published on 18 January 2012
Although much of ancient Roman life revolved around negotium (work and business), there was also time available for otium (leisure). Ranging from swimming to playing board games to attending theatre performances, athletics and forms of entertainment enjoyed by Romans in ancient times were not much different from those that exist today.
One of the most popular recreational areas in Rome was the Campus Martius, a vast floodplain that acted as a playground for the youth of Rome. Here, they engaged in a variety of sports and activities, including jumping, wrestling, boxing, racing, and throwing. Roman girls and women generally did not participate in these activities.
Swimming: Swimming was one of the favorite activities of Roman boys, and it was widely practiced in the Tiber River, next to the Campus Martius. Most Roman baths were also equipped with plunge pools, in which swimming was enjoyed. There are some accounts of women who knew how to swim in ancient times.
Horseback Riding: Every Roman was expected to be a good equestrian, so horseback riding was a preferred activity of Roman boys from a young age.
Wrestling and Boxing: Wrestling and boxing were popular sports that were usually practiced in the palaestra (a central field) of Roman baths. Both helped to improve overall fitness and build strength and stamina, and they were generally enjoyed by many Romans. Because there were no such things as boxing gloves, athletes tightly wrapped their hands in layers of cloth.
Running: Running was another favorite activity in ancient Rome. Boys competed in footraces with one another on the Campus Martius, which provided an ideal location for this activity.
Hunting and Fishing: Hunting was one of the oldest and most popular sports among the Roman elite, and boys often accompanied their fathers on hunting expeditions in order to teach them marksmanship. In the country, fishing was among the favorite pastimes.
Ball Games: During their exercises, Romans also participated in a variety of sporting activities involving balls, including handball, soccer, field hockey, catch games, and perhaps even dodge ball. These usually took place in the palaestra or sphaerista (ball-courts). There are some accounts of females participating in ball games.
Board Games: Ancient Romans played a wide variety of board games, including Dice (Tesserae), Knucklebones (Tali or Tropa) Roman Chess (Latrunculi), Roman Checkers (Calculi), Tic-tac-toe (Terni Lapilli), and Roman backgammon (Tabula).
Public Entertainment: There were several other activities to keep the people of Rome content and to prevent uprisings, such as chariot races at the Circus Maximus, musical and theatrical performances, public executions, beast hunts, and gladiatorial combat. Rome’s most famous amphitheatre, the Colosseum, could accommodate up to 50,000 spectators. There are also accounts of the arena being flooded to hold naval battles (called Naumachia) for the public to watch. These forms of entertainment, all of which were massive public spectacles, were a distinct and important part of ancient Roman culture.