RECREATION, PETS, GAMES AND GAMBLING IN ANCIENT ROME

RECREATION AND ENTERTAINMENT IN ANCIENT ROME

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Roman circuses were held in outdoor arenas such as the Circus Maximus (meaning “Biggest Circus”) in Rome. In addition to gladiator contests there were often displays of acrobatics, wrestling and horsemanship. During the gladiator battles, musicians played water organs and metal horns that looped around their heads. Some arenas could be flooded with water for mock sea battles and then emptied for mock hunts.

Circus Maximus (on the side of the Palatine Hill opposite the Forum) is the large oval grass track where chariot races, athletic competitions and mock naval battles were held. Built in 600 B.C. and large enough, according to some reports, to accommodate 300,000 people, today it resembles a cross between a big ditch and a modern athletic field. If you know where to look you can find the start and finish lines. See Gladiator Sports

By some estimates 200,000 people showed up to watch chariot races at the Circus Maximus in Rome. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The games of the circus were the oldest of the free exhibitions at Rome and always the most popular. The word circus means simply a “ring”; the ludi circenses were, therefore, any shows that might be given in a ring.” The circus is associated mostly closely with chariot races. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“The circus was used less frequently for exhibitions other than chariot races. Of these may be mentioned the performances of the desultores, men who rode two horses and leaped from one to the other while they were going at full speed, and of trained horses that performed various tricks while standing on a sort of wheeled platform which gave a very unstable footing. There were also exhibitions of horsemanship by citizens of good standing, riding under leaders in squadrons, to show the evolutions of the cavalry. The ludus Troiae was also performed by young men of the nobility; this game is described in the Aeneid, Book V. More to the taste of the crowd were the hunts (venationes); wild beasts were turned loose in the circus to slaughter one another or be slaughtered by men trained for the purpose. We read of panthers, bears, bulls, lions, elephants, hippopotamuses, and even crocodiles (in artificial lakes made in the arena) exhibited during the Republic. In the circus, too, combats of gladiators sometimes took place, but these were more frequently held in the amphitheater. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“One of the most brilliant spectacles must have been the procession (pompa circensis) which formally opened some of the public games. It started from the Capitol and wound its way down to the Circus Maximus, entering by the porta pompae (named from it), and passed entirely around the arena. At the head in a car rode the presiding magistrate, wearing the garb of a triumphant general and attended by a slave who held a wreath of gold over his head. Next came a crowd of notables on horseback and on foot, then the chariots and horsemen who were to take part in the games. Then followed priests, arranged by their colleges, and bearers of incense and of the instruments used in sacrifices, and statues of deities on low cars drawn by mules, horses, or elephants, or else carried on litters (fercula) on the shoulders of men. Bands of musicians headed each division of the procession. A feeble reminiscence of all this is seen in the parade through the streets that for many years has preceded the performance of the modern circus. |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Parties in Ancient Rome

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pyrric dance
A convivium was a dinner party with family, friends or associates. It was somewhat like a Greek symposium except that it was generally regarded as a chance to talk business or politics rather than philosophy and weighty matters. A commissatio was a wild drinking party. One graffiti inscription from Rome reads: "Let's eat, drink, have fun; first comes life, then philosophy."

Prostitutes, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, actors and fire-eaters entertained guests at banquets Wealthy Romans were entertained by freak shows with midgets, and handicapped and deformed people, some of whom performed sexual feats for dinner guests. Lamprey milt was served on an eel-shaped tray. Rose petals were scattered on the floor. Mechanical devices lowered acrobats and entertainers from the ceiling. Slaves blew exotic scents into the room.

Nero and his advisors were famous for their lavish parties. Tacitus wrote: "Nero...gave feasts in public places as if the whole city were his own home. But the most prodigal and notorious banquet was given by Tigellinus [Nero's advisor]...The entertainment took place on a raft constructed on Marcus Agrippa's lake. It was towed above other vessels, with gold and ivory fittings. Their rowers were degenerates, assorted according to age and vice.On the quays were brothels stocked with high-ranking ladies. Opposite them could be seen naked prostitutes, indecently posturing and gesturing...At nightfall the woods and houses nearby echoed with singing and blazed with lights. Nero was already corrupted by every lust, natural and unnatural."

"A few days later he went through a formal wedding ceremony with one of the perverted gang called Pythagoras. The emperor, in the presence of witnesses, put on the bridal veil. Bowery, marriage bed, wedding torches, all were there. Indeed, everything was public." Nero had three wives. One wife is said to have bathed in donkey milk scented with rose oil.

