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Entertainment in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mosaic showing gladiators during the fight
Mosaic showing gladiators during a fight

Free food and entertainment always helped to win the electorate’s approval. The patricians competed with each other for which of them would provide citizens with a better and more impressive show. It was the desire to please the crowd that led to the development of the Games. The wealthy Romans did not spare coins to create great games to delight the people.

Thanks to the ability to win votes this way, some made their career, while others went bankrupt. But as a political weapon, a good spectacle and a sumptuous feast were unbeatable. The rate was high. It was worth spending a fortune to gain a public office.

The advantages of organizing the games were also noticed by the emperors, who used it to lighten the public mood in the Empire and wanted to please the crowds. Some of them organized competitions because they loved them, like Commodus.

Apart from gladiatorial fights, the Romans also loved chariot races.

The Romans took a great passion for the Olympics. They were made at every opportunity. This is how a Roman historian Suetonius describes the games, organized by Julius Caesar:

He sponsored spectacles of various kinds: a gladiatorial contest, plays in all regions of the city, and performed by actors in every language, as well as circus performances, athletic contests, and a sea battle.
In a gladiatorial fight in the Forum, Furius Leptinius, a man of a praetorian family, and Quintus Calpenus, who had once been a senator and legal advocate, fought to the finish. The children of the princes of Asia and Bithynia performed a Pyrrhic dance. During the plays, the Roman knight Decimus Laberius performed in a mime he himself had written and, when he was given five hundred thousand sesterces and a golden ring, he left the stage and crossed the orchestra to take his seat in the fourteen rows. For the circus races, the area of the circus itself was extended at either end, with a broad canal surrounding the circuit. Here the noblest young men made displays with four-horse and two-horse chariots and by jumping between pairs of horses. Two squadrons, one of older and one of younger boys, performed the Troy game. Five days of animal fights were provided. For the final one, two battle lines were drawn up, with five hundred foot soldiers, twenty elephants, and three hundred knights assigned to each side. And so that there would be more space
for the encounter, the central barriers were removed and in their place two camps were set up, one facing the other. In a temporary stadium constructed in an area of the Campus Martius, athletes competed for three days. In the sea-battle, which took place on a lake excavated in the lesser Codeta, ships with two, three, and four banks of oars from the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets engaged, manned by a huge number of fighters. Drawn by all these spectacles, a vast number of people flooded into Rome from every region, so that many of the visitors had to lodge in tents put up in the streets or along the roads. And the crowds were so great on a number of occasions that many people were crushed to death, even including two senators.

Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius Caesar, 39

During the reign of Augustus, there were 65 days of shows in the year, and in the following centuries, there were more free rather than working. Nero put on chariot races over the bloody gladiatorial struggles, which he diversified with his own imagination, ordering to harness camels instead of horses. As a 20-year-old young man, in 59 CE, he organized games on the occasion of shaving his youthful beard. They were called Iuvenalia and their tradition lives to this day in the name of the student’s festival. For the Roman people, demanding bread and games (panem et circenses), sea battles imitating real events were also organized in the arena filled with water or in specially built pools.

The following types of shows were distinguished:

  • Gladiatiorial fights – bloody struggles of people and animals. The tradition of gladiatorial fights comes from the Etruruscan custom of worshipping the dead through struggles instead of human sacrifices.
  • Chariot races – two athletes were racing and trying to reach the post as soon as possible. There were four teams: red, white, green and blue. The spectator who came to the races was dressed in the colours of the favoured team. This entertainment was the most popular.
  • Naumachia – staged naval battles are shown on specially created pools (sometimes in amphitheatres) or natural lakes. They usually depicted the victorious battles of Roman troops.
  • Theatre – theatre of ancient Rome was a very diverse and interesting form of art. There were various festivals, street theatres, acrobatics and great performances of Plautus’ comedies or the tragedies of Seneca the Younger.

Gladiatorial fights

Reconstruction of a gladiatorial fight

The Romans enjoyed watching fights, initially during the republic they were fights between the prisoners of war. The games so popular in Rome were organized not only by the rulers but also by candidates seeking office to win the support of the Roman people. During the empire, gladiatorial struggles developed. Perhaps gladiatorial fights were derived from the tradition of fighting at the grave of the deceased during the funeral ceremony. The people wanted the fights to be organized even on the occasion of the funeral of insignificant people. Records of organizing such events were to be found in people’s wills.

