During the first century AD entertainment was an important part of a Roman’s life. All Romans, regardless of status, would have attended these events at the baths, circus, amphitheatre or theatre. Entertainment was usually sponsored by the Emperor and was often used as a way to keep the Plebian masses supportive and happy. First century Roman entertainment was often a mixture of music, animals, parades, priests and officials. Most entertainment also contained elements of comedy, drama and violence. Because of this people had mixed attitudes to the sponsored activities.
Most Romans finished work at midday and an afternoon spend at some form of entertainment was a conventional way to spend the rest of the day. Some of the most significant forms of public entertainment in ancient Rome took place in an amphitheatre, a large, oval shaped platform surrounded by tiered seats. The best-known amphitheatre is the Colosseum, named for the colossal statue of Nero which stood nearby. It rises to a height of more than 50 metres and provides seating for 45,000 people and standing room for a further 5,000.
Seating arrangement was structured by class. The emperor had his own special box, the front rows were reserved for senators, the equestrian order sat behind them and so on. Soldiers and civilians sat a part, as did women and men except where married couples were concerned. The Romans enjoyed many kinds of fights in the arena. During wild beast hunts called venations trained huntsmen called bestiarii pursued, fought and slaughtered animals such as lions, tigers, leopards, elephants and hippopotamuses, which were normally imported from provinces like Africa.
The animals were starved to make them more fierce and the massacre more exciting but the hunters had shelters to retreat to and archers were positioned outside the arena so the hunters were seldom at real danger. In another kind of animal hunt, harmless animals such as giraffes and ostriches were hunted where the mere sight of blood provided the thrill and a third type of show was the killing of unarmed or bound convicts and slaves by starving carnivorous animals such as lions, leopards, panthers and packs of dogs. Wild beast hunts usually provided the warm-up show of the morning before the ladiatorial combats or munera took place. Gladiatorial combats derived from Rome’s Etruscan neighbours whose custom it was to stage fights to the death at the funeral ceremony of a dead chief based on a ritual to please the gods of the dead with human sacrifices. The Latin name munera means ‘gifts’ or ‘services’ showing they never lost the connotation that the deaths of the gladiators were offerings to the gods. Gladiators may have been prisoners of war, slaves, convicts or volunteers who were usually ex-soldiers.
They were well trained by a manager and trainer called a lanista at gladiator schools such as the one in Pompeii which still stands today. There are three types of heavily armed gladiators classified as Thracians, Samnites and Gauls according to their weapons and armour supposedly based on what natives of those parts used in war. They had helmets, shields, shin guards and a sword called a gladius from which their name derived. Another kind of gladiator was called retiarius was lightly armed with a trident and net or rete and was supposed to catch the fish or murmillo on the helmet of a Gaul.
The real task was to ensnare the opponent in the net and dispatch him with the trident but usually agiley retreating from the opponent’s sword. If he fell or lost his net then his death was certain. Before the contest, gladiators march in a procession through their own special gate and saluted their sponsor, usually the emperor. War-up fights usually took place with blunt weapons before a trumpet signalled the change to sharp weapons and the contest began. Where a man was wounded or cornered he might cast his weapons aside and raise an arm in a plea for mercy.
His life was then up to the sponsor who would grant or refuse depending on the crowd. If the gladiator had fought bravely they may have shouted ‘Mitte! ’ meaning ‘Let him go! ’. If not they may have shouted ‘lugula! ’ meaning ‘kill him! ’. Another form of entertainment in ancient Rome was the baths called thermae such as those at Caracalla. Water was brought into Rome by nine aqueducts carrying over 1000litres into the city. This water was supplied throughout Rome but most of it went to the public baths.
People would go to these public complexes to wash, swim in the various temperature controlled pools and meet with friends. Some baths had separate areas for women and men while others had different bathing times set for men and women. The typical routine for attending the baths was to undress in the apodyterium or the changing room where a slave would then watch over your clothing. They would then go to the palaestra or gymnasium to exercise. After working up a sweat they would enter a small, very hot and dry room to increase the sweating called a laconicum.
Next, to the caldarium, a hot, moist room where they would lie on a bench while a slave massaged their body with oil then scraped it off along with sweat and dirt. They would then go to the tepidarium, a warm room with a warm pool then complete the process with a dip in the cold pool or frigidarium. Both the amphitheatre and the baths were important forms of entertainment in first century AD Rome. However, depending on your status in Roman society your attitudes to these forms of entertainment would have varied.
The Plebians formed the great mass of first century AD Roman society. The events that took place at the amphitheatre, such as munera and venations, were extremely popular, particularly with the Plebian mass who cheered on their favourites and howled for blood. For the Plebian masses the violent dramatic fights and beast hunts were a welcome escape from the crowded over-populated and dirty streets of Rome with the constant crash of collapsing insula, adding thrill to their day that as both exciting and free for them to attend.
These events, for the most parts, were provided for the purpose of keeping the Plebian masses happy and supportive and the emperor at the time immensely popular. For the rich and the educated class of Roman society the views were very split. The higher, wealthy class including the emperor, sponsored the events of the amphitheatre with great enthusiasm. Over 100 regular days of games attached to festivals were held each year and the emperor often gave special shows to celebrate victories or other events, knowing they would increase his popularity. For example, emperor Augustus wrote ‘I put on three ladiator shows in my own name, and five in the names of my sons and grandsons. About 10,000men fought in them. I put on 26 shows with wild beasts from Africa. About 3,500 beasts were killed. ’ However, when it came to the educated members of Roman society, the view was very different. Writers like Seneca and Martial considered the violent and bloodthirsty games as ‘pure murder’ and St. Augustine, who disapproved of the games, was appalled to find how seductive the bloodshed was. For example, Seneca wrote ‘wasting your time at a show makes you more cruel and less decent.
I went to one of them at lunch time, hoping for a change from all the killing. Far from it! In the morning, men were thrown to the lions and bears. But at lunch-time it was man against man! ’ During the first century AD Romans could enjoy large public bath complexes called thermae. For the poor, the thermae was one of the more pleasant aspects of everyday life and a way to practice good hygiene on a regular basis. The Plebian masses, as well as having the privilege of leisurely bathing and pampering oneself, were exposed to culture, promoting education and cleanliness.
For the equivalent of five cents Plebian masses were able to step into the luxurious life of a wealthy citizen if only momentarily. Like the opinions surrounding the events at the amphitheatre the rich and the educated could differ. For the emperor, the baths were another way to increase his popularity and to earn money. Successive emperors continually attempted to outdo their predecessors with huge vaulted and domed buildings, more spacious and more heavily decorated than the one before.
Many philosophers went to share their ideas on life, god(s) and other moral issues or to enjoy the various libraries and museum exhibits. But not all were enthused with the bath’s popularity. Seneca argued that sweating should come as a result of hard physical labour and not unproductive sitting in a hot room. In conclusion, the entertainment provided by the amphitheatre and the baths were an important part of Roman society. The views towards these forms of entertainment differed according to your status in society but the majority thoroughly enjoyed it and were very popular.