The throw of the dice

A fourth-century CE Roman historian, with little time for the poor, referred disdainfully to the strange snorting noise that you might hear, late at night, in the taverns of the city of Rome. It was nothing to do with any sexual fun and games; it came instead from the gaming tables. The players were so intent on their dice that they produced this disgusting sound, as they drew breath into their rattling nostrils. This is one of the rare occasions where we can instantly reconstruct the sound of Roman life – a sound that would no doubt have been heard loud in the bars of Pompeii where, to judge from the paintings we looked at in the last chapter, gaming and dicing were a major accompaniment to the food and drink.

We do not know exactly what game the men in the paintings were playing. Roman board games, like our own, came in many different varieties, with different titles. ‘Little Robbers’ or, perhaps, ‘Little Soldiers’ (latrunculi) was one of the favourites, and was certainly played at Pompeii; for one election poster offers a candidate the support – unwanted maybe – of the ‘latrunculi players’. Another which is often mentioned in Roman literature was called ‘Twelve Writings’ (duodecim scripta). No rulebook survives for any of these games, and there have been all kinds of scholarly attempts to reconstruct the play from casual references. Latrunculi, for example, may have involved trying to blockade or hem in your opponent’s pieces in a way somewhat reminiscent of modern draughts. But most of them, then as now, followed the same basic principle: a dice throw allowed the player to move his counter or counters on the board, or towards the winning goal; the sheer chance of the fall of the dice was the crucial element in success, but varying amounts of skill could no doubt be deployed in the movement of the pieces. There was certainly enough skill involved for the emperor Claudius to write a book (sadly lost) on the art of alea, a generic term for such dice games.

Gambling on the outcome was also a crucial element. Tavern games could win the contestants a lot of money, or lose it. One graffito from Pompeii boasts of a particularly spectacular win: ‘I won at Nuceria playing alea, 855½ denarii – honestly, it’s true’. This was a grand sum, amounting to 3422 sesterces, which was almost four times the annual pay of a legionary soldier. Most prizes must have been much lower, as the lucky winner at Nuceria hints with his insistence on the truth of his claim. All the same, it helps us get a little closer to understanding the social level of Pompeian café culture. These men may have been humble, and very poor by the standards of the local elite, but they still had a bit of time and cash to spare. Gambling is not, and was not, an occupation of the destitute.

The Roman authorities legislated against games and gambling of this sort with an enthusiasm that they never showed for regulating prostitution. Ineffectually no doubt, and with glaring double standards. For it is clear that all these games (as the emperor Claudius’ passion for them shows) were played right across the social spectrum. Gambling was such a distinctively Roman habit that one eccentric theorist in the first century BCE could argue that Homer must have been a Roman, because he depicts the suitors of Penelope in the Odyssey playing dice. No gaming boards actually survive from Pompeii, though they have been found elsewhere in the Roman world. The Pompeians presumably played on wood. And there is a good deal of debate about whether the objects sometimes identified as dice throwers are not in fact small cups. But gaming counters and dice have been found right across the town, including in the very richest houses: a couple of lovely dice, and a handful of counters, were discovered in the House of the Menander for example.

It was tavern, rather than domestic, gaming that the Romans wanted to restrict. Why? Partly, no doubt, because it risked destabilising the social and economic hierarchies. A culture which ranked its members so strictly by the amount of wealth they owned would almost inevitably resist the idea that the mere throw of the dice could change a person’s status. Seen in those terms, the man who had his windfall at Nuceria was not simply lucky but a dangerous disruption of the social order. But an interesting recent suggestion is that the problems of the Roman elite with tavern gaming also related to more general questions in Roman culture about the use of leisure (otium). How was leisure properly to be spent? What was the right time for leisure? Were particular leisure activities suited to particular contexts only? Was gaming acceptable within the confines of a rich private house but not in a bar?

But proper or decidedly improper, dice and gaming were a favourite leisure activity in Pompeii. As we move on now to consider other ways of using otium – the shows and spectacles which, with their theatres and Amphitheatres, have left a much bigger imprint in the archaeological record than a humble game of dice – it is worth reflecting that more man-hours were spent (or wasted) at Pompeii at the gaming board than were ever spent in front of actors or gladiators.


Pompeii was a theatrical town. In 79 CE it had two permanent stone theatres, though in varying states of disrepair. One went back to the second century BCE but was refurbished and enlarged by Marcus Holconius Rufus so that it would seat some 5000 people (Ill. 87). Parts of the permanent brick stage set are still visible, as well as the fittings for the curtain (in Rome the curtain did not fall, as in the modern theatre; it was pulled up from the ground). The other, directly next to it, was a smaller Covered Theatre seating up to 2000 people, erected in the early years of the Roman colony by the same men who built the Amphitheatre (Ill. 69). By the time the first permanent stone theatre was put up in the city of Rome in the 50s BCE, financed from the spoils of Pompey the Great’s Eastern wars, little Pompeii had had two theatres for almost two decades.

More than this, if you walk through the richer houses of the town, or through the galleries of paintings and mosaics now in the museum at Naples, you are repeatedly confronted with images of the stage, drama and theatrical performance. The name of the House of the Menander, as we have seen, is taken from the painting of the fourth-century BCE Greek comic dramatist in the central niche of the peristyle, directly aligned with the main entrance to the house (Ill. 44). Menander is shown seated holding a papyrus roll; he is clearly named both under the chair and on the roll. Opposite him was another similar figure, now barely visible, but almost certainly representing another dramatist: Euripides is one guess.

