Roman Sports

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History, Facts and Information about Roman Sports
One of the most important attributes of the Romans was the ability to assimilate ideas and customs from the cultures and societies which they encountered. Roman sports were highly influenced by the Greeks. However, the Romans applied their own 'twist' to sports which were less artistic than their Greek counterparts.

The Roman attention to developing and strengthening the body by exercises was considerable, though only for military purposes. In many Roman sports the emphasis was on spectacle and violence and therefore could be added to the Roman 'games'. The content of this article provides interesting history, facts and information about life in Ancient Rome including Roman Sports.

Roman Sports and Exercise - The Greek influence
The Romans originally had no places corresponding to the Greek gymnasia and palaestrae; and when towards the close of the republic, wealthy Romans, in imitation of the Greeks, began to build places for exercise in their villas which they called  gymnasia and palaestrae.

Roman Sports - The Gymnasium, Stadia and Xysti
The gymnasium was introduced among the Romans from Greece. The emperor Nero was the first to build a public gymnasium at Rome. Another was erected by Commodus. Although these institutions were intended to introduce Greek gymnastics among the Romans they never gained any great importance, as the magnificent amphitheatres, and other colossal buildings had always greater charms for the Romans than the gymnasia. The stadia were places in the form of the circus (circi), for the running of men and horses. A beautiful stadia was built by Domitian. The xysti were places constructed like porticos, in which the wrestlers exercised.

Roman Sports - The Campus Martius
The Campus Martius was located near the Tiber. It was called Martius, because it had been consecrated to Mars, the god of war. Sports and exercises were practised and performed here including chariot races and races with single horses. The Martius complex was adorned with the statues of famous men, with arches, columns, porticos and other magnificent structures. This location also housed the villa publica or palace, for the reception and entertainment of ambassadors from foreign states, who were not allowed to enter the city of Rome.

Roman Sports - The Athletes
Athletae or athletes were those who contended in the public games of the Romans for the prizes which were given to those who conquered in contests of agility and strength. Athletes entirely devoted themselves to a course of training which might fit them to excel in such contests and who made athletic exercises their profession. The athletae differed, therefore, from the agonistae who only pursued gymnastic exercises for the sake of improving their health and bodily strength, and who, though they sometimes contended for the prizes in the public games, did not devote their whole lives, like the athletae, to preparing for these contests. The athletae were those who contended for a prize in the five following contests:

  • Running ( cursus)
  • Wrestling ( lucta)
  • Boxing ( pugilatus)
  • The pentathlon (quinquertium) which consisted of:
    • jumping or leaping
    • the foot-race
    • throwing of the discus
    • throwing of the spear
    • wrestling
  • The pancratium - a combination of wrestling and boxing and martial arts

Roman Sports - History of the Athletes
Athletae, or athletes, were first introduced at Rome, B.C. 186, in the games exhibited by M. Fulvius, on the conclusion of the Aetolian war. A certamen athletarum was also exhibited by Scaurus, in B.C. 59. Julius Caesar also subsidised a contest of athletae, which lasted for three days and was exhibited in a temporary stadium in the Campus Martius. Under the Roman emperors, and especially under Nero, who was passionately fond of the Grecian games, the number of athletae greatly increased enjoying many privileges and were generally relieved from the payment of taxes, and also enjoyed the first seats in all public games and spectacles. The athletae, or athletes, of Rome formed a kind of corporation, and possessed a tabularium (record office) and a common hall called the curia athletarum where they discussed matters which had a reference to the interests of the body. The romans loved gambling and considerable money was placed on the contests of the athletes.

Roman Sports - The Pancratium
At Rome the pancratium is first mentioned in the games which Caligula gave to the people. After this time it seems to have become extremely popular and the consuls had to provide these games for the amusement of the people. The Pancratium was one of the hardest athletic games, or sports, in which all the powers of the fighter were called into action. The Pancratium consisted of a fierce fight involving boxing and wrestling. The fight was not controlled by any rules and biting and scratching were not uncommon. In fact, any tactics were in order that one of the parties might hope to overcome the other. When the contest began, each of the fighters commenced by boxing or by wrestling. The victory was not decided until one of the parties was killed, or lifted up a finger, thereby declaring that he was unable to continue the contest either from pain or fatigue. By this action he declared himself conquered or was strangled.

Roman Sports - Boxing
One of the favorite Roman sports was boxing which was a popular game during the whole period of the republic as well as of the empire. Boxing gloves were made of raw ox-hide cut into thin pieces and tied under the hollow or palm of the hand, leaving the fingers uncovered. The sport of boxing, like all other gymnastic and athletic games, was regulated by certain rules. Thus pugilists were not allowed to take hold of one another, or to use their feet for the purpose of making one another fall, as was the case in the Pancratium. Cases of death either during the fight itself or soon after, appear to have occurred frequently. If both the combatants were tired without wishing to give up the fight they were allowed to pause to recover their strength; and in some cases they are described as resting on their knees. If the fight lasted too long the boxers agreed not to move, but to stand still and receive the blows without using any means of defence, except a certain position of the hands. The contest did not end until one of the combatants was compelled by fatigue, wounds or despair, to declare himself conquered which was generally done by lifting up one hand. 

Roman Sports - The Boxing Match
It was considered a sign of the greatest skill in a boxer to conquer without receiving any wounds, so that the two great points in this game were to inflict blows, and at the same time not to expose oneself to any danger. A pugilist used his right arm chiefly for fighting, and the left as a protection for his head, for all regular blows were directed against the upper parts of the body, and the wounds inflicted upon the head were often very severe and fatal. In some ancient representations of boxers the blood is seen streaming from their noses, and their teeth were frequently knocked out. The ears especially were exposed to great danger, and with regular pugilists they were generally badly mutilated and broken.

Roman Sports - Boxing with the Cestus - the "limb breakers"
However, there was a much more dangerous form of boxing in which a boxing glove called the cestus was used. The cestus was a formidable weapon, a Roman equivalent to a 'knuckle-duster'. It was frequently covered with knots and nails and loaded with lead and iron. Such weapons in the hands of a trained boxer, must have frequently occasioned death and the cestus were often referred to as "limb-breakers."

Roman Sports - Ball Games and Tennis
The folliculus was an inflated ball of leather, perhaps originally the skin of an animal filled with air. Boys and old men among the Romans threw it from one to another with their arms and hands as a gentle exercise of the body. But the pula was he name of the ball used by the serious athletes. The game at ball was as great a favourite with the Romans and was played at Rome by persons of all ages. Augustus used to play at ball and Pliny relates how much his aged friend Spurinna exercised himself in this game for the purpose of warding off old age. Under the Roman empire ball games were generally played before taking a bath, in a room called the sphaeristerium which was attached to the baths and included facilities for the pilicrepus or tennis player. Greek and Roman sports of ball games were played in various ways:

  • a ball game, in which the ball was thrown up into the air, and each of the persons who played tried to catch it, before it fell to the ground

  • football, played in much the same way as with us, by a great number of persons divided into two parties opposed to one another

  • another ball game was played by a number of persons, who threw the ball from one to another, but its peculiarity consisted in the person who had the ball pretending to throw it to a certain individual, and while the latter was expecting it, suddenly turning, and throwing it to another

  • a ball game in which the player threw the ball to the ground with such force as to cause it to rebound, when he struck it down again with the palm of his hand and so went on doing many times: the number of times was counted

  • the favourite ball game of the Romans was the trigon or pila trigonalis, which was played at by three persons, who stood in the form of a triangle. Skilful players prided themselves upon catching and throwing the ball with their left hand

Roman Sports - Weightlifting
Halteres were masses of stone or metal, which were used in the gymnastic exercises of the Greeks and Romans. Persons who practised jumping and leaping often performed their exercises with halteres in both hands; but they were also frequently used to exercise the body in somewhat the same manner as dumb-bells.

Roman Sports - Wrestling
The contest in wrestling was divided by the ancient Roman into two parts: the fight of the athletae as long as they stood upright and where the athletae struggled with each other while lying on the ground. The wresting continued until one of them acknowledged himself to be conquered.

Roman Sports - The Petaurum
The Petaurum is also referred to in respect of the Roman games and sports although there is considerable doubt respecting its meaning. The petaurum appears to have been a board moving up and down, with a person at each end, and supported in the middle. It was similar to our see-saw only it appears to have been much longer. The petaurum machine, from which those who exhibited were raised to a great height and then seemed to fly to the ground. The persons, who took part in this game, were called Petauristae or Petauristarii.

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