Entertainment was essential to daily life in Ancient Rome. As noted by Juvenal, it
seemed that all Romans were interested in was "bread and circuses." And
with theaters, amphitheaters, circuses, and public baths galore, the Romans never seemed
to get bored.
[Circuses] [Amphitheaters] [Theaters] [Public Baths] [Leisure Activities]
Chariot racing was Rome's oldest and
most popular pastime, dating back to at least the Roman monarchy.
Greek chariot races were held in hippodromes in the
east, but in the west they were held in circuses. Other events eventually
infiltrated the circus games (ludi circenses), such as Greek athletics and
wrestling, but chariot racing remained the popular favorite. As a sport, it was
highly expensive, but organized into a highly profitable business. There were four
chariot facing factions, the blues, greens, whites, and reds, the colors of which were
worn by respective charioteers during races. If successful, a charioteer could
become rich and famous throughout Rome. Images of charioteers survive in sculpture,
mosaic, and molded glassware, sometimes even with inscribed names. The factions
rivaled greatly, sometimes leading to violence among supporters. In general,
however, the greens and blues were the favorites.
The circus itself consisted of tiers of
seats build around a U-shaped arena with an elaborately ornamented barrier, the spina,
running down the middle. Metae, or turning posts, adorned each end of the
course. At the open end of the U waited up to twelve four horse chariots (quadrigae),
which began the race from starting gates (carceres), drove to the right of the
spina, and then continued counter-clockwise for seven laps. At each end of the spina
were seven lap markers, one of which was removed after each lap run by the charioteers.
Circuses were also used for two horse chariot racing (bigae), and by the
late republic other events, such as foot and horse racing, athletics, and gladiatorial
shows/mock battles were commonplace in the circus.
The 1st circus was the
Circus Maximus, supposedly built during the monarchy. Later circuses were often
confused with Greek stadia, which were later adapted to the Roman world by their
own right, but were only approximately one-half the size of the typical circus (180-200
meters in length, 30 meters wide, with only two turning posts and no spina).
Circuses remained common in the west and stadia common in the Hellenistic east in the
tradition of the Greek games.
Several different types of shows all took
place in the arena of an Amphitheater. The word arena comes from the Latin
for "sand," which was placed on the Amphitheater floor to soak up spilled blood.
Amphitheaters were most commonly used for
gladiatorial matches which had been adapted from Etruscan funeral rites (munera).
By the last 1st century BC, however, the games had lost their
Gladiators came from various lots of life.
Originally, there were gladiatorial schools, but these came under state control in
the 1st century BC to avoid them becoming private armies. The
majority of gladiators were either condemned criminals (damnati), slaves,
prisoners of war, or volunteers who signed up to do shows for a fee. There were four
main types of gladiator:
- Murmillo: Fought with a helmet adorned
by a fish crest, an oblong shield, and a sword. He usually fought a retiaritus.
- Retiaritus: A lightly armed gladiator
with a net, brandishing either a trident or a dagger.
- Samnite: Utilized a sword, visor and
helmet, and an oblong shield.
- Thracian: Combated with a curved
scimitar and round shield.
Various other weapons, women, and sometimes
even dwarves were used in the games. Special types of "wild animal
matches" (venationes) were introduced in the 2nd Century BC
and became very popular. Such bouts included men on foot and on horseback, known as beastiarii,
who were usually either criminals, prisoners of war, or trained and paid fighters.
Beastiarii fought exotic animals, which eventually led to an extensive trade market.
Originally, wild animal matches took place
on the morning of the games, the public executions were held at midday, and then the
gladiatorial matches. Over time, however, these divisions became blurred, and often
many fights would take place at once, giving the appearance of a battle.
Other spectacles included mock naval
battles (naumachiae), known to take place on artificial lakes, as well as animal
performances, accompanied by music.
The amphitheater itself is a Roman, not
Greek, contrivance, and is particularly common in the west. The very first
gladiatorial and wild beast contests were held in open areas, such as the forum or circus.
The first known amphitheater dates to 80 BC at Pompeii; the fist permanent one in
Rome goes back to 29 BC. The design itself was oval or elliptical. Sloped
seating could be supported on solid banks of earth held by retaining walls with external
staircases or vaulted masonry structures. An awning (velum or velarium)
provided protection from the elements for spectators, and in larger amphitheaters, service
corridors and chambers beneath the floor held animals until they were to go out onto the
arena, which was done by facility of trapped doors.
In small towns, the local Amphitheater
could be the only entertainment. Due to their massive size, they were usually
constructed on the edge of a city or directly outside its walls. Military
amphitheaters (ludi) built near forts and fortresses served as training grounds
In Ancient Rome, plays were presented at the time of the games on contemporary
wooded stages. The first such permanent Roman theater was ordered to be built by
Pompey in 55 BC, eventually erected on the Campus Martius at Rome. Built of stone,
it had a seating capacity of 27,000. Essentially patterned after the Greek theater,
it differed in the respect that it was built on level ground.