A nice complement to the Menander are two mosaics from the Villa of Cicero just outside the city walls. Made out of exquisitely small tesserae, they are ‘signed’ by their artist: Dioskourides of Samos. One shows three women seated drinking round a table, the other a group of musicians playing tambourine, cymbals and flute (Plate 1). All the figures wear theatrical masks (one of the women is an impressive ‘old hag’), showing that these are scenes from plays, not real life. But which? A lucky find of similar mosaics on the Greek island of Lesbos, but this time with titles, makes it almost certain that they are intended to be scenes from comedies of Menander: the women are taken from his Women at Breakfast; the musicians probably from his Girl Possessed by the Gods (in which music is used to test out whether a girl who says she is possessed really is). Meanwhile a scene from a tragedy of Euripides, The Children Heracles, has been identified in a painting in the House of Casca Longus. Again the characters are shown fully masked, and the painting makes a companion piece to a scene taken from some unidentified comedy, featuring a wonderfully pot-bellied old slave holding forth in front of a young couple.


87. The view towards the stage of the Large Theatre – and towards the more spacious seats for the elite on the front rows. The wooden stage in this photograph has been inserted for a modern performance.

There is an interest in the backstage world too. The mosaic that held pride of place in the centre of the tablinum in the House of the Tragic Poet showed actors getting ready to go on stage (Plate 17). The performance for which they were preparing was neither a traditional tragedy or comedy, but a ‘satyr play’ – a kind of lusty burlesque that in the fifth-century BCE Athenian theatre had followed a series of three tragedies, offering the audience some much-needed light relief. In this scene the couple on the far left are already wearing the distinctive goat costumes of the chorus in this style of show (a chorus made up of satyrs – half-goats, half-men). The rest of the company is not entirely ready yet. The actor at the back is still squeezing into his costume (another goaty-outfit), the flautist is practising his tunes, while the director in the centre is giving his final instructions. At his feet and on the table behind are masks waiting to be put on – though these also serve as a signal to us of the theatrical nature of the scene. In fact, throughout the repertoire of Pompeian domestic decoration, masks such as these are one of the commonest elements, perched on those fantastic painted architectural extravaganzas or floating in the middle of walls. It as almost as if the theatre provided a model for the whole spectacle of Pompeian wall-painting itself: painting made a theatre out of a house.

The big question is how we put these paintings and mosaics together with the surviving remains of the theatres themselves. We have seen on other occasions that the decoration of house or bar may reflect, in idealised or humorous form, the activities of the residents and the painting’s viewers – whether drinking, dining, or gambling. Do these scenes of the classics of Greek drama on the floors and walls of Pompeian houses suggest that the local theatres were the venues for revival performances of this kind of play. When the duoviri sponsored dramatic performances as part of their required munificence to the town, did they choose reruns of old and rather upmarket favourites, such as Menander and Euripides, in Greek or in Latin translation?

A few modern scholars have thought so. But the short answer is that we have little hard, direct information on what was performed in either of these theatres, nor how often performances in them would have taken place. Unlike the gladiatorial fights, for which we have almost the ancient equivalent of programmes, no playbills or painted advertisements for shows in the theatres survive. Most historians have been unconvinced by the idea that classic Greek drama was much in evidence on the Pompeian stage. There are, after all, no examples of it in the literary quotations scrawled on Pompeian walls (in fact, these include no recognisable quote from any play at all, except for a single line from a tragedy of Seneca). And many of the paintings and mosaics which depicted classical drama were no doubt based on famous works of Greek art and were intended as a more general symbolic reflection of the cultural world of ancient Greece and its symbols. They were not a direct reference to local performances.

The favourite candidates for the Pompeian stage have usually been various Italian genres. Often cited have been so-called ‘Atellan farces’, a type of comedy of which only a few fragments survive, but is supposed to have been originally an Oscan invention. Featuring stock characters such as Manducus, the glutton, or Bucco, the braggart, they have been compared to the Morality Plays of the Middle Ages. Also in the frame are other styles of Roman comedy, such as survive in the plays of Plautus and Terence, and even performances that are not theatrical in our sense of the word. One idea is that the Covered Theatre was not designed for drama at all, but was built to be the assembly hall of the early colonists.

All of these suggestions are perfectly possible, but no more than that. Some careful detective work, however, does allow us to get a little closer to the staples of the Pompeian stage. Scholars have only recently turned their attention to two genres of theatrical performance, again very largely lost, that were hugely popular, among emperors as well as paupers, in Italy during Pompeii’s last hundred years or so. They are mime and pantomime. Mime came in many forms, performed as street entertainment, in private houses, as short interval entertainment in the theatre and as the main feature. Ribald comedy, going under such titles as ‘The Wedding’, ‘The Fuller’ or ‘The Weaving Girls’ (perhaps, as one scholar has suggested, the ancient equivalent of a play called ‘The Swedish Masseuses’), it was played by both male and female actors who, unusually, did not wear masks. Sometimes it was improvised according to the lines of a plot invented by the Archimimus (‘chief mime’); sometimes it was scripted. Despite the title and our own understanding of ‘mime’, it was not silent – but a mixture of words, music and dance.

