The Roman games were grand public events and entertainments for the masses. They were extremely popular not only in Rome but in cities and towns throughout Italy and the Roman provinces*. Unlike the Greek games, with their emphasis on athletic excellence and competition, the Roman games were designed to amuse and entertain large groups of spectators. Some games included athletic events copied from the Greek games, such as footraces and wrestling. Far more popular, however, were chariot races, theatrical performances, fights between gladiators*, and animal hunts. On rare occasions, Romans sponsored even more elaborate events, such as flooding arenas to stage mock naval battles.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* gladiator in ancient Rome, slave or captive who participated in combats that were staged for public entertainment

The Roman games differed from the Greek games in several other ways. While the Greek athletes were free citizens (sometimes even aristocrats*), most participants in the Roman games were slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war. Bloodshed was a powerful attraction for Roman audiences. The Roman games, much more dangerous than the Greek games, generally included the injury or death of people and animals. A second great attraction of the Roman games was betting. Almost everyone who attended the games, from the emperor to the lowliest laborer, wagered on the outcome of various events.

Origins of the Games. There were two kinds of Roman games, the ludi and the munera, The ludi were traditionally associated with religious festivals honoring the gods. The earliest recorded ludi, in the mid-300s B.C., were chariot races. Around 240 B.C., musical and dramatic performances were added to the games. The religious connection of the ludi continued through the centuries in the form of processions, or parades, in which marchers carried images of the gods to the sites of the games.

The munera were gladiatorial combats, battles between pairs or groups of fighters. Such combats were part of the funeral customs of Etruria, as north-central Italy was called before the rise of Rome. The Romans probably borrowed the munera from the Etruscans. The first gladiators in Rome fought at the funeral games held in honor of an aristocratic citizen in 264 B.C. By the end of the Roman Republic*, munera were no longer limited to funeral games. Gladiatorial combats occurred whenever someone was willing to go to the expense of sponsoring them, although they were almost never combined with the ludi.

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

The Roman games existed solely for the entertainment of the public. In brutal fights like the one shown here, wild animals were unleashed on slaves, criminals, or other animals. The Roman thirst for blood was not easily quenched—these fights were only the prelude to the even more spectacular human gladiatorial contests.

Over time, the Roman games took on a political character. Paying for games was often one of the responsibilities of public officials. During the later years of the republic and throughout the years of the empire, generals and emperors also sponsored games to win the favor and support of the people. Sponsors competed with one another, spending enormous sums to provide the most lavish, spectacular games possible. At these huge gatherings, open to all classes of Roman society, riots and political demonstrations sometimes broke out among the spectators.

Chariot Races. Chariot races were probably the most popular event of the games throughout the Roman world. By the A.D. 300s, races were held on 66 days of the year in Rome, with 24 races each day.

Chariot races took place in oval arenas called circuses, which were originally nothing more than flat fields surrounded by slopes where spectators could sit on the ground. Although smaller and poorer towns continued to hold their races in open fields, elsewhere circuses became elaborate, highly decorated stone structures. One of the best known is the Circus Maximus in Rome. After the emperor Trajan rebuilt it in the early A.D. 100s, it could seat as many as 170,000 spectators. This and other circuses were designed so that 12 four-horse teams could race in a single event.

The races were operated by business organizations called factions. There were four factions, each represented by a color: red, white, blue, and green. Each had its own stables, horses, and charioteers. The factions hired out horses, drivers, and equipment to the games’ sponsors. Most spectators cheered for—and bet on—their favorite faction, sometimes wearing scarves in their faction’s color. In the fourth century A.D., the emperor took away control of racing from the professional organizations. From then on, only he could provide horses and charioteers for the games, although the teams continued to be organized in factions as before.

Theatrical Performances. Theatrical events were less costly to stage than chariot races or gladiatorial contests. As a result, by far the largest number of games took place in theaters. By the A.D. 300s, the Roman calendar featured 101 days of ludi scaenici, or festival games, in theaters. Theaters were loud, boisterous places. Disturbances were more common there than at the other entertainments. Most of these disturbances were clashes between fans of rival actors.

