity of the crowd.
Elephants fighting bulls to the death was a feature of a games in 79 BC. Nero introduced the marine contest, involving seals against bears. A feature of the games with which the Colosseum opened was the spectacle of a convicted criminal being crucified while his exposed entrails were devoured by a she-bear specially imported from Scotland.
Particularly popular with the crowds were action replays, with real fighting and real deaths, of historical sea fights, such as the battle of Salamis (480 BC), which was performed several times in the first century AD, Syracuse (413 BC), and Actium (31 BC), at which Octavian overcame the combined forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.
At the games Julius Caesar put on in 46 BC to celebrate his quadruple triumph, the Romans had their first sight of a giraffe, which they called a cameleopard.