Pantomime was a different genre, usually tragic rather than comic, and certainly not to be confused with the modern performances of the same name. Ancient pantomime is more the ancestor of modern ballet than of our ‘pantomime’. Said to have been introduced to Rome in the first century BCE, it featured a star performer who gave a virtuoso display of dance and mime (in our sense of the word ‘mime’) to a libretto that was sung by the supporting members of the troupe, male and female. These formed a vocal ‘backing group’, along with others who provided the music. The scabellum, or large castanets, was a distinctive, and noisy, part of the show. The star alone took all the different roles in the plot, hence the title: ‘panto – mime’, or ‘miming everything’. In the process, he changed his mask (which had a closed rather than an open mouth, as in conventional ancient theatre) to indicate the different parts he was adopting. All kinds of themes were performed, drawn from the repertoire of classic Greek tragedy, Euripides’ Bacchae, for example, or the story of Iphigeneia. Historians now reckon that there was more to pantomime than just degenerate theatre. It was probably one of the main ways that the general population in the Roman world picked up their knowledge of Greek myth and literature.

There are clear signs that mime and, especially, pantomime were major attractions at Pompeii, in the theatre and at other venues. A portrait set up in the Temple of Isis commemorates a man called Caius Norbanus Sorex ‘a player of second parts’. Another statue of the same man stood in the Building of Eumachia in the Forum (the inscribed base, though not the portrait itself, survives), and another in the sanctuary of Diana at Nemi, just outside Rome, where he is called ‘mime actor in second parts’. He was presumably a member of a travelling mime company who worked in various places in central and southern Italy. Though not the lead player in his troupe, he had done enough in Pompeii (maybe he contributed to the restoration of the Temple of Isis after the earthquake) to be honoured by two bronze portraits. The fact that, as an actor, he was legally infamis (‘disgraceful’) did not seem to get in the way of public commemoration, ‘on land given by decision of the town council’, in the centre of Pompeii.


88. Actor and benefactor? Although he was a member of a ‘disgraceful’ profession, this is one of two bronze portraits in Pompeii to have publicly honoured the mime actor Caius Norbanus Sorex. Another portrait of the same man is known from Nemi, near Rome.

We have already seen a few hints of pantomime performance in the city. According to the exact words of his tombstone, the shows presented by Aulus Clodius Flaccus at the games of Apollo (p. 198) featured ‘pantomimes, including Pylades’. Pylades was the name of the emperor Augustus’ favourite pantomime performer, who played at some of his private dinner parties. It may be that this notable performer himself was brought to Pompeii by the generosity of Flaccus, or it may be a later star who had adopted a famous theatrical name – a common, but for us confusing, practice among ancient actors. Another tomb inscription, the epitaph of Decimus Lucretius Valens (p. 211), gives us a passing reference to the loud music of the pantomime. For, if my translation is correct, the ‘clapper beaters’ or ‘castanet players’ (scabiliari) were one of the groups who had honoured the dead man with statues.


89. This wallpainting from a private house in Pompeii may well evoke pantomime performances. Various characters are shown against a façade similar to that of the Large Theatre.

The enthusiasm of the Pompeians for pantomime can be detected in a handful of difficult to decipher, poorly preserved, but intriguing graffiti. They seem to refer to different members of a pantomime troupe headed by one Actius Anicetus, who is also found at nearby Puteoli under the name of ‘Caius Ummidius Actius Anicetus, the pantomime’. ‘Actius, star of the stage’ reads one apparent fan message scrawled on a tomb outside the city wall, ‘Here’s to Actius, come back to your people soon,’ reads another. And it may be that those who occasionally call themselves ‘Anicetiani’ are the self-styled fans of Anicetus, rather than other members of his troupe. Some of those supporting members can, in any case, be tracked down in other graffiti at Pompeii. In the private bath of a large house someone has written the words histrionica Actica or ‘Actius’ showgirl’, perhaps an admirer of a female member of the company, who did not know her exact name. Elsewhere a man called Castrensis appears often enough in graffiti alongside Actius Anicetus for us to imagine that he too is another player in the troupe. So also does a ‘Horus’: ‘Here’s to Actius Anicetus, here’s to Horus’ as one graffito runs. We seem to be dealing with a popular group of perhaps seven or eight players altogether.

With the popularity of pantomime in mind, we can return to the paintings on the walls of Pompeii. For tucked away among all those evocations of the distant world of classical Greek theatre there are one or two that may in fact capture the more staple fare of the Pompeian stage. One likely candidate is an overblown painting of a stage set which is now faded almost beyond recognition. But in earlier drawings we see what looks very much like the elaborate architectural backdrop of the stage that is found in the Large Theatre of Pompeii, with its large central doorway (Ill. 89). A clever suggestion is that this particular design reflects a pantomime on the theme of the myth of Marsyas, who picked up the flutes of the goddess Minerva and challenged Apollo to a musical contest. If so, we see in the main openings of the stage, from left to right, Minerva, Apollo and Marsyas, as they would be portrayed in turn by the star dancer. The chorus, meanwhile, peep around the background.

This may be the closest we can now get to the Pompeian theatre.

Bloody games

A day out for the Pompeians could involve a much bloodier spectacle than this harmless if raucous pantomime. When Lord Byron coined the famous phrase ‘butchered to make a Roman holiday’, he meant exactly that. One of the ways that Romans spent their leisure time was watching men pitted against wild animals, and the combat of gladiators, who sometimes fought to the death. An enormous amount of scholarly effort has been spent in trying to discover where and when gladiators in particular originated. Did they come to Rome via the mysterious Etruscans? Was the institution a south Italian era invention from the region of Pompeii itself? Did it have its prehistoric origins in human sacrifice? And perhaps even more effort has been devoted to working out why the Romans were so keen on such practices anyway. Were they a substitute for ‘real’ warfare? Did they function as a collective release of tension in a highly ranked and rule-bound society? Or were the Romans even more bloodthirsty than those modern audiences who are happy to watch boxing or bull-fighting?

