Top 10 Ancient Roman Games and Recreation

Roman life was not always about negotium (work) and revolved much around otium (leisure). As much as they devoted their lives to their business (both upper class and lower class), they believed that fitness and recreation are equally important. The upper class would be occupied by their power struggle, while the lower class would farm and fish. The latter inherited the games that aristocratic emperors played, which were inspired by either the Greeks or Etruscans. 

The vast lands of Campus Martius served as a playground for all, where most events were held. Although the young Roman boys and men engaged in both fierce and benign activities, the women seldom played any. 

Today, I have a list of games and recreation that indulged the ancient Roman civilization:

10. Swimming 

Roman Bath also used for Swimming
Roman Bath also used for Swimming
Source: Wikimedia Common

Swimming was an all-time favorite sport of everyone in Ancient Rome, especially the roman boys. Just next to the Campus Martius flowed the famous Tiber river where people visited to swim and relax. Since it was a part of boys’ education, swimming was an important roman game and recreation. 

Julius Caesar, the great ruler of Ancient Rome, was proficient in swimming. Taking to his abilities, all Roman boys regularly practiced swimming in the Tiber. It is also said that even during ancient times, even some women were good at swimming. In the 1st century BC, Gaius Maecenas of Rome built the first heated swimming pool. 

The bathhouses in Rome had attached plunging pools, and later there were separate swimming pools made apart from the bathhouses. There were huge baths made by Rome, such as the Baths of Caracalla and others. Emperor Caracalla built the Baths of Caracalla between 212 and 216 AD. It also housed a library with Greek and Latin books. However, the swimming pools apart from the baths were very small. Although, the frigidarium of Caracalla was a distinct one measuring 200 * 100 feet. It is said that Cicero had complained of the restrained capacity at Pompeii, which was only 13 meters wide.  

Ancient Pompeii showcased the Stabian Baths, which were 13m * 8m and 1.5m deep. Shallow basins were attached on either side to wash before entering the pool. Athletes, boys, even Cicero, joined the Stabian baths during their leisure for recreation. 

9. Chariot Racing

an image of Chariot racing in the Roman Era
An image of Chariot racing in the Roman Era
Source: Wikimedia Common

The chariots-two small wheeled vehicles drawn by a pair of horses were the sports cars of Ancient Rome. The earliest traces of the chariot is testified by Homer’s description of the funeral of Patroclus. It was a prominent game included by Ancient Greeks in the Olympics. In Ancient Rome, it was mainly a part of the public games (Ludi publici), taking place at Circus Maximus. 

Circus Maximus (Biggest Circle) was a four-storied colossal building with a large racing arena where chariots were raced. It was no less than a historical monument that could fit about 20,000 people at that time. It is said that chariot racing was a spectacular show for mass entertainment, enjoyed by the whole city. 

There were four teams or factions (as they called it) with red, blue, yellow, and green as representative colors with 12 chariots racing in the game. The onlookers placed their bets on the colors as opposed to the individual racers. The riders were wrapped up in leathers and the colors they represented. The horses were as many as six pairs but mostly four or two pairs. 

8. Board Games 

Board Games of the Roman Era
Board Games of the Roman Era

All the millennials will agree that before television and the internet were a thing, we fully enjoyed board games. There was nothing more satisfying than an arduous bout of chess or ludo. And if these modern amenities are to vanish suddenly, chances are we would still be playing board games in the future. We are not the only ones to love board games. It was also a staple game for entertainment in Ancient Rome. 

The Roman board games included dice, tic-tac-toe, marbles, checkers, chess, etc. Tesserae, or commonly known as dice, was a gambling game where each player took turns to roll and bet on their results. Just like in modern times, the Romans rolled the dice in a cup. As shown on the Roman wall paintings, there were three dice. 

Rota (wheel) was another game that was close to tic-tac-toe. It was an easy game that could be doodled anywhere they went. Another similar game was called Terni Lapilli, which was played in the first century BC. There are written accounts of the game of marbles called Nux (nuts), played in ancient Rome. Some even claim that Emperor Romulus Augustus used to play with marbles as a child. It was most popular with the children and were made of clay, glass, or stones. 

