For the majority of its inhabitants, daily life in ancient Rome was a mixture of work or business (negotium, in latin), with a more or less large amount of free time (otium – which literally means relaxing, but more generally leisure). Romans had a love for sports – typically practiced in the Campus Martius; they were famous for an almost unhealthy habit of overeating and drinking during parties, and they certainly enjoyed games.
What – then – were the most popular games in ancient Rome? Continue reading this post and you will find out!
The Most Popular Games In Ancient Rome
Ball games in ancient Rome
Much like today, ancient Romans enjoyed a ball game or two – it wasn’t all about gladiator battles (although they definitely did happen). You may be surprised to learn that some of the most popular games in ancient Rome were ball games. Romans played a selection of different ball games, including some resembling field hockey, handball, and even football.
Harpastum is referred to as “the small ballgame” in Latin, and true to its name the ball was small, around the size of a football, but it was hard like a softball. The word “harpastum” is actually the Latinization of the Greek word harpaston meaning “to seize or to snatch”.
Like the word, harpastum was a Roman version of an ancient Greek game. Unfortunately, little is known about the rules. Some think it was a violent sport with large groups of competitors vying for one ball. Others think it is more similar to rugby.
Some descriptions say that a line was drawn in the dirt, and the team would try to keep the ball on their side of the line, therefore trying to stop opponents from getting it. Sort of like an inverted game of football without any goals.
Sometimes referred to as the “balloon game”, follis is thought to be akin to the modern game of volleyball. A leather ball would be hit either by the fist or the forearm in order to stop it from touching the ground.
Follis is actually the Latin word for a leather bag, which makes sense given what the ball is made of. Despite some calling it the balloon game, the ball itself was actually quite heavy, and it wasn’t until later that it began to be inflated with air.
The Roman poet Martial hinted that it might not have been a well-respected game, writing “the balloon is for boys to play with, likewise old men.”
Another Roman sport that was once a Greek one, the word “trigon” comes from trigonos meaning three-cornered or triangular.
Unlike the other two games, this one is actually more of a juggling game that is thought to involve three players – they stand in a triangle (hence the name) and then throw a ball back and forth between themselves.
The trigon ball was hard and small, like a baseball, and the players caught with the right hand and threw with the left (also sort of like baseball, but without the bats). The players themselves were called trigonali while the people who kept score and picked up loose balls were called pilecripi. It was usually played with more than one ball which is probably why they needed people to fetch uncaught balls. Despite the name, more than three players could play at any one time, apparently!
Public entertainment in Ancient Rome
Now this is what everybody thinks of when they think of games in ancient Rome. Colosseum battles, races at the Circus Maximus, gladiators, exotic beasts – just imagining these spectacles is quite something. For example, the Circus Maximus alone could hold up to 25,000 people. The best thing of all? The events were free!
Possibly one of the most famous Roman spectator sports (think Ben Hur), chariot racing actually came from Ancient Greece via the Etruscans. Legend has it that chariot racing was in fact a favorite of Romulus who founded Rome in 753 BC using it as a way to distract the Sabine men while he plotted to abduct the Sabine women.
Chariot races were a big part of religious festivals in Rome with costume dancers and musicians part of the whole extravaganza. In late antiquity, chariot racing was seen as a pagan practice, and the church advised Christians not to take part.
Ancient Roman chariot races were centered on the Circus Maximus, thought to date to the city’s origins but rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 50 BC. Chariots would complete laps around the course attempting to crash into their opponents as they went.
Gruesomely, the Romans wrapped the reins of the horses around their wrists (unlike the Greeks), so if there was a crash, they couldn’t let go meaning they were dragged around the circus by the spooked horse until they were freed – or, gruesomely, died. Charioteers were usually slaves who received laurel wreaths and sometimes a bit of money if they won but not often freedom.
Translating to “Troy Game” or “Game of Troy,” this was a horse event that took place in ancient Rome. It was one of the many ludi (public games) that celebrated things like Imperial funerals and other important events.
Surprisingly, the Lusus Troiae was secular, meaning it had no particular connection to a religious event or festival – it was more of a mix of cult, sport and politics all at once. Like chariot racing, it also took place at the Circus Maximus.
Roman poet Virgil describes the game in his Aeneid as a “mock display of war” consisting of three troops of 12 riders, all on horseback, with two arms-bearers and one leader. They would compete by performing elaborate drills in a type of military parade. The closest thing today is perhaps dressage (combined with a bit of militarism).
The horsemanship was complex and could only be learned by young boys of the noble Eques class. Essentially, this was a test of skill, rather than a contest.
If you thought everything so far sounded quite extravagant, the Naumachia is possibly the most outlandish way that the Colosseum was used for. Naumachia translates to “naval combat”. In order to hold a naval battle, you need boats and water, and that’s exactly what happened.
Amphitheaters would be flooded with water and full-size naval vessels would be brought in for not just a mock battle but an actual battle.
The first one was held in Rome on orders of Julius Caesar in 46 BC. A basin was dug next to the Tiber, filled with water, and then 4,000 rowers and 2,000 combatants – all prisoners of war – fought to the death. Due to the sheer number of people involved, Naumachia were a lot bloodier than gladiatorial combat.
These displays of grandiose military prowess sometimes commemorated famous battles in antiquity – for example, in 2 BC Augustus’s Naumachia depicted a well-known battle between the Greeks and the Persians.
Venatio, meaning “hunting” in Latin, was another Roman spectator sport that took place in amphitheatres. It’s thought to have been inspired by a story in which Alexander the Great pitted lions against men and dogs.
It was introduced to Rome by the Roman general Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, on his successful return to Rome around 189 BC. He introduced a game in which gladiators fought panthers and lions.
However, it didn’t stop there. Venatio grew more and more outlandish and bigger in scale with all sorts of exotic and ferocious animals from all corners of Rome’s then seemingly ever-expanding empire. Hunts were held in large amphitheatres – the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus and the Saepta.
The “beasts” rarely survived. It’s thought that 9,000 animals were killed in the inauguration of the Colosseum alone. During the reign of Augustus an estimated 3,500 elephants were slaughtered during these games. Those brought in to fight included elephants, tigers, crocodiles, deer, rabbits, bears, hippos, and goats – a whole range of creatures.
Wolves were not usually fought due to their connection with religious beliefs (i.e. the founding story of Rome).
Venatio was also used as an execution method. Serious criminals, dubbed bestiarii, were slung in the ring with wild animals and weren’t expected to survive.
Among the most popular games in ancient Rome there definitely was gladiator combat. In fact, it remains famous to this day. These variously armored and armed combatants were tasked with entertaining the Roman people for around 1,000 years until it disappeared due to Christian disapproval (and association with pagan beliefs).
Because it lasted for so long, it became a big part of Roman society. There were different types of gladiators – some heavily armored, others less so, while others wielded a net and trident. Some fights would last only 10 minutes, while others were much more prolonged.
But when it came to experienced, well-trained gladiators, it was a spectacle for the crowd rather than a blood bath (like the venatio). Most matches were overlooked by a referee and an assistant, and gladiators showed a lot of skill in their combat.
Some gladiators were famous for their bloodless victories making their careers on this style of fighting.
The games – known as ludi or munera – would actually be accompanied by a live soundtrack. There would be interludes of light music – trumpet blasts might have played at each successful blow; and if the fighting got particularly intense, the music would rise to a crescendo. Wild!
Board games in ancient Rome
It wasn’t just physical games the Romans enjoyed playing. They also spent time using their minds in more intellectual games, some of which are recognizable today as backgammon, chess, and tic-tac-toe!
Well, okay, some of them weren’t that intellectual and were more like gambling than a game of skill, but still – this is far from the world of gladiators.
Ludus latrunculorum, or more simply latrones (“robber” in Latin), is basically a predecessor of draughts or chess. Basically, it’s a game for two players that uses a gridded board for a game of military tactics.
There aren’t many reliable sources which describe the rules of ludus latrunculorum, but it’s thought to be similar to an earlier Greek game called petteia referred to in Plato’s Republic.
It was also described as a “game played with many pieces”. It uses a board that was called the “city” and pieces called a “dog”. Like chess or draughts, they were two different colors. The aim of the game was to take pieces of another color by enclosing them between two of your own color.
Interestingly, latrones has been compared with northern Chinese game fang qi which itself is seen as a training game for the board game weiqi (similar to the Japanese version, go).
Tabula – meaning “plank” or “board” – was a Greco-Roman board game that looks very similar to backgammon. In fact, it’s believed to be a direct ancestor of the modern game.
It was said to have been invented by a Greek soldier called Alea who fought in the legendary Trojan War. The earliest description of Tabula dates back to the Byzantine emperor Zeno in 480 AD making this one of the later ancient Roman games.
Tabula was played on a board with 24 points, 12 on each side, looking almost identical to the modern-day backgammon board. Each player had 15 pieces and moved them in the opposite direction, depending on the role of three dice. The only difference is the use of three dice instead of two.
Tali was the Roman word for the ancient game that is sometimes called knucklebones – that word is a translation of Ancient Greek who used to use the anklebone of a sheep to play.
How do you play with a bone? Good question. In a painting excavated from Pompeii, you can see various goddesses engaged in a game of tali. This is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
It was a simple game that was usually only played by women and children. There are thought to be a few different varieties, aside from the normal throwing version; some featured a golf-like hole, while others were a game of odds or evens.
However, ultimately, it’s thought to have been played all over the world in varying forms. You might better know it by its modern name: jacks.
Terni Lapilli is basically tic-tac-toe. It’s extremely recognizable as a game where two players take turns to create a line of Xs on a board until one of them gets a whole row. The Roman variation was first played around the 1st century BC.
The difference from the modern-day version is that each player only had three pieces, and they could move them around to empty spaces. It was obviously popular, as the grid markings from it have been found chalked all over Rome in archaeological excavations.
Interested in Roman history? Make sure to read my other posts:
- Who Were The Main Roman Gods And Goddesses?
- The Best Quotes About Rome
- The Most Famous Rome Myths And Legends
- The Most Interesting Facts About Rome