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Entertainment was a very important part of daily life in Ancient Rome. According to sources, it seemed that all Romans were interested in was “bread and circuses.” With theatres, amphitheatres, circuses, and public baths galore, the Romans always had plenty to do for leisure and entertainment. Many sources acknowledge the Late Romans as being very violent and ruthless people due to their love of gladiatorial battles particularly.
Gladiatorial games (or munera) and wild beast fighting were a common form of entertainment and leisure activities in the Late Roman Republic. Gladiatorial games were first initiated in the ancient rituals of sacrifice. The “munus gladiatorum” (offerings of gladiatorial shows), included animals as such and were offered as sacrifices due to the need of spirits of the dead to appease them with blood offerings and much of the society of the Late Roman Republic considered this part of their entertainment and leisure. Since 264 BC, gladiatorial games have been an important part of entertainment in Ancient Rome as legend has it that it first arose when the sons of Junius Brutus honoured their father by matching three pairs of gladiators. Traditionally, munera were the funeral processions and offerings given to aristocratic men at their funerals, although the games did not have to be demonstrated then. Due to the violent nature of gladiatorial contests, they were originally held in large open spaces with temporary seating, with evidence suggesting some contests being held in the Roman Forum. The need for a larger and lasting structure was acknowledged as the contests become increasingly popular and frequent. The Circus Maximus was used briefly due to its huge seating capacity, however, the Romans eventually created the Amphitheatre which was ideal for these spectacles.
Gladiatorial games began, being led by the sponsor of the games in Rome, which was usually the emperor, and in the provinces, a high ranking magistrate. The following events and parade were led into being with music. In the morning, the games would begin with mock fights, followed by animal displays, occasionally featuring trained animals that performed tricks, but usually combats of wild beasts were the main form of entertainment.
The lunch break involved executing criminals. One form of execution in the arena was damnatio ad bestias, in which the guilty were placed in the arena with dangerous animals or were made to participate in brutal re-enactments of mythological tales in which they would usally end up dying. Criminals could also be forced to fight in the arena with no previous preparation. In some circumstances, criminals might be forced to stage an elaborate naval battle (naumachia).
In the afternoon, individual gladiatorial combats would take place. These were usually matches between gladiators with different types of armour and fighting styles, refereed by a lanista. Some scholars believe there was also a ritual for removing the bodies of dead gladiators, with a man dressed as Charon (ferryman of Hades) testing the body to make sure he was really dead and then a slave dragging the body with a hook through a gate called the Porta Libitinensis, Various other weapons, women, and sometimes even dwarves were used in the games.
Wild animal battles (venationes) were introduced in the 2nd century BC and became very popular amongst the public. As with the “munus gladiatorum” (offerings of gladiatorial shows), the “venationes” would normally start with a parade around the arena. The Arena would be filled with wild scenery and hundreds of animals would be introduced through the many lifts and hatches. Before the event, the spectators might receive tickets called “missilia” which denoted the prize they should catch or that they could pick up under certain conditions from government offices, such as a prize for catching the first beast. All animals were used, including more vicious ones such as lions, bears and tigers. The animals were usually chained together or in groups but sometimes they were free to attack each another in packs or one type of animal would be pitched against another.
In addition to these forms of entertainment, mock naval battles (naumachiae) were also watched by the people of the Late Roman republic. These mock naval battles were known to take place on mock lakes, with animal performances, accompanied by music. The naval battles involved filling an arena with several feet of water. The gladiators would be placed in flat bottomed boats mimicking proper ancient roman ships and the different vessels would then attack each other. As with gladiatorial battle it was frequent to stage an actual historical event in which the Romans themselves had participated at some point in their history. One of the earliest naval battle shows was planned by Julius Caesar in 46 BC in a specifically dug lake in the Campo Marzio area whilst his successor Augustus dug out a basin on the side of the Tiber.
Many Romans of the Late Roman republic enjoyed watching chariot races. Chariot racing was a popular pastime amongst the Romans. The Romans, inspired by the Ancient Greeks, who held their chariot races in hippodromes and circuses, were influenced to hold their chariot races in a building that became known as the Circus Maximus. This was their 1st circus, supposedly built during the monarchy. Chariot racing, just like modern society’s horse racing, was a very expensive sport that was organised into a highly profitable business. Evidence of this is depicted through relics of successful charioteers in sculptures, mosaics, and shaped glassware.