Special schools for gladiators were formed, which trained them to fight in the arenas. Gladiators came mainly from slaves, prisoners of war but also from poor free people, they were strong men practised in martial art. They were equipped with a sword and a shield, they often fought with wild animals. Their existence was very uncertain because there could always be a stronger gladiator who could deprive him of life. The audience watching the games decided about giving or taking the gladiator’s life.

During the Empire, the games were mainly organized by the emperor who rented the schools of gladiators. All victories and successes of the Empire were accompanied by the games. It is difficult to determine exactly where the huge popularity of gladiatorial struggles in Roman society came from. Perhaps in this way, the accumulated emotions were vented

A mosaic depicting gladiatorial fight. The custom of gladiatorial fights came from the Etruscans, who this way worshipped the dead instead of the former human sacrifices.

In the beginning, the games were held on forums and with time they were moved to huge amphitheatres. Initially, they were built of wood, with time the stone amphitheatres began to be erected. The most famous is of course Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, built on an elliptical plan. In the centre, there is an arena filled with sand measuring 86 by 54 meters, and around there are rows of seats for 50 000 viewers on four floors equipped with arcades, supported on columns and pillars. The use of arcades on four floors was possible due to the use of concrete. Colosseum is a combination of practicality with decorativeness. Numerous exits made it possible to leave the amphitheatre quickly, two of them were intended for the emperor. Under the surface of the arena, there were cages with wild animals, warehouses for stage decorations and trapdoors. The emperor sat on a special podium, and special places were designated for priests and vestals. For protection against heat or rain, the canvas curtain was stretched.

Due to the fact that gladiatorial games enjoyed such popularity, amphitheatres were built in other cities, for example in Verona, Pompeii, but none were as powerful as the Colosseum. The amphitheatre in Pompeii was built c. 80 BCE, it was intended for 20 000 places, built in a hollow and surrounded by an earth embankment.

During the ludi circenses, or gladiators’ games, crowds of people filled the amphitheatre. Gladiators fighting with animals provided a lot of excitement. They were not regular and frequent entertainment, although they could last for many days. The games, as they were rather expensive, were organized in aim to gain popularity or after the wars that were victorious for Rome, especially when they accompanied triumphs, or for completely exceptional reasons, as in 80 CE, when the opening of Colosseum was to end the long mourning caused by the eruption of Vesuvius. The spectators were the representatives of all states: emperors, priests of Vesta, senators, equites, plebeians and slaves, but not everyone was pleased to see them.

Chariot Races

Contemporary reconstructions of the chariot race in the Puy du Fou amusement park in Les Epesses (France) attract 1,5 million tourists annually.

The entertainment of the Romans was also a chariot race, which took place in the longitudinal stadiums called circus, of which the Roman Circus Maximus is best known. Its construction was initiated by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus. Circus Maximus could seat up to 180 000 spectators. The circuit on which the chariot races were held was surrounded by a three-storey audience, the first floor was made of stone and two more were made of wood. Of course, the best places in the first rows were reserved for dignitaries, ordinary viewers took their seats alone, there were no tickets or fees. The chariots belonged to four camps marked with colours – blue, white, red and green. The races were an opportunity to place bets, gambling led many people to ruin. The race began with a procession that reached the Circus Maximus from the Capitol through the Roman Forum. The chariots were harnessed either in two or four horses. The chariots participating in the race did about eight kilometres around the stadium. Mostly the races ended before the evening, but sometimes they were continued with the artificial light of the lamps.

Romans willingly visited Circus Maximus. Roman intellectuals criticized this way of spending free time. And yet the circus attracted representatives of all groups of Roman society. More than one emperor from the windows of the palace on the nearby Palatine Hill looked with curiosity towards the Circus Maximus tracks, where he had his own lodge.

Fans and riots in the world of Romans

It seems that stadium excess is a figment of our times. However, 2 000 years ago, ancient Romans had similar problems. The message of Tacitus about a tragic event has survived to our times (Annals, XIV.17). In 59 CE in Pompeii, there was a riot between the locals and fans from the nearby Nuceria. The conflict was initially being “solve” with the heap of stones, but later – with swords. The result was a real slaughter of newcomers – many with severed limbs and numerous wounds went to the capital. At the request of the emperor, the Senate dealt with the matter, and eventually decided to punish the city with a 10-year ban on organizing the games. Sponsors of events and inciters of the fuss were sentenced to exile.


