Costs of Munera and Other Spectacles

In this section you will learn

  • that is is very difficult to understand exactly how much various games cost
  • how some games were funded, at least in part, by the Roman state
  • how spectacles were used by elite politicians to ‘share’ their wealth and triumphs with the non-elite
  • how spectacles could bankrupt politicians due to their cost

Putting on shows was an expensive exercise. It’s hard to put the cost into exact figures, let alone convert those figures into modern money, except for the occasional game, but those who gave these games in the Late Republic (and sometimes in the empire) were willing to incur spectacular costs, sometimes ruining themselves in the process. This ensured a constantly evolving set of public expectations, with every set of games expected to exceed the previous set and so forth. The major ludi were funded by the state, but if a show was held to fulfill a private vow then the giver paid for the entire expense; before the empire gladiatorial shows were not part of any of the state festivals and were entirely funded by the giver. However, even in the case of games funded by the state, the magistrates in charge were supposed to use their own money to supplement state funding.

In modern terms

It’s difficult to compare prices between the Romans modern-day currency because of the differences between the Roman market system and the current economical system.
750,000 sesterces is roughly equivalent to $200,000 CAD

Speaking of a show in 160 BCE Polybius gives early evidence for the rising costs of shows.

The total expense of such a show costs not less than thirty talents [750,000 sesterces] if it is done on such a lavish scale

Polybius, Histories 31.28.6

Various laws were passed to stop aspiring politicians using games to promote their candidacies and getting around bribery laws by holding spectacles and handing out free seats (and food); they were all completely ineffective. In the following speech Cicero, who had passed his own law limiting when people could hold games, the Lex Tullia, in 63 BCE, was defending Lucius Licinius Murena on a charge of electoral bribery. He tries to pass off responsibility for spending on feasts and shows on Murena’s friends and, in case that doesn’t work, claims that such spending is entirely legitimate and in accord with Roman tradition.

What is your charge? Are you accusing Murena of bribery? I am not defending bribery. You blame me because you say I am defending behaviour which I passed in a law to punish. I punished bribery, not innocence, and will join with you in prosecuting any honest case of bribery. You have said that at my urging a resolution of the Senate was passed, “that if any men who had been bribed had met with the candidates, if any hired men followed them, if seats were given men to see the shows of gladiators according to their tribes, and also, if dinners were given to the masses, that appeared to be a violation of the Calpurnian law.”[1] Therefore the Senate decides that these things were done in violation of the Calpurnian law if they were done at all it, decides what there is not the least occasion for, out of kindness for the candidates. For there is a great question whether such things have been done or not. That if they have been done, they were done in violation of the law, no one can doubt.

Cicero, In Defence of Murena 67

Cicero continues on discussing the role of spectacles, their costs, and public expectations about their magnificence.

“But spectacles were exhibited to the people who sat in their tribes, and crowds of the common people were invited to dinner.” Although this, members of the jury, was not done by Murena at all, but done in accordance with all usage and precedent by his friends, still, being reminded of the fact, I recollect how many votes these investigations held in the Senate have lost us, Servius. For what time was there ever, either within our own recollection or that of our fathers, in which this, whether you call it ambition or generosity, did not exist to the extent of giving a place in the circus and in the Forum to one’s friends, and to the men of one’s own tribe?

Cicero, In Defence of Murena 72

gladiators borghese
A mosaic shows gladiators fighting and the outcomes of the bouts (death is marked by a Ø) found in the Villa Borghese outside Rome. It probably dates to the early 4th century CE. Image from Wikimedia.

In a philosophical text written in 44 BCE, Cicero talked about the need to provide spectacles to the people for electoral success.

Still, I realize that in Rome, even in the good old days, it was an established custom to expect magnificent entertainments from the very best men in the year they were aedile. So both Publius Crassus,[2] whose cognomen was not just “Rich” but was actually rich, gave splendid games when he was aedile; and a little later Lucius Crassus (whose colleague was Quintus Mucius, the most unpretentious man in the world) gave the

Key Takeaways

Elites were expected to give spectacles as part of their politician careers by the people of Rome

most magnificent entertainments while aedile [212/211 BCE]. Then came Gaius Claudius, the son of Appius, and, after him, many others – the Luculli, Hortensius, and Silanus. Publius Lentulus, however, in the year of my consulship, eclipsed all that had gone before him, and Scaurus emulated him. And my friend Pompey’s exhibitions in his second consulship were the most magnificent of all. And so you see what I think about all this sort of thing. 58 Still we should avoid any suspicion that we are cheap. Mamercus was a very wealthy man, and his refusal to run for aedile was why he didn’t win the race for consul.[3] If, therefore, the people demand such entertainment, men of proper judgment must at least consent to supply it, even if they do not like the idea. But in so doing they should keep within their means, as I myself did. They should also pay for such entertainment, if gifts of money to the people will enable them to secure in the future some more important or more useful end.

Cicero, On Moral Duties 2.57-58

Faced with the potentially massive costs of giving spectacles, some might cheap out. In the following extract from a Roman novel of the age of Nero, a character who is a freedman talks about his expectations for an upcoming spectacle and his disappointment at a particularly thrifty one.

The group comprises four silver denarii. The earliest, showing some wear, is of Domitian whilst the other three are in crisper condition and show very little signs of circulation. All of these three date to the reign of Antoninus Pius. It seems likely that the four coins went into the ground together, either lost as part of a purse, or concealed as a hoard. This loss or deposition, on the basis of the condition of the coins, presumably occurred in the 150s or 160s.

