Ancient Rome was known for its extravagant, state-funded programme of events and entertainment, designed to keep the populace distracted and appeased.
This phenomenon was described by the poet Juvenal with the phrase panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’): this suggested the politicians of ancient Rome won the hearts of the populace as much by entertainment (circuses) and the provision of basic goods (bread) as they did through their policies and politics.
Certainly, ancient Rome was rife with opportunities for public entertainment, but Romans also found ways to entertain themselves at home. From board games to bloodthirsty gladiatorial shows, here are 6 of the most popular pastimes in ancient Rome.
1. Gladiator fights
Gladiators (literally ‘swordsmen’ in Latin) provided entertainment for the masses by engaging in combatant bloodsports and fighting animals, condemned criminals or each other in public arenas.
The premise for gladiatorial combat is thought to have originated during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC and quickly became popular throughout the Roman Empire. The games were seen as both a high and low art: lucky or successful gladiators could earn respect, admiration, money and social status through participating and winning. But many gladiators were also slaves, forced to compete and die for the entertainment of the people.
Rome’s Colosseum is the most famous location was gladiatorial fights: it could seat up to 80,000 people, so there would have been quite the atmosphere. Gladiator fights were normally advertised well in advance across the city: they were typically free to attend, although many would have spent money on food, drink, betting and awnings or sunshades whilst they were there.
People from all walks of life enjoyed the games: women and children often attended, albeit normally sitting slightly further back to avoid the sight of so much gore, as did everyone from the emperor down to the poorest in Rome.
2. Chariot racing
The home of chariot racing in ancient Rome was the Circus Maximus: racing was held in ‘circuses’ or stadiums which could, in the case of the Circus Maximus, hold up to 150,000 people.
Like football today, people loyally supported teams for their entire lives, and there were deep factions between rival teams and supporters. Each team had powerful, wealthy financial backers and the amount of money behind a particular team would often coincide with their fortunes, as it meant that they would be able to afford better drivers and faster horses.
As with gladiatorial combat, there was a certain appeal in the potential for danger or death: crashes could be potentially fatal and added to the sense of drama on the track. Again, watching the races was free to all, but many lost small fortunes gambling on the results of races.
Romans believed exercise was a key part of health, and encouraged men of all ages to run, swim, box, wrestle and lift weights. The Campus Martius in ancient Rome was essentially a giant sports ground. Sports were almost exclusively reserved for men.
Watching wrestling, boxing and running races was also a popular pastime for spectators.
4. Board games
Whilst not quite like modern board games, Romans also enjoyed playing games in their leisure time: archaeologists have found counters and rudimentary boards during excavations.
The exact rules of the most popular board games in ancient Rome are unclear, but it’s believed some games centred around military strategy (like Ludus latrunculorum), whilst others were more like draughts or chess – games of tactics, logic and quick thinking. Dice-based games were also popular.
Tragedy and comedy were the two main genres for Roman theatre: unsurprisingly, most people favoured comedy as a lighter form of entertainment. Plays were staged regularly, and productions competed to produce the greatest spectacle possible: the more elaborate and dramatic, the better.
Plays often had subtle political messaging and were viewed as propaganda tools as well as simple entertainment. Theatres tended to be funded by powerful benefactors who did so either for propaganda reasons or through their desire to maintain public order, keeping citizens distracted from political issues by entertaining them.
Comedy was filled with stock characters who reappeared time and time again, many of which would be familiar to modern audiences: the adulescens (young bachelor in pursuit of love or lust), the virgo (the young woman pursued by the adulescens), the matrona (matron figure) and the miles glorioso (the bragging, foolish soldier).
Often incorporated as part of wider public festivities, plays were attended by all, but class hierarchies were apparent in the seating arrangements. Women and slaves tended to get seats at the back of the auditorium.
6. Public baths
Known either as thermae or balnae, bathhouses were popular ways for people to socialise, read and enjoy their leisure time. Almost every small town had at least one bathhouse, with major cities having hundreds. Wealthy individuals would have had their own private bath complexes, whilst many ordinary people would pay a few coins to enter.
Bath houses were built around three main rooms: the tepidarium (warm room), the caldarium (hot room), and the frigidarium (cold room), with some having steam rooms or saunas too. There was also almost always a palaestra (outdoor gym) where men could exercise.
Bathing was a key part of Roman culture, and bath houses were convivial places. For the most part, men and women would use separate bathing facilities in order to maintain modesty, and many people went multiple times a week. Officials wishing to curry favour with the public often commissioned lavish public bathhouses or paid a fee to ensure that everyone could enjoy free entry to the baths for a day.