The most popular game of antiquity, known to this day in a changed form, were dice games. Why in changed form? The game was called tali, and the dices were originally bones of sheep or goats (the Greek name in the singular astragalos indicates the description of the fetlock, in man the equivalent of the conduit). Practical Romans did not want to play with the remains of food – so they made bronze or metal cubes. What’s more – even a bone-shaped vase was found.

In this game, the main activity was throwing the dice, of course. The exact way of scoring is not clear today, however, it is known that some throws had their names – the best was called “Venus throw” and in the worst case the player got a “dog throw”. There was also a variant of the game (tropa), where bones were thrown into a vessel with a narrow neck.

However, the Romans knew also small cubes marked like ours today’s bones (only the sum of the meshes on the opposite sides was always seven). The difference between them (tesserae) and tali mainly consisted of the rate, which was higher in tesserae. Most likely Romans used three cubes, while the Greeks used two. A well-known cup was used today, from which bones were thrown out. The ancients, however, also knew board games and they were also used for gambling. One such popular game was duodecim scripta or duodecim scriptorum (“twelve marks” or “twelve lines” – the name obviously refers to some element of the game, but it is not known whether the number of fields on the board in one row, the result of roll dice or number of rows fields on the board?). The terminology also causes trouble, because the Romans called alea or tesserae any gambling games or those using bones.

Fresco showing ancient Romans playing football. It was a type of volleyball – a pilum in which hands and arms were used (usually protected against bruising).

In any case, the game was about moving all fifteen pieces from one side of the board to the opposite one. The board itself consisted of 36 squares. Players threw three dice from the cup. When one piece landed on a field occupied by the opponent, he had to return to the start. Just like playing backgammon, two pieces were unbeatable.
The game is related to the Egyptian Senet, certain medieval games, and also the mentioned backgammon. It is interesting, that when gambling was banned in Rome, the duodecim scriptamodified the squares of the board to letters that form the slogans such as: “Parthi occisi Britto victus ludite Romani” (“With the Britons conquered and the Parthian killed, play on the Romans”) or “Levate dalocu ludere nescis idiot recede” (“Get up from your seat; you don’t know how to play, you idiot”).

Roman statuette depicting a playing girl.

There was also a game called Latrunculi (the term from which the origin of the name is suspected is “latrones” and refers to bandits or mercenaries). The size of the board was varied (8 × 8, 8 × 12, 10 × 9, 11 × 10). Each of the two players has counters – normal and one unique (usually referred to as aquila – “eagle.” Players move their stones successively. Any piece can move in any horizontal and vertical lines, any number of squares. If an opponent’s piece is between the two pieces of the player, then the surrounded one is being removed from the board. The object is to immobilize the “eagle” – to surround it so that it can not move.

Tabula lusoria

Roman board game Tabula Lusoria. The name Tabula Lusoria is more of a description of the board and it means more or less the same in Latin as the “tablet for (playing) games”. The game is intended for two players and consists of a special, rosette board with eight boxes arranged in a circle with one central field connected to each field in a circle (picture) and two sets of pieces in two colours, three in each.

This is a simple strategy game of the ancient Romans, played in mass by soldiers bored in barracks or during breaks in military missions and civilian citizens of Rome. Its universality is evidenced by numerous boards engraved in stones where the legionaries were stationed and in places of public utility for the entire Roman Empire. This game never ends in a draw like in a traditional tic tac toe. In addition, you can draw the board yourself and the game counters can be stones or cones.

If the previous game was referred to as ludus latrunculorum, board games with pebbles as counters were called ludus calculorum. There was also a game called terni lapilli, which can be compared to the game of tic-tac-toe, if not for the fact that no signs of the circle and cross were used, but only tokens. It is not clear how many tokens each player had to use, so perhaps the association with the game known to all of us is wrong.

We can not say much about many of the games mentioned above. We use poetic texts (Martial, Ovid), the writings of Plato, Pliny and Varro, as well as discoveries at archaeological sites throughout Europe. Often, however, we have to guess the rules – in the sources available to us, they have never been unequivocally and thoroughly written down.
Some of these games may seem familiar to us – most probably some of them have evolved over the years to take on a modern form. There would be nothing strange about it, board games (and more!) were known even when Egypt was a powerful state.


