Theatre of Ostia
Theatre of Ostia
School of Gladiators. The Palestra of Pompeii
School of Gladiators. The Palestra of Pompeii

The Roman Empire was not only characterized by its historical ambition, the brilliance of its artistic and technological creations and its evident legacy in our thinking. It also shone for its varied forms of leisure, many of them still valid today. Roman leisure, the otium, started from the Greek ideal of promoting values ​​such as freedom, gratuity and satisfaction, although it introduced aspects such as giving priority to mass participation in order to guarantee the common good.

The Romans greatly appreciated leisure, and used it to perform fun and enjoyable activities, as well as to socialize among them.

The social classes were divided into slaves, freedmen, foreigners, citizens of the plebs and the upper class of landlords. In the highest part of society, with more riches and more power, were the senators and noblemen and their families.

Each social class had different amusements but they all shared things in common, such as religious festivities, shows and other typical celebrations of Roman culture.

The Romans had their own festivals and religious celebrations in which religious worship was linked to leisure. The four most representative festivities were:

Entrance of a brothel. Pompeii
Entrance of a brothel. Pompeii


They are equivalent to modern Christmas. They were celebrated from December 17 to 23 and culminated with the celebration of the Unconquered Sun. The slaves had better food, free days, and even exchanged the position with the lords. There was no work, no trials, no government meetings. People exchanged gifts and held large public and free banquets in the forum.


They were very old celebrations in honour of the wolf that fed Romulus and Remus, and a kind of God Faun, that protected, purified and gave fertility. It came from very old times, from the rites of passage of the young hunters, and the priests were noble adolescents who ran half-naked through the streets chasing people to hit them with leather whips.


It was a festivity in honour of Mars, which celebrated the beginning of military campaigns and was accompanied by horse races in the Field of Mars, an esplanade north of the Servian Wall, where the army camped before a triumph and where the young people exercised with gymnastics, horse races and chariots. The first Equirria was celebrated on February 27 and the second on March 14. According to the legends they were instituted by Romulus.


These festivities were celebrated on December 4, were related to fertility, women’s power, healing and were also very old. The most curious thing is that they were done in the house of an important magistrate, the rites were conducted by the wife of the magistrate in question and only women could attend. The secrecy with which their mysteries were taken explains how little is known about these celebrations.


In Rome politics was sometimes related to leisure, as, for example, in the triumph celebrated by victorious generals or in parties and banquets paid by magistrates or politicians who stood for elections to gain popularity.

The triumph was a parade in which the victorious general entered with the booty, the prisoners and his army making a procession through the main streets, so that the public could contemplate the results of their conquests and acclaim him. It was a reason for popular gaiety and celebration.

The magistrates organized religious festivals, banquets and shows, paid many times by themselves. The favourites of the Romans were the circus, the amphitheatre and the theatre. In each building different shows were offered.

Latrines of Ostia
Latrines of Ostia


Auriga guiding his chariot
Auriga guiding his chariot
Quadriga. Mosaic of the 3rd century AD
Quadriga. Mosaic of the 3rd century AD

What a hobby is more popular and visceral than sitting in the stands of a sports complex full to overflowing. Crowds filling the stands, dressed in the colours of their idols, bets of money or pride on who will win and who will not, exalted spirits and in the arena great heroes admired and desired by all. This was the Circus, the attraction of attractions in that historical moment.

It was the maximum expression of the ancient Greek hippodrome, but much larger in its dimensions and in the business and hobby that it aroused. It was a sports venue where chariot races were held.

The circus floor was rectangular with wide and rounded ends to favour the opening in the turn of the chariots. The main track, called arena as in the amphitheatres, was divided in two by a low wall, the spina, which was used as a separator and could be very simple or full of statues, obelisks or ornaments in the larger enclosures. At each end of the spina was the meta, a conical pillar. In the center of that separating wall was the septem oba, the manual marker represented by seven fish or dolphins that were leaning at each turn given by the charioteers.

