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Slavery and the Games

Updated on December 13, 2016

Life in Rome - Slavery and the Games

A million or more people lived in Ancient Rome in the third century AD. Some were wealthy generals, senators and magistrates; many were middle-class merchants, business people, craft workers and shopkeepers; but the majority were poor. The biggest group of all was the slaves, workers who were the property of their owners.

People could become slaves in many different ways: by being in debt, as punishment for certain crimes, or by being captured in wars. Some poor parents even sold their children as slaves, although this was against the law. Slaves' children became the slaves of their parents' owners. House slaves lived with the family who owned them.

They were usually fairly treated, sometimes becoming almost one of the family. By about AD 300 most middle-class Roman households had several house slaves. The famous writer Pliny the Younger had 500 slaves, and the Emperor may have had 20,000 or more. Flogging a slave to death was not illegal. There were many cases of cruel treatment, although the spread of Christianity probably led to improvements.

The Romans mostly saw nothing wrong with slavery. The Greek writer Aristotle had taught that few people were good enough to be trusted with complete freedom. Slavery saved the slave from evil temptations and idleness and saved the owner unnecessary work. It was thought that slavery was the result of normal bad luck and not a matter of shame. Slaves could become clerks, teachers, bank managers and bailiffs if they were clever, and could even buy their freedom. The only area of Roman life that they were banned from was the army.

Another use for slaves was in entertainment. Most actors were slaves; their performances took place in the open-air or small covered theaters.

The great amphitheaters like the Colosseum in Rome were for 'the games' rather than plays. Rich private individuals or the government would arrange entertainments, often on one of Rome's 120 public holidays each year. The games were held first to please the gods, but later they became weekly events. Some of the amphitheaters were huge; the Circus Maximus could seat 150,000 people.

These entertainments might include chariot races, fights between gladiators and even mock sea-battles in a flooded arena. The chariots usually had four horses, and between four and twelve chariots would race around a narrow oval circuit with dangerous tight turns at either end. Chariots often collided and crashed; the charioteers were sometimes killed.

Other games would involve fights to the death between men or between animals and men. The gladiators, like the charioteers, were slaves; and the crowds at the fights, like those at the racing, loved the combination of spectacle, bloodshed and skill. Gladiator fights were common for more than five hundred years in Home, from about 260 BC onwards. Sometimes huge numbers died. For the one-thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome, 2,000 gladiators were billed to die in fights between men on horseback, or in armor, or with tridents and nets, or with swords and shields. Successful gladiators would turn to the Emperor or to the organizer of the games to get the 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' signal. Depending on this, they killed or spared the life of the fighter they had beaten. Men also fought bulls, bears, lions and other wild beasts.

The practice of throwing Christians and others unarmed to the wild animals was common, although during only one period of the Roman Empire. As more and more Romans became Christians, the games were made less blood-thirsty. But the games lasted until the end of the Empire.

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