The circus itself was made of up levels of seats that were constructed around a U-shaped arena with a decorated barrier, the spina, running down the middle. To add to this, Metae, or turning posts, ornamated each end of the course. The end of the U was where up to twelves four horse chariots would wait, which began the race from the stating gates (carceres), drove to the right of the spina, and then continued counter-clockwise for seven laps. At each end of the spina were seven lap markers, one of which was removed after each lap run by the charioteers.
Theatre was another important form of entertainment for the people of the Late Roman republic, offering a non-violent form of entertainment. The plays in Ancient Rome at the time of games where presented on wooden stages. The first ever Roman theatre was ordered to be created by Pompey in 55 BC, it was to seat 27 000 spectators and be set up on the Campus Martius at Rome built of stone. In Ancient Greek theatres of the time, the circular space at the front of the stage was usually called the orchestra, where actors and choruses performed. However, since Roman plays often lacked a true chorus, the area in front of the stage really had no use but to be a semicircular area for display.
The actors in Roman plays were slaves and men, who even played female roles. The typical characters you would’ve found in Late Roman theatre were the rich man, the king, the soldier, the slave, the young man, and the young woman. The most notable part of an actor’s regalia was probably his mask. While different masks and wigs were used for comedies than tragedies, certain characteristics remained constant. Gray wigs represented old men, black for young men, and red for slaves. To make the characters more identifiable to the audience, the young male characters would where brightly coloured clothing whilst the older men wore white. Entry to these spectacles was free. The women were only allowed to be the tragedies, being prohibited from viewing comedies, however, later on the Late Roman century this changed and these restrictions were dropped. Another later popular spectacle in theatre which were introduced in the 1st century BC, pantomimes, involved miming roles to compliment the singers, dancers, and musicians of the spectacle, similar to ballet. However, unlike contemporary ballet, pantomimes were degenerated into vulgar and tasteless acts.
An important form of leisure at the time of the Roman empire was involvement in public baths, which were part of any Romans daily routine. Nearly everyone could attend the thermae, or public baths; men, women, and children. The public baths were to the Romans what modern day fitness clubs and community centres are to us. The most well preserved baths of ancient Rome are the baths of Diocletian which cover 32 acres and Caracalla which cover 27 acres.
Towards the centre of the Roman baths, near the dressing room, the tepidarium, a large, vaulted and mildly heated hall could be found. The tepidarium could be found surrounded on one side by the frigidarium, a large, chilled swimming pool about 200 feet by 100 feet, and on the other side by the calidarium, an area for hot bathing heated by subterranean steam.
Hot air baths and steam baths date back in Italy to the 3rd century BC with the original public baths being smaller and hand activated. With the invention of hypocaust heating being allowed for the creation of hold and cold rooms and plunge baths in the 1st century BC, bathing quickly became a communal activity. Through time, emperors later built gradually greater baths, and the public baths became an Ancient Roman tradition and enjoyable leisure activity.
Along with the public baths being used for leisure they quickly became used for social gatherings with portico shops, marketing everything from food, to ointments, to clothing being established in conjunction to the baths. In addition, there were also sheltered gardens, gymnasiums, rooms for massage, libraries, and museums all ornamented aristocratically with marble statues and other artistic masterpieces.
By the 1st century BC, magistrates used private gladiatorial games to gain support in elections. Great amounts of money were spent on the games, with admission being free. In the 4th century BC enforcements were put on gladiatorial games with them ending in the east at the end of the 4th century BC and in the west in the 5th century BC. The wild beast combats ended in the 6th century BC and chariot racing stopped in the late Roman empire of the west, but still continued in the east.
With the die down of gladiatorial contests, wild beast battles and soon chariot racing, the wealthy found entertainment and leisure at home as they hosted lavish dinner parties and banquets. At these dinner parties the wealthy were kept entertained with music and dancing by professionals, and recitations of written work.
The poor however entertained themselves by eating and drinking out at taverns, ranging from brothels to gaming houses and such. Gaming was a popular pastime loved by all of the Romans and often included games such as dice, knucklebones, and gaming counters. The wealthy also found hunting and fishing to be a leisurely sport, but for the poorer these activities were often considered a necessity.
In summation, we gather that the Ancient Romans were quite violent and blood thirsty as they engaged in viewing gladiatorial battles, combats of wild beasts, and mock naval battles. However, the Ancient Romans did enjoy non-violent approaches to entertainment such as viewing theatre and chariot racing. The forms of leisure in Ancient Rome suggest the people of the Roman empire were very sociable as they would often gather at public baths, of dinner parties for the wealthy and taverns for the poor.
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