A7: The Roman Games

A7: The Roman Games

Investigating Ancient History- Case Study A7: The Roman Games

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
Wikimedia Commons

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.



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.

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.


Chariot Races and Spectacles

Naval Battles



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