THE Romans of the Republic despised athletics, but like all vigorous people they were fond of strenuous exercise. They rode, hunted, swam, boxed sometimes, or wrestled, but without any science. But these sports they regarded merely as exercise and recreation and attached no further importance to them. For competitions they had no liking, nor had athletics any place in Roman education. There was indeed no organized education at Rome; it was left to the parents to give their children such education as they thought fit, and this education was strictly practical. Old Cato taught his son not only to throw a dart, fight in armour, and ride, but also to box and to endure both heat and cold and to swim the most rapid rivers.


If we compare the history of Greece and Rome we can easily understand the difference in their attitude to sport. The athletic spirit took its rise in the heroic age of the Greeks, but the Romans had no heroic age. Nor was Italy a land of city states. Such city states as existed were Etruscan and Greek, and from them the Romans borrowed most of their sports. Most of Italy was inhabited by more or less kindred tribes dwelling in scattered villages in the hill country. A stock of hardy farmers, all their energies were occupied in a grim struggle with the forces of nature and in wars with their neighbours. Fighting, hunting, the work of the farm, provided them with bodily exercise; they had no need of organized training like dwellers in cities. They had, no doubt, their rustic sports, but these sports never developed, and indeed with the decay of country life after the Punic wars they tended to disappear. There was, moreover, no cohesion, no sense of a common nationality, like that which united the scattered city states of Greece. Nationality in Italy was imposed by Rome, and in the Roman idea of nationality athletics had no place. For centuries the Romans had been engaged in continuous wars, and in the struggle they had developed a grim seriousness which made them despise all that was not practical. This was their attitude towards Greek athletics. Exercise was necessary for health, recreation was necessary, but to devote to sport the time necessary to achieve athletic success, to submit for months to the tyranny of a trainer, often a man of low birth, to make an exhibition of oneself before one’s fellow citizens, was felt to be quite incompatible with the dignity of a Roman. It was the nudity of Greek athletes that especially revolted the Romans. ‘To strip naked among one’s fellow citizens’, says Ennius, ‘is the beginning of vice’ (flagiti principium). Centuries later in the reign of Nero we find the same feeling in the protests of the old school against the introduction in Rome of an athletic festival on Greek lines: ‘The youths were degenerating under the influence of foreign tastes, passing their time in athletics, in idling or low intrigue. What remained for them but to strip themselves naked, put on the caestus and practise such battles instead of the arms of legitimate warfare?’ ¹⁰⁴

There was much justification for the Roman point of view. Even at their best there was an element of exaggeration and of danger in Greek athletics. The honours paid to athletic success were out of all proportion to its desert; the time required to secure such success was more than an amateur could or ought to afford. Athletics are not an end in themselves; the production of champions is not the true end of sport; there is a limit to the usefulness of competitions. It is this feeling that makes many people in England so lukewarm towards the revived Olympic Games and the multiplication of championships and international competitions. We feel that they confuse our values, and give to sport an unreal place in our life. Yes, the Romans had much justification. Moreover, all their athletics had not saved the Greeks. When the Romans first came to know them well, the nation was degenerate and their athletics were degenerate. The competitors at the great Games were professionals whose training made them useless as soldiers. The gymnasia, instead of producing useful citizens, had indeed become schools of idleness and immorality.

The Romans, it is true, had public games in abundance; games held in honour of the gods, some of which according to tradition went back to the very beginning of the city. Games, too, were frequently vowed to the gods in time of war, of civil strife or pestilence. At a later date distinguished citizens were sometimes honoured with funeral games. The chief events in these games in the earliest times seem to have been chariot- and horse-races, sometimes fights between boxers, more rarely other athletic contests. Dramatic performances were introduced in 361 B. C. Gladiatorial shows were first exhibited in 264 B. C. by Marcus and Decimus Brutus at the funeral games of their father, and are frequently mentioned after this date as an addition to funeral games.

These Roman games, however, were very different from the athletic festivals of the Greeks. The difference is implied in the very word ‘ludi’. The Greek meetings are never described as games but as contests ( γ νες). Whether dramatic, musical, equestrian, or athletic they are contests, competitions between free citizens; and they exist primarily for the competitors. The Roman games are ludi, amusements, entertainments, and the performers are slaves or hirelings; they exist for the spectators. Tarquin, who is said to have been the first to mark out the Circus Maximus at Rome, imported his chariots and boxers from Etruria. From Etruria, too, came the actors (ludiones) when ludi scenici were first introduced at Rome. There can be little doubt that the gladiatorial shows originated in Etruria. The gladiators themselves, says Livy,¹⁰⁵ were usually conscripted from slaves and people of servile origin, and he particularly contrasts the games given by Scipio at Carthage in memory of his father, where the gladiators were volunteers, many of them of high birth, from the various tribes of Africa.