“Look out for it! We’ll soon have a fine munus for three days, no lanista’s bunchbut lots of freedmen. Our Titus has a hot head and lots of courage and it will go to a finish. I’m pretty familiar with him, and he’ll not stand for any frame-ups. It will be cold steel in the best style, no running away, the slaughter will be in the middle of the amphitheatre where all the crowd can see. And what’s more, he has the money, for he came into thirty million when his father had the bad luck to die. He could spend four hundred thousand and never damage his inheritance, but his name would live forever. He has some dwarfs already and a female essedarius. Then, there’s Glyco’s steward; he was caught pleasuring Glyco’s wife. You’ll see some battle between jealous husbands and favoured lovers. Anyhow, that miser Glyco condemned his steward to the beasts  – and so made public his own shame. How could the slave go wrong when he was only doing what he was told to do? It would have been better if that woman – who is only fit for a pisspot – had been tossed by the bull, but when someone can’t beat the donkey, he’ll beat the saddle. How could Glyco ever imagine that one of Hermogenes’ brats could turn out well?…I can smell a feast from Mammaea coming and there will be two denarii each for me and mine! If he does that he’ll steal Norbanus’ thunder completely. You know that it’s to his interest to go full speed ahead to squash Norbanus. Honestly, what did he ever do for us? He exhibited some cheap gladiators that were so near dead that they’d have collapsed if you breathed on them. I’ve seen better at the beast hunts! He killed his cavalry by lamp; you would have taken them for henhouse cockerels! One was decrepit; another was bandy-legged, and a third who took the place of a dead man was pretty dead himself – and hamstrung too. There was only one that had any life, and he was a Thracian, but he only fought to command. The whole lot of them were whipped to shreds after and the whole crowd shouted ‘give it to them!’ They were nothing but runaways. And at that he had the nerve to say,  “I’ve given you a show.” “And I’ve applauded,” I answered; “count it up and you’ll find that I gave more than I got! One hand washes the other.”

Petronius, Satyricon 45

In 177 the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus tried to standardize the costs of gladiators in an attempt to ensure more people in the provinces didn’t ruin themselves paying for them. This text (176-178 CE) is inscribed on a bronze table which comes from Andalusia, Spain. The decree is called Senatorial Decree on the Reduction of the Cost of Gladiatorial Games or, in Latin, the Senatus Consultum de Pretiis Gladiatorum Minuendis.

Our leaders [Marcus Aurelius and Commodus] decreed that the games which are called assiforana[4] should stay as they are but they should not exceed 30,000 sesterces in cost; but to those who give games which cost between 30-60,000 sesterces, gladiators should be offered in three categories with the same number in each category: those in the first group should cost at most 5,000; those in the second at most 4,000; those in the third 3,000. For those giving games whose cost ranges from 60,000-100,000 sesterces there should be three ranks of gladiators and in the first rank the highest cost should be 8,000, for the second 6,000, for the third 5,000. For games costing from 100,00-150,000 sesterces there should be five ranks of gladiators: the highest cost for the first rank should be 12,000, for the second 10,000, for the third 7,000, for the fourth 6,000, and for the fifth 5,000. For games costing 150,000-200,000 sesterces and above the cheapest gladiator should be 6,000, for the next rank up 6,000, for the next 7,000, for the next 9,000, for the next 12,000 and then up to 15,000. This should be the fixed amount for the best, most appealing gladiator.

In addition, in all munera marked by ranks, the lanista must supply half the total number of gladiators from the regular ranks or the herd. The better members of the herd may fight as a group for 2,000 sesterces each, and no one of the herd will fight for less than 1,000.

Since the lanista in an attempt to increase profits may say they cannot provide enough gladiators from the herd, they must know they will be required to transfer as many as required from those they rank as better to make up the required number from the herd. So on any event the entire familia will be divided into equal parts and on any particular day at least half of them will be in the flock…

…45 I also recommend the following rule regarding the proceeds: each gladiator should make an individual bargain for the money he gets for his fighting, and a free man should receive one quarter, a slave one fifth. Regarding the cost of gladiators, I have already advised the recommendations of the divine speech be followed, but that these prices should apply to those cities that suffered form relatively high prices for gladiators.


In the following passage from Gaius’ Institutes (c. 160s CE), an ancient guide and textbook for Roman law, the author describes a vast difference for what one paid to hire a gladiator who survived and for one who died.

If I provide gladiators to you under the condition that twenty denarii shall be paid to me for the exertions of every one who leaves the arena safe and sound and a thousand denarii for every one who is killed or disabled, the question arises whether this is a contract of purchase and sale or one of leasing and hiring. The better opinion is that of those who say that in the case of those who survive, a contract of leasing and hiring was agreed on; but so far as those who have been killed or disabled are concerned the contract is one of purchase and sale.

Institutes 3.146

Media Attributions

  1. A law passed in 149 BCE which seems to have created fines for bribery.  
  2. This Crassus was the ancestor of the more famous Marcus Licinius Crassus who defeated Spartacus; there were a number of Crassi and wealth seems to have run in the family. This Crassus was aedile and consul in 205 BCE and was given the extra cognomen of Dives (Rich); confusingly Marcus Licinius Crassus also had the same cognomen.
  3. In other words people believed he had avoided running for aedile so he would not have to use his own money to supplement the public funding given to the aediles for putting on the public games.
  4. Private games for which admission was charged


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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