Banqueting in Ancient Rome

Katharine Raff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The festive consumption of food and drink was an important social ritual in the Roman world. Known in general terms as the convivium (Latin: "living together"), or banquet, the Romans also distinguished between specific types of gatherings, such as the epulum (public feast), the cena (dinner, normally eaten in the mid-afternoon), and the comissatio (drinking party). [Source: Katharine Raff, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2011, metmuseum.org]

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Herculaneum fresco
of a banquet scene
"Public banquets, such as the civic feasts offered for all of the inhabitants of a city, often accommodated large numbers of diners. In contrast, the dinner parties that took place in residences were more private affairs in which the host entertained a small group of family friends, business associates, and clients. “Roman literary sources describe elite private banquets as a kind of feast for the senses, during which the host strove to impress his guests with extravagant fare, luxurious tableware, and diverse forms of entertainment, all of which were enjoyed in a lavishly adorned setting. Archaeological evidence of Roman housing has shed important light on the contexts in which private banquets occurred and the types of objects employed during such gatherings."

Paintings from Pompeii show banqueting scenes. From the attention that banquets and dinner-parties get in written texts is presumed they were importants parts of Roman life. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ Guests reclined on couches padded with cushions and draperies and were served food and drinks by slaves (usually depicted as smaller in scale, to suggest their status, in paintings). [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]|

“Examples of wooden couches have been found in several of the excavated houses of Pompeii, and there are also many masonry couches in the gardens, for use when dining outside. Dinner-parties could be an opportunity for the rich elite to display their wealth, for example by providing entertainment in the form of dancers, acrobats and singers or by using an expensive dinner service.” In one Pompeii wall-painting, “a slave holds out a drinking cup to one of the diners. Occasional silver services, such as the famous vessels discovered in the House of Menander, have been excavated at Pompeii, but in general most vessels that might have been used for dining were made from bronze and glass.”

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote:“The Romans laid a vast stress upon the joys of eating. Probably never before or since has greater effort been expended upon gratifying the palate. The art of cooking was placed almost on a level with that of sculpture or of music. It is worth noticing that the ancient epicures were, however, handicapped by the absence of most forms of modern ices, and of sugar. The menu here presented was for a feast given by Mucius Lentulus Niger, when, in 63 B.C., he became a pontifex. There were present the other pontifices including Julius Caesar, the Vestal Virgins, and some other priests, also ladies related to them. While this banquet took place under the Republic, it was probably surpassed by many in Imperial times.

Ton of Cattle Bones Found in Cornith: Sign of Annual Feasts?

In 2013, archaeologist said that a metric ton of cattle bones found in an abandoned theater in Corinth may have been the remnants of large annual feasts. Stephanie Pappas wrote in LiveScience: “The huge amount of bones — more than 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds) — likely represent only a tenth of those tossed out at the site in Peloponnese, Greece, said study researcher Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg. “What I think that they’re related to are episodes of big feasting in which the theater was reused to process carcasses of hundreds of cattle,” MacKinnon told LiveScience. He presented his research Friday (Jan. 4) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer, January 9, 2013 ||*||]

“A theater may seem an odd place for a butchery operation, MacKinnon said, but this particular structure fell into disuse between A.D. 300 A.D. and A.D. 400. Once the theater was no longer being used for shows, it was a large empty space that could have been easily repurposed, he said. The cattle bones were unearthed in an excavation directed by Charles Williams of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. They’d been discarded in that spot and rested there until they were found, rather than being dragged to the theater later with other trash, MacKinnon said. “Some of the skeletal materials were even partially articulated [connected], suggesting bulk processing and discard,” MacKinnon said. ||*||

“MacKinnon and his colleagues analyzed and catalogued more than 100,000 individual bones, most cattle with some goat and sheep. The bones of at least 516 individual cows were pulled from the theater. Most were adults, and maturity patterns in the bones and wear patterns on the teeth showed them all to have been culled in the fall or early winter. “These do not appear to be tired old work cattle, but quality prime stock,” MacKinnon said. It’s impossible to say how quickly the butchering episodes took place, MacKinnon said, though it could be on the order of days or months. The bones were discarded in layers, likely over a period of 50 to 100 years, he said. ||*||

