A Sporting Chance In Rome

Dark Heart, my Roman-era romantic suspense will be published soon through Dragonblade Publishing. I had a great time researching the era – particularly a period that I wasn’t readily familiar with – the post Julio-Claudian dynasty (the time after Nero).

Dark Heart’s hero, Marcus is a Magistrate but he is a former soldier, avid swimmer and has been known to take an interest in chariot racing (as a horse owner, not a charioteer), so here are some of the interesting things I discovered in my research.

Greek wrestlers at play. The Romans loved their sport too, but they also wanted the spectators to be comfortable. Pity the people at the back trying to see the match.

The Romans loved their sport and they would as much at home attending the Superbowl, the Melbourne Cup and the FA Cup final as any sport fanatic today.

And while the let’s not forget the Olympic Games either – many of the traditional track and field sports would be familiar to them as well as pentathlon and decathlon.

If the Greeks represented the epitome of the skill of the pure amateur athlete, the Roman revival of the Olympics brought in professionalism – not only amongst the athletes themselves but also in improving the experience for spectators as well.

For the spectators, though, it was the sponsorship of the Roman period – some of it devoted to “improving” the facilities for visitors – that made the Olympic Games a much more comfortable and congenial attraction to visit. True, as Lucian attests in his story of Peregrinus, the Romans did not solve the problems of traffic congestion, but they installed vastly improved bathing facilities, and one rich sponsor laid on, for the first time, a reasonable supply of drinking water. Herodes Atticus, a Roman senator who was Athenian by birth, built a whole new conduit to carry water from the nearby hills, leading into a large fountain in the middle of the site. Predictably, perhaps, some curmudgeons thought this was spoiling the Olympic spirit.

But the Romans didn’t just enjoy sports for their own sake, there were also social and political reasons behind it too.

Some of you might be familiar with the phrase ‘bread and circuses‘ that refers to bribing or distracting the populous with food and entertainment.

The Romans ruling elite were certainly adept at using that bribe, sorry, persuasion to garner popular support.

Having established the traditional backbone of the Gladiators shows it should be noted how great men such as Julius Caesar were quick to realise the political value of the games which he made an effort to attend even if not overly interested. Both Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius are remembered for having presided the games and taken the salute whilst reading over state papers. This is interesting because the very same Julius Caesar in his early career had almost driven himself to financial ruin when he was Aedile: Having recognised the great political value of the popular shows he ensured he organised the best of the best at his own expense.

Hmm, thinking about it, not much has changed. Politicians of all stripes pork barrel vulnerable constituencies except they vow to use public money for that new stadium, not their own.

While the Emperor could dip into the public purse to pay for games, those up-and-coming political figures had to pay for games from their own purse.

Julius Caesar used that tactic most effectively but there were others who did complain at the cost.

Games were not just for entertainment, to create camaraderie, but also to broadcast to the largest number of people – just like the American Superbowl where advertisers spend movie-like budgets to create an advertisement.

The Roman Games were the Super Bowl Sundays of their time. They gave their ever-changing sponsors and organizers (known as editors) an enormously powerful platform to promote their views and philosophies to the widest spectrum of Romans. All of Rome came to the Games: rich and poor, men and women, children and the noble elite alike. They were all eager to witness the unique spectacles each new game promised its audience.

To the editors, the Games represented power, money and opportunity. Politicians and aspiring noblemen spent unthinkable sums on the Games they sponsored in the hopes of swaying public opinion in their favor, courting votes, and/or disposing of any person or warring faction they wanted out of the way.

Sports in Ancient Rome were religious festivals as well, paying tribute to various gods and goddesses as well as to commemorate significant historical victories.

Handball and a form of soccer were keenly played in Rome

We even see a measure of that today with a drive to make sports quasi-religious events with socio-political policies.

So, what sports did the Romans like to participate in? Running, swimming, horse racing, boxing, wrestling – even ball sports such as handball and an early form of football/soccer were all played.

