Games Sport and Leisure in Ancient Rome

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Games, Sport and Leisure in Ancient Rome

Roman sportsThere is of course still much that we donít know about romeís games, sport and leisure. For example, a letter written in AD174 by a Tyrian agency at the port town of Puteoli makes a reference to expenses imposed on the agency to support the celebration of the "Ox-sacrifice games" Ė there is no other reference to such games in literature.

Juvenal is but one of many literary sources which attest to the shift in public attention towards "panem et circenses" Ė bread and circus as the, once austere Roman people, increasingly appreciated staged plays, chariot races, gladiatorial fights, animal hunts, athletics and other entertainments.

The best charioteers such as Apuleius Diocles could win incredible sums of prize money and their following was such that statistics of their performance were carefully compiled accompanied by fervent support and even hooliganism.

Juvenalís satirical comment reminds us not only of the love for games and entertainment but also of the use made by the ruling emperors of entertainment in order to sustain personal popularity and maintain social order: public games grew in popularity to as many as 50 events (hence days) in the calendar year. Actors and other professionals of the stage were greatly encouraged. An athleteís guild was set up, with professional athletes who toured the empire and Hercules a patron divinity. Being a member of this guild and indeed winning at such games could not only bring prized but also lifetime pensions.

Social barriers to participation in public games and exhibitions in Rome

The popularity of such exhibitions was not only great but had a great appeal for individuals of every social rank. As early as 46BC and on several occasions later, laws were passed (yet failed) to prevent members of the senatorial and equestrian classes as well as women from participating on the stage: "....the obscenity of women or those who, contrary to the dignity of their order, appear or rent their services on the stage or in games...." (written by Gaius Ateius Capito, a leading jurist in AD19). The text goes on to specify who such people might be: "....a senatorís son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, great-grandson or great-granddaughter, or a man whose father, grandfather, or brother or any woman whose husband or father or grandfather or brother ever had the right of sitting in the seats reserved for members of the equestrian order..."

Juvenalís satire #8 gives us a good insight of the situation:

"Your means exhausted, Damasippus, you hired out your voice to the stage, taking the part of the Clamorous Ghost of Catullus. The nimble Lentulus (Writerís Note: the Lentuli were a Patrician family of highest repute) acted famously the part of Laureolus: deserving, in my judgment, to be really and truly crucified. Nor can the spectators themselves be forgiven: the populace that with brazen front sits and beholds the triple buffooneries of our patricians, that can listen to a bare-footed Fabius, and laugh to see the Mamerci cuffing each other. What matters it at what price they sell their deaths? No Nero compels them to sell; yet they hesitate not to sell themselves at the games of the exalted Praetor. And yet suppose that on one side of you were placed a sword, on the other the stage: which were the better choice? Was ever any man so afraid of death that he would choose to be the jealous husband of a Thymele, or the colleague of the clown Corinthus? Yet when an Emperor has taken to harp-playing, it is not so very strange that a noble should act in a mime. Beyond this, what will be left but the gladiatorial school? And that scandal too you have seen in our city: a Gracchus (Writerís note: the Gracchi were another family of the highest and most ancient repute) fighting, not indeed as a murmillo, nor with the round shield and scimitar: such accoutrements he rejects, ay rejects and detests; nor does a helmet shroud his face. See how he wields his trident! and when with poised right hand he has cast the trailing net in vain, he lifts up his bare face to the benches and flies, for all to recognise, from one end of the arena to the other. We cannot mistake the golden tunic that flutters from his throat, and the twisted cord that dangles from the high-crowned cap; and so the pursuer who was pitted against Gracchus endured a shame more grievous than any wound."

It is worth noting this example of social resistance within the noble classes, which the writer Herodotus also noted in other early civilisations and which in 16th century France came to be known as "Derogeance". A snob attitude to participation in activities which might be considered demeaning to their upper rank. it is a vivid example of one of the essential facets of Roman society and indeed a highly limiting factor in the economy of ancient Rome (not so much in its aversion to participation in games and entertainment but rather in its aversion to direct funds towards trade and commerce rather than landowning).

The organisation of these events was not always at public expense Ė as in the celebration of religious occasions or to celebrate the divine spirit of the emperor; quite the opposite: they were often displays paid for by private individuals, whether to celebrate or commemorate a personal family event such as the death of their father, or as a means of winning public favour and votes for public positions.

Not surprisingly, the popularity of such games and the view held of them altered and changed as the empireís fortunes waned and in particular when Christianity took on an increasingly strong hold in public life: having been closely associated with pagan custom the Christian view was generally contrary to them (not to mention the fact that the cruelty which characterised some of them was alien to Christian faith). Tertullianís "Apology" gives us a view of Christian view of such displays:

"....Your public games too we renounce, as heartily as we do their origins; we know these origins lie in superstition....We have nothing to do, in speech, sight, or hearing, with the madness of the circus, the shamelessness of the theatre, the savagery of the arena, the vanity of the gymnasium..."

The load of public games and sport on Roman morality, social equilibrium and the Roman economy

Cassius Dio, writing in the third century, lays bare the high cost and social disorder which could be induced by an excess of such displays:

"....But as to the horseraces in connection with which there are no gymnastic contests, I think that no city but Rome should be permitted to have them, the object being to prevent the wanton dissipation of vast sums of money and to keep the populace from becoming deplorably crazed over such a sport...."

"...the cities should not indulge in public buildings unnecessarily numerous or large, nor waste their resources on expenditures for a large number and variety of public games, lest they exhaust themselves in futile exertions and be led by unreasonable rivalries to quarrel among themselves...."

"...they ought indeed to have their festivals and spectacles...but not to such an extent that the public treasury or the estates of private citizens shall be ruined thereby...."

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This page about Rome's games sport and leisure was written in Sept 2009 by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for