“The periodic way the bones were discarded plus the hurried cut marks on some of the bones suggest a large-scale, recurring event, MacKinnon said. He suspects the cattle were slaughtered for annual large-scale feasts. Without refrigeration, it would have been difficult to keep meat fresh for long, so may have been more efficient for cities to take a communal approach. “What goes around comes around, so maybe we’ll do it this year and next year, it’s the neighbor’s turn to do it,” MacKinnon speculated. “Neighborhoods might sponsor these kinds of things, so people do it to curry favor.” The next step, MacKinnon said, is to look for other possible signs of ancient feasting at different sites. “Maybe there are some special pots, or maybe we’ll find big communal cauldrons or something,” he said. “Something that gives a material record of a celebration.”“ ||*||


Roman banquet


Elaborate Banquet in Ancient Rome

Roman banquets sometimes lasted for ten hours. They were held in dining rooms decorated with frescos of Helen of Troy and Castor and Pollox. Slaves cooked the meal and beautiful women served the dishes. Prostitutes, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, actors and fire-eaters entertained guests between courses. Masseuses washed their feet with perfumed water.

Banquets were regarded as demonstrations of wealth and position. Spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars was not uncommon. Feasting was so popular that satires were written about it and laws were passed outlawing the consumption of particularly rare delicacies and hosting especially large banquets. Police had stake-outs set up in the markets to prevent extravagant purchases. Menus had to be approved by local officials. In some places dining rooms were required to have windows so inspectors could check the proceedings

Describing a lavish feast, Petronius wrote in Satyricon: “Spread around a circular tray were the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and over each sign the chef had put the most suitable food, Thus, over the sign of Aries were chickpeas, over Taurus a slice of beef, a pair of testicles and kidneys over Gemini, a wreath of flowers over Cancer, over Leo an African fig, virgin sowbelly on Virgo, over Libra a pair of scales with tartlet in one pan and cheesecake in the other, over Scorpio a crawfish, a lobster on Capricorn, on Aquarius a goose, and two mullets over Pisces. The centerpiece was a clod of turf with grass still green surmounted by a fat honeycomb. With some reluctance we began attacking this wretched fare." Petronius slit his own throat and bled to death while eating a feast with friends.

Pliny described the gourmet Marcus Gabius Apicus as "the greatest spendthrift of all." He said he squandered most of his large fortune on feasts and then, anticipating a need to economize, committed suicide with poison. In A.D. 20 Apicus hosted a legendary banquet that cost between 60 million and 100 million sesterces ($15 million). There is no record of what was eaten but he was left with only 10 million sesterces afterwards. It was after this feast that he committed suicide. According to a 16th century manuscript: "Six hundred thousand spent, and but/ Ten thousand left to feed his gutt." Fearing for want of food and dye," Despairing, he did poyson buy:/ Never was known such gluttonye."

Family Recreation in Ancient Rome

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “Downtime was a big part of Roman family life. Usually, starting at noon, the upper crust of society dedicated their day to leisure. Most enjoyable activities were public and shared by rich and poor alike, male and female—watching gladiators disembowel each other, cheering chariot races, or attending the theatre. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016 ><]

“Citizens also spent a lot of time at public baths, which wasn’t your average tub and towel affair. A Roman bath typically had a gym, pool, and a health center. Certain locales even offered prostitutes. Children had their own favorite pastimes. Boys preferred to be more active, wrestling, flying kites, or playing war games. Girls occupied themselves with things like dolls and board games. Families also enjoyed just relaxing with each other and their pets.

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The Romans loved their bathes and much of Roman social life centered around them. Bathing was both a social duty and a way to relax. During the early days of Roman baths there were no rules about nudity or the mixing of the sexes, or for that matter rules about what people did when they were nude and mixing. For women who had problems with this arrangement there were special baths for women only. But eventually the outcry against promiscuous behavior in the baths forced Emperor Hadrian to separate the sexes. ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Most Roman houses, large or small, had a garden. Large homes had one in the courtyard and this was often where the family gathered, socialized and ate their meals. The sunny Mediterranean climate in Italy was usually accommodating to this routine. On the walls of the houses around the garden were paintings of more plants and flowers as well as exotic birds, cows, birdfeeders, and columns, as if the homeowner was trying achieve the same affects as the backdrop on a Hollywood set. Poor families tended small plots in the back of the house, or at least had some potted plants.