There is no reason to doubt the truth of the tradition connecting the earliest Roman games with Etruria. The Etruscans first made their appearance in Italy in the ninth century B. C., and most modern authorities are now agreed that Herodotus was correct in stating that they came by sea from Asia Minor. There they must have been familiar with the sports of the Asiatic Greeks, and from these they may have borrowed the practice of holding funeral games. In Italy by their superior weapons they quickly subjugated the semi-barbarous native tribes. The Etruscan nobles who formed the governing class formed a close exclusive aristocracy. Under them great cities rose; agriculture, commerce, and art were developed. By the fifth century the Etruscans had extended their power across the Apennines to Bologna, and southwards as far as Campania ; a Tuscan dynasty ruled in Rome. Their fleet was mistress of the Western Sea, which was called from then the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The luxurious life of the Etruscan nobles is vividly pictured on the walls of their tombs. It was their pious belief that the dead would enjoy hereafter the pleasures they had enjoyed in life, and among these pleasures games occupy a prominent place. Their favourite sport was chariot-racing. The Etruscans were famed for their horses and cavalry and were probably the first to introduce chariots into Italy. Boxing and wrestling are constantly depicted, other sports less frequently. But we may doubt whether they had any science even in boxing or wrestling or cared for them otherwise than as spectacles. In one bloodthirsty contest, where a man armed with a club with his head entangled in a mantle is attacked by another man with a ferocious bloodhound, we have perhaps an anticipation of gladiatorial sports. These paintings, of which the earliest belong to the seventh century B.C., show strongly the influence of contemporary Greek vase-painting, and scenes and exercises from the Greek palaestra are sometimes introduced incongruously; but on the whole they give a faithful picture of the Etruscan games, and it is not a Greek picture. There can be no doubt of the spectacular character of these games. For while in other frescoes we see the Etruscan nobles and their families going out hunting, banqueting, or making love, the riders, dancers, athletes are evidently, from their physical type and features, men of a lower class, slaves or hired performers. In the Tomba delle Bighe at Corneto we see the actual stands full of spectators watching the games, a scene hardly paralleled in Greek art, though, as already noted, similar scenes are represented in Minoan Crete.

The frescoes of the Tomba delle Bighe (Fig. 75) may be dated about 500 B. C. and might be the work of a Greek artist. At either end of the frieze of the back wall and once on each of the side walls the stand is represented. It is a platform supported by wooden posts, and over it we see draped a curtain or awning, like the vela of the Roman Amphitheatre. On the platform are seated the Etruscan nobles and their families, men and women, young and old, all appropriately dressed and eagerly watching the sports. On the ground, under the stand, sprawl the common people paying but little attention to the games. The most interesting scene of all is on the right wall where we see the preparation for the chariot-race and the parade of chariots before the grand stand. First come two horses led by their riders or grooms, then three youths preparing to harness the horses to a biga, then the actual parade, the horses of the first chariot just starting, the second moving somewhat more quickly, the third as it nears the stand at a brisk trot. On the back wall between the two stands are two boxing-matches, a wrestling group, a mounted horseman leading a second horse with a rider preparing to leap on it by means of a pole, other athletes apparently waiting their turn. On the left wall we see a pankration scene and the judge with uplifted whip preparing to punish some breach of the rules, an armed dancer, various diskos-throwers, and other draped figures, obvious imitations of scenes from the Greek palaestra so common on Greek vases, but here incongruous.


75. ETRUSCAN GAMES. Wall-painting from Tomba delle Bighe, Tarquinia. About 500 B. C. After a drawing by Stackelberg. Jahrb., xxxi, pl. VIII. The athletic scenes in the two top lines are draw directly from palaestra scenes on Greek vases.

Top line. From left to right—boxers, the oil pourer, cp. Fig. 44, youth mounting horse by means of pole, cp. Fig. 58, youth using strigil, cp. Fig. 60, boxers, wrestlers.

2nd line. Diskoboloi—boy with shield and spear dancing—spectators and warrior—pankratiasts and trainer using whip, cp. Fig. 188—part of grandstand—the upper classes sit on a raised stand under an awning—the lower classes sprawl below.