The material that survives from Pompeii does not help much with those questions. Their answers will always remain speculative at best. What we do get from the buildings, paintings and graffiti in the town is the best insight from anywhere in the Roman world into the practical infrastructure and organisation of wild-beast hunts and gladiatorial games, and into the lives (and deaths) of the gladiators themselves. We have posters advertising the shows and the facilities offered. We can visit the gladiators’ barracks and see what they wrote on their own walls. We can even inspect cartoons of real gladiatorial fights, recording the results of the contest, and whether the losing fighter was killed or let off with his life. We come closer here to the day-to-day culture of the Roman Amphitheatre than we do by reading the bombastic accounts in ancient writers of the blockbuster shows occasionally presented by Roman emperors, with – or so the writers claim – their mass human carnage and whole menageries of animals put to death.


Figure 20. The Pompeian Amphitheatre. The plan shows the pattern of the seating (above), and (below) the system of internal corridors and access ways which ran underneath the seating, largely invisible from above.

The Amphitheatre, where most of the gladiatorial shows and hunts took place, is still one of the most instantly impressive monuments in the whole city of Pompeii. Built at the very edge of the town, thanks to the generosity of Caius Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius in the 70s BCE (pp. 40, 42), it is the earliest permanent stone building of its type to be found anywhere and is of a substantial size even by metropolitan Roman standards. The Colosseum in Rome, which was built 150 years later in a city with a total population of around a million, is only just over twice as big: the Colosseum could accommodate about 50,000 spectators, the Pompeian Amphitheatre some 20,000. Amphitheatres now can be disappointing to visit: high on initial impact, but low on rewarding details. They do not always repay careful inspection. In Pompeii, however, we can piece together from what has been discovered the Amphitheatre’s sometimes surprising history.


90. The arena of the Amphitheatre. The front rows of seating for the elite are clearly visible, marked off from the main seating behind. The main entrances for gladiators and animals lie at either end of the oval fighting space.

The plan of the building as it was buried in 79 gives us a good idea of how the Amphitheatre worked. The seats surrounding the display area were carefully ranked. The front rows were reserved for the local elite, who enjoyed spacious seating and a ringside view – though at the cost of sometimes being uncomfortably close to the action and to the wild animals on the loose. The women were probably relegated to the very back, if the rules that were introduced by the emperor Augustus in Rome applied, and were enforced, here too. Spectators entered the building by different routes, according to where they were sitting. Those in the main seating area made their way up the steep stairways on the outside of the building, which led onto a walkway that ran round the top of the seating. From here they would take the appropriate stairway down again to their place. Those in the posh seats went in through one of the lower entranceways, which led to an internal corridor running around the perimeter of the arena. From here they would take one of the series of stairways that led up to the front rows of seating. On this system the rich would never have had to cross paths, or rub shoulders in the mêlée, with the great unwashed. And just to be on the safe side, there was a hefty barrier in the seating area between the places reserved for the elite, and the rest above.

The main ceremonial way-in was the entrance on the north side, decorated with statues. The gladiators and animals would also have entered and left here, or at the opposite end, to the south. Unlike in the Colosseum at Rome, there were no cellars or underground passageways beneath the floor of the arena which could accommodate the waiting fighters (human or animal) and then release them through trapdoors when their turn came, into the spotlight above. The only place in this design for either men or (small) beasts to wait before their fight were the cramped rooms, (a), by each of the main entrances. Any larger animals must have been caged up outside, forming a mini-zoo, no doubt to the amusement, and terror, of passing spectators.

What has been lost? First the wooden seats. Even in the Amphitheatre’s final phases, the seats were not all made of stone. Where the areas of grass now are, the seats were wooden. The stone versions had been added piecemeal, through the benefaction of various local officials. When Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius first built the monument, the structural frame was in masonry, but all the seats were in wood. More disappointingly, the paintwork has also been lost. When the building was first excavated in 1815, brightly coloured decorations were discovered covering the curtain wall that surrounded the arena, just below the seats of the elite. These all disappeared in the cold weather of the following winter – but luckily not before they had been copied by artists working on the site.

The pictures showed a wonderful array of mythological figures (a Victory balancing on a globe and holding a palm branch, to symbolise success, was a recurring element) and images of gladiatorial equipment leaning against paintings of statues. But the main panels evoked the combats of the arena. There were scenes of wild animals charging through a mountain wilderness, reminiscent of the hunts that were staged there (and of the scenes on some garden walls). The artist had indulged his fantasy by including lions which, so far as we know, were never actually part of the display at Pompeii, even if they roamed the audience ’s imagination.

Of course, there were gladiators too. One of the paintings shows the start of a bout (Ill. 91). The referee stands in the middle between two gladiators who are not yet fully kitted out for their fight. The one on the left is blasting a note on a large curved horn with an ornamental handle to signal the start of proceedings. Behind him a couple of attendants wait with his shield and helmet. On the right his opponent is already equipped with his shield, though his attendants have still to hand over his helmet and sword. A pair of Victories hover in the background, waiting to award palm branch and wreath to whichever one is the winner. Another image depicts the end of a contest between two rather burlier fighters. The loser has dropped his shield, carries a hopelessly buckled sword and has blood pouring out of his left arm.


91. The start of a bout. The lost paintings on the curtain wall of the arena included this scene of a pair of gladiators during the preliminaries to their fight. Interestingly the referee and support staff easily outnumber the fighters themselves.

