Heritage > The Romans

Roman Entertainment

The Roman emperors kept their popularity by providing what has cynically been called "bread and circuses". The bread was the annona, free grain given out each month to the plebeians. The "circuses" were the chariot races, gladiators, plays, and athletic events.

"Circuses" were chariot hippodromes, where races took place. The Romans had adopted the chariot from the Etruscans, and when they brought the races to Britain, it must have had great appeal to the Celts, who were skilled horsemen. The races would take place in the countryside, on a track of sand. The Circus Maximus in Rome was the biggest, with seating for 250,000.

The Colliseum - RomeA biga was a two-horse chariot; a quadriga a four-horse chariot. The starting signal was to drop a white cloth; the gates would open, and the chariots raced off around a central barrier called a spina. The chariots would run seven laps, amounting to about five miles. It was, of course, terribly dangerous; if a chariot lost its driver (who might be severely or even fatally injured in a crash), it could still win if it crossed the finish line first.

The winner received a victor’s palm and a purse of gold. The emperor owned four teams, the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites, and these teams had fans as devoted as today’s football fans. There was even "chariot hooliganism" and worse - in Constantinople in 532 the Blue supporters clashed with the Green supporters, and the fights escalated into a rebellion against the government, in which thousands died.

The Coliseum in Rome was built by Vespasian, and completed by his son Titus in AD 81. It had space for 45,000 audience members, watching the gladiators and the animals fight to the death. This kind of bloodthirsty entertainment would have appealed to the Celts of Roman Britain as well, whose warrior lifestyle was frustrated by the Pax Romana; there were amphitheatres in Britain too.

The gladiators were usually slaves, prisoners of war or criminals, but freeborn men might choose to become gladiators in hopes of fame and fortune, to become ‘the idols of the young girls’. Despite laws setting limits on their earnings, many earned huge sums, which could go as high as 50,000 sesterces; some slaves survived long enough to buy their freedom. They had their own barracks and two special trainers. The secutor was a swordsman, and the retiarius handled a net. The mirmillones were another type of gladiator, and the Thracians fought with a rounded shield and a curved scimitar. The trainers and managers did not want to lose their fighters, but sometimes a man was forced to kill his opponent to please the audience. If the crowd cheered for a defeated man who had fought well, his life was spared, but if he had fought badly, they would shout for him to die. An official dressed as Charon, who ferried souls to the underworld, would club him to death. In Chester and Caerleon, the amphitheatres included shrines to Nemesis, to whom the gladiators prayed to defeat their opponents.

Not everyone approved of these vicious entertainments. Varro, writing in the first century AD, condemned them; Seneca enjoyed them at first, but came to be revolted by them later in life. But only when Christianity was widely established, were there real protests and opposition.
Less bloodthirsty, more wholesome, was the theatre. It seems, unfortunately, that in Britain the fighters’ amphitheatre was more common than the performers’ theatre. We only know of four sites: at Colchester; in Gosbecks Farm nearby; at Verulamium, and at Canterbury.

Masks for the TheatreThe theatre was a Greek import, and the best actors in the Roman theatre were usually Greek. Roman contributions to their own theatrical tradition, consisted of mime, a sort of crude comedy performed without masks. Mime had recurring characters like Stupidus, the fool. A group of clay figures survive: one holds a bag of money, one holds a lamp, and one holds a dagger. From scenes like this, we can guess that they were acting out a scene of double-crossing, and perhaps a search for hidden treasure. Another Roman original style was pantomime, in which one actor danced and mimed a Greek legendary tale while a musician and singer accompanied him.

Plots were usually derivative of Greek themes. Roman actors were all men - women could only appear in mime - and they wore masks which were probably made of stiffened linen. The tragic and comic masks are still a symbol of theatre today. Comedies were more popular than tragedies. The stories would feature rich, eligible young women; scheming, lazy slaves; and foolish old men.

Theatres were usually open-air. Many theatres, like the one at Aquae Sulis in Bath, are close to temples, making it obvious that theatre played a part in religious ritual. In Bath, its location as part of the bath-house complex interrelating with the temple, shows how it contributed to a healthy lifestyle: spiritual health at the temple, bodily health at the bathhouse, and a release of tension by enjoying a good play, making a contribution to mental health. In fact, plays began as part of religious festivals. Later they were paid for by wealthy patrons, with free admission to the audience. People of any class could go, though women might not sit near the front lest they be tempted to run away with one of the actors.

Music was popular, but less respected: the upper classes thought it vulgar. As described above, musicians provided accompaniment in the theatre, at the gladiatorial fights, and at parties. Music also featured in religious ceremonies and at funerals. A relief shows worshippers dancing themselves into a frenzy or a trance. Apollo was the god of the sun, of music and of poetry. He is sometimes depicted holding a lyre, a stringed instrument of Greek origin. Other instruments included pan pipes, straight horns, and spiral horns called cornus. The cornu was tuned to G and had a range of seventeen notes. Flutes were simple straight pipes with holes, but could be made complex by turning them into a set of double pipes - two simple flutes played at the same time, which must have been very difficult. The double pipes are unlike any instrument we have today. The most complex instrument was the water organ, which used valves instead of keys to push water into a chamber, compressing the air, and forcing the air through a set of pipes. Percussion instruments included cymbals, tambourines, and the sistrum (like a rattle). A mosaic shows a woman playing castanets as she dances to the accompaniment of a double-piper - they probably performed on the street or at parties. But however much we know about the sound of each instrument, we will never know anything about the sound of the music that was played on them.

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