3rd line. Grandstand and parade of chariots.

The palaestra scenes in Etruscan tombs were often the work of Greek artists, but that the sports themselves were utterly alien to northern Italy is clear from the mistakes made by native artists in reproducing them. For example, a most extraordinary boxing scene is depicted with hardly any variation on a group of situlae or bronze buckets, found at Bologna and Este and exported thence to the Tyrol and Austria. The earliest of these situlae dates from the close of the sixth century, the one illustrated in Fig. 76, which comes from Watsch, is perhaps half a century later. The scenes on these situlae are taken mostly from Etruscan life, the boxing group undoubtedly is derived from Greek vase-paintings, possibly through Etruscan copies. Two boxers confront one another holding in their hands what seem to be dumbbells. Between them is a helmet supported on a curious stand, perhaps meant for a tripod. A pair of combatants with the prize placed between them is a familiar scheme on seventh-century vase-paintings from the Aegean World. In Fig. 77 we see a pair of warriors fighting; between them is a suit of armour, helmet, buckler, and greaves, the prize or perhaps the spoils of victory. In Fig. 184 two boxers are fighting over a tripod which is of course the prize. In the Tomba degli Auguri at Tarquinii we see a similar group of wrestlers, the prizes, three cauldrons, being placed between them. But what of the dumb-bells? They are nothing else but jumping-weights. It is true that they are straight like dumb-bells, not curved like the Greek jumping-weights, but that they are really jumping-weights is proved by a relief on a marble chair in the Lateran (Fig. 78), a work probably made in central Italy not earlier than the fourth century. Here we have the same boxing group reproduced so closely that it is clear that it must be derived from the same Etruscan prototype as the situlae. But here the jumping-weights have their proper shape. We can only conclude that the Italian artist familiar with them on Greek vases or in Etruscan paintings but ignorant alike of boxing and of Greek athletics thought these weights were a sort of weapon for fighting and armed his boxers with them. Some Italian archaeologists prefer to see in them an Italian weapon from which the caestus was derived. If it is so, it argues a still more complete ignorance of boxing or athletics; for it is hard to conceive any people inventing a weapon so clumsy and so inappropriate for boxing.



76. BRONZE SITULA FROM WATSCH. Jüthner, Ant. Turn. p. 75. Hoernes, Geschichte der Bildenden Kunst, pl. XXXV. 1. Other situlae on which the same group occurs are:

1. Benvenuti situla from Este. MacIver, Iron Age in Italy, p. 33, dates it 540–500 B. C.

2. The Arnoaldi situla from Bologna, about 450 B. c. Montelius, pl. C: the drawing of the trophy and helmet is very rough, the artist does not understand the helmet.

3. Situla from Matrei. Hoernes, op. cit. pl. XXXV, 4, 6.

4. Situla from Kuffarn, N. Austria. Hoernes, pl. XXXIII, p. 661.

5. Situla from Styria. Hoernes, p. 663.

On the Certosa situla (Hoernes, pl. XXXII), a pair of diminutive boxers are placed facing one another at opposite ends of what seems to be a long couch. A more vigorous pair of boxers armed with similar implements are found on a terracotta relief from Este (Hoernes, XXXVI. 8). Boxers are also represented in reliefs on stelai from Bologna (Ducati, Mon. dei Lincei, xx. 685), but there is no indication on these stelai of anything resembling the dumb-bells of the situlae. On one stele, no. 169, the boxers seem to be wearing gloves similar to those represented on Greek fourth-century vases.

77. TWO WARRIORS FIGHTING OVER TROPHY. Island, so-called Melian Amphora: 7th century. Conze, Melische Thongefaesse. The scheme is identical with that on the situlae and on the Corsini chair. Athens, Nat. Mus. 475.


78. CORSINI CHAIR. Lateran. Mon. d. I. xi. 9; Annali, li (1879), 314; Ducati in Mon. dei Lincei, xxiv, 401 sq., from which our illustration is taken: 4th or 3rd century. The chair is like the situlae funerary in character and the games are probably funeral games. Besides the boxers there are two groups of wrestlers.