Some theatrical events were serious plays modeled on Greek drama. Roman audiences, however, preferred livelier comedies of the Roman playwrights, such as Plautus and Terence. Mime and pantomime became the chief forms of theatrical entertainment. Mime plays, based on the everyday lives and loves of common people, were blasphemous, satirical, or obscene. Unlike serious plays, in which all parts were acted by men, mimes featured women in the female roles. To the Christians who criticized mimes, women acting on stage was another sign of the immorality of these plays. Pantomimes were more complex and resembled ballet.

Remember: Consult the Index at the end of volume 4 to find more information on many topics.

Pantomime plays usually centered on mythological themes. Performers wearing masks acted and danced to the accompaniment of musicians and singers.

Although Nero and several other emperors appeared on the stage as actors and singers, such ventures were regarded as scandalous, since most actors were slaves or former slaves. Romans of the upper classes did not consider acting a respectable profession.

Gladiators. Gladiatorial contests, or munera, occurred less frequently than theater and circus performances. They took place in arenas called amphitheaters*. The banks of seats were steep, giving everyone in the audience a good view of the arena floor. The largest amphitheater in Rome, the Colosseum, held about 50,000 spectators.

Gladiatorial contests were hand-to-hand combats. Most munera featured no more than 120 pairs of fighters. Occasionally, however, gladiators numbered in the thousands. In A.D. 107, Trajan sponsored a contest with 5,000 pairs of gladiators to celebrate the end of war in Dacia. Gladiators generally fought until one of them indicated defeat by raising his finger and asking for permission to leave the arena alive, or until one or both fell dead. Most gladiatorial contests did not end in death, although injuries were common and deaths did occur. Few Romans objected to the violence and cruelty of the contests, but the emperor Constantine I banned such contests in A.D. 325, claiming that they were too bloodthirsty.

The great majority of gladiators were slaves or criminals. A small group of professional fighters, however, consisted of free men who were skilled combatants, and they won fortunes in the arena. Gladiators fought in four styles. Samnite fighters had oblong shields, short swords, and helmets with eyeguards. Murmillones were similarly equipped, with a helmet crest in the shape of a fish. Thracian gladiators were more lightly armed, with a round shield and a curved sword called a scimitar. Retiarii entered the arena without armor and fought their opponents using a net, a dagger, and a spearlike instrument called a trident.

Animal Hunts. During the period of the Roman Republic, victorious generals included wild animals in their triumphal parades in Rome. Crowds marveled at the sight of such exotic creatures as elephants, leopards, and giraffes. Animals became part of the Roman games in the later years of the republic, when Pompey and Caesar included animal hunts in the massive games they sponsored. At these spectacles, wild animals fought each other or humans for the amusement of the audience.

Animal hunts took place in amphitheaters, often before or after the gladiatorial contests. In the animal hunts, fierce animals such as lions— sometimes starved or abused to make them even fiercer—were pitted against trained hunters, or they were turned loose to maul unarmed criminals tied to stakes. Sometimes two animals fought each other. These battles often pitted a bull against a bear. On other occasions, predatory animals such as hounds or leopards were set loose to slaughter defenseless creatures such as ostriches and gazelles.

Like the gladiatorial contests and the chariot races, animal hunts were costly spectacles. Those who sponsored games depended upon a far-ranging

* amphitheater oval or round structure with rows of seats rising gradually from a stage or central open space network of hunters and shippers to provide a steady supply of exotic animals for the arenas of Rome and other Roman cities. Like all the Roman games, the animal hunts came to an end when Christianity came to dominate the empire, ending centuries of pagan* pastimes. (See also Animals; Chariots; Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Games, Greek.)


Gladiators fought until one or both of them fell dead—or until one of them admitted defeat and requested permission to leave the arena alive. The decision of life or death nested with the sponsor of the games. Generally the sponsor followed the wishes of the crowd, which often spared losers who had put up a good fight. However, if people in the audience held out their hands with thumbs pointing down, the sponsor refused the defeated gladiator's request. The doomed gladiator could then choose to take up his weapon again or be slaughtered where he stood by his victorious opponent.

* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!