The Romans did not despise intellectual pastimes, they collected books, creating whole libraries. Books were written on parchment, and the publishing houses employed copyists to copy them. After the purchase of the book, when it was in use, more copies were made. Private libraries were first created. On the initiative of Julius Caesar, the first public library was created in Rome. For this purpose, he commissioned this plan to Varro, but he ultimately did not manage to implement his idea. It was done by Gaius Asinius Pollio, who located the library in the Atrium of Liberty (Atrium Libertatis) in the Roman Forum, where the seat of the censors was located. The collection included both Latin and Greek works. However, the fate of this first Roman public library is unknown.

In 28 BCE Augustus opened a library on the Palatine in the temple of Apollo, which contained Greek and Latin works. The director of this esteemed institution was a grammarian and poet, a friend of Ovid, Pompey Macer. This library, called the Palatine library, was burned during the unfortunate fire in 64 CE. Then it was renovated by Domitian. However, it was again destroyed by the damaging element in 363 CE and burnt completely. It was not the only library founded by Augustus; he also founded the so-called Bibliotheca Octavia. It was located at the Porticus Octaviae in the Field of Mars. And this one, however, did not resist the destructive power of fire and burned in 80 CE. However, Domitian once again showed up and immediately ordered to renew it.

Emperor Tiberius, following in the footsteps of his father, set up a library in the temple of the Divine Augustus. This one burned in 69/70 CE. The next founder of the library was Trajan, who opened the so-called Bibliotheca Ulpia in the Trajan’s Forum. Hadrian did not want to be worse and founded another one. The last library, about which creation we learn from ancient sources, was founded by Alexander Severus. During the reign of Constantine the Great, there were 28 libraries in Rome, some of them were certainly private foundations. The book collections grew thanks to the constant protection of the rulers. Of course, there was censorship. There were times when some of the works were dragged from the libraries and burned, like the Holy Inquisition and the List of Prohibited Books.

Libraries in other cities, both in Italy and in the provinces, arose from the kindness of wealthier citizens. For example, Pliny the Younger founded the library in his hometown, Comum, at the cost of 1 million sesterces. In Suessa, in Latium, Hadrian’s mother-in-law funded the famous Bibliotheca Maridiana. Noteworthy are the libraries in Carthage and Timgad in Numidia. The last one was funded by Marcus Iulius Flavius Rogatianus (he allocated 400 000 sesterces for this good cause). Provincial libraries met the needs of local readers and in addition to Latin or Greek works also contained those written in their native languages. Unfortunately in the 4th century CE interest in reading fell. As Ammianus Marcellinus writes: “libraries are like closed graves”.


In addition to games/team plays, the Romans were also passionate about guessing games such as micatio digitis. The rules were very simple: two players, holding one hand behind their backs, the other, at the beginning clenched in a fist, at the same time quickly open. The one who guessed the sum of the fingers shown by the opponent won. They also had to play with, guessing on which side the thrown coin would fall. The rules of many games popular at that time with the lack of detailed descriptions remain unknown. It is known that many of them used boards; players drew diagrams even on the steps of public buildings. These boards were to be used for games whose rules resembled draughts or chess. They often played dice, but this game was forbidden all year round, with the exception of Saturnalia, celebrated in December in honour of the god Saturn (from that time comes the custom of giving small gifts). This ban was readily exceeded; it was also done by officials responsible for law obeyance and emperors. The dice was their constant pastime: with varying luck, this game played Augustus, Tiberius, Caligulia, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Domitian and their successors played it. As you can see, not everyone wanted to spend the otium according to Cicero’s advice, ie. seeking a respite from public activities in mental effort.

Theatre performances

A mosaic showing a theatrical group preparing for the performance

Theatre was not at all a common entertainment. It was possible to see there, not only theatre performances but also unusual specimens of flora and fauna. Initially, these novelties were shown during triumphal parades or performances in the amphitheatres, but later there was no further opportunity to do so: they were exhibited, for example, in public buildings. The Romans were eager to see foreign plants, such as ebony trees or commiphora, and animals, such as tigers or twenty meters long snakes. Crowds of people gathered around public displays of exhibits, such as bones of giant animals: whales or crocodiles. Once, a great stir in Rome was caused by a tooth that was thirty centimetres long.