The best example is in the Circus Maximus in Rome, which after the reform of Caesar had 600 m of track for 200 m wide and could accommodate about 150,000 spectators. It was so splendid that the Emperor Augustus placed an Egyptian obelisk in its spina and with the dismantling of its blocks was built the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican during the 16th century.

The true protagonists of those events were not the duumvirs or duoviri, who paid for the spectacle, or the emperors who paid for such magnificent works, but those who risked their lives up to the chariots to the delight of plebeians and patricians: the Charioteers. Many of them were slaves and if their career ended with success they could buy their freedom, although it is also known as freedmen competing in all the arenas of the Empire. They not only had male fans, since many fervent matrons required the favours of the great champions.

Remains of the Circus of Rome
Remains of the Circus of Rome

The chariot races were two, three or four horses, called bigae, trigae or quadrigae. Perhaps one of the most famous charioteers in the entire empire was Gaius Appuleius Diocles, from Lusitania, who came to run for 24 years, a great achievement in such a dangerous profession. He participated in 4,257 races of which he won 1,462, which earned him the indecent amount of 35 million sesterces. He died as a great potentate at age 42, in his villa in Praeneste (Italy).

The hippodrome of Constantinople, built in the time of Emperor Septimius Severus, deserves special mention. It is estimated that it was about 450 m long and 130 m wide. It had a capacity for 100,000 spectators. The factions were divided into four colors: white, red, green and blue, these last two absorbing the first two and were the main focus of rivalry. The hippodrome was the center of the social life of the city and raised unimaginable passions for the rest of the medieval world, so much so that they came to register disturbances close to a civil war with thousands of deaths, as in 532 AD in the “Nika Riots” by a discussion between followers of the greens and blues, even compromising the throne of Emperor Justinian.


Amphitheatre of Tarraco. Tarragona
Amphitheatre of Tarraco. Tarragona

The amphitheatre was a large, softly oval building like two theatres together. It had bleachers for the spectators, a central and underground arena where animals, decorations and gladiators were hidden. The most typical spectacles of the amphitheatre were the fights of gladiators, fights of beasts and even naval battles, the naumachiae. Precisely, from one of them comes the famous phrase: “Ave, Caesar, Morituri te Salutant”, that is, Hail, Caesar, those who are about to die salute you. Against what is commonly believed, it has only been documented once and there is no reason to believe that it was commonly used.

The fights to the death of the gladiators aroused the enthusiasm of the public, who could decide the fate of the loser (with thumbs, handkerchiefs or exclamations). The spectators felt protagonists of a bloody spectacle created for their only enjoyment. The gladiators used to be slaves, condemned to death or ruined freemen. There were also cases of honour and search for fame. The most laureate achieved glory and a comfortable life.

They were distinguished by the weapons they carried, and fought alone, in pairs, in groups, or against beasts. The most famous were the Samnites, Myrmillions, Thracians, Reciarians, and Secutors.

The best gladiators trained in the famous Ludus Magnus, built in the time of Domitian next to the Flavian Amphitheatre or, as it is better known, the Colosseum. The name by which it is known today comes from a large statue that had been erected shortly before in the area: the Colossus of Nero, which was part of the Domus Aurea.

Another one of the most curious spectacles of those made in the amphitheatres were the naumachiae, naval combats made in the sand after being transformed into a pond, generally by diverting water from the aqueducts. These were violent battles, with numerous deaths and with a large participation of ships and slaves.

Finally, and perhaps the most violent games of all were the bestiarii: hunts of wild beasts in which often the role of the slave thrown into the sand was simply to be devoured by them, as frequently happened with Christians.


Theatre of Pompeii
Theatre of Pompeii
Wall of the Orange Theatre
Wall of the Orange Theatre

The first theatres were built in wood and adobes, these were demolished after the event for which they were erected. A law prevented the construction of permanent theatres.

With the passage of time, and once that law was abolished, they began to build following the architectural model proposed by Vitruvius, consisting of:

Scaenae frons: scenic front, composed of double order of columns.

Orchestra: semicircle in front of the scene, where the authorities sat, the choir performed and a statue stood in honour of Dionysus.

Aditus: side entrance corridors to the orchestra.

