Dr Miles Russell reveals the story of the most gruesome spectator sports from the Roman period, from the first-ever races to the final battles…
This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of History Revealed
The traditional date given for the first chariot race between the Roman people and their neighbours, the Sabines, organised by Rome’s legendary founder, Romulus.
The first recorded gladiatorial fight to the death is staged between slaves at the funeral of aristocrat Brutus Pera, in the Forum Boarium, Rome.
Roman gladiators. © TopFoto
The Roman Consul, Gaius Flaminius, hosts a games within a purpose-built timber arena constructed in the Forum Romanum. It stars 74 gladiators, fighting over a three-day period.
The Circus Maximus chariot race-track is rebuilt in stone. It can now seat some 150,000 spectators, but it will be developed further, making room for 100,000 more.
The gladiator Spartacus leads a slave revolt from the training school at Capua.
© Mary Evans
Opponents of Julius Caesar, worried that he is staking a claim for supreme power, attempt to curb the number of gladiators owned by any one individual. Despite this, Caesar’s games go ahead, with over 640 gladiators fighting to the death.
The first purpose-built stone amphitheatre is constructed by General Titus Statilius Taurus in Rome. Taurus also paid for the inaugural games.
The emperor Caligula entertains the crowds by having criminals thrown to carnivorous wild animals in the arena.
Emperor Caligula. © SuperStock
Large numbers of spectators are killed in rioting at the Pompeian games. Outraged, the Senate bans Pompeii from hosting any games for a decade.
Emperor Nero takes part in a ten-horse chariot race in Greece and, although he fails to finish, falling from the car during the event, he later claims to have won.
Construction of the Flavian amphitheatre – now known as the Colosseum – is begun by Emperor Vespasian.
The Colosseum in Rome. © Thinkstock
The inaugural games of the Colosseum are held by Emperor Titus. Over 100 days of celebratory combat ensue, during which time thousands of wild animals – and quite a few slave warriors – are killed.
Emperor Trajan hosts three months of games with the participation of over 10,000 gladiators.
The most successful charioteer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, winner of over 1,000 races, retires at the age of 42, being hailed the ‘champion of charioteers’.
Throughout his reign, Emperor Commodus takes part in gladiatorial combat, allegedly ensuring victory by making sure his opponents have extra-heavy weapons made of lead.
After Christianity becomes the state faith, the Church attempts to limit the popularity of the games, declaring that those who participate in them are ineligible for baptism.
Christian icons, such as halos, start to appear on Roman artworks. © Superstock
After centuries of waning popularity, and with the decline of the Roman Empire, gladiatorial combat is officially banned as a sport.
Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University.