According to 2nd century AD Greek historian Anthenaeus:

Harpastum, which used to be called phaininda, is the game I like most of all. Great are the exertion and fatigue attendant upon contests of ball-playing, and violent twisting and turning of the neck. Hence Antiphanes, ‘Damn it, what a pain in the neck I’ve got.’ He describes the game thus: ‘He seized the ball and passed it to a team-mate while dodging another and laughing. He pushed it out of the way of another. Another fellow player he raised to his feet. All the while the crowd resounded with shouts of Out of bounds, Too far, Right beside him, Over his head, On the ground, Up in the air, Too short, Pass it back in the scrum.'”

Sure gladiatorial sports were popular (and in truth many sports have a martial origin), but they also enjoyed watching chariot racing – the Circus Maximus was designed for that sport in mind.

Although the Circus Maximus was designed for chariot racing (ludi circenses), other events were held there, including gladiatorial combats (ludi gladiatorii) and wild animal hunts (venationes), athletic events and processions. By the time of Augustus, seventy-seven days were given over to public games during the year, and races were run on seventeen of them. There usually were ten or twelve races a day, until Caligula doubled that number and, from the end of his reign, twenty-four races became typical (Dio, LX.23.5; 27.2).

Charlton Heston as Ben Hur, literature’s most famous Roman charioteer.

A number of sports were played naked and married women were not permitted to watch. And yet unmarried women were. Perhaps husbands didn’t want competition from tall muscled men with rippling six packs and… oh wait, what was I saying? Ah yes.

Let’s see the sports here – a relay change over perhaps (the first runner obscured), discus, running, laurels and victories being awarded and a game of handball.

You might be surprised to know that in Greece, unmarried girls had their own games, the Heraea, named for Zeus’s wife, Hera. But other than that there was very little competitive women’s sports in the ancient world.

Biological reality also plays a major role – pregnancy, menstrual cycles and a lack of supportive sports bras.  Following the Greek model, most male participants competed nude. I don’t know about you, but the idea of running
braless is not appealing.

Some of the best evidence we have that women played sport in Roman times – the best evidence we have is the delightful – bikini mural – found at a luxurious villa in Sicily.

As you can see the women wore bandeau bras, so I wonder how much time was
spent hitching up the garment?

Dark Heart Excerpt

The young man brushed a sweat-dampened hand over his dark blond hair either suffering in the heat or nervous at being the centre of attention. He continued.

“There is talk among the ranks that the wealthy farmers in the African provinces have threatened to withhold the taxes Maximinus Thrax is demanding to pay for the frontier wars.”

Marcus closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. “And discussed by the Senate at the home of Gaius Caelinus, a group of them planned a delegation to Carthage after the Ludi Apollinaires…”

Marcus was peripherally aware Kyna had entered the room with a tray of refreshments, a task which would have been left to a servant if not for the sensitivity of their meeting.

“I don’t understand the significance of the games,” she said.

“After the defeat at the hands of Hannibal, the early Romans consulted the Oracles of Marcius,” explained Claudius. “Solemn games were to be held and offerings made to beseech Apollo’s help to defeat Carthage.”

“North Africa is one of the Empire’s richest regions,” continued Marcus. “If they start with withhold taxes, you can be sure other provinces will soon follow. It will bring Rome to its knees.”

“Marcus Antonius Sempronianus is the governor there,” added Titus. “If the Senators are meeting with him…”

“Carthage will arise,” Marcus murmured more to himself than anyone else in the room. He pulled the map closer and stared at it, looking for landmarks of significance. “It’s clear the cult thrives on symbolism. According to the mythologies, the new and the full moon are sacred to Apollo.”

He traced a finger from Baiae to a town to the north-east called Lirenas. It made sense. He knew it in his bones. The feeling settled in his gut and wouldn’t brook secondguessing. He tapped the parchment with his index finger.

“When is the next full moon?”

“The night after tomorrow, Magistrate,” Titus answered.

Marcus took a deep breath. “Then I think I know where the boys are!”

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