(It’s really, really basic: I advise you read a short history of Rome to fill out the background, otherwise some of this material won’t make much sense.)

The Monarchy (753-510). According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BCE, on April 21st (Rome’s birthday was celebrated at the Parilia each year). It took its name from its founder, Romulus, who was also its first king. It remained a monarchy until 509 BCE, with Etruscan kings ruling from the fifth monarch, L. Tarquinius Priscus, on. The last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was driven out of Rome after his son raped Lucretia, the wife of a Roman nobleman; the story of Etruscan kings and the expulsion of those kings reflects Rome’s early dominance by the Etruscans to the north. In its early days, Rome was a small city-state, surrounded by other far more powerful and developed civilizations and powers, especially the Etruscans to the north and the Greeks of Magna Graecia to the South. It had ties and alliances with other Latin speaking city-states. However, gradually Rome became the dominant power in central Italy, scoring major victories over its neighbours and acquiring more and more manpower along the way. Rome’s history after the fall of the kings is usually divided into four periods: the Early Republic; the Mid-Republic; the Late Republic; and the Imperial Period.

The Early Republic (509-275). After expelling the kings, Rome was governed by elected officials, the consuls, two of whom were elected each year; there was also a Senate of varying numbers. This was a period marked by patrician control of the Roman government, although that control was challenged during the conflict of the orders, which resulted in plebeians gaining more rights to hold various offices and authority. The praetorship was created, as was the office of the Tribune of the Plebs in 494 BCE; the job of the latter was to protect the interests of the plebeians, and although it did not hold imperium, its holders had a powerful right to veto any legislation that they believed not to be in the interest of the people. Rome joined the Latin League, a league of Latin speaking states in central Italy, in 493 BCE after defeating the forces of the League at the Battle of Lake Regillus; the league was dissolved in 338 after the Latin War between Rome and the League. In 281 Rome faced off against King Pyrrhus of Epirus who had come to support Greek cities in the south of Italy worried about Roman expansion; from the war with Pyrrhus came the first elephants to be brought to Rome.

The Mid-Republic (274-133). On the whole, spectacles of the type this book covers date from the Mid-Republic on, and it is those periods where our sources begin to place gladiatorial shows and other forms of spectacle (except chariot racing, which dated back to the time of the monarchy). During this period Rome conquered the entire peninsula of Italy, scoring victories over the Greek cities to the south. This was also a period of intense Hellenization: an influx of Greek slaves and culture led to the creation of Latin literature[1] and to an elite which embraced Greek culture and art and used those as a major building block in aristocratic identity. Rome’s expansion led it into conflict with Carthage, a large mercantile empire based in Carthage (modern Tunis). Its first overseas province was the island of Sicily, which it gained as a result of victory over the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. It took advantage of internal weaknesses in Carthage after that war to seize Corsica and Sardinia (in an action of great legal dubiousness). Further conflict with Carthage ensued: the great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca brought war to Italy during the Second Punic War (216-202 BCE), and inflicted a number of great defeats on Rome, many of which Rome dealt with by holding games or spectacles aimed at appeasing the gods. Carthage was finally defeated in 146 BCE, when the city was sacked and razed to the ground; the same year was to see the destruction of Corinth, a Greek city which was later refounded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar.

The Late Republic (133-43 or 31 BCE). In 133 a Tribune of the Plebs by the name of Tiberius Gracchus, a man of an ancient and well-respected family, was lynched by a senatorial mob for trying to enact a series of agrarian reforms which would have affected many of the elite who rented large land holdings from the Republic. A new and violent phase of Roman politics had started and murder became an increasingly popular political tool. In 122 Tiberius’ brother, Gaius, who also held the position of Tribune of the Plebs, was murdered by a senatorial faction. The next hundred years was to see Rome expand her power, gobbling up Hellenistic kingdoms in the east and conquering Gaul, much of Spain, and (briefly) part of Britain. It was also to see her beset by a series of internal crises and civil wars as various warlords fought over the rewards of empire. Marius (156-86 BCE), a novus homo who went from relative obscurity to hold the consulship seven times, fought it out with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, one of his ex-quaestors,[2] in a Civil War which saw Sulla march on Rome with his army (88 BCE). Elite competition was fierce and often bloody, but to gain offices one needed to appeal to the people by providing increasingly elaborate spectacles, which exploded in size and expense. Further civil wars were fought between Julius Caesar and his erstwhile son-in-law Pompey the Great, who led the senatorial faction (49-45 BCE), and between Octavian and Mark Antony (32-30 BCE), finally resulting in Octavian being the sole ruler of the Roman world.

The Empire (31 BCE-476 CE). Octavian’s victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE resulted in one man rule; because the Romans found the name of king reprehensible, Octavian styled himself as princeps, rather than king. He took the title of Augustus in 27 BCE; the Julio-Claudian dynasty retained control of the empire until the suicide of Nero in 68 CE, whereupon they were replaced after a period of civil war and short-lived emperors by Vespasian and the Flavian dynasty; it was the Flavians who built the Colosseum from proceeds from the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 CE). After this a succession of families ruled the empire and for each emperor (with the exception of Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, who hated to spend money) spectacle formed a vital way to communicate with and appease the people. Spectacles increased in size and lavishness, involving thousands of animals and people; some emperors such as Nero and Commodus took spectacle one step further by appearing on stage and in the arena. Many others were dedicated fans, supporting chariot factions, actors, gladiators, and gladly pouring money into spectacles of all sorts.

  1. It was incredibly competitive, hierarchical, and, by modern standards, extremely violent.
  2. The Romans granted citizenship extremely freely, especially when compared to other nations. Any slave freed by a Roman citizen was granted citizenship along with their freedom; non-citizens who formed the auxiliary Roman army were granted citizenship when they had served that time; at the same time citizenship was granted to their spouse and their children. Citizenship was frequently given to those who had done services to the Roman people, and even to whole tribes who had served them in some outstanding way.
  3. A Roman marriage could only take place between two Roman citizens.
  4. Rome was a slave-owning society and slaves had no legal status. Under law they were considered property. Slavery, however, was not based on race and it was not possible to necessarily tell by looking at anyone whether they were free, citizen, slave, or ex-slave. Any slave freed by a Roman citizen became a Roman citizen with all the rights that granted.
  5. The Romans like many other people around them had very fixed ideas about gender and how that should be expressed. They did not like difference very much (at least officially).
  6. Roman concepts of sexuality and race are not the same as our own. That doesn’t mean they weren’t terrible — they often were. They were just not the same.


  1. Invented, according to our records, more or less by Livius Andronicus, originally a Greek prisoner of war from Tarentum, a Greek city state in the south of Italy.
  2. A quaestor was an elected position – holding this allowed one to sit in the Senate; they were in charge of financial affairs for governors or the military.


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