Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “With the historical development of the Public Games this book has no concern. It is sufficient to say that these free exhibitions, given at first in honor of some god, or gods, at the cost of the State and extended and multiplied for political purposes until all religious significance was lost, had come by the end of the Republic to be the chief pleasure in life for the lower classes in Rome; indeed Juvenal declares that free bread and the games of the circus were the people’s sole desire. Not only were these games free, but, when they were given, all public business was stopped and all citizens were forced to take a holiday. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

These holidays became rapidly more and more numerous; by the end of the Republic sixty-six days were taken up by the games, and in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.) no less than one hundred thirty-five days out of the year were thus closed to business.1 Besides these standing games, others were often given for extraordinary events, and funeral games were common when great men died. These last occasions were not made legal holidays. For our purposes the distinction between public and private games is not important; games may be classified, according to the nature of the exhibitions, as ludi scaenici, dramatic entertainments given in a theater, ludi circenses, chariot races and other exhibitions given in a circus, and munera gladiatoria, shows of gladiators, given usually in an amphitheater. It must be understood that there was no commercial theater, and that plays were shown only in connection with the games mentioned above. |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Games and Shows Under Augustus

Suetonius wrote: “He surpassed all his predecessors in the frequency, variety, and magnificence of his public shows. He says that he gave games four times in his own name and twenty-three times for other magistrates, who were either away from Rome or lacked means. He gave them sometimes in all the wards and on many stages with actors in all languages,a and combats of gladiators not only in the Forum or the amphitheatre, but in the Circus and in the Saepta; sometimes, however, he gave nothing except a fight with wild beasts. He gave athletic contests too in the Campus Martius, erecting wooden seats; also a seafight, constructing an artificial lake near the Tiber, where the grove of the Caesars now stands. On such occasions he stationed guards in various parts of the city, to prevent it from falling a prey to footpads because of the few people who remained at home. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]


“In the Circus he exhibited charioteers, rumlers, and slayers of wild animals, who were sometimes young men of the highest rank. Besides he gave frequent performances of the game of Troya by older and younger boys, thinking it a time-honoured and worthy custom for the flower of the nobility to become known in this way. When Nonius Asprenas was lamed by a fall while taking part in this game, he presented him with a golden necklace and allowed him and his descendants to bear the surname Torquatus. But soon afterwards he gave up that form of entertainment, because Asinius Pollio the orator complained bitterly and angrily in the Senate of an accident to his grandson Aeserninus, who also had broken his leg. He sometimes employed even Roman knights in scenic and gladiatorial performances, but only before it was forbidden by decree of the Senate. After that he exhibited no one of respectable parentage, with the exception of a young man named Lycius, whom he showed merely as a curiosity; for he was less than two feet tall, weighed but seventeen pounds, yet had a stentorian voice. He did however on the day of one of the shows make a display of the first Parthian hostages that had ever been sent to Rome, by leading them through the middle of the arena and placing them in the second row above his own seat. Furthermore, if anything rare and worth seeing was ever brought to the city, it was his habit to make a special exhibit of it in any convenient place on days when no shows were appointed. For example a rhinoceros in the Saepta, a tiger on the stage and a snake of fifty cubits in front of the Comitium. It chanced that at the time of the games which he had vowed to give in the circus, he was taken ill and headed the sacred procession lying in a litter; again, at the opening of the games with which he dedicated the theatre of Marcellus, it happened that the joints of his curule chair gave way and he fell on his back. At the games for his grandsons, when the people were in a panic for fear the theatre should fall, and he could not calm them or encourage them in any way, he left his own place and took his seat in the part which appeared most dangerous.

