Even a cursory glance through this blog will tell you that I’ve been working on a project to digitize the Roman gaming equipment held at the Museum of London’s archaeological archive, the LAARC. Recently I’ve been caught up in a Twitter convo all about Roman gaming boards. You know how these things start; person 1 posts a photo of a gaming board they’ve seen somewhere; person 2 tweets that person 3 is interested in those; person 3 says thanks, and here’s another one; person 4 posts a photo of another one they saw when they were on holiday, etc etc.
Anyway, it got me thinking about the various entertainments available to Roman North Africans. Some of these will be well known, as they leave big showy monuments all over the place. Some of them perhaps a little less so.
Let’s start with something big and showy
We’ve all heard about Roman amphitheatres, this one at El Djem, and the shenanigans that went on in them. People killing people, people killing animals, animals killing people, animals killing animals, animals and people kill…you get the picture.
St.Augustine, in Book 6 of his Confessions, tells of a pious man turned on to a rabid bloodlust by his, initially unwilling, attendence at the amphitheatre. And Seneca describes the particularly gruesome display of criminal executions and the brutalising influence of this form of entertainment on the spectators:
“In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.
You may object that the victims committed robbery or were murderers. So what? Even if they deserved to suffer, what’s your compulsion to watch their sufferings? ‘Kill him’, they shout, ‘Beat him, burn him’. Why is he too timid to fight? Why is he so frightened to kill? Why so reluctant to die? They have to whip him to make him accept his wounds”*
This scene (similar in theme to the one above) from the National Museum in Tripoli (formerly the Jamahiriya Museum) purports to show a Garamantian rebel being executed by being torn to pieces by wild beasts.
And, from the Bardo, Tunis, ‘animals killing animals’.
This mosaic, again from the Bardo, gives a flavour of how all those animals got to the amphitheatre.
Exotic wild beasts were rounded up en mass, many from areas in North Africa and shipped to amphitheatres around the Mediterranean for the entertainment of the masses and the promotion of the sponsors. These beast hunts drove some animal species to the brink of extinction in North Africa, so voracious was the appetite for this kind of entertainment. Even ostriches were rounded up and transported to the amphitheatre.
Some of the animals, as well as the gladiators, seem to have become quite well known. This mosaic from the excellent museum at Sousse (Roman Hadrumentum) reads like an advertisement for the top beasts and bestarii (animal fighters).
And, of course, no look at amphitheatres would be complete without a quick look at gladiators, so here are a couple of views of the stunning ‘Fallen Gladiator’ mosaic from the Villa Lebda in Libya (now housed at Lepcis Magna). Here we see the victorious gladiator, sitting in a state of exhaustion, beside his defeated opponent.
While the Roman citizens (and others) enjoyed all this amphitheatrical fun, it wasn’t the most popular public entertainment. The award for that must go to the gee-gees.
Chariot racing was what really got the populace going, with people following their favourite teams in the same way that they might with Formula 1 racing today.
(above) From the Bardo, Tunis
It’s this mass popularity, and the political advantage that could be leveraged from it, that inspired Juvenal’s famous ‘bread and circuses’ phrase. Passions ran so high that in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, a dispute between rival fans resulted in a week-long riot that wrecked nearly half the city and left thousands of people dead! They really knew how to enjoy themselves, those Romans.
A visit to the circus at Lepcis Magna in Libya, provides an opportunity to see the scale of the track and to view some features which still exist in situ.
It’s huge! And that’s without the stands and all the other horse-racey paraphernalia.
Here are the starting gates
Here is the view along central reservation, the spina.
At Lepcis there is still some of the seating in place, but it’s even clearer at the circus at Cyrene, in eastern Libya.
Images of racing were popular in mosaics and frescos.
Here, from the Villa Sileen, Libya.
And from the Bardo, some champion horses
But Romans enjoyed other entertainments too. This is the theatre at Sabratha, Libya. I should say that there is quite a lot of 1930s Italian concrete involved in this reconstructed structure, but it’s still great.
And here is the theatre at Lepcis. Sitting in the top tier today, we’d have a beautiful view out over the Mediterranean, but when the theatre was in use in the Roman period, the theatre buildings behind the stage would have obscured that view.
Aside from all this bombastic public entertainment, people in Roman North Africa amused themselves in a range of ways, most of which we would be familiar with today.
Raving it up (with Bacchus).
Hanging out with their mates.
But going back to my starting point, Roman board games.
Tucked away in the various museums associated with sites are little gems of evidence about board games and games of chance played at home or in the street. The various blog posts headed “Roman counter culture” give a flavour of the counters and dice found in London, but here are three from Sitifis, modern Setif, in Algeria. The two to the right are made from the vertebrae of fishes.
And gaming boards; here from Timgad, Algeria
And a couple from Dougga in Tunisia.
Obviously, now I’m going to be looking for these everywhere I go. If I see any that are particularly special, I’ll add them to this post.
More on Roman North Africa next time.