This is an anthology of primary sources[1] on Roman games and spectacles in some of their various forms, created for a second year undergraduate class on spectacles in Greece and Rome (CLST 260; this book covers the Roman section of that course) at the University of British Columbia.

The sources are grouped thematically, although there is overlap between the sections; the sources come from a wide range of periods, genres, and individuals and not all are equally reliable, in that many report on things they haven’t seen or are (like some of the Christian authors) deeply hostile to spectacles because they were often connected with the worship of various pagan deities. But taken together, along with the images and other information provided, they will give you some picture of the importance and complexity of spectacle for the Romans and many of the peoples they conquered or interacted with. We have tried to footnote and add information so that even if you know nothing about either Rome or the ancient Mediterranean you can still understand and follow along.

However, it is important to realize the Romans were not very nice people on the whole (you might have realized that if you know they conquered a lot of territory).  They were willing to inflict terrible cruelties on people and animals, and our sources reflect that, while rarely reflecting on the violence they saw. And when they do, it is usually so they can reflect on themselves and their issues, so it is very self-absorbed. Even if gladiators didn’t die at the rate that movies and TV insist they did, they were still often enslaved men and women forced to fight in a very risky profession with extremely sharp objects. Very few people went into playing a part in most Roman spectacles of their own free will.

  1. Most translations are either adapted versions of out of copyright translations or my own; at the end of the reader there is an appendix where I list the various sources of the translations, and I am incredibly grateful that so many people made them available for me to use.


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

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