“He put a stop by special regulations to the disorderly and indiscriminate fashion of viewing the games, through exasperation at the insult to a senator, to whom no one offered a seat in a crowded house at some largely attended games in Puteoli. In consequence of this the Senate decreed that, whenever any public show was given anywhere, the first row of seats should be reserved for Senators; and at Rome he would not allow the envoys of the free and allied nations to sit in the orchestra, since he was informed that even freedmen were sometimes appointed. He separated the soldiery from the people. He assigned special seats to the married men of the commons, to boys under age their own section and the adjoining one to their preceptors; and he decreed that no one wearing a dark cloak should sit in the middle of the house. He would not allow women to view even the gladiators except from the upper seats, though it had been the custom for men and women to sit together at such shows. Only the Vestal virgins were assigned a place to themselves, opposite the praetor's tribunal. As for the contests of the athletes, he excluded women from them so strictly, that when a contest between a pair of boxers had been called for at the games in honour of his appointment as pontifex maximus, he postponed it until early the following day, making proclamation that it was his desire that women should not come to the theatre before the fifth hour.

“He himself usually watched the games in the Circus from the upper rooms of his friends and freedmen, but sometimes from the imperial box, and even in company with his wife and children. He was sometimes absent for several hours, and now and then for whole days, making his excuses and appointing presiding officers to take his place. But whenever he was present, he gave his entire attention to the performance, either to avoid the censure to which he realized that his father Caesar had been generally exposed, because he spent his time in reading or answering letters and petitions; or from his interest and pleasure in the spectacle, which he never denied but often frankly confessed. Because of this he used to offer special prizes and numerous valuable gifts from his own purse at games given by others, and he appeared at no contest in the Grecian fashion [i.e., those given at Rome in the Greek language and dress, sometimes by Greek actors] without making a present to each of the participants according to his deserts. He was especially given to watching boxers, particularly those of Latin birth, not merely such as were recognized and classed as professionals, whom he was wont to match even with Greeks, but the common untrained townspeople that fought rough and tumble and without skill in the narrow streets. In fine, he honoured with his interest all classes of performers who took part in the public shows; maintained the privileges of the athletes and even increased them; forbade the matching of gladiators without the right of appeal for quarter; and deprived the magistrates of the power allowed them by an ancient law of punishing actors anywhere and everywhere, restricting it to the time of games and to the theatre. Nevertheless he exacted the severest discipline in the contests in the wrestling halls and the combats of the gladiators. In particular he was so strict in curbing the lawlessness of the actors, that when he learned that Stephanio, an actor of Roman plays, was waited on by a matron with hair cut short to look like a boy, he had him whipped with rods through the three theatres and then banished him. Hylas, a pantomimic actor, was publicly scourged in the atrium of his own house, on complaint of a praetor, and Pylades was expelled from the city and from Italy as well, because by pointing at him with his finger he turned all eyes upon a spectator who was hissing him.

Secular Games of Augustus

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “In 17 B.C. Augustus celebrated the Secular Games which marked the close of a saeculum or epoch of a human life-span, defined in the Republic at one- hundred years, but celebrated elastically in Augustus's day at one-hundred- and-ten. In the new spirit of prosperity, the traditional deities of dread, including warlike Mars, and underworld Pluto and Persephone, were absent; sacrifices were made in honor of the Fates, the goddess of childbirth, Earth Mother, Jupiter and Juno, and Apollo and Diana. The poet Horace was commissioned to write a hymn which was sung by twenty-seven boys and twenty-seven girls.” [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors ]

William Stearns Davis wrote: “The "Secular Games" was “a peculiarly solemn event, supposedly permitted only once in a century. The occasion was one of general jubilation over the notable peace and prosperity of the age. The "Secular Hymn" by the court poet Horace is perhaps the most successful poem of occasion ever written. It fits admirably into the spirit of the occasion with its references to the old divinities and the contemporary rulers and their triumphs. It was probably sung on the third day of the festival at the temple of Apollo on the Palatine by a choir of twenty-seven noble boys and maidens.” The hymn is regarded as an encomium — a speech or piece of writing that highly praises someone or something. [Source: Horace (65-8 B.C.): Secular hymn, Augustan Encomiums, William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 174-179]

Horace’s Hymn for Augustus’s Secular Games

Horace “Secular Hymn” for Augustus’s Secular Games goes:
“Phoebus! and Dian, you whose sway,
Mountains and woods obey!
Twin glories of the skies, forever worshiped, hear!
Accept our prayer this sacred year
When, as the Sibyl's voice ordained
For ages yet to come,
Pure maids and youths unstained
Invoke the Gods who love the sevenfold hills of Rome.