7. Boxing and Wrestling 

An image of one of the forms of Roman Wrestling -- Greco-Roman Wrestling
An image of one of the forms of Roman Wrestling — Greco-Roman Wrestling
Source: Wikimedia Common

Whether a raw street fight or an official boxer bout, the first Roman Emperor Augustus loved this game. Since the Romans intended to show muscles, wrestling and boxing were one of the most loved flexes in their time. Together, the sport was called Pankration (with all might or force). 

The rules were simple and only three: one was to avoid gouging your opponent’s eyes, two was to avoid attacking their genitals, and the third was to avoid biting them. There were no gloves or rounds or limitation of time for the players. The game would be over as one of the players raised their index finger or when it became apparent that he couldn’t play any longer. 

There was a referee to ward off any transgressions against the rules or human casualties; other than that, it was considered fair play. However, the players violently fought to win, resulting in a blood-bath. Sometimes, the opponents were amputated or maimed even. Although it was a popular Greek and Roman sport, boxing dates way back to the c. 1200 BC. 

6. Hunting and Fishing 

Hunting and Fishing - Roman Era
Hunting and Fishing – Roman Era
Source: Wikimedia Common

Fisheries in ancient Rome are depicted in paintings and sculptures that are preserved to this day. The classical writers also refer very frequently to fishing and fish being eaten. The paintings and tombs often show fishing scenes. Without this, it would be almost impossible for us to reconstruct fishers’ lives three thousand years ago. 

The fishing tools and baskets were made up of willow branches. They were also caught with fishing nets used for smaller fishes and harpoons and hook and line for bigger fish. The hooks are having a link between eight millimeters and 18 centimeters. Their fish hooks were made of copper, but as time went on, bronze became more common. Many Old Kingdom tombs have depictions of fishing. As bait, they used small pieces of dates, bread, or meat. The Romans never used artificial bait for fishing. 

When they caught a fish, they clubbed it to death and gathered them in baskets. Catfish, eels, elephant fish, etc., were some of the variants of fishes they consumed. While modern times are more about the fun of fishing, it was a serious work in Roman times. They relied heavily on fish as food. Similarly, wild hunting animals was a fascinating game. Wolves, bears, wild boars, deer, and goats were native to Rome. They all hunted animals with Pugio, the roman dagger. 

5. Ball Games

Harpastum - A form of Ball Game of the Roman Era
Harpastum – A form of Ball Game of the Roman Era
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Romans are famous for playing various kinds of balls for entertainment and staying fit. It was, especially, of three kinds-the pilla, the follis, and the paganica. Pilla was a small hand-held ball and widely popular ball, whereas the follis can be identified as a forerunner of football as it was larger and inflated. Similarly, the paganica has been mentioned in the ancient texts without adducing important details about it.

The boys and men loved passing the balls to each other and catching them rather than kicking. They also would pass it around with a stick, but throwing was their most favorite flex. An image of the Romans throwing balls at each other at Thermae Titi (Baths of Titus) by artist Fabullus testifies that the public loved it. They mostly played ball games at the bathhouses or the gymnasium. Their doctors recommended even the patients to play balls to recover. 

Harpastum, Latinization of the Greek verb ‘to snatch,’ was the most common dodgeball played in Rome. Although very little is known about the rules, we know that it required manifold energy and agility. There are many historical accounts of this game that suggest that it might have been like modern-day rugby. It was a pilla that was used in playing harpastum. Sinj, a Croatian town, boasts a tombstone that reflects a boy holding the small harpastum with hexagonal and pentagonal patterns like football. 

4. Gladiator Games 

Zliten mosaic from Libya Magna - 2nd Century
Zliten mosaic from Libya Magna – 2nd Century
Source: Wikimedia Common

In the Colosseum (first opened in 80 CE) in Rome, 50,000 people either hailed the gladiators as heroes or scorned them as losers. The city would be deserted on the gladiatorial games’ days, and the streets would resound in murmur before the day designated for the battle. Two men who carried their swords and faced each other would know that one of them was facing death. 

Gladiatorial games were one of the most celebrated and anticipated games in Rome. The crowd would burst into fits of cheering and hooting as the swordsmen threw more than just dirt in the arena on hot sultry summer days. The swords would slash and clash with each other and outperform another. If the crowd liked the defeated’s performance, he would be spared another day, but if not so, then the defeated would be mercilessly killed. Death was a sort of entertainment in Rome.

