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Chapter 9


Butchered to make a Roman holiday.--Byron.


The inferiority of the Romans to the Greeks in intellectual acquirements, was no where more conspicuous than in their public amusements. While the refined Grecians sought to gratify their taste by music, the fine arts, and dramatic entertainments, the Romans derived their chief pleasure from contemplating the brutal and bloody fights of gladiators; or at best, such rich shows and processions as gratify the uneducated vulgar. The games in the circus, with which the Romans were so delighted, that they considered them of equal importance, with the necessaries of life, consisted of athletic exercises, such as boxing, racing, wrestling, and gladiatorial combats. To these, chariot-racing was added under the emperors, and exhibitions of combats between wild beasts, and, in numerous instances, between men and beasts.

2. After the establishment of the naval power of Rome, naumachię, or naval combats, were frequently exhibited in circi built for the purpose. These were not always sham fights; the contests were, in many instances, real engagements displaying all the horrors of a sanguinary battle.

3. The custom of exhibiting shows of gladiators, originated in the barbarous sacrifices of human beings, which prevailed in remote ages. In the gloomy superstition of the Romans, it was believed that the manes, or shades of the dead, derived pleasure from human blood, and they therefore sacrificed, at the tombs of their ancestors, captives taken in war, or wretched slaves. It was soon found that sport to the living might be combined with this horrible offering to the dead; and instead of giving up the miserable victims to the executioner, they were compelled to fight with each other, until the greater part was exterminated.

4. The pleasure that the people derived from this execrable amusement, induced the candidates for office to gratify, them frequently with this spectacle. The exhibitions were no longer confined to funerals; they formed an integrant part of every election, and were found more powerful than merit in opening a way to office. The utter demoralization of the Roman people, and the facility with which the tyranny of the emperors was established, unquestionably was owing, in a great degree to the pernicious prevalence of these scandalous exhibitions.

5. To supply the people with gladiators, schools were, established in various parts of Italy, each under the controul of a _lanis'ta_, or fencing-master, who instructed them in martial exercises. The victims were either prisoners of war, or refractory slaves, sold by their masters; but in the degenerate ages of the empire, freemen, and even senators, ventured their lives on the stage along with the regular gladiators. Under the mild and merciful influence of Christianity these combats were abolished, and human blood was no longer shed to gratify a cruel and sanguinary populace.

6. So numerous were the gladiators, that Spar'tacus, one of their number, having escaped from a school, raised an army of his fellow-sufferers, amounting to seventy thousand men; he was finally subdued by Cras'sus, the colleague of Pompey. Ju'lius Cęsar, during his ędileship, exhibited at one time three hundred and twenty pairs of gladiators; but even this was surpassed by the emperor Trajan, who displayed no less than one thousand.

7. The gladiators were named from their peculiar arms; the most common were the _retiarius_, who endeavoured to hamper his antagonist with a net; and his opponent the _secutor_.

8. When a gladiator was wounded, or in any way disabled, he fled to the extremity of the stage, and implored the pity of the spectators; if he had shown good sport, they took him under their protection by pressing down their thumbs; but if he had been found deficient in courage or activity, they held the thumb back, and he was instantly murdered by his adversary.

9. The Roman theatre was formed after the model of the Greeks, but never attained equal eminence. The populace always paid more regard to the dresses of the actors, and the richness of the decoration, than to ingenious structure of plot, or elegance of language. Scenic representations do not appear to have been very popular at Rome, certainly never so much as the sports of the circus. Besides comedies and tragedies, the Romans had a species of drama peculiar to their country, called the Atellane farces, which were, in general, low pieces of gross indecency and vulgar buffoonery, but sometimes contained spirited satires on the character and conduct of public men.

10. We should be greatly mistaken if we supposed that the theatres in ancient Rome at all resembled those of modern times; they were stupendous edifices, some of which could accommodate thirty thousand spectators, and an army could perform its evolutions on the stage. To remedy the defects of distance, the tragic actors wore a buskin with very thick soles, to raise them above their natural size, and covered their faces with a mask so contrived as to render the voice more clear and full.[1] Instead of the buskin, comic actors wore a sort of slipper called a sock.

11. The periodical festivals of the Romans were celebrated with theatrical entertainments and sports in the circus at the public expense. The most remarkable of these festivals was the secular, which occurred only at periods of one hundred and ten years. The others occurred annually, and were named from the gods to whose honour they were dedicated.

12. The Romans were a more grave and domestic people than the lively Greeks; their favourite dress, the toga or gown, was more formal and stately than the Grecian short cloak; their demeanour was more stern, and their manners more imposing. The great object of the old Roman was, to maintain his dignity under all circumstances, and to show that he could controul the emotions to which ordinary men too readily yield. Excessive joy or grief, unqualified admiration, or intense surprise, were deemed disgraceful; and even at a funeral, the duty of lamenting the deceased was entrusted to hired mourners. Temperance at meals was a leading feature in the character of the Romans during the early ages of the republic; but after the conquest of Asia, their luxuries were more extravagant than those of any nation recorded in history. But there was more extravagance than refinement in the Roman luxury; and though immense sums were lavished on entertainments, they were destitute of that taste and elegance more delightful than the most costly delicacies.

13. The Roman ladies, enjoyed more freedom than those in any other, ancient nation. They visited all places of public amusement uncontrolled, and mingled in general society. The power of the husband, however, was absolute, and he could divorce his wife at pleasure without assigning any cause. In the early ages of the republic this privilege was rarely exercised, and the Roman ladies were strictly virtuous; but at a later period divorces were multiplied, and the most shocking depravity was the consequence.


Questions for Examination.

1. What were the national amusements of the Romans?

2. What were the naumachię?

3. Whence arose the custom of gladiatorial combats?

4. Why were these exhibitions of frequent occurrence?

5. How was the supply of gladiators kept up?

6. From what circumstances do we learn the great numbers of the gladiators?

7. What names were given to the gladiators?

8. How were these combats terminated?

9. What pieces were exhibited on the Roman stage?

10. How did the dramatic entertainments in Rome differ from those of modern times?

11. Which were the most remarkable Roman festivals?

12. What was the general character of the Roman people?

13. How were women treated in Rome?



[1] Hence the mask was called _persona_, from _personare_, to sound through. From _persona_ the English word _person_ is derived, which properly signifies not so much an individual, as the aspect of that individual in relation to civil society.

Oliver Goldsmith