Athletic contests, by which we may probably understand wrestling matches in the Greek style, were, says Livy, first exhibited at Rome in 186 B.C.¹⁰⁶ at the games provided by M. Fulvius after the Aetolian war, and here, too, we note the same spectacular character that marks the Etruscan games. For the actors and athletes were brought from Greece. Moreover, to provide more exciting sport, lions and panthers were imported from Africa, and the games, says Livy, were celebrated with a variety and magnificence hardly inferior to those of his own day. In the last century of the Republic the number and splendour of the games grew apace. The increasing crowd of unemployed in the city needed amusement, and politicians vied with one another in the variety and extravagance of the shows by which they sought to win the favour of the mob. We can judge what those shows were like in Livy’s time from the account in Suetonius of the games provided by Julius Caesar.¹⁰⁷

Besides a variety of musical and dramatic performances there was a gladiatorial show in the Forum, games in the Circus, and a sea fight. In the gladiatorial show, in defiance of public opinion, two prominent citizens fought, Furius Leptinus, a member of a praetorian family, and Quintus Calpenus, an ex-senator. The Pyrrhic dance was performed by noble youths from Asia and Bithynia, and one Decimus Laberius, a Roman knight, actually performed in a farce of his own composition: At the games in the Circus youths of noble birth gave a display of chariot-driving and riding, including the Game of Troy, of which we shall have more to say. Five days were occupied in Venationes or combats with wild beasts, and there was a sham fight between two forces, each consisting of 500 foot-soldiers, 30 cavalry, and 20 elephants. A temporary stand was erected in the Campus Martius where athletic competitions took place lasting five days. Lastly a huge artificial lake was constructed in which biremes, triremes, and quadriremes from Tyre and Egypt joined in mimic battle.

How purely spectacular these athletic contests were, we can learn from the words of Augustus himself. In the record of his reign that he wrote himself, preserved in the temple of Ancyra, he enumerates the numerous shows he gave: eight gladiatorial shows in which about 10,000 gladiators fought; six and twenty venationes of wild beasts from Africa, 3,500 of which were killed; a sea fight between 30 triremes and numerous small boats, the crews numbering 5,000, for which a huge lake was constructed across the Tiber. ‘Twice I provided for the people in my own name an exhibition of athletes collected from all quarters, and a third time in the name of my grandson’—athletarum undique accitorum spectacula. So runs the Latin text: its evidence is conclusive.¹⁰⁸

Every town in Italy had its own shows of the same sort. Take, for example, the funeral inscription on A. Clodius, three times elected Duumvir at Pompeii.¹⁰⁹ In it his wife enumerates the various shows that he gave in honour of his election. On his second election, at the games of Apollo, he gave two days’ shows, on the first day in the forum, ‘a procession, bulls, bullfighters, common pugilists; on the second day in the Amphitheatre, 30 pairs of athletes, 5 pairs of gladiators, 35 pairs of gladiators, venationes, bulls, bull-fighters, bears, boars, and other animals’. By ‘common pugilists’, pugiles catervarii, we may probably understand pugilists who fought in troops like gladiators, but unarmed, as opposed to boxers of the Greek type who are described as pyctae. The term is also used in describing fights of street roughs. The ‘pairs of athletes’ suggests that they were wrestlers, that being the usual meaning of the word in Latin.


We saw in another chapter how Augustus and his successor revived the splendour of the athletic festivals of Greece, how they organized similar festivals in Italy and in Rome, and how they encouraged the guilds of athletes. But these festivals had no effect upon the Romans, nor did they promote athletics in Italy. The athletes were professionals from all parts of the Empire, and the festivals were to the Romans only additional spectacles, and as such less entertaining than the sports of the Amphitheatre. But there is one movement encouraged, if not initiated, by Augustus that must have exercised a great and wholesome influence on the youth of the Empire. In most of the cities of Italy and in many of the provinces we find in the early Empire associations or clubs of boys and youths known as Iuventus. The members, Iuvenes, were drawn from the chief families of their townships, and the object of the associations was to train them for the Army or the Civil Service. The training given was chiefly military and athletic, and was probably copied from that of the Greek epheboi. Indeed it seems that in some of the Greek cities in Italy, or in cities like Pompeii where Greek influence had been strong, similar associations had long existed. But there can be little doubt that the revival, if not the origin, of the movement was due to Augustus. In his own record of his reign he especially relates how his destined heirs Gaius and Lucius Caesar were in the years 5 and 2 B.C. saluted by the whole body of Roman knights as Principes Iuventutis, and he celebrated the occasion with games in their honour. The institution indeed bears no little resemblance to that of our Boy Scouts, except that it was exclusively aristocratic. It is interesting, too, as the only organized attempt in Italy at making physical training a part of education.