“All bounteous Sun!
Forever changing, and forever one!
Who in your lustrous car bear'st forth light,
And hid'st it, setting, in the arms of Night,
Look down on worlds outspread, yet nothing see
Greater than Rome, and Rome's high sovereignty.
You Ilithyia, too, whatever name,
Goddess, you do approve,
Lucina, Genitalis, still the same
Aid destined mothers with a mother's love;

“Prosper the Senate's wise decree,
Fertile of marriage faith and countless progeny!
As centuries progressive wing their flight
For you the grateful hymn shall ever sound;
Thrice by day, and thrice by night
For you the choral dance shall beat the ground.


“Fates! whose unfailing word
Spoken from lips Sibylline shall abide,
Ordained, preserved and sanctified
By Destiny's eternal law, accord
To Rome new blessings that shall last
In chain unbroken from the Past.
Mother of fruits and flocks, prolific Earth!
Bind wreaths of spiked corn round Ceres's hair:
And may soft showers and Jove's benignant air
Nurture each infant birth!

“Lay down your arrows, God of day!
Smile on your youths elect who singing pray.
You, Crescent Queen, bow down your star-crowned head
And on your youthful choir a kindly influence shed.
If Rome be all your work---if Troy's sad band
Safe sped by you attained the Etruscan strand,
A chosen remnant, vowed
To seek new Lares, and a changed abode---
Remnant for whom thro Ilion's blazing gate
Aeneas, orphan of a ruined State,
Opened a pathway wide and free
To happier homes and liberty:---
Ye Gods! If Rome be yours, to placid Age
Give timely rest: to docile Youth
Grant the rich heritage
Of morals, modesty, and truth.
On Rome herself bestow a teaming race
Wealth, Empire, Faith, and all befitting Grace.

“Vouchsafe to Venus' and Anchises' heir,
Who offers at your shrine
Due sacrifice of milk-white kine,
Justly to rule, to pity and to dare,
To crush insulting hosts, the prostrate foeman spare
The haughty Mede has learned to fear
The Alban axe, the Latian spear,
And Scythians, suppliant now, await
The conqueror's doom, their coming fate.
Honor and Peace, and Pristine Shame,
And Virtue's oft dishonored name,
Have dared, long exiled, to return,
And with them Plenty lifts her golden horn.

“Augur Apollo! Bearer of the bow!
Warrior and prophet! Loved one of the Nine!
Healer in sickness! Comforter in woe!
If still the templed crags of Palatine
And Latium's fruitful plains to you are dear,
Perpetuate for cycles yet to come,
Mightier in each advancing year,
The ever growing might and majesty of Rome.
You, too, Diana, from your Aventine,
And Algidus= deep woods, look down and hear
The voice of those who guard the books Divine,
And to your youthful choir incline a loving ear.

“Return we home! We know that Jove
And all the Gods our song approve
To Phoebus and Diana given;
The virgin hymn is heard in Heaven.”

Caligula’s Outrageous Gladiator Shows


Suetonius wrote: “He gave several gladiatorial shows, some in the amphitheater of Taurus and some in the Saepta, in which he introduced pairs of African and Campanian boxers, the pick of both regions. He did not always preside at the games in person, but sometimes assigned the honor to the magistrates or to friends. He exhibited stage-plays continually, of various kinds and in many different places, sometimes even by night, lighting up the whole city. He also threw about gift-tokens of various kinds, and gave each man a basket of victuals. During the feasting he sent his share to a Roman eques opposite him, who was eating with evident relish and appetite, while to a senator for the same reason he gave a commission naming him praetor out of the regular order. He also gave many games in the Circus, lasting from early morning until evening, introducing between the races now a baiting of panthers and now the manoeuvres of the game called Troy; some, too, of special splendor, in which the Circus was strewn with red and green, while the charioteers were all men of senatorial rank. He also started some games off-hand, when a few people called for them from the neighboring balconies as he was inspecting the outfit of the Circus from the Gelotian house. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) “De Vita Caesarum: Caius Caligula” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Caius Caligula”) 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]

Besides this, he devised a novel and unheard of kind of pageant; for he bridged the gap between Baiae and the mole at Puteoli, a distance of about thirty-six hundred paces, by bringing together merchant ships from all sides and anchoring them in a double line, after which a mound of earth was heaped upon them and fashioned in the manner of the Appian Way. Over this bridge he rode back and forth for two successive days, the first day on a caparisoned horse, himself resplendent in a crown of oak leaves, a buckler, a sword, and a cloak of cloth of gold; on the second, in the dress of a charioteer in a car drawn by a pair of famous horses, carrying before him a boy named Dareus, one of the hostages from Parthia, and attended by the entire praetorian guard and a company of his friends in Gallic chariots. I know that many have supposed that Gaius devised this kind of bridge in rivalry of Xerxes, who excited no little admiration by bridging the much narrower Hellespont; others, that it was to inspire fear in Germany and Britain, on which he had designs, by the fame of some stupendous work. But when I was a boy, I used to hear my grandfather say that the reason for the work, as revealed by the emperor's confidential courtiers, was that Thrasyllus the astrologer had declared to Tiberius, when he was worried about his suceessor and inclined towards his natural grandson, that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.

“He also gave shows in foreign lands, Athenian games at Syracuse in Sicily, and miscellaneous games at Lugdunum in Gallia; at the latter place also a contest in Greek and Latin oratory, in which, they say, the losers gave prizes to the victors and were forced to compose eulogies upon them, while those who were least successful were ordered to erase their writings with a sponge or with their tongue unless they elected rather to be beaten with rods or thrown into the neighboring river.

“He completed the public works which had been half finished under Tiberius, namely the temple of Augustus and the theater of Pompeius. He likewise began an aqueduct in the region near Tibur and an amphitheater beside the Saepta, the former finished by his successor Claudius, while the latter was abandoned. At Syracuse he repaired the city walls, which had fallen into ruin through lapse of time, and the temples of the gods. He had planned, besides, to rebuild the palace of Polycrates at Samos, to finish the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus, to found a city high up in the Alps, but, above all, to dig a canal through the Isthmus in Greece, and he had already sent a chief centurion to survey the work.

Claudius's Shows, Games and Gladiator Contests

Suetonius wrote: “He very often distributed largesse to the people. He also gave several splendid shows, not merely the usual ones in the customary places, but some of a new kind and some revived from ancient times, and in places where no one had ever given them before. He opened the games at the dedication of Pompeius Magnus's theater, which he had restored when it was damaged by a fire, from a raised seat in the orchestra, after first offering sacrifice at the temples [Pompeius Magnus placed the double Temple of Venus Victrix at the top of his theater, so that the seats of the auditorium formed an approach to it] in the upper part of the auditorium and coming down through the tiers of seats while all sat in silence. [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 also celebrated secular games [See Aug. xxxi.4] alleging that they had been given too earths by Augustus and not reserved for the regular time; although he himself writes in his own History that when they had been discontinued for a long time, Augustus restored them to their proper place after a very careful calculation of the intervals. Therefore the herald's proclamation was greeted with laughter, when he invited the people in the usual formula to games "which no one had ever seen or would ever see again"; for some were still living who had seen them before, and some actors who had appeared at the former performance appeared at that time as well. He often gave games in the Vatican Circus [Built by Caligula] also, at times with a beast-baiting between every five races. But the Circus Maximus he adorned with barriers of marble and gilded goals [The carceres were compartments closed by barriers, one for each chariot. They were probably twelve in number and were so arranged as to be at an equal distance from the starting point of the race. When the race began, the barriers were removed. The metae, or "goals", were three conical pillars at each end of the spina, or low wall which ran down the middle of the arena, about which the chariots had to run a given number of times, usually seven; see Dom. iv.3], whereas before they had been of tufa and wood, and assigned special seats to the senators, who had been in the habit of viewing the games with the rest of the people. In addition to the chariot races he exhibited the game called Troy and also panthers, which were hunted down by a squadron of the Praetorian cavalry under the lead of the tribunes and the prefect himself; likewise Thessalian horseman, who drive wild bulls all over the arena, leaping upon them when they are tired out and throwing them to the ground by the horns.

“He gave many gladiatorial shows and in many places: one in yearly celebration of his accession, in the Praetorian Camp without wild beasts and fine equipment, and one in the Saepta of the regular and usual kind; another in the same place not in the regular list, short and lasting but a few days, to which he was the first to apply the name of sportula, because before giving it for the first time he made proclamation that he invited the people "as it were to an extempore meal, hastily prepared." Now there was no form of entertainment at which he was more familiar and free, even thrusting out his left hand [Instead of keeping it covered with his toga, an undignified performance for an emperor] as the Plebeians did, and counting aloud on his fingers the gold pieces which were paid to the victors; and ever and anon he would address the audience, and invite and urge them to merriment, calling them "masters" from time to time, and interspersing feeble and far-fetched jokes. For example, when they called for Palumbus [The "Dove", nickname of a gladiator] he promised that they should have him, "if he could be caught." The following, however, was both exceedingly timely and salutary; when he had granted the wooden sword [The symbol of discharge; cf.. Hor. Epist. 1.1.2] to an essedarius [See Calig. xxxv.3], for whose discharge four sons begged, and the act was received with loud and general applause, he at once circulated a note, pointing out to the people how greatly they ought to desire children, since they saw that they brought favor and protection even to a gladiator.

He gave representations in the Campus Martius of the storming and sacking of a town in the manner of real warfare, as well as of the surrender of the kings of the Britons, and presided clad in a general's cloak. Even when he was on the point of letting out the water from Lake Fucinus he gave a sham sea-fight first. But when the combatants cried out: "Hail, emperor, those who are about to die salute you," he replied, "Or not," and after that all of them refused to fight, maintaining that they had been pardoned. Upon this he hesitated for some time about destroying them all with fire and sword, but at last leaping from his throne and running along the edge of the lake with his ridiculous tottering gait he induced them to fight, partly by threats and partly by promises. At this performance a Sicilian and a Rhodian fleet engaged, each numbering twelve triremes, and the signal was sounded on a horn by a silver Triton, which was raised from the middle of the lake by a mechanical device.

Nero’s Early Shows and Games

Suetonius wrote: Nero “gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales, chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays, and a gladiatorial show. At the first-mentioned, he had even old men of consular rank and aged matrons take part. For the games in the Circus he assigned places to the equites apart from the rest, and even matched chariots drawn by four camels. At the plays which he gave for the "Eternity of the Empire," which by his order were called the Ludi Maximi, parts were taken by several men and women of both the orders; a well known Roman eques mounted an elephant and rode down a rope; a Roman play of Afranius, too, was staged, entitled "The Fire," and the actors were allowed to carry off the furniture of the burning Curia and keep it. Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) : “De Vita Caesarum: Nero: ” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Nero”), written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.87-187, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

“These plays he viewed from the top of the proscenium. At the gladiatorial show, which he gave in a wooden amphitheatre, erected in the district of the Campus Martius within the space of a single year [58 A.D.], he had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman equites, some of whom were well-to-do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Even those who fought with the wild beasts and performed the various services in the arena were of the same orders. He also exhibited a naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it; besides pyrrhic dances by some Greek youths, handing each of them certificates of Roman citizenship at the close of his performance. The pyrrhic dances represented various scenes. In one, a bull mounted Pasiphae, who was concealed in a wooden image of a heifer; at least many of the spectators thought so. Icarus at his very first attempt fell close by the imperial couch and bespattered the emperor with his blood; for Nero very seldom presided at the games, but used to view them while reclining on a couch, at first through small openings, and then with the entire balcony uncovered. He was likewise the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial contest in three parts, after the Greek fashion, that is in music, gymnastics, and riding, which he called the "Veronia"; at the same time he dedicated his baths and gymnasiums supplying every member of the senatorial and equestrian orders with oil. To preside over the whole contest he appointed ex-consuls, chosen by lot, who occupied the seats of the praetors. Then he went down into the orchestra among the senators and accepted the prize for Latin oratory and verse, for which all the most eminent men had contended, but which was given to him with their unanimous consent; but when that for lyre-playing was also offered him by the judges, he knelt before it and ordered that it be laid at the feet of Augustus' statue. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta, he shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol. He invited the Vestal Virgins also to witness the contests of the athletes, because at Olympia the priestesses of Ceres were allowed the same privilege.

“I may fairly include among his shows the entrance of Tiridates into the city. He was a king of Armenia, whom Nero induced by great promises to come to Rome; and since he was prevented by bad weather from exhibiting him to the people on the day appointed by proclamation, he produced him at the first favorable opportunity, with the Praetorian cohorts drawn up in full armor about the temples in the Forum, while he himself sat in a curule chair on the rostra in the attire of a triumphing general, surrounded by military ensigns and standards. As the king approached along a sloping platform, the emperor at first let him fall at his feet, but raised him with his right hand and kissed him. Then, while the king made supplication, Nero took the turban from his head and replaced it with a diadem, while a man of praetorian rank translated the words of the suppliant and proclaimed them to the throng. From there the king was taken to the theater [Of Pompeius Magnus], and when he had again done obeisance, Nero gave hint a seat at his right hand. Because of all this Nero was hailed as Imperator, and after depositing a laurel wreath in the Capitol [This was usual only when a triumph was celebrated], he closed the two doors of the temple of Janus, as a sign that no war was left anywhere.

Games and Amusements under Vespasian

The chief public amusements of the Romans were those which took place in the circus, the theater, and the amphitheater. The greatest circus of Rome was the Circus Maximus. It was an inclosure about two thousand feet long and six hundred feet wide. Within it were arranged seats for different classes of citizens, a separate box being reserved for the imperial family. The games consisted chiefly of chariot races. The excitement was due to the reckless and dangerous driving of the charioteers, each striving to win by upsetting his competitors. There were also athletic sports; running, leaping, boxing, wrestling, throwing the quoit, and hurling the javelin. Sometimes sham battles and sea fights took place. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

The Romans were not very much addicted to the theater, there being only three principal structures of this kind at Rome, those of Pompey, Marcellus, and Balbus. The theater was derived from the Greeks and was built in the form of a semicircle, the seats being apportioned, as in the case of the circus, to different classes of persons. The shows consisted largely of dramatic exhibitions, of mimes, pantomimes, and dancing. It is said that the poems of Ovid were acted in pantomime. \~\

The Colosseum was started by V and finished by Titus

The most popular and characteristic amusements of the Romans were the sports of the amphitheater. This building was in the form of a double theater, forming an entire circle or ellipse. Such structures were built in different cities of the empire, but none equaled the colossal building of Vespasian. The sports of the amphitheater were chiefly gladiatorial shows and the combats of wild beasts. The amusements of the Romans were largely sensational, and appealed to the tastes of the populace. Their influence was almost always bad, and tended to degrade the morals of the people. \~\

Suetonius wrote: “At the plays with which he dedicated the new stage of the theater of Marcellus he revived the old musical entertainments. To Apelles, the tragic actor, he gave four hundred thousand sesterces; to Terpnus and Diodorus, the lyre-players, two hundred thousand each; to several a hundred thousand; while those who received least were paid forty thousands and numerous golden crowns were awarded besides. He gave constant dinner-parties, too, usually formally and sumptuously, to help the marketmen. He gave gifts to women on the Kalends of March [The Matronalia, or Feast of Married Women; see Hor. Odes, 3.8, 1], as he did to the men on the Saturnalia. Yet even so he could not be rid of his former ill-repute for covetousness. The Alexandrians persisted in calling him Kybiosactes [Meaning, "dealer in square pieces of salt fish"], the surname of one of their kings who was scandalously stingy. Even at his funeral, Favor, a leading actor of mimes, who wore his mask and, according to the usual custom, imitated the actions and words of the deceased during his lifetime, having asked the procurators in a loud voice how much his funeral procession would cost, and hearing the reply "Ten million sesterces," cried out: "Give me a hundred thousand and fling me into the Tiber!" [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

Titus and the Grand Opening of the Colosseum

Titus (ruled from A.D. 79-81) oversaw the rebuilding of Pompeii and inaugurated the Colosseum which was begun before his rule by Vespasian. Titus was known for his extravagant games. One bloody circus during Titus's rule lasted for 123 straight days and between 5,000 people and 11,000 were killed.