Cavea: semicircular structure in bleachers shape, in which the spectators were placed.

Vomitoria: vaulted entrances through which the cavea was accessed.

Proscaenium: space in front of the scene in which the dramatic action was developed.

Porticus post scaenam: portico behind the scenes. Porticoed Courtyard.

Some theatres could support the cavea over vaulted galleries, for example that of Merida, while in others the architects took advantage of the slope of some hill to dig over it the cavea, for example that of Clunia, in Burgos. They could also be covered with awnings to protect spectators from rain or sunlight.

The Roman theatre not only housed representations of serious Greek works, but also was the scene of more vulgar works, such as mime and pantomime, which were the favourites of the common people.

We have seen demonstrations of public leisure and fun, made in the streets and organized by the leaders, but leisure was also given in the private sphere.

For the Romans, dinner, which was the meal that was made at sundown, was a reason to hold banquets, which in wealthy houses and on special occasions could be immense, with guests, and exquisite delicacies. Private parties, moreover, were held in homes for weddings, births and funerals.

Drinking in  group was a leisure activity that happened in taverns open to the public, in collegia, which were religious or labour brotherhoods, and in brothels.

In the latter, known as lupanars, the oldest trade in the world was exercised, appreciating some curiosities that have come to us by archaeological findings: it was usual to find indications on the pavements with phallic representations, which duly followed, one after another, carried directly to their entrances. It was also frequent the use of frescoes that detailed, in numbered grids, the various services available to customers.

Other private pastimes and games made at home and in intimate spaces are: children’s games, ball games, physical activities and games of chance. This recreational leisure was based on play, fun, amusement, healthy habits and competition.

Erotic Fresco. House of the Vetti. Pompeii
Erotic Fresco. House of the Vetti. Pompeii
Musicians of the Games playing a hydraulis (organ of water) and a curved trumpet
Musicians of the Games playing a hydraulis (organ of water) and a curved trumpet


Many of the Roman children’s games have reached our days with hardly any modifications: the hide-and-seek, odds and evens, the blind man’s buff, the swing, the seesaw or heads or tails are the most famous. Also it emphasized the use of the hoop rolling of iron or bronze, the trochus, that pushed with a rod (the clavis) and had bells or rings that tinkled when rolling. The spinning top, marbles and articulated dolls were also very popular.


Sports and physical activity were the most practiced hobbies from adolescence: swimming competitions, one of the favourite activities of the Romans, foot races, jumping competitions, discus and javelin throwing, or fighting and pugilism. There were also collective sports such as the various ball games, known as pila or sphera, which later evolved into modern hockey, baseball, handball, football or rugby.


In Rome, games of chance were common. The most played was the one of the dice, in which won the highest score achieved, if the scores that were to be scored were correct or if a board with different scores was filled.

The game of the knucklebones consisted of throwing several pieces or bones into the air in the form of dice and winning or losing depending on the side they fell.

Bowling was also practiced, the micatio (guessing the number of fingers raised by the opponent) and numerous board games that combined the chance of the dice with the ability to traverse the itinerary of the game.

There was a game similar to chess, called the game of soldiers, milites.


One of the activities that most pleased the Romans was going to the thermae. These were public baths where there were also pools of different temperatures, massage rooms, saunas, gardens and spaces for gymnastics.

But the most important of the thermae were not the hygiene and care of the body, especially they were spaces of social interactions.


Another form of entertainment took place in libraries and auditoriums, where books were worshiped and public readings and conferences were held.

The public libraries were promoted by Augustus and were germinating throughout the Empire, highlighting those of Athens, Caracalla, Como or Milan. Likewise, music was also a common hobby, although it was not considered an end in itself but a means to beautify sacrifices, rites, games and military parades. Due to the scarcity of original scores that have been preserved, Roman music is considered an extension of the Greek, both in composition and in instrumentation (lyre, harp, zither, flute or cymbal).

Dougga Amphitheatre. Tunisia
Dougga Amphitheatre. Tunisia

Author: Valentín Ortiz Juez

Colaborator: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina