([the people] long eagerly for just two things, bread and circuses)
Juvenal, Satires 10,81

Public games were big in Ancient Rome. At the time of Emperor Trajan nearly every other day was a holiday, and the masses wanted to be entertained - after all, they didn't have television back then! During the Republic things were still relatively contained, but grew to sheer enormity in imperial times. The different kinds of games (ludi) were:

Theater Festivals

(ludi scaenici)
Those were in fact not very important, and did not exactly attract great audiences. Roman theater was mostly a copy of Greek theater, and for that reason met some resistance as the authorities were concerned over corruption of the "public morals" by Greek influences. As a compromise, most plays were presented in a religious context. Juicy detail: The plays at the festival of the goddess Flora (floralia) were apparently rather indecent, as she was understood to have very loose morals.

Circus Games

(ludi circenses)
The really big events! Attendance could number in the hundred thousands. Besides keeping the crowd happy, they also served as a replacement for the nonexistant mass media in Rome, offering for example an opportunity to announce new laws. The Emperor himself was also present most of the time and had a chance to get a first hand impression of the mood in the populace.

The two usual kinds of circus games were the chariot races and the games in the arena. In its developed form, the show lasted a the whole day. Admission was free, by the way! A day in the amphitheater had three stages:

In the morning the beast shows took place. Then around noon there were the executions, and in the afternoon the regular gladiators made their appearance. And in the breaks there'd be refreshments and lotteries, so as not to give boredom the slightest chance.

Chariot races

An ancient tradition, legend says they were already started by Romulus himself! The races originally took place in a valley near the city, later the famous Circus Maximus was built there, which had room for up to a quarter million people. A racing day would consist of between 10 and 24 races, each with 7 laps, and next to no rules. Lots of betting would be going on, and crashes were frequent and spectacular. Most drivers were slaves, but they were most definitely stars as well - one Diocles took part in 4257 races and earned 36 million sesterces in the 1462 he won! There were four "teams", the red (russata) the green (prasina), the white (albata) and the blue (veneta), whose supporters would often meet in violent clashes. The infamous Emperor Caligula was an avid fan of the greens. But generally the emperor was not supposed to get too involved - if only because it tended to throw off the bets. If you want to see what these races must have been like, go watch Ben Hur! (side note: the breed of Arabian horses they use in the movie didn't yet exist at the time, but otherwise very fine).

Wild Beast Hunts

In the year 251 BCE L. Metellus exhibited 142 elephants in the Circus, which he had brought from Sicily after his victory over the Carthaginians. This was the first recorded instance of a beast show. The hunting part came in only in 186 BC, when M. Fulvius brought back lions and panthers from a campaign in Africa.

The Roman public then became used to wolves, bears, bulls, tigers, leopards, hyenas, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, giraffes, crocodiles, even ostriches. Animals were also brought from even farther afield, like polar bears and Indian elephants, the more exotic the better. The numbers were increasing steadily. Sulla was the first to reach 100 lions around 90 BCE, fifty years later Pompey had 400 lions and 20 elephants. While Augustus had 3500 animals slaughtered during the whole of his reign, in 80 AD Titus had 5000 killed for the inauguration of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum) alone, and in his Dacian victory celebration Trajan topped the record book with 11000.

In some instances a mock forest was planted in the arena, filled with less dangerous animals, and the public would be allowed to go in there and carry away what they wanted. Usually though, the savage beasts would be set on each other, or a special kind of gladiators, called bestiarii or venatores, hunted them down. Emperor Nero himself once descended into the arena to fight a lion - but of course a "prepared" one.

Public executions

The wild beasts also served other purposes. In 167 BCE a victorious general had foreign auxiliary troops trampled to death by elephants because they had gone over to the enemy. In 146 BCE Scipio Aemilianus also had foreign deserters exposed to the beasts to be killed during his victory games after the destruction of Carthage.

This kind of execution was still fairly uncommon during the Republic, however rife during the Empire. Convicted criminals faced a variety of different deaths: burning at the stake, crucifixion, exposure to savage beasts, or being put to fight each other till death. Under Nero, who also started the infamous Roman persecution of Christians, the practice arose of writing plays and assigning the role of a character who would die to a condemned man. The audience would watch the play, and the actual killing of the condemned man in character's role.

Gladiatorial Games

Their Latin name munera, meaning "offering", hints at their religious origin. They were originally part of a funeral rite the Romans may have adopted from the Etruscans. The first such event took place in 264 BCE, when three pairs of gladiators fought commemorating the death of one Junius Brutus. At first the number of combatants was small, but it grew steadily - there are records of a show with 22 pairs in 216 BC, and with 60 pairs in 183 BC.

The huge popularity of the fights made them a tool for smart politicians. In the year 65 Caesar proposed exhibiting 320 pairs, but was prohibited by a decree from the Senate. They not only wanted to preserve the religious tradition of the shows, but also were afraid of a small private army in his gladiator school as the city of Rome was a sort of demilitarized zone (that's what made Caesar crossing the Rubicon with his army so outrageous). When putting on games, everyone tried to outdo their predecessors and competitors, so naturally a kind of vicious circle started.