On the huge spectacle held for the opening of the Colosseum, Dio Cassius (A.D. 150-235) wrote: "Most of what he [Titus] did was not characterized by anything noteworthy, but in dedicating the hunting-theatre (Amphitheatrum Flavium) and the baths that bear his name, he produced many remarkable spectacles. There was a battle between cranes and also between four elephants; animals both tame and wild were slain to the number of nine thousand; and women (not those of prominence however) took part in dispatching them. As for the men, several fought in single combat and several groups contended together both in infantry and naval battles. For Titus suddenly filled this same theatre with water and brought in horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that had been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land. He also brought in people in ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians.... These were the spectaculars that were offered and they continued for a hundred days; but Titus also furnished some things that were of practical use to the people. He would throw down into the theatre from aloft little wooden balls variously inscribed, one designating some article of food, another clothing, another a silver vessel, or perhaps a gold one, or again horses, pack animals, cattle or slaves. Those who seized them were to carry them to the dispensers of the bounty, from whom they would receive the article named". [Dio Cassius. 65.25]

Triumph of Vespasian and Titus

On the same event Suetonius wrote: “At the dedication [80 C.E.] of the amphitheatre [The Colosseum] and of the baths which were hastily built near it, he gave a most magnificent and costly gladiatorial show. He presented a sham sea-fight too in the old naumachia and in the same place a combat of gladiators exhibiting five thousand wild beasts of every kind in a single day”. [Source: translated by J. C. Rolfe, ed.,Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.321-339]

Domitian’s Games and Extravagances

Suetonius wrote: “He constantly gave grand and costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre [The Colosseum], and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen; and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre. Besides, he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well. He was always present, too, at the games given by the quaestors, which he revived after they had been abandoned for some time, and invariably granted the people the privilege of calling for two pairs of gladiators from his own school, and brought them in last in all the splendor of the court. During the whole of every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus prefect of Egypt. He often gave sea-fights almost with regular fleets, having dug a pool near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats; and he continued to witness the contests amid heavy rains. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Domitian,” (“Life of Domitian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.339-385]

“He also celebrated Secular games, reckoning the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these, to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of the contests in the Circus, he diminished the number of laps from seven to five. He also established a quinquennial contest in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamations both in Greek and in Latin; and in addition to those of the lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone, without singing; while in the stadium there were races even between maidens. He presided at the competitions in half-boots clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales [Established for the worship of the deified Flavian emperors, after the manner of the Augustales], similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.

“He celebrated the Quinquatria too every year in honor of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry. He made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave plentiful banquets, distributing large baskets of victuals to the Senate and equites, and smaller ones to the plebeians, and he himself was the first to begin to eat. On the following day, he scattered gifts of all sorts of things to be scrambled for, and since the greater part of these fell where the people sat, he had five hundred tickets thrown into each section occupied by the senatorial and equestrian orders.

“Reduced to financial straits by the cost of his buildings and shows, as well as by the additions which he had made to the pay of the soldiers, he tried to lighten the military expenses by diminishing the number of his troops; but perceiving that in this way he exposed himself to the attacks of the barbarians, and nevertheless had difficulty in easing his burdens, he had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery. The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the princeps. Estates of those in no way connected with him were confiscated, if but one man came forward to declare that he had heard from the deceased during his lifetime that Caesar was his heir. Besides other taxes, that on the Jews [A tax of two drachmas a head, imposed by Titus in return for free permission to practice their religion; see Josephus, Bell. Jud. 7.6.6] was levied with the utmost rigor, and those were prosecuted who, without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people [These may have been Christians, whom the Romans commonly assumed were Jews]. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised. From his youth he was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father's concubine Caenis returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her. He was vexed that his brother's son-in-law had attendants clad in white, as well as he, and uttered the words "Not good is a number of rulers" [Iliad, 2.204].

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; 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 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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