Ancient History & Civilisation

Fun And Games

“Serve him wine and dice,” calls the tavernkeeper to a waiter in a little poem attributed to Vergil. The two went naturally together: dice and knucklebones (four- instead of six-sided pieces) were to the Roman what playing cards are to us, an important feature of daily life, a pleasant and cheap and convenient means for whiling away spare time. The ancient artist drew men absorbed in a dice game, just as Cezanne drew card players. Augustus enjoyed dice so much that he allowed play during his dinner parties - and, being a considerate host as well as a skilled crapshooter, deliberately lost, since he otherwise would have cleaned his guests out. Claudius had a special carriage fitted with a gaming board. And, as we all know, when Caesar made the most momentous move of his career, he used an expression from the gaming table: “The die is cast.”

In addition to the various versions of throwing dice, the Romans went in for the games that use them to move counters on a board. Rich men had expensive tables fitted for the two board games that were most popular, just as people today include chess or checker tables among their furnishings. We find game boards scratched in the steps of public buildings or on the paving of public squares - places where people would wait around or tend to gather. Though the games were pastimes, they were treated as seriously as we treat chess or bridge. The story is told of a philosopher condemned to death who was ahead in a game with a fellow prisoner just when the sentry came to fetch him for execution; he insisted that the sentry check the board in case his opponent tried to claim a victory after he was gone.

Sports, then as now, were another favored way of filling one’s moments of leisure. The Romans inherited all the varieties that the Greeks had introduced and made popular - boxing, wrestling, track, field, various types of ball playing. There was one game resembling handball (it involved hitting a ball against a wall) that seems to have been for the Romans what tennis is for us. Public baths often had courts for this game, and so did private villas; Pliny had them at both his seashore and country villas.

Then there were the organized public sports, the equivalent of our professional baseball or football.

Rome’s first festivals were connected with agriculture, honoring gods of the fields and crops. Though they continued to be celebrated by country folk more or less throughout Roman history, they meant little to the city dweller. What absorbed his interest was a series of festivals called ludi, “games,” which had been established over the years to mark notable happenings. The Ludi Megalenses, a seven-day holiday from April 4 to 10, honored the Great Mother goddess who had brought victory over Hannibal; the Ludi Apollinares, lasting from July 6 to 13, thanked Apollo for his help with a plague (as well as invoking such help in all future plagues), and so on. In the imperial period, the emperors steadily introduced others to commemorate their own accomplishments, such as the Ludi Augustales, a ten-day holiday in honor of Augustus that was first celebrated in 11 B.C. and was made annual after his death. At the end of the second century B.C., there were six ludi, four of which lasted five to eight days, and two lasting fourteen and fifteen, for a total of fifty-seven days annually; by Augustus’s time, additions had raised this figure to seventy-seven, and by the second century A.D., very likely to more than 100. The programs of the ludi offered two forms of entertainment that are rarely put together, theatre and horse racing. The first was given the lion’s share of time; the second was reserved for an all-day grand finale, except in the longer festivals where it extended over three to five days. The ludi were official occasions, run and paid for by the government, so entrance was free - if one could get one’s hands on a ticket, which was not always easy. In the theatres, the best seats, right in front of the stage, were reserved for senators and visiting dignitaries, fourteen front rows for the next highest social class, and everyone else had to scramble for what was left. Women and men were seated separately. The magistrates in charge of public entertainment signed a contract with the manager of a troupe of actors, or with an acting star, to supply a given number of performances, and with the racing stables to supply a given number of teams, chariots, and drivers.

The theatrical entertainment, although traditionally using more than two-thirds of the time available, was the less important. In the days of the republic, the programs ran heavily to tragedy and comedy, even high comedy; this was when Plautus and Terence made their reputations. But Roman dramatic taste was never very cultivated, and in the period that most concerns us, the preferred fare was what the ancients called mime. Although no examples of Roman mimes have survived, many of their titles have, and from these and random remarks dropped by ancient writers it is clear that they were a form of burlesque skit, swift-moving one-act affairs that used the time-honored ingredients of surprise (for example, a standard plot was modo egens repente dives, “now a pauper and suddenly wealthy,” or “rags to riches in a day”), violence (in a mime about the life of the Roman equivalent of Jesse James, he ends up being crucified on stage and vomiting blood all about), and above all sex, with emphasis on adultery and the time-honored trinity of smooth lover, artful wife, and duped husband. In ancient tragedy and comedy, it was fixed tradition for actors to be masked and for all parts to be played by men; Roman mimes were the sole exception: For more realistic effect, masks were dispensed with, and women played the female roles - which in some pieces involved stripping on stage.