Leisure Time and Family Visits at Vindolanda

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Life on the north-west frontier was clearly less than exciting for the officer classes. Cerialis writes to Brocchus in another letter asking for some hunting nets: 'and please make sure that they are repaired strongly'. Brocchus was the commander of a nearby fort called Briga (Celtic for 'hill'), which we cannot identify. His wife, Claudia Severa, was in regular correspondence with Cerialis' wife, Sulpicia Lepidina.: [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

The most famous of these is the well-known birthday invitation.’Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present(?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him(?) their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’. (Tab. Vindol. II.291)

“In fact, the officer classes seem to have been engaged in a constant round of visits. Another letter from Claudia Severa informs Lepidina that Brocchus will always let her come to Vindolanda to visit whenever she can, while several accounts by the household slaves indicate that Brocchus had donated tunics to the Cerialis household in the past, and in return had dined on several occasions, both with and without his friend Niger, on which occasions chickens were slaughtered. Finally, a cryptic line at the end of one list of accounts informs us that on 25 June: 'The lords have remained at Briga'. |::|


children games


“On a more personal note, a certain Velde(d)ius, who had secured a promotion to act as groom of the governor down in London, visited his 'brother and old messmate' Chrauttius en route to Housesteads. He probably stayed in the mansio, since he was on official business of some sort, and may have dropped off the shears which Chrauttius had asked him to get for him in the letter, which he discarded whilst he was there. He also left behind a leather offcut with his name inscribed upon it, and may have owned the magnificent chamfron which was found nearby. The two of them probably exchanged news about their 'sister', Thuttena, and various old messmates whom Chrauttius had mentioned in his letter. Veldedius then went on to Housesteads, where he died in unknown circumstances and an official tombstone was erected, with his name slightly mis-spelled, though it is still likely to have been the same man.” (Tab. Vindol. II.310). |::|

Romans and Caledonians Drank Together as a Pub in Northern Britain

In 2012, archaeologists surveying the world’s most northerly Roman fort announced they had found an ancient pub there. George Mair wrote in The Scotsman: “The discovery, outside the walls of the fort at Stracathro, near Brechin, Angus, could challenge the long-held assumption that Caledonian tribes would never have rubbed shoulders with the Roman invaders. Indeed, it lends support to the existence of a more complicated and convivial relationship than previously envisaged, akin to that enjoyed with his patrician masters by the wine-swilling slave Lurcio, played by comedy legend Frankie Howerd, in the classic late 1970s television show Up Pompeii!. [Source: George Mair, scotsman.com, September 8, 2012]

“Stracathro Fort was at the end of the Gask Ridge, a line of forts and watchtowers stretching from Doune, near Stirling. The system is thought to be the earliest Roman land frontier, built around AD70 – 50 years before Hadrian’s Wall. The fort was discovered from aerial photographs taken in 1957, which showed evidence of defensive towers and protective ditches. A bronze coin and a shard of pottery were found, but until now little more has been known about the site. The archaeologists discovered the settlement and pub using a combination of magnetometry and geophysics without disturbing the site and determined the perimeter of the fort, which faced north-south.

“Now archaeologists working on “The Roman Gask Project” have found a settlement outside the fort – including the pub or wine bar. The Roman hostelry had a large square room – the equivalent of a public bar – and fronted on to a paved area, akin to a modern beer garden. The archaeologists also found the spout of a wine jug. Dr Birgitta Hoffmann, co-director of the project, said: “Roman forts south of the Border have civilian settlements that provided everything they needed, from male and female companionship to shops, pubs and bath houses.

““It was a very handy service, but it was always taught that you didn’t have to look for settlements at forts in Scotland because it was too dangerous – civilians didn’t want to live too close.“But we found a structure we think could be identifiable as the Roman equivalent of a pub. It has a large square room which seems to be fronting on to an unpaved path, with a rectangular area of paving nearby. We found a piece of highquality, black, shiny pottery imported from the Rhineland, which was once the pouring part of a wine jug. It means someone there had a lot of money. They probably came from the Rhineland or somewhere around Gaul.” We hadn’t expected to find a pub. It shows the Romans and the local population got on better than we thought. People would have known that if you stole Roman cattle, the punishment would be severe, but if they stuck to their rules then people could become rich working with the Romans.”


Getty villa, a copy of the House of Papyri at Herculaneum


Gardens in Ancient Rome

Most Roman houses, large or small, had a garden. Large homes had one in the courtyard and this was often where the family gathered, socialized and ate their meals. The sunny Mediterranean climate in Italy was usually accommodating to this routine. On the walls of the houses around the garden were paintings of more plants and flowers as well as exotic birds, cows, birdfeeders, and columns, as if the homeowner was trying achieve the same affects as the backdrop on a Hollywood set. Poor families tended small plots in the back of the house, or at least had some potted plants.

A peristyle garden was surrounded by a colonnade. A pool or fountain often sat at the center and space was filled with a variety of sculptures and plants. These gardens were designed be oases of green in an otherwise urban landscape. Those that could afford it decorated their gardens with busts of gods or philosophers and animal statuary. Relief ornaments called oscilas were suspended from space between columns so, as their name suggests, they could oscillate in the breeze. Some large gardens were built by wealthy Romans to display their wealth.

In Pompeii, archaeologists have reproduced Roman gardens with the same plants found in classical times. Opium was sometimes grown in Roman gardens.

The Romans were obsessed with roses. Rose water bathes were available in public baths and roses were tossed in the air during ceremonies and funerals. Theater-goers sat under awning scented with rose perfume; people ate rose pudding, concocted love potions with rose oil, and stuffed their pillows with rose petals. Rose petals were a common feature of orgies and a holiday, Rosalia, was name in honor of the flower.

Nero bathed in rose oil wine. He once spent 4 million sesterces (the equivalent of $200,000 in today's money) on rose oils, rose water, and rose petals for himself and his guests for a single evening. At parties he installed silver pipes under each plate to release the scent of roses in the direction of guests and installed a ceiling that opened up and showered guests with flower petals and perfume. According to some sources, more perfumes was splashed around than were produced in Arabia in a year at his funeral in A.D. 65. Even the processionary mules were scented.

Games in Ancient Rome


Roman board game from Silchester, England

Board games were played in ancient Rome. The first record of backgammon comes from 1st century Rome, where the Emperor Claudius, who played a game called Tabula with pieces and a board looks exactly like a modern backgammon board. Checkers was known in Rome as ludus latrunculorom (the "game of little robbers").

Roman children played games similar to hopscotch, tug-of-war and blind man's bluff. Rock, scissors, paper was played by the Egyptians and Romans. The Romans called it: Bucca, Bucca, Quot, Sunt, Hic . Clear glass marbles made of ash fused with silica were made in Rome. Caesar Augustus was reportedly so fond of marbles that he used to leave his entourage to play marbles with children.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Roman children played games similar to hopscotch, tug-of-war and blind man's bluff. Rock, scissors, paper was played by the Egyptians and Romans. The Romans called it: Bucca, Bucca, Quot, Sunt, Hic . Johnston wrote: “Games of many kinds were played by children, but we can only guess at, the nature of most of them, as we have hardly any formal descriptions. There were games corresponding to our Odd or Even, Blindman’s Buff, Hide and Seek, Jackstones, and Seesaw. Pebbles and nuts were used in games something like our marbles, and there were board-games also. To these may be added, for boys, riding, swimming, and wrestling, although these were taken too seriously, perhaps, to be called games and belonged rather to the training of boys for the duties of citizenship. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Knucklebones (tali) of sheep and goats, and imitations of them in ivory, bronze, and stone, were used as playthings by children and in gaming by men. Children played our game of jackstones with them: they threw five into the air at once and caught as many as possible on the back of the hand. The length of the tali was greater than their width and they had, therefore, four long sides and two short ends. The ends were rounded off or pointed, so that the tali could not stand on them. Of the four long sides two were broader than the others. Of the two broader sides one was concave, the other convex; of the narrower sides one was flat and the other indented. Since no two sides had the same shape, the tali did not require marking as do our dice, but for convenience they were some times marked with the numbers 1, 3, 4, and 6; the numbers 2 and 5 were omitted. Four tali were used at a time, either thrown into the air from the hand or thrown from a dice box (fritillus); the side on which the bone rested was counted, not that which came up. Thirty-five different throws were possible, each of which had its individual name and value. Four aces were the lowest throw, called the Vulture, while the highest, called the Venus, was when all the tali lay differently. It was this throw that designated the magister bibendi. |+|

Gambling in Ancient Rome


The Romans loved games of chance and were particularly fond of dice and liked to throw pairs of them from a cup. “At Nuceria, I won 8552 denarii by gaming — fair play!”A wall-painting from Pompeii shows two men sitting at a wooden table, playing a game of dice. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ They are watched by two other men. It is one of the 13 wall-painting s depicting popular scenes (mostly social activities that might take place in a bar) that adorned the walls of a bar on one of the main streets of Pompeii. “Gambling with dice was illegal in the Roman world, except during the Saturnalia festival, and in Roman literature it is generally frowned upon as an immoral activity associated with drinking and violent arguments. It would appear, however, from the large number of dice found at Pompeii and other Roman towns, that both the law and this moralising attitude were ignored by many inhabitants of the town.” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Romans were passionately fond of games of chance, and gambling was so universally associated with such games that they were forbidden by law, even when no stakes were actually played for. A general indulgence seems to have been granted during the Saturnalia in December, and public opinion allowed old men to play at any time. The laws were hard to enforce, however, as such laws usually are, and large sums were won and lost, not merely at general gambling resorts, but also at private houses. Games of chance, in fact, with high stakes, were one of the greatest attractions at the men’s dinners that have been mentioned . [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“The most common form of gambling was like our “heads or tails”; coins were used as with us, and the value of the stakes depended on the means of the player. Another common form was our “odd or even”: each player guessed in turn whether the number of counters held by another player was odd or even, and in turn held counters concealed in his outstretched hand for his opponent to guess in like way. The stake was usually the contents of the hand, though side bets were not unusual. In a variation of this game the players tried to guess the actual number of the counters held in the hand. Of more interest, however, were the games of knucklebones and dice.” |+|

Dice in Ancient Rome and Antiquity

Dice have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some scholars even said the dice were loaded (dice that weighted on one side so that a certain number is more likely to appear) but offered little evidence to back up the claim. The Romans believed dice were invented by the goddess Fortuna. An inscriptions from Pompeii related to gambling reads:


Roman dice

The Roman emperors Augustus, Domitian, Commodus, Caligula and Claudius were all big fans of dice. Claudius even wrote a treatise on how to be a top player and is said to have wagered 400,000 sesterces on a single roll of the dice ( the annual salary of a soldier was around 1,200 sesterces). He also reportedly had a special board built into his chariot that allowed him to play dice and other games even on the bumpiest of roads. The politician Seneca said that his gambling was such a vice that deserved to rot in a hell where he would eternally pick up dice and place them in a cup that has no bottom.

According to Sophocles the Greeks invented dice during the siege of Troy. Plato claimed that God invented dice and gave specific credit to the Egyptian deity Theuth. Herodotus attributed the invention of dice to the Lydians, who he said introduced them during a time of famine so the masses could keep themselves entertained on days they were not allowed to eat. Another story attributes the game to the Greek hero Palamedes to keep his soldiers from getting bored during the Trojan war. Dice, identical to ones in use today, were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C.

Dice were usually made of ivory or bone. Like modern dice the numbers were positioned so that the ones on opposite side always added up to seven: 1 and 6, 2 and 5 and 3 and 4. Dice, identical to ones in use today, were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 B.C. Almost all the ancient civilizations used dice, which developed from astragali---six sided bones, with four flat sides, that came from the ankle bones of hoofed animals. Astragali were used in board games by Egyptians, possibly as early as 3500 B.C. The bones from sheep were most commonly used. Those from antelope were particularly prized.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: The Romans had dice (tesserae) precisely like our own. The Roman dice were made of ivory, stone, or of close-grained wood, and each side was marked with dots, from one to six in number. Three of them, thrown from the fritillus, were used at a time, as were knucklebones, but the sides that came up counted. The highest possible throw was three sixes, the lowest was three aces. In ordinary gaming the aim of every player seems to have been to throw a higher number than his opponent, but there were also games played with dice on boards with counters, that must have been something like our backgammon, uniting skill with chance. Little more of these is known than their names, but a board used for some such game is known. If one considers how much space is given in our newspapers to the game of baseball, and how impossible it would be for a person who had never seen a game of ball to get a correct idea of one from the newspaper descriptions only, it will not seem strange that we know so little of Roman games. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

Claudius I's Parties and Love of Gambling


dice are very old, these are from Khafajah, Mesopotamia from about 2200 BC

Claudius loved gambling. He wrote a treatise on how to be a top dice player and is said to have wagered 400,000 sesterces on a single role of the dice ( the annual salary of a soldier was around 1,200 sesterces). He also reportedly had a special board built into his chariot that allowed him to play dice and other games even on the bumpiest of roads. The politician Seneca said that his gambling was such a vice that he deserved to rot in a hell where he would eternally pick up dice and place them in a cup that has no bottom.

