For this post, I have been indebted, among other sources, to Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010), Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Profile, 2013), and Florence Dupont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Hachette, 1989, Blackwell, 1992). There is also an excellent discussion here.
|Mosaic of a chariot race, from Lyon. T|
he four teams (Red, Green, Blue, and White) can be clearly seen
'Bread and circuses'
In his Tenth Satire the poet Juvenal (c. 100 AD) stated:
‘Time was when the plebiscite electedGenerals, Heads of State and commanders of legions: but nowThey’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them Bread and circuses.’He was referring to the corn dole and to the constant entertainments put on for the population.
In her review of Jerry Toner's The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Johns Hopkins, 2015) Catherine Nixey writes:
'The games were not some frivolous sideshow to Roman society: they were Roman society: financially, socially and politically they were at its heart.' The Times, 7 February 2105.
Chariot racingThe races were the most prestigious and enduring form of Roman entertainment. Chariot racing had a long history among the Greeks and it had probably come to Rome through the Etruscans. Virgil describes a chariot race in Book V of his Aeneid.
‘At the races passions ran high. Tens of thousands of spectators held their breath, waiting for the starter’s signal. Then, from his platform, the praetor threw down his handkerchief and they were off, into the headlong speed of the chariot race when the chariots hurtle forth from their stalls…the charioteers shake the waving reins wildly over their dashing steeds, bending forward with the lash! Then applause and shouts, and the zealous cries of partisans fill the air.’
|A rather good view of the Circus Maximus,|
taken in 1978
The horses emerged from the starting stalls (a Roman innovation) and competitors raced seven times, anti-clockwise past a central barrier known as the spina, some 233 yards long, which was decorated with two great obelisks, and around a circuit, manoeuvring a tight turn at each end. The most thrilling moment was when the chariots circled the markers (metae). They had to run very close to them without actually touching the stones. If they went too fast their centrifugal force would make them swerve dangerously, and they might tip over. Accidents were frequent.
There were four teams, or factions: Red, Green, Blue and White, each with its own horses and riders. Most charioteers began as slaves; successful ones could eventually buy their freedom. Spectators supported their teams with fierce enthusiasm and riots between fans often broke out. Races were also social occasions - see Ovid's Amores, which has a very full description of how a day at the races could also be an opportunity for seduction.
|A model of the Circus Maximus,|
with the Colosseum
AmphitheatresThe word ‘amphitheatre’ comes from two Greek words meaning ‘a place with seats for spectators all round’. In an amphitheatre, the seating completely encloses the space. The Romans also used the term ‘arena’ (from the Latin harena for sand) for the building that was used to cover the surface of the sanded performing area.
Gladiatorial contests were the oldest of the Roman blood sports. Scholars are still debating when and where gladiators originated, whether they came via the Etruscans or from the south. Some have argued for prehistoric origins in human sacrifice. Florence Dupont argues that
‘it is no accident that they were introduced to Rome at a time when the city had embarked on an expansionist policy and when Rome was assuming its position at the centre of the world and of civilisation’.The first gladiatorial combat was staged in Rome in 264 BC, though there might have been earlier ones in southern Italy.
|The amphitheatre at Pompeii|
A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident,
in this mosaic from the villa at Nennig, Germany,
c. 2nd–3rd century AD.
The Romans gave considerable thought to the physique of the gladiator. He should be fleshy because surface wounds in fat produce a lot of blood without a lot of damage.
The following list of types of gladiator is not exhaustive. See here for more detail.
The ‘Thracian’ (Thrax) fought with a short, curved sword and a small shield.
The murmillo (fish-head), so called because of the emblem of the fish on his helmet was armed with a Roman sword and a large, long shield. He was heavy-armed but slow.
The secutor was similarly armed.
The net-man (retiarius) fought with a net and trident. He was less well-armed but more nimble.
The andabata fought with a helmet that acted as a blindfold and fought on tiptoes.
Asymmetrical pairs were selected for combat. Each gladiator was therefore too heavily or too lightly armed. A murmillo against a retiarius was a popular combination.
Apart from gladiators, there were three other types of slaughter: battles between wild animals (first staged in the 180s BC), hunts between wild animals and humans, and mock sea-battles. Their origins go back into the Republic, but they expanded greatly under the emperors. The greatest sufferer was north Africa, which suffered a huge loss of animal life.
Blood sports were intensely political. Ambitious politicians felt they needed to provide entertainments for the people. With the ending of the Republic the emperors monopolised triumphs. In the Res Gestae Augustus claimed:
‘Three times I gave shows of gladiators; … in these shows about 10,000 men fought. … Twenty-six times, under my name or that of my sons and grandsons, I gave the people hunts of African beasts in the circus, in the open, or in the amphitheatre; in them about 3,500 beasts were killed.’He was proud of that! The emperor Trajan went one better. In one set of games he gave the equivalent of the entire mammal population of London zoo was destroyed every two days.