Games & Recreation

The youth of Rome had several forms of athletic play and exercise, such as jumping, wrestling, boxing, and racing. In the countryside, pastimes for the wealthy also included fishing and hunting. The Romans also had several forms of ball playing, including one resembling handball. Dice games, board games, and gamble games were popular pastimes. Women did not take part in these activities. For the wealthy, dinner parties presented an opportunity for entertainment, sometimes featuring music, dancing, and poetry readings. Plebeians sometimes enjoyed similar parties through clubs or associations, but for most Romans, recreational dining usually meant patronizing taverns. Children entertained themselves with toys and such games as leapfrog.

Public games were sponsored by leading Romans who wished to advertise their generosity and court popular approval; in the Imperial era, this usually meant the emperor. Several venues were developed specifically for public games. The Colisseum was built in the Imperial era to host, among other events, gladiatorial combats. These combats had begun as funeral games around the 4th century BCE, and became popular spectator events in the late Republic and Empire. Gladiators had an exotic and inventive variety of arms and armour. They sometimes fought to the death, but more often to an adjudicated victory, dependent on a referee's decision. The outcome was usually in keeping with the mood of the watching crowd. Shows of exotic animals were popular in their own right; but sometimes animals were pitted against human beings, either armed professionals or unarmed criminals who had been condemned to a spectacular and theatrical public death in the arena. Some of these encounters were based on episodes from Roman or Greek mythology.

Chariot racing was extremely popular among all classes. In Rome, these races were usually held at the Circus Maximus, which had been purpose-built for chariot and horse-racing and, as Rome's largest public place, was also used for festivals and animal shows. It could seat around 150,000 people; the charioteers raced in teams, identified by their colours. The track was divided lengthwise by a barrier that contained obelisks, temples, statues and lap-counters. The best seats were at the track-side, close to the action; they were reserved for Senators. Behind them sat the equites (knights), and behind the knights were the plebs (commoners) and non-citizens. The donor of the games sat on a high platform in the stands alongside images of the gods, visible to all. Large sums were bet on the outcomes of races. Some Romans offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of their favourites, or laid curses on the opposing teams, and some aficionados were members of extremely, even violently partisan circus factions.