Although the spectator who sat in the theatre was not as well-dressed as the Greek one, all the people, including slaves, were present there. During the performance, viewers expressed their emotions and opinions. Especially mime and pantomime were highly appreciated in Rome, and the popularity of serious dramatic works ended with the republic.


Wall painting from the 1st century CE, from Pompeii, presenting a multi-generational banquet.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

The Romans liked to feast. With time, the tendency to luxury and luxury displaced the strict customs of the ancestors, which commanded restraint also in the dining room. Feasts in wealthy homes could go on forever. They became glamorous and long, dishes – unusual and surprising; until finally, in the Roman houses appeared vomitoria places where you could relieve the stomach, making room for the next dishes. The less affluent inhabitants of Rome visited restaurants and bars. Many delicious, ancient dishes could not be tasted today without worrying about the consequences, but then they were considered delicious and eaten willingly. In a city like Rome, restaurants and bars were often open all night: quite a large group of its inhabitants did not have a kitchen in their own houses. In restaurants divided by category, you could spend time eating, drinking wine, sitting at a game table or talking.


This kind of entertainment did not satisfy the needs of intellectuals, people interested in science, literature, philosophy. As the conquests increased, interest in Greece became more and more frequent, and more frequent became also the contact with its inhabitants, slaves and free people. The Greeks were also curious about Rome and they were visiting it more and more often. It is interesting that the practical descendants of Romulus showed great interest in the views of Greek philosophers. This interest was shared by mature people and youth. It happened that young people resigned from sports training in the Field of Mars to listen to discussions about philosophy. This caused the Senate’s great anxiety, which, fearing the influence of Hellenism on prevailing customs, from time to time ordered to remove Greek philosophers and speakers from the city. And yet Graecia victa ferum victorem vicit– “Conquered Greece, in turn, defeated its savage conqueror”: under its influence in Rome begin to arise literary circles, gathering not only Romans but also Greeks. It is customary for the authors to read fragments of their works in small and closed circles, in the shadow of the porticos, in the baths, at the emperor’s home or at the home of the writer himself or at the publisher (bookseller). Fragments of poetry, historical works, tragedies and speeches were presented. Over time, many meetings with creators become public and open. In the next centuries, other literary circles were created by wealthy protectors of talented poets and writers, eg. by Gaius Maecenas, Valerius Messala Corvinus and Gneus Asinius. During the empire, each day brought a meeting with another writer. There were also people reprimanding the others for listening to the words of a poet or writer to pass the time. The author counted on discussion, criticism and comments.

Much time was spent on reading. Not every Roman having scientific and literary interests had a proper collection of works to study. The library of Cicero’s publisher, the mysterious Atticus, who eagerly invited his friend to one of the suburban villas, would be able to give himself up to his scientific and literary passions without any problems. Public libraries appeared in Rome only during the empire, and the first was opened on the Palatine by Augustus. In the footsteps of the first emperor went his successors: Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan and others; at the end of the empire in Rome there were thirty libraries.

Bread and games

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Roman people, demanding food and entertainment, shouted the famous words “Bread and games” (Panem et circenses). It was a phrase created by the ancient Roman poet Juvenal and was later adopted by the Roman people. These demands were implemented, among others, through gladiators’ games, during which coins were thrown into the crowd, or organization of public feasts for thousands of people. It also happened that bread, grain and money were given away to individuals (during the empire, a fixed amount was thus allocated to one person, in the 1st century CE it was 75 denarii); the number of those donated in this way during the reign of Augustus was about two hundred thousand. The dispensation of this type was organized by rich citizens of other cities, and its special form was maintenance funds for the orphans.

The purpose of giving away was not so much humanitarian or to calm social tensions but to gain the popularity needed in political activities. Contacts with the people were an opportunity for the emperors to get to know the moods among the society.
The most generous donors included, among others, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Pompey or Trajan. The last of these emperors is the author of the thought: “The Roman people can be kept in peace only by distributing grain and games”.

  • Grant Michael, Gladiatorzy, 1980
  • Matthews Rupert, Rzym mroczny, ponury, krwawy, Warszawa 2007
  • Winniczuk Lidia, Ludzie, zwyczaje i obyczaje starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa 1983

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