This particular decoration was installed in the last years of the city, after the earthquake of 62 – for, unlike both the theatres, the Amphitheatre was in full working order at the time of the eruption. That famous painting of the riot in the Amphitheatre in 59 CE (Ill. 16) would suggest that the new scheme replaced a less complex design. If we can trust the artist’s accuracy, at the time of the riot the curtain wall was decorated with a painted pattern to imitate marble, a common Roman conceit. But whether it is a question of imitation marble or gory scenes of combat, we find that the austere monochrome image of the surviving ruins belies, as so often, the vivid, even garish, original appearance of the monument.

The Amphitheatre did not stand alone. Some parts of the festivities connected with gladiatorial shows would have spilled over into the so-called Large Palaestra next door – a generous open space, surrounded by colonnades with a swimming pool in the centre and shady avenues of trees. Its original date and function are uncertain, though the size of the tree roots indicates that they had been planted about a hundred years before the eruption. One theory is that its main purpose was to provide an exercise ground for the city’s youth; or at least for the wealthy boys, who may – following the policy of the emperor Augustus – have been organised into a paramilitary ‘corps’ (a cross between the boy scouts and the territorial army). There is, in fact, precious little evidence for this. The graffiti surviving on the colonnades suggest instead a much more mixed set of leisure and business uses, from shady park to open-air market and school. It must have come into its own when there were 20,000 people in the Amphitheatre, offering a place for a break, for eating and drinking, and for the lavatory. So far as we have been able to tell there was no latrine in the Amphitheatre: 20,000 people and nowhere but the stairs and corridors to take a piss.

Advertisements for forthcoming shows in the Amphitheatre, painted in the same style and by the same signwriters as the electoral slogans, give us all kinds of information about who the sponsors were, what the programme contained, how long it lasted, what facilities or extra attractions might be laid on. This evidence can sometimes be combined with memorials on tombs, where families might boast about the generosity of the deceased in financing shows. For gladiatorial spectacles and wild-beast hunts were a major part of the culture of benefaction we have already noticed in the town. Elected officials would stage these shows during their year of office. So would civic priests, or even in one case we know of an Augustalis. So too, for that matter, might men, like Livineius Regulus in 59 CE, looking to curry favour with the locals, for motives good or bad. Occasionally the advertisements make a point of stressing that the shows are to be put on ‘at no public expense ’. Perhaps it was normal practice for the city council to make some contribution to the cost too. Either way, there is no sign that any charge was made to those attending. This looks like free entertainment.

One especially lengthy series of shows extending over five days was advertised in the poster painted on a street wall by that active Pompeian signwriter Aemilius Celer (Ill. 92). It was on this occasion that he chose to inform his readers that he was working ‘alone by the light of the moon’ (p. 79). The advertisement ran in typical wording:

Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens, permanent priest of Prince Nero, the son of the emperor, is presenting twenty pairs of gladiators. Decimus Lucretius Valens his son is presenting ten pairs of gladiators. They will fight at Pompeii on 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 April. There will be a wild-beast hunt according to the usual rules and awnings.

There is no doubt that this act of generosity was intended to enhance the prestige and reputation of Satrius Valens, whose first two names appear in letters about ten times as big as everything else. He was giving these games in his capacity as priest, but by including his son in the enterprise (albeit with half as many gladiators to his name) he was no doubt also intending to give the younger man a leg-up in the politics of the local community. The place and date are very simply stated. There was obviously no need to specify that the show was to be held in the Amphitheatre. We know that in many Italian towns, including Rome itself, the forum could be used for shows, and we have already seen one occasion when animal displays were conducted in the Pompeian forum. But the distinctive combination of gladiators and wild-beast hunt must have been enough to tell people where to go. The crucial message to get across was that the occasion was to be held at Pompeii. For the walls of the town carried advertisements for shows at other local venues – Nola, Capua, Herculaneum, Cumae – for those who could be bothered to make the trip. People did not need to be told a precise time either. So long as they knew the date, they could rely on a standard kick-off time.


92. An elegant advertisement. Careful work by the sign writer Aemilius Celer, advertising gladiatorial games put on by Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens. (The translation).

Five days is the longest series of gladiatorial shows we know of at Pompeii. Many are advertised for just a single day, some for two, three or four. Even if we were to assume that most of the elected officials, plus some priests, chose to provide these bloody games as their benefaction to the town, and even allowing for some extra performances perhaps put on commercially, there could hardly have been more than twenty days of shows in the Amphitheatre each year. Most of the time it must have been empty and locked up, or taken over for anything else that could use a large open space. Pantomime perhaps?

How, in the case of the games of Satrius Valens and son, the gladiators and the hunt were spread over the five days is puzzling. We do not know how long each pair would keep going. But on other occasions just a single day’s show features thirty pairs of fighters plus a hunt. So do we imagine that Satrius Valens’ generosity consisted mostly in spreading his fighters more thinly across the allotted time? Or did the gladiators appear on more than one day? Some advertisements specify that ‘substitutes’ will be provided, to take the place of a dead or wounded fighter, and sometimes it is clear that individual gladiators went into battle several times in the same games. Maybe Satrius Valens had that in mind. But did he have access to enough spare animals to present hunts on each of five days?

At the end of the advertisement we learn that the hunt is to be conducted ‘according to the usual rules’ (legitima). The point of this is not at all clear, though some historians imagine that it means little more than ‘the hunt that normally goes with a gladiatorial show’, or just ‘a regular hunt’. We also learn that the awnings will be in use over the building, to bring shade to spectators if it turned out to be a hot sunny day, and presumably at extra cost to the sponsor. Even in the balmy Mediterranean climate, the weather seems to have been on the mind of those who planned these events. From the recorded dates, it seems that the hottest months of July and August were not favourite times for the shows. But wet weather could be a problem too. Some advertisements add the cautious warning: ‘weather permitting’.

