A7: The Roman Games
Investigating Ancient History- Case Study A7: The Roman Games
- the geographical and historical context
- the range of sources
- the nature of the Roman games as revealed through the sources
Public games, including gladiatorial fights against human and animals, naval recreations, political executions in the amphitheatre and chariot races in the Circus or Hippodrome, were an important aspect of ancient Roman society. Not only was it a place of entertainment and where poorer members of Roman society could receive a meal, but it was also significant in the communication of power between the ruling elite and the populace of the city. For these reasons, the Roman games enjoyed a long history in ancient Rome and some of the surviving arenas are still marvelled at today.
|Exterior of the Colosseum at Rome|
Photo credit: Jaakko Luttinen, Wikimedia Commons
|Interior of the Colosseum at Rome|
Geographical and Historical Context
Game arenas were spread throughout the ancient Roman world. Amphitheatres and circuses survive from the epicentre in Rome all the way to England, Turkey, Libya and Germany. Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 4.153E-154B wrote that according to Nicolaus of Damascus, the Romans adopted the tradition of the Etruscans in their gladiatorial displays. A century after Nicolaus of Damascus, on the other hand, Livy in his History of Rome 9.40.17 wrote that the Campanians first held gladiatorial games in 310 BC after their victory over the Samnites. For more on the location of the arenas and further secondary sources on the origin of the games see the list below.
- Katherine Welch, The Roman Amphitheatre: From its Origins to the Colosseum (Cambridge, 2007). See especially chapter 1, which offers a good insight into the origin of the games.
- Origins of the Gladiatorial Games.
- A blog by Justin Hebert on The Origin and Evolution of the Gladiatorial Games.
- Top ten Roman Amphitheatres in the Mediterranean.
- Beyond the Colosseum: Roman Amphitheatres outside of Rome.
- Four Ancient Roman Amphitheatre still in use today
- Article on Ancient Amphitheatres and Amphitheatres in Asia Minor from Turkish Archaeological News.
- Philip Smith, "Amphitheatrum", in W. Smith (ed.), A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London, 1875), p.82-90. Also includes information on the Colosseum and other arenas in the Roman world.
The Range of Sources
Due to its importance in Roman political life, mentions of the games are found throughout the literary sources. For the biographers, successful imperial interaction between the emperor and his people was used to highlight ‘good’ emperors, and those who neglected the people and the games were ‘bad’ emperors. However, it was a fine line, as those who were too involved in the games – such as Nero – had bad imperial traits. Republican sources also mention the use of games for leading politicians to promote their position in the Senate. See the list below for ancient literary sources on the topic.
- Polybius, Histories, 5.23.6
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History 8.7.19-22; 33.16.53-54
- Suetonius Life of Tiberius 47.1; Life of Julius Caesar 10.2, 26.2, 39; Life of Nero 7.2, 11.1-12.4, 22.1-2; Life of Titus 7.3; Life of Domitian 4
- Tacitus A Dialogue on Oratory 29
- Plutarch Life of Gaius Gracchus 12.3-4; Life of Julius Caesar 55.1-6
- Cassius Dio Roman History 72.29; 39.38.1-4; 43.22-24; 66.25.1-5
- Ausonius The Eclogues 23 (page 197 onward)
- Juvenal The Satires 10.77-80; 11.193-204
- Pliny the Younger Letters 9.6
- Cicero Letter to Atticus 4.46 (listed at IX in source book); de Officiis 16.57-17.58; In Defence of Lucius Murena 19.40; 36.77
The Nature of the Roman Games
Roman games included gladiatorial battles between both humans and animals, famous naval recreations, chariot races and other spectacles. The arena was also one of the few places where the people had a ‘voice’ and could gaze upon the upper echelons of Roman society. As such, the ‘politicisation’ of these spaces occurred throughout the centuries. It was also the place where the infamous gladiator, Spartacus, rose up and revolted against his Roman owners, which marked the beginning of the Third Servile War. For more information on these topics, see the links below.
- M. Cartwright, "Roman Gladiator", Ancient History Encyclopedia (3 May 2018).
- J. Grout, "The Roman Gladiator", Essays on the History and Culture of Rome, in SPQR Encyclopaedia Romana (July 2019).
- K. Coleman, "Gladiators: Heroes of the Roman Amphitheatre", BBC History (17 Feb 2011).
- B.F. McManus, Arena: Gladiatorial Games (May 2011).
- N.S. Gill, "What kinds of Weapons and Armour did Gladiators use?" ThoughtCo (30 Oct 2019). Information on the types of weapons used in the arena.
- J.J. Mark, "Female Gladiators in Ancient Rome", Ancient History Encyclopedia (5 April 2018).
- J. Coley, “Roman Games: Playing with Animals” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (September 2010).
Chariot Races and Spectacles
- J. Simkin, "Chariot Racing" and "The Roman Games", Spartacus Education <www.spartacus-educational.com>.
- M. Cartwright, "Roman Games, Chariot Races and Spectacle", Ancient History Encyclopedia (4 Dec 2013).
- YouTube Documentary by Timeline - World History Documentaries, "Chariot Racing (Ancient Rome Documentary)", (24 May 2017)
- O. Jarus, Spartacus: History of Gladiator Revolt Leader, Live Science (18 Sept 2013).
- C.P. Czech, Spartacus, the Grecian Slave Warrior who Threatened Rome, HistoryNet.
- Eckart Köhne, ‘Breads and Circuses: The Politics of Entertainment’ in E. Köhne, C. Ewigleben and R. Jackson (eds.) Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, (California, 2000), Ch. 1, pp.8-21.
- P. Thomas, "Gladiatorial Games as a Means of Political Communication in the Roman Republic", Fundamina, Vol.16:2 (2010), pp.186-198.
- S. Brown, "The Roman Arena: How the Games Worked", Archaeology (15 Aug 2007).
- B.F. McManus, Arena: Gladiatorial Games (May 2011). See under "A Day at the Arena" for a interpretation of the political role of the arena.