Another form of entertainment that found as much favor as the mime was the vaudeville act: tumblers and tight-rope walkers and other acrobats, jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, performing animals. The last were so popular that when an audience was bored with what they were seeing, the standard cry was “Bring on a bear!” Only one highbrow type of performance was encouraged, the pantomime, a combination of mime - our kind - and ballet. It was almost always done by a single performer, usually male, wearing an elegant form of mask and dressed in elaborate costume. While a chorus sang about some mythological or historical event - as one ancient critic put it, the subjects could include anything from the primal Chaos to Cleopatra - the pantomimist danced it out, telling its story through steps, gestures, expressive movements of every part of his body. By means of rapid-fire changes of mask, he would dance a whole series of such stories. Pantomime stars commanded followings as devoted as those of today’s pop singers. Order in the theatre was maintained by a unit of the city’s daytime police force; when Nero once removed them as an enlightened public gesture, brawling between the adherents of rival artists became so serious that he quickly had to put the men back on duty.

As might be expected, the theatre had scant social standing. The actors were practically all foreigners, mostly Greeks, many of whom had started as slaves. Only a handful who rose to stardom and could command huge prices for their performances were able to break the barriers; they amassed enormous fortunes, and under culturally minded emperors such as Nero or Hadrian, they even gained acceptance at court. Some were women, for a career in the theatre was one of the few ways in which women could rise to prominence. The most spectacularly successful was the striptease queen Theodora, who ended up marrying the emperor Justinian.

Horse racing, although assigned much less time in the festival programs than the theatrical offerings, was the Roman spectator sport par excellence, outdrawing even the notorious gladiatorial combats. Juvenal growled in a celebrated phrase that the populace of Rome had only two things on its mind, “bread and circuses”; the circuses were the horse races. The favored racetrack was the Circus Maximus, which held a quarter of a million people, almost ten times as many as the combined capacity of Rome’s three theatres, five times as many as that of the Colosseum. Stuffy intellectuals like Pliny the Younger might turn their noses up at the sport, but the rest of the population, all levels, went for it heart and soul - the emperors, with rare exceptions, were devoted fans, fashionable ladies considered attendance a must, and Trimalchio’s cook was ready to lay a bet with his master on who was going to win.

The Greeks, from whom the Romans got the sport, included in their games racing both with chariots and on horseback (as today, except that they rode bareback and without stirrups). The Romans limited themselves to chariots. During the ludi, twenty-four races were run a day, each consisting of seven laps, or about five miles, lasting some fifteen tense minutes. The main event was a race of four-horse teams; we hear of bigger teams, up to ten-horse, but they were not common, while beginners were allowed to drive two-horse teams. There could be as few as three teams in a race or as many as twelve; in a full field, with chariots riding wheel to wheel and the danger of collision and death ever present, spectators enjoyed all the thrills of the Indianapolis Speedway and of the sport of kings.

There were four great racing stables in Rome, each distinguished by a color, the Greens, Blues, Whites, and Reds. The Greens for some reason seem to have been the favorites: Their adherents covered the social spectrum from emperors down to Trimalchio’s cook, and, according to Juvenal, on a day when they lost, the gloom around town was deeper than when Rome suffered the worst military defeat in its history. The stables had headquarters in the city and, very probably, paddocks and other facilities outside. The staffs, mostly slaves and freedmen, were large and specialized, including, besides the drivers, trainers, grooms, harness makers, supply clerks, doctors, veterinarians, and even waiters, since the headquarters buildings boasted dining rooms. The horses came from all over, but the most and the best from North Africa and Spain. They were rigorously cared for, trained, and kept under tight guard, since fixing races is by no means a modern invention. (It goes back at least to the time when Pelops, Zeus’s grandson, bribed an opponent’s driver into loosing a chariot wheel so it would come off during one of the laps.) Some tried to ensure a win by casting spells: “I conjure you up, holy beings and holy names! Give your help to this spell and bind, enchant, hinder, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy, kill, shatter Eucherius, the charioteer, and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome. Let him not break well from the starting gate, nor race quickly, nor pass anyone. . . .” Spells had the advantage of being cheaper than bribery, if not as effective. Caligula, on whom ancient writers liked to pin every vice known to man, was accused of poisoning any horses and drivers who appeared to have a chance to defeat his beloved Greens.