Suetonius wrote: “He gave frequent and grand dinner parties, as a rule in spacious places, where six hundred guests were often entertained at one time. He even gave a banquet close to the outlet of the Fucine Lake and was well-nigh drowned, when the water was let out with a rush and deluged the place. He always invited his own children to dinner along with the sons and daughters of distinguished men, having them sit at the arms of the couches as they ate, after the old time custom. When a guest was suspected of having stolen a golden bowl the day before, he invited him again the next day, but set before him an earthenware cup. He is even said to have thought of an edict allowing the privilege of breaking wind quietly or noisily at table, having learned of a man who ran some risk by restraining himself through modesty. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum:Claudius” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Claudius”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 405-497, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

“He was eager for food and drink at all times and in all places. Once, when he was holding court in the Forum of Augustus and had caught the savor of a meal which was preparing for the Salii [Their feasts were proverbial for luxury; see Hor. Odes I.37.2] in the temple of Mars hard by, he left the tribunal, went up to where the priests were, and took his place at their table. He hardly ever left the dining-room until he was stuffed and soaked; then he went to sleep at once, lying on his back with his mouth open, and a feather was put down his throat to relieve his stomach. He slept but little at a time, for he was usually awake before midnight; but he would sometimes drop off in the daytime while holding court and could hardly be roused when the advocates raised their voices for the purpose. He was immoderate in his passion for women, but wholly free from unnatural vice. He was greatly devoted to gaming, even publishing a book on the art, and he actually used to play while driving, having the board so fitted to his carriage as to prevent his game from being disturbed.

PETS IN ANCIENT ROME

20120227-Mosaic Pompeii Birds_drinking_MAN_Napoli_Inv9992.jpg
Pompeii mosaic of a bird feeder
Cats, rabbits and peacocks were introduced to Rome by the A.D. 1st century. White tortoises were popular pets. Some Romans used to keep honking geese rather than watchdogs to alert them of intruders. Some emperors kept lions outside their bed chambers.

Pigeons have a long history. They were domesticated by the Egyptians and Romans. Nero used them to send messages about the results of Imperial games to his friends. Many were kept as sources of meat that were available throughout the year. Their ancestors, rock pigeon, lived on cliffs and in caves on the coast. Domesticated pigeons were provided with tall towers with ledges for them to roost that simulated their coastal homes.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Pets were even more common then than now, and then as now the dog was easily first in the affections of children. The house cat began to be known at Rome in the first century A.D. Birds were very commonly made pets. Thus besides the doves and pigeons which are familiar to us, ducks, crows, and quail, we are told, were pets of children. So also were geese, odd as this seems to us, and there is a statue of a child struggling with a goose as large as himself. Monkeys were known, but could not have been common. Mice have been mentioned already. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “When it comes to ancient Rome’s animal policies, one can be forgiven if the first image that comes to mind is gory slaughter at the Colosseum. However, private citizens cherished their household pets. Dogs were by far the favorite, but cats were not uncommon. House-snakes were appreciated as ratters, and domesticated birds were also delighted in. Nightingales and green Indian parrots were all the rage because they could mimic human words. [Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016 ><]

“Cranes, herons, swans, quail, geese, and ducks were also kept. While the last three proved very popular, Roman fondness and treatment of peacocks was almost on par with dogs. Some cruelty existed in bird fighting, but it wasn’t a widespread sport. Roman pets were so deeply loved that they were immortalized in art and poetry and even buried with their masters. Other pets included hares (a popular gift exchanged by lovers), goats, deer, apes, and fish.” ><

Dogs in Ancient Rome


Beware of dog sign from Pompeii

Dogs in ancient Greece often were not fed. They were expected to catch their meals. The Romans fed their dogs and appear to have pampered them. The remains of a dog buried with a collar made of semiprecious stones have been found. At Pompeii, archaeologists found remains of a chained dog and mosaic with a snarling dog and a sign that said "Cave Canem" (“Beware of the Dog”). Petronius wrote in Satyricon: “There on the left as one entered…was a huge dog with a chain round its neck. It was painted on the wall and over it, in big capitals, was written: Beware of the Dog.” A graffiti inscriptions from Pompeii reads: “On October 17 Puteolana had a litter of three males and two females.”

Bloodhounds are thought to date back at least to Roman times. In the A.D. 3rd century, the historian Claudius Aelianus described a breed of dog with a superior scenting ability and was so determined that it would not leave the trail until its quarry was found.

The Romans also bred large, powerful dogs for battle. They were capable of knocking an armed man off a horse and dismembering him. Mastiffs---or at least those more properly described as Old English Mastiffs---were originally bred as fighting dogs for the Roman legions. There is some evidence these originally came from Britain. Caesar described them in his account of invading Britain in 55 B.C. When these dogs fought beside their masters against the Roman legions, he wrote, they displayed such courage and power it left a great impression. Not long afterwards there were accounts of huge British fighting dogs defeating all comers in battles in the Circus. They were matched against human gladiators as well as bulls, bears lions and tigers.

Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “One of the most charming signs of dog life at Roman villas, farms, and military camps across Britain are the pawprints left in drying building tiles. There are dozens of these tiles from Silchester, and hundreds from Roman Britain---perhaps as many as one percent of all the tiles produced there according to Fulford---proof that it is not just modern dogs who stick their paws where they may not belong."

Dogs of Roman Britain

Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “Evidence for dogs in Roman Britain is plentiful. Decades of excavations have uncovered dozens of dogs of all types, ranging from terrier- to Labrador- and even greyhound-sized. Some were stillborn or died at birth, while others lived to ripe old ages. And although a few dogs show clear signs of having been killed deliberately, at least one was very well treated. Although the dog was rendered permanently lame by multiple leg fractures, it bore no trace of infection, suggesting that its paw was cleaned and immobilized, allowing it to heal properly. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell,Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010]

20120227-Pompeii dog Cave_canem_MAN_Napoli_Inv110666.jpg
Pompeii dog
"There were quite a lot of dogs here, and in Roman Britain in general," says Michael Fulford, director of the excavations at Silchester, the site of the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum in southern England. "What's interesting too is that dogs were treated both as rubbish and also reverentially," says Fulford. His team found an early third-century A.D. pit with the remains of a puppy that was killed (the team is not sure how), two other dogs, a raven, and two doubly-pierced pot sherds. The dogs were also buried with a knife that was probably used as a razor and had an ivory handle in the form of two coupling dogs. According to Nina Crummy, the excavation's finds specialist, the burial of the knife, an expensive object that had been made on the continent, would not have been lightly undertaken. "It should be interpreted as a deliberate burial, either as a kind of grave gift accompanying the burial of a pair of valued dogs, or a votive offering connected with the ritual life of the inhabitants [of this area of the city]," she says.

The dogs from Silchester are also evidence that in the Roman world, small dogs were favored over larger ones. According to University of Winnipeg archaeologist Michael MacKinnon, the spread of toy breeds by the Romans represents shifting attitudes toward pet-keeping, or an ardent effort to incorporate pet ownership into the more regular uses of dogs, such as herding and guarding. "It seems to be a Roman phenomenon that I suspect ties in with conspicuous consumption by the elite and other attempts at wealth and showiness," says MacKinnon. Archaeological evidence from the Roman world, including Silchester, also suggests that they may have been breeding for smaller dogs. "Bow-legged animals occur [starting in the] early Romano-British period, as does the absence of the lower third molar and crowding of the premolars," says Kate Clark, the Silchester team's bone specialist. "These conditions are due to the rapid diminution of the species whereby jaw size decreases faster than tooth size."

Yasmina 'Sick' Dog

"Perhaps of all the archaeological cases for pets I can think of," Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist from the University of Winnipeg told Archaeology magazine, "I believe the Yasmina 'sick' dog is the most poignant." Along the north wall of the Roman-era Yasmina cemetery in the city of Carthage in Tunisia, excavations led by Naomi Norman of the University of Georgia uncovered a third-century A.D. burial of an adolescent/young adult in a carefully made grave topped with cobbles and tiles, and with the skeleton of an elderly dog at its feet. The dog was also buried with one of the few grave goods found in the cemetery, a glass bowl carefully placed behind its shoulder. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell, Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010]

Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine, “The Yasmina dog, which probably resembled a modern Pomeranian, is an example of a toy breed, and one of the earliest specimens to be identified as a Maltese. But what is more remarkable about the dog is that, despite a host of physical problems including tooth loss that likely required it to eat soft foods, osteoarthritis, a dislocated hip, and spinal deformation that would have limited mobility, the dog survived into its mid-to-late teens. It was clearly well cared for, and even death could not separate it from his owner, according to MacKinnon. "Whether the dog represents a sacrifice [perhaps meant to 'heal' the sick person in the afterlife] or just companionship is unknown, but these two aspects need not be mutually exclusive," he says. "There is a great connection between humans and animals in Roman antiquity. To me, this aspect of animals garnering sentimental value and being treated like humans is a key aspect of Roman culture."

20120227-Mosaic Pompeii Cat_birds Napoli.jpg
Pompeii mosaic of cats and birds

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

The Roman Games: A Sourcebook by Alison Futrell (Blackwell Publishing, 2006) .

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