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Latin: Exploring Roman Athletics

As one of the first great multicultural societies, the Roman Empire understood something about entertainment. From cathartic tragedies to bawdy comedies to the sands of the arena, the Romans knew how to put on a good show.

Juvenal was a first century A.D. Roman satirist who enjoyed poking fun at his own society. He observed that his countrymen had become content with two things: panem et circenses (Saturae, X.78) (pah-nehm eht kihr-kayn-says; bread and circus games). By Juvenal's day, athletic contests had become a favorite means of escape from the realities of life, but in the beginning, they had another purpose.

Sacred games

Organized athletic competitions had their origins in funerals, particularly of those who died in battle. These competitions were a way to honor the dead with activities taken from the lives they had just left. Many of the contests involved skills necessary in war. For example, in Book 5 of the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas holds funeral games that include a boat race, a footrace, javelin throwing, and boxing. Glory itself was the main prize in such games, and the visible award was a simple palma (puhl-muh; palm wreath).

These ludi (loo-dee; games) became a part of various religious celebrations and were connected with different holidays; eventually the Romans celebrated more than forty varieties of games throughout the year.

Athletic competition for its own sake was more of a Greek concept than a Roman one. Although the Romans occasionally engaged in Olympic-style contests, the concept of fun for fun's sake — at least in sporting events — never really caught on with most Romans. For athletic entertainment, the gladiatorial shows were by far the most popular.

Not for the squeamish: Gladiatorial games

The word gladiator literally means "one who uses a sword." Gladius, gladi, m (gluh-dih-us, gluh-dee) is the word for "sword." But Roman gladiators were much more than just sword fighters, and gladiatorial games were much more than just two men fighting to the death.

One on one

Of course, the sport did include that whole fighting-to-the-death thing, so perhaps that's the place to begin. A gladiator (gluh-dih-ah-tohr) was a trained killer. Whether a prisoner of war, a condemned criminal, a slave, or a freeman who had sworn the auctoramentum gladiatorium (owk-to-rah-mehn-tum gluh-dih-ah-to-rih-um; gladiator's oath), these men were sent to training schools run by a lanista (luh-nih-stuh; trainer). In these schools, they received instruction in how to fight with a variety of weapons. Knowing how to kill was important, but they also had to know how to put on a good show. Fighting in the amphitheatrum (uhm-phih-theh-ah-trum; amphitheater), which was almost identical in construction to the modern stadium, they had to put on a killing display for as many as 50,000 people. The following list shows some of the basic types of gladiators and what distinguished one from another:

  • murmillo, murmillonis, m (mur-mihl-lo, mur-mihl-lo-nihs): Heavily armored with an oblong shield, a short sword, and a full-face protection, these warriors could also be recognized by a crest on their helmets in the shape of a fish.
  • retiarius, retiari, m (ray-tih-ah-rih-us, ray-tih-ah-ree): The retiarius had minimal armor and fought with a trident and rete (ray-teh; net).
  • Thrax, Thracis, m (thrahks, thrah-kihs): You could spot a Thracian from his small, round shield and curved scimitar. These weapons were also symbols of his homeland, Thrace.
  • Samnis, Samnitis, m (suhm-nees, suhm-nee-tihs): Like the murmillo, the Samnite was a heavily-armored warrior, fighting with a short sword and helmet with a visor. His name indicated he was from Samnium, a region in central Italy.

Unlike modern boxing where opponents of similar weights fight each other, gladiatorial contests often featured mismatched pairs. A lightly armed retiarius, for example, might go up against a heavily armed murmillo. Part of the excitement came from seeing whether speed or brute strength would win the day.

The Noah's Ark of entertainment

In addition to men fighting each other, the Romans also liked to watch a venatio (way-nah-tih-o) — a staged hunt. Although people often think of martyrs being fed to the lions (which did in fact occur), a proper venatio involved bestiarii (bays-tih-ah-rih-ee; beast hunters) tracking and killing wild animals in the arena.

Imitation hunting areas were set up to add realism, and part of the thrill was in seeing exotic animals. (Zoos hadn't been invented yet.) These hunts became so popular that when the Flavian Amphitheatre (better known as the Colosseum) was dedicated in A.D. 80 under the Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus, 9,000 animals, both tame and wild, were slaughtered.

The Flavian Amphitheater became known as the Colosseum because of its proximity to a giant statue of the Emperor Nero called Colossus (koh-lohs-sus; giant statue), which was itself named for one of the so-called Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus at Rhodes. In the Colosseum, the Romans also held mock naval battles called naumachiae (now-muh-khih-igh). The entire floor was flooded, and gladiators fought it out from ships that sailed around the arena. Julius Caesar first gave such a display to the Romans, but that was in 46 B.C., nearly ninety years before the Colosseum was completed. For his naumachiae, he used an artificial lake just outside the city.

Free at last

In the modern world, the popular athlete is the one who signs a contract for millions. In ancient Rome, the superstar gladiator was the one who simply survived. And if you lived through enough contests, you could win your freedom. A gladiator's symbol of freedom was a wooden sword, the rudis (ru-dihs), which meant that he no longer had to fight. Knowing how to do little else, however, some returned to the training schools as lanistae, and others became bodyguards for the rich and famous.

The government provided the gladiatorial games, but up-and-coming politicians would sometimes add their own money to make the games even more spectacular. They did this to plant themselves firmly in the minds of voters.

Round and round we go: Chariot racing

The Roman chariot race, another ancient form of athletic entertainment, has been immortalized in such films as Ben-Hur. Circenses (kihr-kayn-says), which is the Latin term for these races, took place on an oval track called a circus (kihr-kus), with the Circus Maximus (kihr-kus muhks-ih-mus) in Rome being the largest racetrack, holding around 250,000 spectators. A spina (spee-nah; spine) ran down the middle, and a typical race consisted of anywhere from four to twelve chariots running for seven laps, which were marked by turning a series of egg and dolphin emblems on a pole.

The egg symbol was sacred to the mythological twins Castor and Pollux (who were supposedly placed in the heavens as the constellation Gemini by Zeus), and the dolphin was connected with Neptune. The Romans associated all three of them with horses.

The teams, factiones (fuhk-tih-o-nays), raced under different colors, and people were fiercely loyal to their favorites. Betting was a major part of this sport, and one way to show your dislike of the emperor was to bet against his favorite color. Originally, chariot races had two factiones, the russae (ruhs-sigh; reds) and the albae (uhl-bigh, whites). Over time, the prasinae (pruh-sih-nigh; greens) and the venetae (weh-neh-tigh; blues) joined the field, and for a brief period, the purpureae (pur-pur-eh-igh; purples) and the auratae (ow-rah-tigh; golds) participated.

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