In imperial times things finally grew out of proportion. While Augustus put on 5000 pairs of gladiators during the many decades of his rule, Trajan exhibited the same number during the four month celebration of his conquest of Dacia in 107. Commodus (the one from the movie Gladiator) even fought in the arena himself! Which was of course unacceptable for his status in Roman eyes, but hey, what could one do to stop the Emperor?

Not only did the size of the games increase with time, their frequency did as well. During the Republic they were only held around the time of the winter solstice, for ten to twelve days each year, correlated to the Saturnalia. Augustus then permitted them also around the summer solstice, and later emperors held them whenever they wanted or needed to placate the mob.

In the beginning the gladiator games were held in the markets, then in the Forum, and when even that did not offer enough space anymore, special amphitheaters were built, the most famous of which is the Colosseum. It offered room for 50000 spectators! The earlier arenas were often makeshift wooden arrangements, and had a tendency to collapse - thousands of people died in such accidents. The Colosseum however is still standing and reminds of the Romans' engineering proficiency. The custom of the games also spread to the provinces, but their games were in no way comparable to the splendor of those in Rome.

There were many different kinds of gladiators - the writeup by borgo contains information on the most important types. Much of the fascination apparenty did not only lie in the blood, but also in the way the different fighters and fighting techniques were matched. The pairings were made to ensure a fair and interesting fight, for example a lightly armed but quick fighter against a heavily armored but slow one.

Our image of the shows is certainly very bloody, but a trained gladiator was in fact a valuable asset, and the fights did usually not last till death. There were rules (most importantly blows below the belt were forbidden) and the best doctors were prepared to take care of injuries after the fight. The famous Galen for example got most of his knowledge about anatomy from fixing up wounded fighters (dissections were forbidden). Based on the "results" we know of, it was calculated that the probability of survival was about 90 percent in the first century AD, and sunk to about 75 percent in the third. If one contestant wanted to give up, he had to rise his index finger. It was then the duty of the presenter of the games (editor), usually the Emperor, to decide if he was to be spared or killed. This is by the way the origin of our thumbs up gesture, the French painter Jean Leon Gerome painted it that way, though the Latin pollicem vertere ("to turn the thumb") - kill - and pollicem premere ("to press the thumb") - spare - had in fact the reversed meaning! Of course, the crowd would make their opinion heard as well, and seldom did the editor go against it. He could also present a gladiator with a wooden sword, called rudis, which meant that he had earned his freedom.

Though most gladiators wore helmets and thusly remained faceless, a few of them also became stars. A secutor named Flamma was awarded the rudis four times but chose to remain a gladiator. He was finally killed in his 22nd fight. Most gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war. But free men could also become professional fighters by taking the following oath: "I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword" (uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari - Petronius, Satyricon CXVII). There were special gladiator schools with teachers (doctores, mostly ex-gladiators themselves) for every discipline.

Sea Battles

These were perhaps the most spectacular events. The Colosseum would be flooded, or the show would be held on a lake. Julius Caesar was the first one to present such an event on a lake created artifically for that purpose in 46 BCE. A reenactment of the famous Battle of Salamis was very popular and got staged several times during the first century AD.

The greatest naumachia ever was held in 52 AD by Emperor Claudius. He had 50 war ships with a combined crew of 19000 criminals fight each other on Lake Fucine, though not until total annihilation - in the end he judged that both sides had fought bravely and the battle could cease after 5 hours. Half a million spectators watched the event, and it is said that 15 babies were born there during the day - nobody wanted to miss it!

Suetonius reports in Life of Claudius 21,6 the famous saying:

(Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!)

This is by the way the only record of this greeting for the Emperor by the combatants before the fighting started! However, Claudius replied with the somewhat ambiguous "aut non" (or not, up to you) - and they said ok, in that case we'll be nice to each other! Claudius then got one of his infamous fits, and threatened to have the ships sunk by the military which had been conveniently placed to prevent the prisoners from trying to break out. Only then did the battle begin. The huge success also prompted him to repeat it with a similar show, but that time there were not enough prisoners left, so he had to be content with a smaller event.

The size of the games in Rome reached their apex around in the first century AD, when the Empire was at the height of its power. Later emperors simply did not have the same resources anymore because of the crumbling economy. Attempts to abolish the cruel games were only made by the Christian Emperors in the fourth century. Constantine failed, but Honorius finally prevailed and outlawed the games through an imperial edict in the year 404.

It is hard to judge those spectacles. Though it was not the mindless butchering we often think it was, the Romans sure had a different view on the value of human life. One can argue that with an average life expectancy of 25 or 27 they simply did not care that much when somebody died prematurely. And without proper medicine you did not want to be old and sick anyway. They had no notion of equal rights - some were born to rule and some to serve. And like in all ancient societies, it was quite easy to forfeit one's life.

What's left is the fact that despite all cruelty those events are unparallelled in human history for their sheer size and splendor. I personally would have loved to witness a race in the Circus Maximus, a naumachia or one day at the Colosseum, even if it was blood sport.