Though united in the service of the Empire, all these clubs were absolutely independent. Like all such associations they had their own cults, usually the cult of the chief local deity. Thus the members of the Pompeian Club called themselves Iuvenes Venerii Pompeiani, ‘the Young Men’s Venus association of Pompeii’, Venus being the patron goddess of the place. They were also known by the aristocratic title of the Nine Hundred (Nongenti). Other clubs were allowed to take the name of the reigning Emperor, as Traianenses, Antoniniani. Each club had its own officials: its President (magister), usually some influential citizen who had belonged to the club; its Captain (praefectus), who was responsible for their training; its Treasurer (procurator), who looked after the funds and property of the club. These funds were kept up by monthly subscriptions, donations, and legacies. But the expenses were heavy; the upkeep of the club buildings, arrangement of assaults-at-arms, displays, processions, provision of prizes all cost money. So the clubs, just as our own clubs do, would try to secure some wealthy man as their patron (patronus) in the hope that he would repay the honour shown him by his generosity; and in this they were seldom disappointed. There was a wonderful public spirit among the rich citizens at this period.

We know nothing of the athletic training of the Iuvenes. It was probably similar to that in Greek gymnasia. At Pompeii they had as their head-quarters a gymnasium and palaestra of the regular Greek type near the theatre in the oldest part of the city; while close to the Amphitheatre they had an up-to-date gymnasium provided with elaborate baths and a club-house. Their chief training was military: they learnt the use of weapons of all sorts, and ex-gladiators were sometimes employed to train them. At Pompeii their salle d’armes has been excavated in the Via dell’ Abbondanza. All around it are cupboards where their equipment could be kept, and painted on the walls at the entrance are two gladiatorial trophies. The champions of the Iuvenes, not satisfied with their own bloodless contests, used sometimes to risk their lives against the professional gladiators of the Amphitheatre.


79. Game of Troy. Drawing on 6th-century Etruscan vase found at Tragliatella. Annali, liii (1881); See Benndorf, Über das Alter des Trojaspiels, ‘Sitzungsberichte der kais. Akademie der Wissenschaften’, cxxiii. K. iii; Dar.-Sag. s.v. Ludus Troiae; M. della Corte, Juventus. For a full publication and discussion of this oenochoe, which is in a private collection in Rome, see article by Giglioli in Studi Etruschi, iii, p. 111. [See also Diem Das trojanische Reiterspiel.]

But the most characteristic part of their training was in horsemanship. The Italians have always been great riders, and the horse is prominent in early Roman ritual and legend. One of the oldest festivals of Rome was the Equiria when horses raced in the Campus Martius. At the Ludi Magnithe procession was headed by companies of youths on horseback, and at the games given by Julius Caesar the noblest youths gave displays of chariot-racing and horsemanship, leaping from horse to horse, or leaping down and remounting at full gallop. A double company of boys, younger and older, performed the Game of Troy, a sort of military ride similar to those which are such an attractive feature of our own Military Tournaments. It is this that Virgil describes in one of the most charming passages of the fifth Aeneid. His description of the other games is rhetorical and artificial. He has no real knowledge of athletics, but in the Game of Troy he is describing what he knows and loves. When the other sports are finished Aeneas bids Ascanius marshal his youthful companies. The course is cleared and the youths advance in three companies of sixteen each and pass in parade before the admiring gaze of their elders. Then at a signal the three companies break away, then gallop back, then part again, retreating and charging, weaving circles within circles in mimic warfare, in maze-like figures or like dolphins sporting in the sea. Such, says Virgil, is the game Ascanius taught the Latins, and even now it is called Troy.

Virgil is right. Troy is one of the oldest games of Rome; but it has nothing to do with Troy. On a sixth-century Etruscan vase we see it represented (Fig. 79). There are two horsemen shown, and behind them is the Maze or Labyrinth itself, represented as we see it scratched on the walls of Pompeii six hundred years later, and between the lines of the maze we read the real name, the Etruscan word TRUIA, which the Romans mistook for Troy. From Pompeii, too, we have the record of a very similar military ride, ‘the serpent game’. It is in an inscription consisting of four verses in praise of one of the Iuvenes of Pompeii called Septimius, and the inscription, written in the form of a serpent, may be freely rendered: ‘If you have seen the skill with which Septimius performs the serpent ride, whether you are a lover of the shows or of horses, you can hold the scales level’, i. e. you will be equally satisfied.¹¹⁰ There is nothing competitive in such rides, merely skill in horsemanship. But the Italians loved shows, and loved horses as they do to-day.

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