Satrius Valens and his son (assuming that it was they who chose the wording) make no mention of one other extra that many wealthy sponsors of the games include: sparsiones. This is a term that can mean anything ‘sprinkled’ or ‘showered’ over the audience. Sometimes it was perfumed water sprayed over the audience in their seats, sometimes little presents thrown into the crowd (as at a modern Christmas pantomime before Health and Safety regulations prohibited it). Such a flourish was perhaps beyond even this family’s generosity, over five days.

Nor do they mention, as some do, any special occasion or commemoration linked to their shows. One of the most intriguing of these is found in the single day of displays put on by Cnaius Alleius Nigidius Maius ‘at the dedication of the painting work’. No one is exactly sure what this ‘painting work’ was. But one nice suggestion is that these shows were a day of celebration to commemorate the completion of those splendid paintings that once covered the circuit wall of the arena.

We can fill out the picture given by the advertisement thanks to a number of paintings and sculptures from the town which depict the games in the Amphitheatre and occasionally the festivities and rituals that surrounded them. A precious piece of evidence comes from one of the town’s cemeteries and must once have adorned an expensive tomb (Ill. 93). It includes three bands of sculpture. The bottom band depicts a wild-beast hunt. Part of the spectacle appears to consist of animals fighting each other. A pair of dogs are busy attacking a goat and a wild boar. The human combatants concentrate on the larger animals. One is skewering a bull, another is about to dispatch a boar. One has lost out in his encounter with a bear, which is already taking a large bite out of him, to the despair of two attendants.


93. Different elements of the gladiatorial games are shown on each register of this sculpture. On the top level: the procession leading to the Amphitheatre. In the middle: the gladiatorial fights themselves. Below: in the animal contests one human fighter on the right is being finished off by a bear, while on the left a bull is being killed.

The middle and widest band shows various groups of gladiators, some in the midst of fighting, some claiming victory, some collapsed in defeat. The most striking thing about the scene is that there are as many attendants and officials in the ring as there are gladiators. No fewer than five are supporting a fighter who has almost fallen to the ground. Five more, on the right, are looking after a pair who are taking a break: one is having treatment on his wounded leg; the other is being giving refreshments. There is something disconcertingly like modern sportsmen and their trainers in this image.

Even more interesting is the upper band of sculpture. For this shows the grand preliminaries to the games which – in our fascination with, or disgust at, the gory sides of the occasion – it is all too easy to forget. The whole proceedings started with a procession through the streets of the town. Here we see it when it has already reached the Amphitheatre, as the awnings at the upper corners must indicate. On the right, leading the way are two musicians and three lictors, staff who are mentioned elsewhere as being assigned to local duoviri. Behind them comes a curious platform, carried on the shoulders of four men. On top of it two figures, models presumably, crouch around an anvil, one holding a hammer in the air and about to strike. You might expect the gods to be honoured in this procession (and indeed statues of deities were often carried on platforms much like this in religious and civic processions), but what are these little blacksmiths doing here? The best suggestion is that this is intended to celebrate their metal-working, the skill on which the whole occasion depended. Next in line is a man carrying a placard, perhaps naming the sponsor of the show or the reason for its performance, and next someone carrying a palm, the symbol of victory. Then comes a man dressed in a toga. This is almost certainly the sponsor himself, who is followed in turn by a procession of men parading the gladiators’ armour, piece by piece, the fruit of the blacksmiths’ labours. Bringing up the rear are a trumpeter and two more attendants leading horses decked in obviously ceremonial trappings, for a festival occasion.

This is a rare glimpse of the rituals, the varied spectacles, the community involvement – from sponsor to blacksmiths – which gave a context to these bloody games. Was all this also stopped when shows were banned in Pompeii for ten years in 59? Whatever the reason for the riot (whether a combination of fraying tempers, local rivalry and alcohol-fuelled exuberance, or something more sinister), such a total ban would have hit very hard at the life of the town, its shared pursuits, its structures of patronage and hierarchy.

The answer is probably not. Tacitus’ Latin account is vague on this point: he refers only to the prohibition on ‘any public gathering of that kind’. But a handful of surviving advertisements give notice of forthcoming games which are to include wild-beast hunts, athletes, awnings and sparsiones. This was everything the audience might have hoped for – except the gladiators. The nearest thing to them are the ‘athletes’. Almost certainly these advertisements refer to shows held between 59 and 69. The ban, in other words, applied to the gladiators alone. The rest continued much as normal, even if many Pompeians no doubt felt that athletes and even wild beasts were a poor substitute for the star attraction. In fact, one of the shows concerned is the celebration presented by Nigidius Maius for the ‘dedication of the painting work’. If that ‘painting work’ really was the decoration of the arena’s curtain wall, it must have seemed a sad irony to be dedicating those splendid images of gladiators in combat at a show that could present no gladiators at all.

Heartthrobs of the girls

So far we have seen the shows from the point of view of spectators and sponsors. But what about the gladiators and beast-fighters themselves? Who were they? How were they organised? Can we reconstruct anything of their perspective on the Amphitheatre? Was the life of a gladiator bound to be bloody and short?

Gladiators were almost always men. Although modern scholars have often become very excited at the transgressive prospect of female gladiators, in truth there are only a handful of plausible candidates from anywhere in the Roman world. There are none at all in Pompeii. In terms of formal, legal status, gladiators were at the bottom of the pile of Roman society. Many were slaves, others were condemned criminals: those were the conscripts, willing or unwilling. A few others were volunteers. For signing up as a gladiator might have been one of the very few routes out of total destitution in the Roman world. Survival, in the short term at least, might be bought at a high price that amounted to more than just danger. It would have involved a loss of day-to-day freedom almost akin to slavery itself, under the control of the troupe manager or, in Latin, lanista.