The roman gladiators were the acquired slaves or prisoners of war or criminals who were sometimes pushed into ruthless killing to get freedom. Occasionally, women volunteered to become gladiators to free themselves. It was not merely for entertainment but also a political tactic to glue the people’s mandate together. When the ruler of Rome gave them what they wanted, he expected the public’s utmost loyalty in return. Hence, gladiator games were not just a morbid fascination but more complex than that. 

3. Musical and Theatrical Performances 

Depiction of Roman actors and a player
Depiction of Roman actors and a player
Source: Wikimedia Common

Having its origin in Ancient Greek, the Ancient Rome theatre breathed fresh air with its grand arenas and theatrical nuances over time. One could witness diverse forms of arts such as acrobatics, street performances, nude dancing, articulated tragedies, etc. Since the time the Roman Empire evolved, musicals and theatrical performances were staged by professionals in every public and religious festival. 

The most common being Ludi Romani performed as an ode to God Jupiter. The Roman calendar was cluttered with various public and religious days, implying that they got to see spectacular arts very often. Mimes, melodramas, circus, comedies, and tragedies of even today are associated with the same kind of ancient Roman plays. Their sets were grand and exquisitely designed. Much money was spent on their clothing and props, such as clowns and stereotypical characters. Some provinces even went bankrupt due to its heavy expenses. 

Roman dramas portrayed one’s love for oneself, God’s glory, and the dead’s honor. These were key concerns of a typical roman life itself. Hence, the theatrics reflected their real lives. According to the sources, Livy was the oldest musical performance of the Romans introduced to them by the Estruceans in 364 BC. Similarly, The Eunuch, The Mother-in-law, and Adelphi: The Brothers are some of Terence’s well-known comedies. However, the most famous playwright is Seneca, who expounded on the Greek templates. His plays expanded the roman playwright horizons and were gripping tales of drama. Hence, keeping the audiences at the edge of their seat and asking for more. 

2. Blood Sports 

An image of gladiator champion with a chained tiger - Roman Era
An image of gladiator champion with a chained tiger – Roman Era

Rome’s ancient blood sports are a form of entertainment and show examples against transgressions through violence. Executions, ritual killings, gladiatorial fights, venationes, etc., are some of these bloody sports raging during the Roman times to show who the boss was. Gory, gruesome bloodshed was the ultimate entertainment for people. 

Both the high-class and low-class people watched the spectacle of a man being beaten to death. For the former, it was a matter of power, and for the latter, they felt worthy enough to become a part of the society they lived in. It also helped in establishing law and order in Rome. Executions were done publicly to instill fear among the onlookers. 

Moreover, the ritual killings premised around religious happenings were also conducted in the presence of a large mass. Gladiatorial fights, as mentioned earlier, solidified the emperor’s trust in the people and vice versa. Venationes are a form of entertainment that takes it to the next level. Sometimes, along with gladiators, wild animals such as wild boars, elephants, etc., were thrown into the arena to hype the spectators. It would manifest a ruthless and inherently violent picture capable of bringing out an uproar from the audiences. People would go mad for killings, blood baths, and valiant victory in blood sports.

1. Running 

The boys and men would line up for a contest at the Campus Martius. It provided an ideal space for running contests to be held. Not older men, but boys would typically enjoy running in the fields. 

Often they would run barefoot and naked. Since its advent in the ancient Greek period, it has been a staple entertainment for people worldwide. The Romans were no less competitive when it came to running. Women were not seen in the scene because they were not allowed. 

They even incorporated it into military training. It strengthened the bones and muscles, so it was a part of their daily routine. Be it running, jostling, or racing, moving feet was the easiest and most exciting sport in history. It gradually evolved into track and field and later as an academic subject in universities. All thanks to the Romans and the Olympics

Conclusion 

It was in the blood of a Roman to remain fit and exude unparalleled power, which was reflected in their games. Besides those mentioned above, the aristocratic Romans would also engage in obnoxious banquet habits such as consuming most exotic animals. Such gluttony was taken as a form of entertaining the visitors by the host in the vomitorium. 

The activities have lent a pass time to those of the ancient era and evolved into more sophisticated versions in modern times. Running, swimming, car racing, horse riding, gambling, chess, etc., are still played today during leisure. Similarly, blood sports and the hidden interest in blood and gore can be seen in today’s horror movies and some countries’ judicial structure. We can say that everything in pop-culture is very much a part of ancient Roman culture. 

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