10 Facts About the Roman Games

Colin Ricketts

3 mins

27 Jul 2018

The Ancient Romans loved their games. Roman leaders famously pacified the public by providing panem et circenses meaning ‘bread and circuses’. These circuses, or games, were more than just entertainment, they were also populist tools used to drum up political support.

Games also often featured at religious festivals, a typical Roman blending of state function and religion.

Here are 10 facts about the games of Ancient Rome.

1. Roman games, called ludi, were probably instituted as an annual event in 366 BC

Relief showing Ancient Roman ludi

Photo by Georges Jansoone via Wikimedia Commons.

It was a single-day festival in honour of the god Jupiter. Soon there were as many as eight ludi each year, some religious, some to commemorate military victories.

2. The Romans probably took gladiatorial games from the Etruscans or Campanians

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Like the two rival Italian powers, the Romans first used these combats as private funeral celebrations.

3. Trajan celebrated his final victory over the Dacians with games

An Ancient Roman triumph

10,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals were used over 123 days.

4. Chariot racing remained the most popular sport in Rome

Ancient Roman chariot racing

Drivers, who usually started out as slaves, could earn adulation and huge sums. Gaius Appuleius Diocles, survivor of 4,257 races and winner of 1,462, is supposed to have earned the equivalent of $15 billion in his 24-year career.

5. There were four factiones racing, each in their own colour

The red team in an Ancient Roman chariot race

The red, white, green and blue teams inspired great loyalty, building clubhouses for their fans. In 532 AD in Constantinople rioting that destroyed half the city was sparked by chariot fans’ disputes.

6. Spartacus (111 – 71 BC) was an escaped gladiator who led a slave revolt in 73 BC

The death of Spartacus

His powerful forces threatened Rome during the Third Servile War. He was a Thracian, but little is known about him beyond his military skill. There is no evidence his forces had a social, anti-slavery agenda. The defeated slaves were crucified.

7. Emperor Commodus was famous for his almost-mad devotion to fighting in games himself

Caligula, Hadrian, Titus, Caracalla, Geta, Didius Julianus and Lucius Verus are all reported to have fought in games of some sort.

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8. Gladiator fans formed factions too, favouring one type of fighter over others

Ancient Roman gladiator types on a mosaic

Laws divided the gladiators into groups such as Secutors, with their large shields, or heavily-armed fighters with smaller shields called Thraex after their Thracian origin.

9. It’s not clear how often gladiatorial fights were to the death

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The fact that fights were advertised as ‘sine missione’, or without mercy, suggests that often losers were allowed to live. Augustus banned fighting to the death to help tackle a shortage of gladiators.

10. It has been estimated that 500,000 people and more than 1 million animals died in the Coliseum, Rome’s great gladiatorial arena

The Colosseum in Rome