Excavated out of the sides of hills, the circular
space located in front of the stage in a Greek theater was called the orchestra, where
choruses and actors performed. Since Roman plays usually lacked a true chorus, the
area in front of the stage which might have been an orchestra simply became a semicircular
All actors in Roman plays were male slaves.
Men played the parts of women. The typical stock characters included the rich
man, the king, the soldier, the slave, the young man, and the young woman. If
necessary, an actor would play two or more roles in a single performance.
The most notable part of an actor's regalia
was probably his mask. While different masks and wigs were used for comedies than
tragedies, certain characteristics remained constant. All masks had both cheek
supports and special chambers which acted as amplifiers. Gray wigs represented old
men, black for young men, and red for slaves. Young men donned brightly colored
clothing, while old men wore white. In this manner the characters could be easily
identified by the audience.
Admission to the Roman plays was free for
citizens. Originally, women were barred from viewing comedies and were only admitted
to tragedies, but later, no such restrictions were imposed.
Pantomimes, popular during the 1st
century BC, involved miming roles to accompaniment of singers, dancers, and musicians, in
addition to visual effects, similar to a ballet. In mimes of antiquity actors spoke.
Women were allowed in mimes and pantomimes,
which were more popular than typical plays but eventually degenerated into vulgar and
In the time of the Roman empire, the baths
were a place of leisure time during many Romans daily routine. People from nearly
every class - men, women, and children - could attend the thermae, or public
baths, similar to modern day fitness clubs and community centers.
The two most well preserved baths of ancient Rome
are the baths of Diocletian and Caracalla. Diocletian's baths cover an enormous 32
acres, and now, the ruins include two Roman churches, St. Mary of the Angels and the
Oratory of St. Bernard. The baths of Caracalla cover 27 acres.
Towards the center of the Roman baths,
adjoining the dressing room, could be found the tepidarium, an exceedingly large,
vaulted and mildly heated hall. This could be found surrounded on one side by the frigidarium,
a large, chilled swimming pool about 200 feet by 100 feet, and on the other side by the calidarium,
an area for hot bathing warmed by subterranean steam.
Hot air and steam baths had been known to
the Greeks as early as the 5th century BC, and have been found in Italy
dating back to the 3rd century BC. The original thermae were
small, hand activated individual sweets called balinae. By the 1st
century BC, hypocaust heating allowed for the creation of hot/cold rooms and plunge baths.
Bathing quickly became a communal activity. The term thermae was first
applied to the baths built by Aggripa in the last 1st century BC.
Emperors later built gradually grander baths, and the thermae became an Ancient Roman
Not only were the baths meant for leisure,
but also, for social gathering. In addition to the bathing areas could be found
portico shops, marketing everything from food, to ointments, to clothing. There were also
sheltered gardens and promenades, gymnasiums, rooms for massage, libraries, and museums.
Complimenting these scholarly havens were slightly more aesthetic marble statues
and other artistic masterpieces.
From the information above, it is obvious that
entertainment and leisure were central to Roman life. The public games (ludi)
were originally part of religious festivals, but eventually entertainment superseded
religion and the games became more numerous. Important games included the Ludi
Megalenses (4-10 April), Ludi Cereales (12-19 April), Ludi Florales
(28 April - 3 May), Ludi Apollinares (6-13 July), Ludi Romani (5-19
September), and the Ludi Plebeii (4-17 November).
By the 1st century BC, magistrates
used private games to gain support in elections. The emperors successfully continued
this practice, and the games became more and more lavish as each tried to out-do his
predecessor. Enormous amounts of money were spent on the games, yet admission was
free. By the close of the 2nd century there were 135 official
celebrations, and by the end of the 4th century there were 176. In
addition, there were special celebrations, such as the 100 day games celebrating Trajan's
victory over the Dacians. Publicly financed games also spread to the provinces.
Restrictions were imposed on the games in
the 4th century. Gladiator fights ended in the east at the end of the
4th century and in the west at the end of the 5th. The
wild animal contests died in the 6th century. Chariot racing fell
silent in the late Roman empire of the west, but continued in the east afterwards.
For the wealthy, however, entertainment could take place at home as they hosted
their own dinner parties and lavish banquets. Along with dinner could be music,
singing, and dancing by professionals. In some circles, recitation of written work,
such as poetry and speeches, followed. For the plebeians, associations (collegia)
may have thrown dinner parties.
Eating and drinking for the poor usually
meant frequenting taverns, ranging from brothels to gaming houses and everything
in-between. Gaming was popular among all classes, and included pastimes such as
dice, knucklebones, and gaming counters. Board games were played by adults as well
as children. Traditional children's games, such as hide-and-go-seek and leap frog
are depicted in Ancient Roman art. Children's toys have also been found.
For the wealthy, hunting and fishing may
have provided leisurely sport, but for the poorer these activities were more often a
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