The lanista was a crucial middleman in the whole business (and for them it was a business) of gladiatorial shows and beast hunts. The elite sponsors of the games did not keep their own gladiators for display. When they wanted to put on a show, they would have negotiated a price with one of these troupe managers. Trade was probably not so brisk that there would have been a very large number to choose from, but in Pompeii itself we know the names of three lanistae operating in the last forty years of the city’s life.

The best attested is a man called Numerius Festus Ampliatus. An advertisement on the wall of the Basilica in the Forum, for example, gives notice that ‘the gladiatorial “family” [familia] of Numerius Festus Ampliatus will fight again ... on 15 and 16 May’. As is normal, Ampliatus’ troupe is called his ‘family’ or ‘household’ (more an indication of the wide range of meanings of the Latin familia than the barefaced euphemism it might seem). The fact that no sponsor is named may suggest that this show was a purely commercial occasion, capitalising – as the word ‘again’ hints – on some earlier success. He certainly had more than a local Pompeian trade. Another advertisement publicises the appearance of his familia at the town of Formiae, which lies to the north, halfway to Rome.

The job of the lanista involved acquiring the gladiators for his troupe, which would presumably have meant scouting for talent at local slave auctions. But once acquired they needed training. Gladiators were expected to perform in various specialist roles, and with different types of equipment. The ‘Thracian’ (Thrax), for example, fought with a short curved sword and a small shield. The ‘fish-heads’ (murmillones, so called after the emblem of a fish on their helmets) had a large, long shield. The ‘net-man’ (retiarius) fought with a trident and a net, in which he tried to ensnare his opponent. The art of the lanista must have been in training up his men to these roles, then making clever fighting combinations: a fish-head against a net-man was, for example, a popular combination.

Occasionally, he might hire in extra men from other gladiatorial troupes, to fill gaps or to acquire a star fighter temporarily. One graffito, now detached from its original wall and in the Naples Museum, seems almost to replicate a show’s programme originally stretching over four days. It gives the name of the lanista, Marcus Mesonius, then it lists the different bouts, giving the names of the gladiators and who won. A number of them are described as ‘Julian’ or ‘Neronian’ gladiators, meaning that they had been trained at the emperor’s own gladiatorial training school at Capua. They must have been either permanent or temporary hirings by Mesonius. It would be hard to avoid the comparison with the British football transfer market – but for the fact that the job in question was real fighting, not kicking a ball around a pitch.

The lanista probably also trained the beast-fighters (employed on much the same terms as the gladiators proper) as well as acquiring the animals for the hunt. The advertisement for Ampliatus’ ‘repeat show’ certainly includes a hunt and, in any case, the animals may not have required any particular expertise to acquire and house. At Rome itself the emperors occasionally put such exotic animals as lions, elephants or rhinoceroses on display (and to death) – acquired and transported, we know not how, from distant parts of the empire. In 1850, to bring a young hippo from Egypt to London, it took a specially built steamer, with a 2000 litre water tank, and a host of keepers and smaller animals for its food. How the Roman imperial agents managed similar transport is a complete mystery. But at Pompeii, there was nothing nearly so exotic. All the evidence we have suggests that the beasts were obtained locally; and even then dogs and goats were commoner than bulls and bears. The truth is that the Pompeian arena was stocked more like a modern ‘children’s corner’ of a zoo than a wild-game park.

Gladiators and beast-fighters mostly lived on the job. Two places in Pompeii have been identified as gladiatorial barracks. How exactly the gladiators lived in these places, how many of them there were, and under what degree of imprisonment is very unclear – and much less certain than the movie image in Spartacus or Gladiator would suggest. Nor is it certain whether they were the permanent base for a single familia, or temporary housing for any troupes passing through. But both buildings have a very close connection with gladiators.


94. This large open space, with accommodation around it, provided a base for gladiators in the last period of the city’s life – to judge at least from the gladiatorial equipment (Ill. 95) found there.

The first is what was originally a sizeable private house in the north of the city, converted in the early first century CE to house gladiators in rooms around a large peristyle, which would (or so we imagine) have been used for training. The gladiatorial connection is absolutely clear, thanks to more than a hundred graffiti by or about gladiators plastered around the peristyle. But this building was not in use in the final years of the city. Maybe after the earthquake of 62, or perhaps when trade picked up after the end of the gladiatorial ban, gladiators took up residence in what had been a large colonnaded open space connected to the Large Theatre.

This seems to have consisted in a large training area with rooms for the fighters around the edge of the complex (Ill. 94). Many of these had an internal wooden gallery, making a two-level apartment, though it would still have been cramped for two or three gladiators sharing. No traces of beds have been found, which suggests that, at best, they slept on mattresses, directly on the floor. This picture can be filled out by suggesting that some of the larger rooms on the east side may have provided communal, social space, with an apartment for the lanista or one of his sub-managers above. Maybe. But in truth there is little evidence for that beyond modern fantasy. There was even one room which may have served as a prison or punishment area, complete with iron shackles – though the skeletons found there during the excavations in the eighteenth century were not apparently chained in this way, and to be honest the shackles did not necessarily have anything to do with the gladiators.


95. One of the bronze helmets found in the gladiators’ accommodation. Like the others, it is so richly decorated (here with an image of the goddess ‘Rome’) and in such good condition, that it is hard to imagine that it has seen active combat. Much more likely it is part of the gladiators’ ceremonial or parade dress.

How are we so certain that these were gladiatorial quarters? The simple answer lies in the extraordinary finds of bronze gladiatorial armour and weapons in ten of the rooms around the peristyle. These added up to fifteen richly decorated bronze helmets, fourteen shinguards, six shoulder-guards, as well as a small assortment of daggers and other weapons. Most of these are richly decorated, with scenes from classical myth or emblems of Roman power. One helmet, for example (Ill. 95), displays a personification of Rome itself, surrounded by defeated barbarians, prisoners and trophies of victory. Strikingly they are all in a perfect state. Not one shows any sign of ever having been used in fighting. These may well have been the parade collection, such as we saw carried along in the representation of the opening procession at the games. If so, nothing survives of their day-to-day fighting equipment.

The prospects for these gladiators were grim, but not quite as bad as we might fear. The good news for them was that they were an expensive commodity. Many of them would have been bought at a price; and all of them would have used up many of the lanista’s resources in their training and keep. He would not want to waste them. Even if gladiatorial shows in which no one was ever killed would hardly be crowd-pullers, and even if the sponsor wanted his money’s worth, it would be in the troupe manager’s interests to keep the deaths to a minimum. It would surely have been part of the deal between lanista and sponsor that when a fighter lost, more often than not the sponsor should give a lead to the crowd in allowing him to be reprieved, not to put him to death there and then. Needless to say, that must have been the instinct of the gladiators too. Training and living together, and no doubt becoming friends, they would hardly have been going all out for the kill.


96. This vivid record of three gladiatorial bouts at Nola (the place is mentioned next to the topmost pair of fighters) was found scrawled on the outside of a tomb. One of the fighters is a first-timer. The middle register features M(arcus) Attilius who is marked down as a ‘novice’ (‘T’ for tiro). After his first victory (‘V’ stands for vicit), he goes on to win his second fight against the more experienced L(ucius) Raecius Felix. The musicians shown at the top remind us of what a noisy occasion these games must have been.

That is certainly the picture we get from the Pompeian graffiti which record the results of particular bouts of fighting. One of the most evocative examples is a set of drawings with accompanying captions found on a tomb, depicting a four-day series of games at nearby Nola (Ill. 96). The gladiators are a mixture of old hands, with thirteen or fourteen fights to their name, and a novice undertaking his first two fights. None of the losers are killed, for next to each of their pictures there appears the letter ‘M’ for missus, or ‘reprieved’. From the record of the gladiators’ ‘form’ that is also recorded (‘fought 14, victories 12’) we can tell that two of the losers had been spared at least twice before. In the show presented by Mesonius, on one day nine pairs of gladiators fought. Out of these eighteen, we can still identify eight outright victors, five men reprieved and three men killed. Occasionally a Pompeian gladiator is recorded as fighting more than fifty fights.

Nonetheless, even if defeat often did not mean death, the loss of life must have been by our standards considerable. To put exactly the same figures in a less upbeat way, three dead out of a total of eighteen gladiators, suggests a death rate of about 1 in 6 in each show. Small as the sample is, it fits with the overall record of numbers of fights fought by each gladiator for whom that total is recorded. True, there are a few old-stagers, but only a quarter of those we know have more than ten fights to their name. If we reckon, the other way round, that three quarters would have died before their tenth fight, that means a loss rate of some 13 per cent per fight. Even assuming that they did not fight very often (two or three shows a year is one estimate), if they entered the arena at the age of seventeen they could expect to be dead by the time they were twenty-five.

But if longevity did not come with a gladiatorial career, celebrity perhaps did. There were clearly some star gladiators whose names were paraded on the advertisements for shows, including one beast-fighter too, called Felix, whose match against some bears was specially highlighted in one notice. The figures of gladiators, in their distinctive armour, are also found throughout the town, and in every medium you can think of. They turn up as little figurines, as images on pottery lamps, and forming the handles of bronze bowls. One statue of a gladiator, more than a metre high, seems to have done duty as a kind of trade mark, or inn sign, at one tavern near the Amphitheatre. Gladiators would have seen their own images all over the place.

It is also commonly said that they had enormous sex appeal for the women of Pompeii and elsewhere in the Roman world. The satirist Juvenal writes of some imaginary upper-class Roman lady who runs off with the great brutish figure of a gladiator, obviously attracted by the ancient equivalent of ‘rough trade’, and by the glamour that his dangerous life brought. The Roman imagination certainly saw the gladiator in these terms. But we find a cautionary tale when we try to follow this fantasy through to the real life of Pompeii. We have already seen (p. 5) that the myth of the upmarket Pompeian lady being caught red-handed in the gladiatorial barracks, with her gladiator lover, is just that: a myth. But some of the other evidence for the sex appeal of the gladiators requires a second look too.

Some of the most famous graffiti from Pompeii are about two particular gladiators and their female fan club. ‘Celadus, heartthrob of the girls’, ‘Celadus, the girls’ idol’, ‘Cresces, the net-man, puts right the night-time girls, the morning girls and all the others’. It would be nice to think of some love-struck Pompeian women wandering around the town and immortalising their passion for Celadus and Cresces on the walls they passed. And that indeed is how they are often treated by modern scholars. But it is not so simple. These graffiti were found inside the old gladiatorial barracks. They are not the fantasy of the girls. They are written by the gladiators themselves – simultaneously bloke-ish boasting and the poignant fantasies of a couple of young fighters, who faced a short life and may never have got their girl, or at least not for long.

When it comes to reconstructing the everyday life of an ancient, it matters a very great deal where exactly your evidence is found.

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