At the racetrack, unlike the theatre, women and men sat together; Ovid, in his manual on how to make love, offers advice on picking up a girl there. Since betting was off-track as well as on, word of the winners was spread as quickly as possible. Pliny the Younger’s uncle tells in his encyclopedia of an enterprising stable owner who used carrier swallows with legs the color of the victorious team to bring the news to Volterra, his hometown, some 175 miles northwest of Rome. Successful drivers earned fabulous amounts. We know this from monuments they erected to themselves on which they proudly had inscribed the record of their achievements. One driver lists 1,462 first places in a career that lasted some twenty-five years. He averaged better than 170 races annually, with 100 victories in his best year, and his prizes totaled nearly 4 million sesterces, some $16 million.

Horse racing and theatrical entertainment, constituting the program of the ludi, the official games, were recurrent annual events. Gladiatorial contests, on the other hand, were offered only on given occasions; we have already noted at Pompeii the announcements for them on the walls. The organization and training of gladiators were originally run by private businessmen, who often gave the shows as well. However, at Rome in our period, it had all been taken over by the government. The emperors felt that gladiators were too dangerous an instrument to leave in other hands; the revolt of Spartacus, though it had happened long before, in 73-71 B.C., had by no means faded from people’s memories. Augustus in his will records that he had sponsored gladiatorial exhibitions eight times, involving 10,000 pairs of fighters. Titus inaugurated the opening of the Colosseum in A.D. 80 with 100 consecutive days of contests. Audiences had a veritable glut when Trajan celebrated the successful close of one of his military campaigns with 123 days, involving 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 wild animals.

The Colosseum was the last word in amphitheatres. Beneath the level of the arena was a rabbit warren of cages for wild animals and dressing rooms for contestants. The stands accommodated 50,000; they included a special box for the emperor, reserved front rows for magistrates, foreign dignitaries, and senators, reserved rows behind them for the next highest social class, blocks of seats set aside for soldiers, priests, and other groups. Women were not only segregated from the men, as in the theatre, but consigned to the worst seats in the house, at the very top; the priggish Augustus even barred them when the program included sports contests, since athletes performed in the nude. Back of the women’s rows was standing room for the poverty-stricken with no claim to any of the seats. The whole area was shaded from the sun by canvas awnings so vast and complicated that a unit of sailors from the imperial navy was stationed in Rome to operate them. The safety precautions were airtight. The seating area was effectively sealed off by barriers, and there were rotating cylinders set at the base of the stands so that, in the rare event of a frenzied animal being able to vault the barriers, it could not get the footing for a leap into the spectators’ midst.

The Romans inherited gladiatorial combats, along with so much else, from their northern neighbors, the Etruscans. This gifted and aggressive people actually ruled Rome for a time and remained its most dangerous neighbor until they were finally conquered shortly after 300 B.C. One of their religious practices was the holding of a duel to the death between two armed men beside a tomb of a chief whose spirit required a sacrifice of blood. In the third century B.C., the Romans introduced such duels as part of the ceremonies honoring the death of great leaders - but with no religious content, merely as an addition to the program that was sure to find favor with the audience. By the first century B.C., these had developed into not only a form of entertainment pure and simple, but one so popular that it proved a profitable form of investment. The owner of a troupe of gladiators (they were originally all slaves) contracted with the magistrates in charge of public entertainment or with private producers to furnish fighters at a fixed fee per head plus payment of a lump sum for any who were killed. Cicero’s good friend Atticus, a multimillionaire and canny financier, owned a troupe, and so did Caesar; his establishment, located in Capua, was equipped to handle no less than 5,000 gladiators. Thus, when the emperors decided that it was more prudent and useful to handle the sport themselves, they merely had to take over going concerns.

The head of a gladiatorial school, called a lanista, acquired his gladiators in a number of ways. Some he got from the state, which had adopted the practice of condemning certain criminals to the gladiator barracks instead of the mines or exile; men so condemned had to put in three years in the arena. Others were slaves he purchased on the market, most often prisoners of war or victims of kidnapping and piracy. Still others were slaves sold to him by masters who wanted to get rid of them; Hadrian, however, limited these to slaves who either consented (presumably they considered the rewards worth the risk) or had committed some offense. All served until they were freed in response to the acclamation of the crowd after a brilliant fight or had earned enough money in prizes to buy their liberty. Lastly, a lanista could count on the services of a good number who were free men to start with and signed on either under the pressure of debt or simply for the joy of fighting and the chance it gave to become a public figure; a successful gladiator made as good money and received as much adulation as today’s baseball and football stars. The profession was not limited to men; combats between women also found a place on the programs.

