ancient ROman sports

"panem et circenses!" (bread and circuses)



Sports played an essential part in the Roman Empire. With their ability to assimilate, the Romans transformed the ritual nature of Greek sports into a spectator entertainment. Unlike Greek sports, Roman sports were heavily male chauvinistic, boasting great strength and athleticism, while being brutally violent.

The first Roman sports were played in wealthy peoples’ villas, given the absence of large playing field at the time. These structures within villas were called gymnasia and palaestrae, again influenced by the Greeks. Often the rich hosted such spectator sports as a display of their wealth. The first public gymnasium was built under the emperor Nero. Then came the giant amphitheaters. These giant stadiums with racetracks larger than NFL football fields proved to be epitome of Roman wealth and power. One amphitheater that was excavated in present day London had chambers for wild animals and chapels for athletes to pray in before their battles, which often resulted in death. This particular amphitheater had a seating capacity of 6,000, which is amazing considering that the city where it was built had 20,000 residents. The largest amphitheater is the famous Colosseum, originally the Amphitheatrum Flavium. Located in the heart of Rome, Colosseum is the ultimate product of Roman architect and engineering. Built under the emperor Vespasian, the mega-stadium housed 50,000 people. Sporting events were free to public as a symbol of emperor’s power and authority.


So who exactly participated in Roman sports? The athletes in most cases were recruited from criminals who have lost their citizenship privileges, slaves, and prisoners of war. However, some “free men” devoted themselves to the profession and swore an oath that they would endure any duress: branding, flogging, death by sword, or being tied in chains. The last case was a rare phenomenon because the free and the wealthy mostly enjoyed betting on matches. It was considered shameful to personally participate in athletic events, mixed among the outlaws.


The most popular sports in all of Roman Empire were boxing, chariot racing, and gladiator battles. Boxing gloves made of ox-hides covered the palm of the hand, exposing the fingers. The right arm was used for fighting and the left arm was used mostly for defending. Some loose regulations made sure the matches were intense and entertaining simultaneously. Athletes were not allowed to grab and hold one another, or use their feet to make the opponent fall. Since there was no set time for each round, athletes were allowed to pause to recover, if both of them acknowledged fatigue but refused to give up. If matches lasted too long, referees stopped the match, and the boxers stood still and received blows without any means of defense until one of them declared himself conquered by raising up one hand. Deaths and injuries were ubiquitous. It was considered a great honor to defeat the opposition without receiving any blows and suffering any wounds.



NASCAR is a widely popular sport today, especially in the western hemisphere, garnering millions of viewers each season. In Ancient Rome, a similar sport was played in comparable scale: Chariot Racing. These games were held in Circus Maximus, a giant oval stadium that seated 200,000 spectators. The drivers were usually slaves, although there were some “professional “drivers, and in some cases, these slaves who were particularly skilled at driving chariots could buy themselves out of slavery. These drivers often lived in stables along with their horses. The match began with as many as 12 chariots, and lasted seven laps in a staggered fashion so the outside chariots were not put at any disadvantages. To increase agility, chariots were made as light as possible, which made them highly dangerous for the drivers. Plethora of drivers were thrown outside, or caught under the broken or overturned chariot, stepped on by raging horses, and sometimes caught by the reins and dragged to their deaths. Because it was so risky and violent, chariot racing was very expensive and the winners received a large sum of money. Eventually, it became one of the first forms of show businesses. Chariots were organized in four teams; red, white, blue, and green. Each team was responsible for finding the best horses and drivers, and like modern day team sports, heavy partisanship existed. The fans were so riotous that they made present day British football hooligans look like kindergarteners.


Perhaps the most influential and popular Roman sport is the gladiator battles. The most brutal and bloodiest of all sports, gladiator battles usually lasted 10-15 minutes, and experimental researchers claim that an average gladiator had a lifespan of 20-30 years.  Gladiator battles are different from other sports because it’s primarily a Roman invention. At first these battles took place as a blood offering at funerals of deceased kings, but they evolved into gruesome competitions. Gladiators were owned by a person called lanista and trained in the lanista's school. Combat was considered to be a science.  Later on, the emperor owned gladiators because it was feared a private citizen would train them into an army for revolutionary purposes. Outside of Rome, the lanista continued to train and own gladiators making a profit by renting or selling the troupe. There was only one simple rule: fight until opposition could not fight back. If the loser did not die, or was slightly wounded, his fate fell in the hand of the emperor. If he gave thumbs up, the warrior lived, and if he game a thumbs down, an official finished him with a wooden mallet. The winners received pal branches and other prizes, and were considered sports celebrities. Surprisingly, combatants in some gladiator battles are believed to be women until it was banned that women should follow this profession. The Gladiators did not always fight each other. It was not unusual for the gladiators to fight wild animals. Unarmed men fought lions. Wagers were made highly in favor of the lions for obvious reasons. Gladiator battles soon became professionalized, with mangers, match fixtures, tour and training centers. Regardless of human brutality and fatality, the bottom line was to make profit and keep the Roman citizens entertained.