Roman Games – The Significance of Public Games in the Roman Empire


Tombstone of a gladiator with crowns
(Picture: Grave stele of a gladiator, probably from Sparta, the gladiator wears a special helmet used in the games (galea) and holds a gladius, 3rd century AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens by Carole Raddato licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Roman gladiatorial contests, animal hunts and chariot races are widely known from novels, TV series, and major motion pictures. Everyone knows the slogan “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses). The underlying assumption, however, that these games were used to pacify the people and to distract them from politics and other significant developments is fundamentally incorrect. Roman games were political and significant. Nowhere were the particular features of Roman culture as evident as in the amphitheatre or the circus: the staging of brutal violence that did not, however, overstep its bounds but rather was constrained by a strict set of rules; the hierarchical arrangement of society accompanied at the same time by a striving for universal consensus; and the celebration of bravery as a characteristically Roman virtue. It is especially interesting to observe how the increasing contact with other cultures, which intensified with the expansion of the Roman Empire, occurred at the level of public games.