A recruit, or tiro, as he was called, began his training by hacking with a wooden sword on wooden dummies under the eye of skilled coaches, either experienced or retired gladiators. Beginners all went through this course, and on the basis of it, were then assigned to the various specialties. Tough, heavy men were trained to be Galli or mirmillones, who fought in a full suit of armor with shield and sword of standard size. Lighter, quicker men became Thraces, who fought with light armor, buckler, and short, curved sword. Those who were lightning quick were trained to be retiarii, “net men.” The retiarius, wearing only a tunic and armed with but a trident, dagger, and net, faced a heavy-armed gladiator; victory depended on a single cast of the net - if he caught his opponent in its toils, he was the winner, if not, it was all over. Still others learned to fight from horseback and chariots.

The men did not lead an austere barracks existence. Many were married with children. They had affairs with women - indeed, they were reputed to be well-nigh irresistible to the loose ladies of Roman high society. On the wall of the house in Pompeii where a group of gladiators lived one Thrax scribbled that he was the suspirium puellarum, “what the girls sighed for.”

The duelists in gladiatorial combats were usually mixed to avoid monotony: heavy-armed fought against light-armed and retiarii as well as other heavy-armed; light-armed fought against heavy-armed as well as other light-armed. When a contestant had fallen and lay as if dead, an attendant rushed out with a hot iron to make sure he was not bluffing, stretcher-bearers hauled the corpse away, other attendants spread clean sand to cover the blood (the word arena means “sand” in Latin), and the next match went on. In republican times, when the sport was still in private hands, programs were run in which the duels were to the death, but under the empire this was abolished. They might end in a draw, or a man who was clearly losing could appeal for mercy; it was then up to the magistrate running the show, and he generally followed the crowd’s wishes. They waved handkerchiefs or turned their thumbs downward if they judged the pleader had fought bravely and deserved to be spared, turned their thumbs against their chests if they judged otherwise. It appears that gladiators usually fought once a year, or even less. We deduce this from the inscriptions that they, like chariot drivers, set up in their own honor with the details of their careers. Quite a few list thirty fights or more, indicating a fair survival rate.

The duels between gladiators, although cruel and bloody, at least involved a display of skill, as well as a good chance of coming out alive. But there were two other items on the program before them - the gladiators went on in the afternoon - that could end in nothing but death.

The state condemned men convicted of serious crimes not merely “to the gladiator school” but “to the sword” or “to the beasts” and handed them over at so much per head to the magistrate in charge of gladiatorial shows; he guaranteed to leave them corpses within a year from the date of purchase. At a given point in the program, generally at noon before the gladiatorial combats proper, they were thrust into the arena either in a helpless herd to be butchered by gladiators or tied to stakes to be attacked by wild beasts who had been kept in a state of near starvation.

For this slaughter there may perhaps be the pallid excuse that the Romans, having judged the victims to be brutal criminals, saw no wrong in a brutal execution, and, as we know from the reports of attendance at hangings or guillotinings, all the world loves an execution. But for the morning portion of a program at the amphitheatre, there was not even this much. At vast expense, the Roman government imported animals from every corner of the known world - tigers from India, leopards from Asia Minor, lions and elephants and other creatures from Africa, wild bulls from northern Europe, and so on. They were kept in cages under the arena until, at the appropriate moment, they were brought up and let loose. As they wandered about, crazed or dazed, bestiarii, “beast men,” low-level gladiators trained for this sort of thing, stepped in against them with knife and spear; the bestiarius had a chance of surviving, the animals none. Or crack native hunters were sent in to cut them down ruthlessly with bow and arrow or javelin - which at least added some dimension of skill to the carnage. It went on endlessly. During the 100 days of gladiatorial shows that inaugurated the Colosseum, 9,000 beasts were killed; during Trajan’s 123 days to honor his military victory, 11,000.

Throughout the western half of the empire and even in parts of the east, every community had its amphitheatre for these bloody programs. In many cases, the ruins are still visible; not a few have been refurbished and are again in use, by the bestiarius’s direct heir, the bullfighter. Intellectuals like Cicero or Marcus Aurelius were bored or disgusted with what went on in the arena, moralists like Seneca deplored it, but the first concerted protest came from the Christians - and they were not opposed to the brutality per se but to all sights they considered degrading; they clamored equally loudly against the theatre and circus. Ultimately, in A.D. 325, Constantine issued a decree forbidding gladiatorial combats. But the sport was far too popular to be canceled by the stroke of a pen, and it lingered on for at least a century more. The slaughter of wild beasts did not come under the ban. That lasted as long as ancient Rome did.

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